Tag Archives: MBA Admissions

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.

Attention to detail, cont. Answering the MBA essay question exactly as posed

Further to my post last week on ‘the business school and the avocado’ — the importance of attention to detail and showing the effort you have put in to achieve it — I can add a coda directly from an MBA Director of Admissions:

Says Rose Martinelli, Assistant Dean of Student Admissions at Chicago Booth on her blog this week, “I thought I’d take a break from reading to share a few pointers about what I’ve learned about this year’s application. After you’ve completed your self-assessment and researched which schools fit your needs, then it is absolutely important that you READ and ANSWER the questions each school is asking. I say this largely because many schools have quite similar essays this year. For example our Essay 2 asks you to answer one of these two choices (500-750 words):

A. Describe a time when you wish you could have retracted something you said or did. When did you realize your mistake and how did you handle the situation? or
B. Describe a time when you were surprised by feedback that you received. What was the feedback and why were you surprised?
HBS asks: What have you learned from a mistake? (400 word limit); and
Wharton asks: Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? (500 word limit)

While we recognize that you are likely to apply to multiple schools, it’s important that you make sure you answer each schools’ questions carefully. Your attention-to-detail, effort, thoughtfulness, judgment in choosing which essays to answer, etc., help us to learn more about you and your candidacy for Booth. It’s not just the words you use…”

There you have it as clear as you could like it. First, attention to detail and effort does not go unnoticed or unrewarded, and in fact answering the Booth question in such a way as it could equally be an answer to the similar Harvard or Wharton questions will be poorly received. Second, tailoring your answers carefully to each precise question forms part of Adcom’s assessment of your detail-effort contribution.

None of this suggests you should not reuse material across multiple MBA applications; just that it has to be done with great care not to compromise the exactness of your answer to the specific question each time. If not, you’re coasting, and you can’t expect Adcom to reward you for it. There are ways of judging which parts of your essay ‘port’ to the new, similar question, and we’re happy to help you with this.