Why MBA Candidates are Striving For Higher GMAT Scores

Why MBA Candidates are Striving For Higher GMAT Scores main image

Like it or loathe it, a good GMAT or GRE score is essential to gain admission into a top business school. The standardized tests have been a mainstay of MBA admissions for decades and some say they play an oversized role in the decision-making process.

And in recent years their influence appears to have grown. GMAT score averages have become astronomical, for a range of reasons. The average GMAT score for the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University Class of 2019 is 711 — up from 676 five years ago, while Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Class of 2020 average GMAT score is 732, up from 713 five years ago.

The importance of your GMAT score

Noah Teitelbaum, executive director of pre-business programs at Manhattan Prep says, “Your GMAT score remains one of the most, if not the most important factor in the business school admissions process.

“In fact, a low GMAT score is ‘the biggest application deal breaker’, according to our sister company Kaplan Test Prep’s annual business school admissions officers survey. You can’t hope to get into a top program with a middling score.”

What’s a good score? According to Teitelbaum, whose firm has conducted extensive research into the GMAT and MBA admissions, a score of 710-800 would put you in the top 10 percent of all business school candidates. A score between 650-700 would place you in the top 25 percent, and 550–640 would put you in the top 50 percent, but “won’t be as advantageous when applying to highly competitive programs”, says Teitelbaum.

“A too-low test score can keep you out,” he says. “But it isn’t the case that a certain test score will get you in. Rather, if you can get into a high enough range, then the admissions committee will consider the rest of your application — and the committee will use the rest of the information to make their decision.”

Rising scores can pile pressure onto applicants who are also crafting other elements of their application, including essays (and working full-time, usually).

A possible deal breaker

But business schools say while GMAT scores are important elements of the application process, they’re indeed just one among many factors used to decide whether you are admitted or rejected.

And GMAT averages aren’t necessarily a benchmark you have to reach. In any given year, plenty of MBA candidates are admitted with scores that are higher or lower than the average. At Harvard Business School in Boston, for example the range is 580 to 790, with the average score being 730.

Leila Murat, director of the MBA programs business unit at NEOMA Business School in France, says that a 600 GMAT score, with a good balance between Verbal and Quant scores, is sufficient to demonstrate your ability to perform in an MBA program.

She adds, “The GMAT test score alone doesn’t guarantee a candidate’s acceptance; it acts as a filter. It’s one of the instruments business schools use to check candidates’ academic capacity and critical thinking skills.

“It is, however, not the only one…learning agility, clarity of thought, creativity, teamwork skills, cross-cultural awareness, commitment, clear rationale and strong motivation are all essential to a successful MBA experience, and as such are decisive elements in the admissions decision.”

What is clear, however, is that without a good score you’ll need another element of your candidacy that’s exceptional, to secure a top business school place.

Murat says, “To overcome a poor GMAT score, a candidate must be able to demonstrate their capacity to follow the program. Don’t forget to mention that you’re aware of the issue. And put forward elements in your profile that can balance the poor score, such as good university grades, or other academic performances.

“Also, mention any experience (professional or personal) demonstrating strong use of analytical or reasoning skills. Your recommenders should insist on these aspects as well in their reference letters.”

Standing out beyond the GMAT

In addition, the uniqueness of your profile can compensate for a lower GMAT score, she says. “In this case, the candidate must

rely on their personality. Their career path is also a significant point in the application, as are experiences with startups or volunteer missions.”

Nevertheless, business schools themselves have a vested interest in admitting candidates with sky-high GMAT scores. For one, it demonstrates readiness for a rigorous curriculum covering advanced, analytical content.

But, GMAT averages also contribute to a school’s place in rankings, and a high GMAT average can indicate a quality cohort — important because MBAs learn as much from peers as from professors. So, maintaining a competitive GMAT average is important for attracting applications to schools’ expensive programs.

Candidates aware of this are striving to perform better in the GMAT. Admissions consultant Karen Marks says, “People are increasingly aware they need to have competitive scores, and are allocating more time and resources for test prep.

“There are also some logistical changes that help people achieve higher scores — like the ability to choose the best order for the test sections, and the option to cancel disappointing scores without schools ever seeing you took the exam.”

Indeed, GMAC, which owns the GMAT, says roughly a third of all candidates with a total score lower than 650 cancelled their exam scores. The cancelled score rate for these test-takers for last year’s testing year was 32.9 percent, up from 23.8 percent in 2015 and a mere 1.9 percent in 2014.

With this trend, GMAT averages are likely to keep rising, and MBA candidates will need to keep up with the inflation or face a much harder time getting into the elite business schools.

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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