What GMAT Score Do You Need to Get In?

What GMAT Score Do You Need to Get In?

The score that you need to get in to Harvard, Stanford, or, more properly, the program that is specifically right for you may be one of the top questions on your mind as you begin with the GMAT. One hard and fast truth about GMAT scores is that hard and fast cut-offs or minimum scores do not exist at the vast majority of programs, including every single so-called “Top 20” program. Moreover, once you are mid-course studying for the test, you should disregard this question and focus on motivation (you don’t finish your first marathon by constantly checking your watch). But it’s natural and useful to want an answer to this question, so we can start with the simple answer:

GMAT Score Needed

You are a person and not an average of people, but if you applied with the average GMAT score, the average breadth and depth and quality of work experience, the average GPA and other academic credentials, and the average community and leadership experience—as well as average recommendation letters and average essay responses—then you would be an average member of the admitted community at that program, and that would mean that you are solidly in the range of people who get admitted.

That’s the simple answer. Let’s now discuss a series of exceptions to the simple rule, situations that may or may not apply to you.

Exception #1: Other Parts of Your Application

Getting more realistic with our “average student” example: you are probably not roughly on par with admitted students in all of the relevant categories. How you differ from par in the various categories affects the GMAT score that you need to remain competitive. For example, if you’re applying to a program with an average undergraduate GPA of 3.67 and average GMAT of 724, and your undergrad GPA is 3.2, then you are substantially under par in the GPA category, and a GMAT score of 750 or higher would greatly mitigate the weakness in GPA.

Above-par work experience, leadership, and other factors can also outweigh a weakness in GPA, for sure, though they don’t do so as directly as the GMAT, since the GPA+GMAT is the combined measure of academic potential in an applicant. They are definitely significant, however: if your experience and essays completely win over an admissions committee, then they will want to admit you. In such a case, they will be inclined to view your academic record more leniently. They still won’t admit you if they aren’t convinced that you will do well in the program, and you could still end up losing out to a similarly qualified candidate with higher scores, but a slightly below average GMAT score is completely adequate in some applications.

Related to this balancing of GPA and GMAT are what and where you studied. If your GPA is average at a program, numerically speaking, but it’s in a technical or quantitative major at an undergraduate program that is known for being rigorous, then your GPA most definitely “counts more” in proving that you will be comfortable and successful academically at the program.

In my experience as a GMAT teacher and admissions consultant, MBA candidates who focus on this “exception to the rule” tend to be over-optimistic. Quite often, they are hoping the rest of their application will make up for a lower GMAT score, but they are wrong. They may be correct that they have great work experience (that’s usually what they are thinking most about), but the work experience puts them on par for the program, not way above par. Such candidates, therefore, are on par in some or a few categories, and under par in the GMAT, making them overall a bit under par, and their only chance of getting admitted will be to write application essays that captivate, convince, and charm the admissions committee far beyond the norm.

Exception #2: Stated Requirements (Personal or General)

When admissions committees tell you something, believe it! Regarding GMAT scores, some MBA programs—especially lower-ranked programs and Executive MBA programs—will directly state to you that you shouldn’t worry about your GMAT score, or that you need “only” a certain score in order to admissible.

Some schools have a rough policy of this nature which they will not post on their website but will mention to you (possibly one-on-one) at an information session or a similar meet-and-greet. Top 20 schools absolutely do not have such policies. At any school, you might find that an admissions officer urges you to apply and might reassure you about your GMAT score, assuming you have mentioned it. If you have established a rapport with that individual, he or she may be hinting to you that your GMAT score is good enough. Establishing such a rapport is very difficult to do at the most popular programs, especially HBS and Stanford, which are flooded with applications.

In the case of the Executive MBA, you are usually a candidate of 12 or so years of work experience. (If you have only 5 or so years of work experience, even if you’re a CEO, you should be looking at a full-time or part-time program, not executive.) Because EMBA candidates are older, they are further from college. Skills such as algebra are extra-rusty and the candidates have additional work experience that admissions committees can look at and judge them by, so applicants to essentially any EMBA program don’t have to worry about the GMAT quite as much as applicants to other programs. If you’re applying to an EMBA program, start by looking at the average GMAT for students in the program, and, second, attend information sessions in person or online to get a flavor for how much the admissions committee weights the GMAT in the overall application.

Exception #3: The Quant Score

Suppose that you majored in history in college, worked in D.C. as a policy consultant with a couple of years of great success, and scored 700 on the GMAT, with a somewhat imbalanced score of Verbal way up at 99th percentile and a Quant score somewhere near 70th percentile. Your GPA and GMAT Total Score could be right on the mark but still present a red flag for the admissions committee. The red flag is that neither your undergrad major nor your professional experience is heavy in quantitative work, and your GMAT Quant score is well south of 80th percentile. The admissions committee might love you and your essays but fear that you will drown in the quantitative academic work (especially with everything else going on in business school).

