Tag Archives: GMAT

The Enduring Myth of the 800 GMAT

For many MBA applicants it is GMAT test prep or test-taking season. Below is a piece I wrote a while back on Business Week b-school site, which I hope provides something of a strategic reality check in terms of how a GMAT score helps and hurts in MBA admissions, and therefore what score you really need:

I had a MBA admissions client recently who I’ll call Tim, and when Tim and I got talking about his admissions profile he told me he’d scored 720 on the GMAT, and then retaken the test (and scored the same again). I nearly dropped the phone. “Why would anyone ever want to retake a 720 GMAT?” I gasped.

The truth is, I know why. Candidates think the higher they score, the better their chances of admission. It seems obvious but is it right?

Yes, of course the GMAT is crucial. It tells Adcom about an applicant’s intellectual and cognitive skills, and is particularly useful in allowing easy comparison across institutions and undergraduate majors, and to some extent across cultures. Furthermore, every 10-point gain adds to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of 30 or so fundamentally changes which b-schools they can legitimately hope to get into. All true.

But this is true only up to a certain level, about the 700-750 range. A higher score has diminishing returns and can even — believe it or not — harm one’s chances.

Why? As I told Tim, there are two reasons. First, although the MBA is a post-graduate university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people in business management positions, not academic positions. Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the cleverest people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or consultants. Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher, George Soros, Ted Turner, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einsteins. MBA Adcoms are not looking for brainiacs.

This explains why an ultra-high GMAT can be harmful. Scoring in the super bracket (750+) means that you are, by definition, in the 99th percentile. People who score like that are often better pure scientists or philosophers, than managers. It’s a stereotype, and perhaps a poor one, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being a poor people-person and a poor manager. If you get a very high score, Adcom will be absolutely sure to thoroughly check and almost disbelieve that you are also a leader and team player and can manage adversity and do all the practical things you need to get done in a business day.

Maybe you can and do. But an extra burden of proof falls on you in this regard if you are in the GMAT super-bracket.

The second, related, problem is it takes a mix of talents to get admitted to a competitive school. The operative term here is “mix”. Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership potential, team player profile, work experience, volunteer experience, profile diversity, and so on. Academic ability is definitely a requirement, but so are many other attributes. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

People who obsess with improving an already 700+ GMAT are, almost certainly, taking time and effort away from improving the rest of their admissions profile.

This is how it works: a threshold is reached at around (depending on GPA results and other  variables) the 700 level, where Adcom can safely put a check mark next to your academic ability, and move on to see what else you offer. If you are too far below the school’s average GMAT, yes, nothing else you are, do, or say will count. But once you hit the threshold, it’s pointless to keep knocking in that nail. A higher GMAT won’t check any other box than “cognitively capable” and chances are it’s already checked at 700. A super-score is not going to help you if your recommendations are so-so, your essays are undeveloped, and you stumble in your interview. Adcom greatly prefers “balanced good” to “unbalanced excellent.”

This also explains why there is more malleability in the GMAT rating than most candidates realize. If the rest of your application is good, and your undergraduate record is in the right range, you can be up to 40 or 50 points below the school’s published GMAT average (providing not too lopsidedly in Math or Verbal.)

Obviously, the published average means that half of accepted applicant’s scores are below that mark.

Bottom line: It makes sense to be very concerned with the GMAT until it is within the guidelines of your target program. Then forget about it and spend time on other aspects of your application.

Rate Your GMAT Score and Keep Your MBA Application in Balance

It’s early in the MBA admissions season and many of you will be working towards a GMAT score as a first step on your admissions path.

So I thought time to dig this story out of the archives — about a utility from GMAC, purveyors of the GMAT, which allows test-takers to rate their score (or practice shores) with reference to their cohort, filtered by intended degree, age, gender, country, and so on.

If you try it you will be able to see how you stack up against the sub-group you are really competing against.

You may also take heart that the median is much lower than you think. True, this doesn’t help “GMAT paranoia” when you look at your elite school and find it has an average accepted GMAT of 720 and your score is 680.

For that you need to absorb what b-schools keep telling us — once again here in a recent WSJ interview with Derrick Bolton Director of MBA Admissions at Stanford GSB — which is that the GMAT is only one among many factors that determine admission.

WSJ: “Do you check out the GMAT score and if it’s below a certain number, put that application aside?”

Bolton: “That would rob us of a lot of talent. The GMAT is helpful in terms of understanding how someone can perform in the first year, but that’s one small piece of the overall M.B.A.”

What would be nice, for the next iteration of this GMAC utility, would be the ability to check a box that shows the GMAT arc of accepted students at Stanford, or Harvard, or Tuck, etc. That arc would by definition show the 50% below the incoming median score, and how low incoming scores can be, and that would be reassuring to the many hundreds of applicants who will get into elite schools despite not being “GMAT geniuses.”

See also I Scored 700, Should I Retake? and The Myth of the 800 GMAT.


MBA Essays: Your Bud Becomes a Jack, but Nothing Changes

So, July 1 it is, and the 2014 MBA admissions season is definitely now upon us. Having been in this industry for 11 years now, I feel it might be useful to open this season’s posts with a few short thoughts on the fads and fashions in MBA admissions, and how while lots of things change nothing fundamental changes.

Let’s start with what doesn’t change, which is that an MBA from an elite school is, for most, a dramatic career boost both in terms of opportunity and earnings. What also stays exactly the same is that the incremental relative career boost from an elite school (global top-15, more or less) is far greater than merely a good school – and everyone knows this, including recruiters.

Therefore what also doesn’t change is that elite schools are massively oversubscribed by admissions-seekers, and so MBA Adcoms are forced to screen out most of the hopefuls (which is of course exactly what they want. This is how they create “classes of the best,” which attracts recruiters for top jobs, an obvious reinforcing cycle.)

What does change is how Adcoms go about screening. But even this has not changed much over the years. File data, GMAT (or GRE) score, MBA resume, recommendations, extra-murals, and allied personal and professional boxes to check stay effectively the same from year to year (with some test score and general achievement inflation, undeniably).

The application element that is constantly in motion is the way MBA Adcoms ask you, the applicant, to talk about yourself via essays, or what stands in for the essays.

Time was you had to write a long description about yourself —something like the INSEAD application remains to this day. But then two things happened. First it became not-so-clear that applicants were doing their own writing, which led to Adcoms shortening the writing obligation.

Second, technology got more sophisticated, allegedly offering multi-media or social-media ways of capturing the quality of an applicant, which also led to lower word counts on average, while the more adventurous admissions committees such as those at Georgetown McDonough or Chicago Booth experimented with offering the opportunity to submit PowerPoint presentations, tweets, audio uploads and the like. NYU has long invited creative expressions of self, but famously had to draw the line when they were faced with two-week-old sushi…

The jury is out on how well this alternative communication works, not least because it judges applicants’ “flashness” with social- or multi-media rather than what Adcom really needs to judge, which is how good a b-school player, and subsequently how great a manager you will turn out to be.

Don’t let the tapering off of overall essay text-length obligation lull you into a false sense of security. As I’ve written in my book, and here on this site in previous posts, the essays play a singular role and this is not usurped or ursurpable. Essays package you for the admissions committee. They bring your file factoids to life. They provide the juice that gets the committee to notice you specifically from among a mass of competitors who present similar file achievements and scores.

So less bulk doesn’t mean less important. In fact, less space makes the essays harder. Now more than ever, every single word matters. Think of it like exchanging a beer for a tot of Jack Daniels. Less space, not less kick.