Interpreting Your GRE Percentile Score and Creating College List

While applying to graduate schools in the U.S. for your M.S., one of the challenge every student faces is how to decide which colleges to apply to. There are four main factors that play a critical role in your college application. They are:

1) School/college reputation and brand name – Many admission committees and professors evaluating your application want to know where you are currently studying or have studied and how good the school is.

2) Overall GPA, grades and class rank – This is an important indicator for graduate admissions as colleges and professors want to know how well you have done in your undergraduate program. They want to compare you with other students in your batch through your classrank and review your grades/transcript to see how you have performed in the core subjects or area you may be applying to for graduate studies

3) GRE scores – This standardized score gives them a good comparison data point across pool of applicants. This is not the most important component but helps for students not graduating from the top colleges in their country. If you get excellent scores in GRE, it may help you in getting some scholarship/assistantship at various colleges.

4) SOP – Helps support your overall application

So how do you create your college list based on your overall GPA/classrank and GRE score. Key is interpreting your GRE score and GPA/class rank to look at where you stand among the pool of applicants. There are approximately 500-600K students who take the GRE test each year. Majority of them are from the U.S., followed by India and China. There are approximately 2.0 M applications each year for graduate programs and about 500K or so start/enroll in the programs each year. The acceptance rate among the colleges come around 39-40% of the applications.

Given the pool of applications, key for each student is to figure out where you stand compared to other applications and based on your profile, select a college list that maximizes your chance of admission as well as the ranking of the college and program. Given there are 500K students enrolling each year, top 1% of the students are around 5, 000 student pool. Some of the larger graduate programs may have a few thousand students while some of the smaller schools may just have a few hundred students.

There is no set formula but you can use this table below to get an idea on what colleges to focus for your application. This table is just indicative of how to target the colleges given there are atleast 250 colleges in the U.S. offering excellent graduate program and education.

The table below assumes you are graduating from not one of the well known engineering college in your country. If you are graduating from the top engineering college, you tend to have a far higher chance of getting into the top 25 colleges in the U.S. even if you do not have the top 25% of class rank and top 10% of the GRE scores.

Class Rank GRE Percentile Score GRE Score  College List
Top 5% 98%+ 335+ Top 10-15 colleges
Top 5% 95%-98% 330-335 15-30 ranked colleges
Top 5% 90%-95% 325-330 30-60 ranked colleges
Top 5% 80%-90% 320-325 50-75 ranked colleges
5-10% 95%+ 330+ 25-50 ranked colleges
5-10% 90-95% 325-330 50-75 ranked
5-10% 80-90% 320-325 75-100 ranked colleges
10-25% 95%+ 330+ 40-60 ranked
10-25% 90-95% 325-330 50-80 ranked
10-25% 80-90% 320-325 75-110 ranked colleges

You can always improve your chances of admission by doing research work, taking advanced courses and having a few years of work experience and a strong SOP.

Here is a list of courses that may help you to show in your application on how you are taking extra effort to learn and develop expertise. For example, already taking a few courses in areas below and doing some more projects in areas of computers can always help in your overall application.

1) Data Structures and Algorithms

2) Divide and Conquer, Sorting and Searching, and Randomized Algorithms

3) Interactive Computer Graphics


About Author Ajay Singh

I graduated from I.I.T India and came to U.S. for higher studies in Engineering 20 years back. After working for a few years in Austin, Texas as a design engineer, I went back for a M.B.A at Harvard Business School. I have worked for number of global companies in senior leadership and management positions. Over the years I have advised number of students on college admission.

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