I’ve heard this point first-hand from top business schools. It’s another point that business schools tend not to point in print but will state freely in conversations and live sessions. Specifically, I have hosted admissions panels with admissions officers from Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg, Wharton, and Sloan, and on multiple occasions, one of the admissions officers has made this point to the audience and has not been contradicted by the other officers.

In a situation such as this one, which is not uncommon, you essentially need a higher GMAT score, even though your GMAT Total Score isn’t low, because you need to bring up the Quant score. There are other ways to demonstrate quantitative readiness—you could take additional classes, pass the CFA, or take on work projects that highlight quantitative skills—but the most direct and effective mitigation is to raise the GMAT Quant score.

Exception #4: Demographics

For some applicants, there is a very important exception to the rule above (the “average at the school” rule), which has to do with the basics of who you are and where you’re from—such as, for example, whether you are a male from India with a background in engineering. The point here is one that school officers do not concede in print or in public, but which they have admitted to me countless times in confidence.

The reality is that test-takers from India and China far outscore American and European GMAT test-takers in the Quantitative category. Indian and Chinese test takers score a little lower than the average on the Verbal section, but the total effect is that, practically speaking, Indian and Chinese test-takers with killer GMAT scores are abundant. There’s also the obvious fact that Indian and Chinese populations are large, and the slightly less obvious fact that GMAT test-taking is growing quickly in China. I saw data highlighting the country disparity on the GMAC site a couple of years ago—it’s very striking. (The interactive graphs have since been removed by GMAC, possibly because they felt the data were too often misinterpreted. In conversations with GMAC, they have stated that they attribute the score difference primarily to time of preparation, which is much higher in India and China than in, for example, America.)

What does it mean? It does not mean, exactly, that admissions committees have different internal GMAT standards for different populations. Admissions committees are truly interested in applicants as people, and they are not interested in pigeonholing people. Nevertheless, the reality is that, if you’re an Indian male, a Total Score of 750 on the GMAT doesn’t do much to distinguish you. If you’re also an engineer, then differentiation will be even more of a challenge. Admissions officers have absolutely nothing against applicants with those qualities, but there are many applicants with those qualities, so it will be more difficult for you to stand out and be admitted.

There is a flip side for certain groups who apply to MBA programs in smaller numbers. Most especially, if you are a woman and/or a member of what business schools call “underrepresented minorities,” such as African Americans and Latin Americans, then there are relatively fewer applicants who are like you in those specific respects. No program would ever disregard your GMAT, and schools will still need to be sure that you will feel comfortable in the classroom, but it will be a little easier for you to differentiate yourself with an on-par or below-par but close GMAT score.

I’ll repeat that schools don’t have different rules for people coming from different places. Admissions committees care about who their applicants are as individuals. In the process of evaluating the whole batch, they work to select a diverse class, but that result tends to come about organically—not, say, by specifically tossing Indian males out of the pile. These considerations can make it easy for us to second-guess ourselves and overlook our own winning personal qualities, so don’t overthink them. The short advice on this point is: if you are applying from India or China, you must aim for perfection on the GMAT; and if you are applying from a less-represented group, you should still aim as high as possible on the GMAT, but also don’t be too quick to consider any specific program out of reach for you when you are finished with the GMAT, especially if you are within 30 points of the average. That last part brings us to a final consideration… how many points is “close” to your target score.

How Close is “Close”?

If you’re shooting for a 710 on the GMAT, and you score a 700, you have essentially attained your goal. The test itself and the scoring scale is only so precise, and admissions officers know this. The standard error on the GMAT is about 30 points. So, mixing statistics and practice in an approximate way, we can consider 30 points to be a significant difference on the GMAT, but not 10 or 20 points.

For example, if you’re applying to a program that has an average GMAT score of 720, and you score a 700, you are a little under the average, but not in a really significant way. If you score a 690, you are more squarely in the territory in which your GMAT is under the average. And if your score is 680 or below, your GMAT is increasingly a hurdle to admission. So, notice that the 30-point rule of thumb fits with the overall rule of thumb that 700+ is the rough ballpark for top schools.

You can also consider the 30-point rule if you are counting on the GMAT to outweigh other weaknesses in your application. Suppose you are applying to a program with an average GMAT of 700, and you’re hoping to boost your application with a crushing GMAT score. A 710 or 720 score would not so crushing at that program; those scores are more like average for admitted students. A 730 is decidedly a notch above average, and a 760 is two solid notches above average. A 760+ at such a program is decidedly above average; it hardly guarantees that you’ll be admitted, but it is a definite area of strength and it can contribute positively to the possibility that, if you’re accepted, you’ll be offered financial incentive to attend the program.

On the flip side, if you are applying to a program at which the average GMAT score is 720 or 730, it’s difficult to distinguish yourself with a GMAT score: you will need a 750 or 760 just to be a notch above the par at the program.

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