Tag Archives: management

‘I scored 700, should I retake the GMAT or focus on the rest of my application?

Two years ago I wrote a GMAT article on the Business Week b-school forum called ‘The Myth of the 800 GMAT,’ arguing that a geek-level GMAT score could be counterproductive when applying to professional business-management MBA training. It’s probably still up there somewhere, along with a firestorm of comments — gratifyingly mostly ‘agrees.’

Last year I blogged about it, and here we are again, and nothing has changed. Well … nothing much has changed. There is admittedly, every year, a slight inflation in the average GMAT score of matriculated students at top business schools, and for the elite schools the published average is now invariably over 700. (Obviously,  half of matriculated applicants scored below the average mark.)

This causes students even with 700+ scores to retake the GMAT, in the bid for a further 20 or 30 points. Or even perfection.

Leaving the pros and cons of super-scores aside, yes 720 is better than 700, but is it the smart thing to aspire to — when the tradeoff is time lost to essays and other part of the application? Candidates think the higher they score, the better their chances of admission. It seems obvious but is it right?

Here’s how to think about it: The GMAT operates on a threshold principle. If you are applying to an elite school and you don’t have enough, then everything else you do and say will be in the shadow of that. What is enough? About 700, assuming Q/V balance, that is, 80th+ percentile in each. At this point (and maybe well below it, depending on GPA and other academic recognition,) Adcom will put a check mark next to your cognitive abilities and look for what else you offer.

So the GMAT is crucial — up to a point. It tells Adcom about your intellectual ability, and is particularly handy in that it facilitates easy comparison across institutions and undergraduate majors, and to some extent across cultures. If you are too far below the school’s average GMAT, yes, nothing else you are, do, or say will count. Every 10-point gain adds to your admissions prospects and move of 30 or so fundamentally changes which b-schools you can legitimately hope to get into.

But only up to a point: A higher GMAT won’t check any other box than “cognitively capable” that was already checked at around 700. There’s no benefit to keeping on hammering away at a nail that is already knocked in. Moreover, even a super-score is not going to save you if your recommendations are so-so, your essays are undeveloped, and you stumble in your interview.

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

So it makes sense to be very concerned with the GMAT until it is broadly within the guidelines of your target program. Then forget about it and spend time on other aspects of your application. People who obsess with improving their already 700+ score are short-changing the rest of their admissions profile.

As I tell my clients: ‘It’s like chopping the fingers off one hand while you paint the nails on your other. Don’t do it!’
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The value of a bad boss in MBA admissions

Unless you are independently wealthy or have been lucky enough to work for yourself all your life (and most of us fall into neither category,) chances are you’ve had a bad boss or two along the way.

You know the type: the boss who sets ambiguous tasks and then micromanages them. Who offers a grunt when you ace a project, but chews you over for 20 minutes because of a minor error. The one who will take credit up the chain for great work you do, but won’t cover for you when deadlines slip. And so on.

I was reminded of this in profiling a client recently. He had been doing everything right, killing himself to complete complex operations/IT projects, plus studying nights for an M.S. degree and co-managing a young family. His boss committed all of the above evils and more. She would casually set him ‘by-close-of-business today” tasks late in the day, interfere in carefully nurtured team relationships he had built up over months, use fear of termination to crack the whip, and the list goes on.

At the first possible moment, he quit. Yay.

Listening to this phase of his life, I felt need to reach for the Kleenex. But I could offer some consolation. After the event, what he had was fabulous experience for his future role as a manager and leader, and it would play well in an MBA admissions essay. Why? Because if you have experienced having your motivation sapped, having to walk on eggshells around an idiot who controls you, having to grind your teeth in frustration at not being able to implement an obvious innovation — that is, if you have been poorly managed yourself, you have excellent insight into what not to do. And therefore, reversing all that a bad boss does, you have a good idea what kind of boss you should be.

Further, for MBA admissions essay or interview purposes, your bad-boss story is “proof” you have been through fundamental learning about management, have developed insights into how to handle people under you, and are therefore ready to manage effectively when your turn comes. If you have a story like this, tell it.

Turning a failure into an intelligent failure. Insight on how messups can play positively in MBA Admissions

MBA applicants are routinely asked “the failure question” either in MBA essays or interviews. It always takes more or less the same form: “tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.”

As I’ve written before here, and in my book, the test is not to see if you have any weaknesses or failures. Everyone does. It is to see whether you are mature enough to recognize your failures and so address the implied weaknesses. Also, failures are more likely to occur in new, challenging tasks, so if you present “no failures” you are simply telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged.

The other day I picked up an interesting take on failure — creating “intelligent failure” — in the article Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.

McGrath says: “Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations. Instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal. To those executives, let me argue that an extraordinarily valuable corporate resource is being wasted if learning from failures is inhibited.

“Naturally, to an executive raised on the concept of “management by exception,” any failure at all seems intolerable. This world view is reinforced by the widespread adoption of various quality techniques, for instance, six sigma, in which the goal is to stamp out variations (by definition, failures) in the pursuit of quality…

“Failures are crucial to the process of organizational learning and sense-making. Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can re-set its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”

The point McGrath is making is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set reasonable prior fail-safe mechanisms in place, and then interrogate a failure afterwards, to make a failure useful as learning. This turns it into an “intelligent failure.”

If you can show the MBA Adcom that you did this, that you didn’t just fail dumbly, or have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your essay will shine in all the right ways.