Tag Archives: GPA

The Myth of the 800 GMAT

I wrote this GMAT article last year on the Business Week b-school forum. It’s probably still up there somewhere, along with a firestorm of comments — gratifyingly mostly ‘agrees.’ (Speaking of gratifying, readers are still popping up on Amazon.com to say nice things about ‘MBA Admissions Strategy‘. I don’t know who you are, but thank you!)

Anyway, it’s been a year, and nothing has changed. I get the should-I-retake GMAT question from clients and prospective clients with healthy scores, so here is the article reposted:

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.

The recession adds weight to the voice of Career Services in MBA Admissions

Every year is similar in MBA Admissions, but slightly different given what is going on in the economy and the world. This year a key framing condition is the recession. Applicants who get into top schools will have a excellent spread of academic, professional, and extramural attributes. But the economic downturn will make itself felt, and one of the aspects of this was well picked up by Business Week this week in an article which says MBA Career Services departments are getting a stronger voice in who gets admitted.

Says BW: “With company recruiters becoming ever more selective, B-school admissions departments are taking a closer look at how easily candidates will be able to parlay their education into a job come graduation… While admissions officers have always favored these qualities, increasingly—as the job market tightens—they’re demanding them. Admitting employable students on the front end in some cases means shying away from some traditional admissions metrics such as test scores and grades and embracing professional qualifications such as interpersonal skills, proven job performance, and promotions.”

None of this is new. Future employability, quality career continuation, and likely starting salary have always been a consideration in MBA admissions. It’s just a shift to greater emphasis.

Recruiting well out of an MBA is one of the key function a business school offers. They do this for the candidate (it’s part of what you pay your tuition fees for) but it’s hardly altruism. This is because, among the matrices along which MBA schools are typically ranked is “percentage of students recruited on graduation,” and “average starting salary.” In other words the pressure is on Career Services to get these numbers up.

In good times they are willing to take a punt on students who have potential but not much or a record because it’s likely they will get a good offer (in boom times practically everyone at a top-20 school gets multiple offers). But in a bust Career Services knows it will be left with jobless graduates. Not only is it a headache to have them emailing you and endlessly bugging alumni, but it drives down rankings, to say nothing of word-of-mouth reputation.

So while b-school Admissions Services (Adcom) and Career Services are traditionally separate “empires,” in recessionary times Careers want to make sure they get the most recruitable candidates possible. So many schools’ Careers departments are demanding and getting a seat on Admissions Committees, where they can sit in on interviews and evaluate applications.

What does this mean for applicants this year?
Says BW: “The increased attention to job placement could spell trouble for candidates whose essays fail to outline clear career plans. Career switchers, with no work history in what they hope will be their new profession, might be similarly disadvantaged. The same goes for younger students as some schools up the criterion for average years of work experience.”

The way through this is, first, to play up your career progress and future employability (via all inputs: essays, résumé, interview, recommendations, etc.) The second is to have a really convincing, plausible, short-term career plan. Given your work history plus an MBA (from the particular school) can you make Adcom and Career Services believe you will be gainfully employed in a MBA-worthy position on graduation day? If you can do this, you’re one step closer to getting in.

More World MBA Tour legacy, 18 principles of MBA admissions which I still stand by

The last piece moving resources off the old MBA Studio site, and into the land of blogs and permalinks. It’s from a talk I gave on the World MBA Tour in 2003 – proving, if nothing else, how long I’ve been around doing MBA admissions consulting 🙂 . Seriously, from year to year, the basic insights into what works in getting admitted to elite schools changes little, so this worth a little reprise (click here for pps show.)