Of all the elements of an application to business school, the GMAT receives perhaps the most attention. This is partly because the standardised test generates an overall score from 200 to 800 that offers an easy point of comparison for both admissions officers and for candidates trying to assess their competitive chances of admission. Every year business schools publish the average GMAT scores of their incoming class, with the likes of Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School reporting an eye-watering median of 730. Indeed, there is not a top 10 business school with a GMAT average below 700.
Why all this attention on a three-hour computer adaptive test? The admissions office wants to be sure you have the academic ability to handle a graduate degree, as well as a comfort level with numbers, critical reasoning and language skills to cope with quantitative course content and study materials in English. If you have a liberal arts background, with little or no quantitative coursework, the GMAT can demonstrate your ability to thrive in a numbers-driven classroom such as Wharton or MIT Sloan. Although many love to hate the GMAT, it is actually a fairly good predictor of academic performance on the MBA programme.
It is also one of the components that you can still influence, now that your undergraduate GPA is well behind you. A strong GMAT score might help compensate for a below-average GPA. But the GMAT, and increasingly the GRE, which more and more top business schools accept as an alternative, should be put in context. They are only one piece of a broader jigsaw. In their time as director of admissions at Wharton and INSEAD, my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions saw many applicants with 790 scores denied because they had nothing to offer apart from strong numbers. At the same time, they admitted candidates with scores below 600 because of other exceptional qualities, and either personal or professional experience to secure their place.
So what is a competitive GMAT score? Most schools publish the range of scores achieved by the middle 80 per cent of admitted students, giving you a better sense of what has proved acceptable. These often range from 640 or 650, up to 750 or 760. Given the volume of Chinese GMAT test-takers, it is also worth remembering the sort of scores fellow citizens are achieving – they are in some senses your rivals, and tend to do well on this standardised test. Breaking the 700 barrier would therefore serve you well.
Though you can achieve a good overall score if either the verbal or quantitative section is particularly strong, schools will see the breakdown of scores and might be worried about the weaker section. Former INSEAD Director of Admissions Caroline Diarte Edwards advises candidates to target the 75th percentile on both the verbal and the quantitative section because school looks more at this breakdown than at the total score. She adds that if you get less than a 70th percentile on either part of the test, you had better have a very strong academic track record, and/or a profile that the school loves.
Of course you do not want an admissions officer to use the GMAT or GRE score as the reason to reject you. So don’t make weak excuses for having a poor GMAT or GRE. Schools read far too often about a test score failing to reflect the applicant’s true potential. The competition for a place in a top MBA programme is tough, so you will need to commit to a rigorous study schedule over a period of months to make sure that your score is the best it can be.
About the author
Matt Symonds is the co-director of Fortuna Admissions and Chief editor of MBA50.com. He is also a regular business education columnist for publications such as The Economist and Forbes.