French fashion designer Christian Louboutin has a great adage about high-heel shoes: “The higher, the better.” But does this necessarily hold true for what makes a good GMAT score?
The #1 reason an MBA applicant is denied to business school is a low GMAT score.
Your total score on a GMAT exam can range from 200‒800. The total score uses only Quantitative and Verbal sections, while the other two sections of the GMAT are scored on separate scales (see below).
For years, a 700 on the GMAT represented the 90th percentile, meaning that just 10% of test takers would score a 700 or higher. Even the highest-ranked MBA programs would view a 700+ overall score as a good score on the GMAT.
Now, a 710 score represents the 90th percentile of test takers, and any score 760 or higher falls within the 99th percentile (fewer than 1 percent of all test takers achieve these scores).
Years ago, admissions consultants used to cite the 80‒80‒90 “golden triangle” of GMAT scores as the standard for entry to a top MBA program. This meant 80th percentile on the quant, 80th percentile on the verbal, and a 90th percentile total score (the total score is not merely a linear average of the two scores). This standard is no longer true, so please disregard if you see anyone cite it.
The average GMAT score of the U.S. News top-10 ranked MBA programs is now 727, and this average increases every year. This means that roughly half of the admitted applicants to these schools score a 730 or higher.
At MBA Whisperer, our analysis has shown that a score just 35 points or more below a school’s average will be in the bottom 10th percentile of accepted applicants for most schools.
So, a score of 690‒700 today would land you in the bottom one-tenth of admitted students to most of the top MBA programs. Most applicants should aim for a score of 720+ when applying to top business schools.
Even though schools publicly report only their average total GMAT score, admissions officers evaluate candidates based on all five GMAT scores:
Generally speaking, business schools view any score of 750 or higher the same, no matter the school’s ranking or the applicant’s background. They recognize that you will succeed academically in their program with this score, and turn to other criteria to admit or deny applicants with these scores. At that point, Christian Louboutin’s maxim, “the higher, the better,” no longer applies.
With only rare exceptions would I encourage one of my students with a total score of 740 or higher to retake the GMAT. Their efforts are better spent focusing on other areas of their candidacy.
Be careful when evaluating your quant score based on percentiles alone. Over the past decade, an influx of test takers, primarily from China and India, has skewed the percentiles on GMAT quant scores significantly.
In 2010, a 46 (out of 51) on the scaled score of the GMAT Quantitative Reasoning section was 80th percentile, meaning that just 20% of test takers scored a 46 or higher. Today, scoring a 46 will achieve just 58th percentile, even though the difficulty of the exam has not changed.
Admissions officers at the top business schools are aware of the skewed percentiles and tend to look at the scaled score to ensure that admitted candidates have the needed quantitative skills to succeed academically in their programs.
Although there’s no minimum score to be admitted to even the highest-ranking programs, a good rule of thumb would be to score 45+ at the minimum on the GMAT quant section to avoid questions about your quantitative abilities. Generally, if my students have a 47 or higher on the quant, I don’t suggest retaking unless they need to improve their total score.
Verbal percentiles have not changed as much over recent history. A score of 36 on the verbal section today is 80th percentile, down a point from 37 in 2010.
Most MBA programs do not pay as close attention to the verbal scaled score as they do the quant. A 35+ score on the verbal will be satisfactory for even the highest-ranked programs, as long as your overall score remains high.
When looking for opportunities to raise your overall GMAT score, don’t ignore the verbal section, even if your percentile is already high. Any score of 45‒51 on the verbal section falls in the 99th percentile, but a higher score will continue to raise your total GMAT score, even if your percentile does not change.
MBA programs typically use the Analytical Writing Assessment as a “check off the box” to ensure that your English writing skills are good enough to succeed in a graduate-level program conducted in English. It is scored on a 0‒6 point scale with 0.5 point increments. More than 50% of test takers score a 5 or higher on the AWA section.
Generally speaking, a 4+ score on AWA is seen as good enough. A score higher than 4 on the AWA will not necessarily improve chances of admission. Instead, admissions officers will typically look at other aspects of your candidacy, such as professional accomplishments and personal qualities, to decide among otherwise qualified candidates.
Integrated Reasoning is the newest section of the GMAT, introduced in 2012. It is scored on a 1‒8 point scale with full integer increments. Even though the section has been included on the GMAT for a number of years, its impact on MBA admissions ranges from little to none, depending on the school.
More than half of GMAT test takers score a 5 or higher on Integrated Reasoning. However, I’ve seen many of my clients gain admission to top schools with IR scores as low as 3. I generally don’t recommend retaking the GMAT for a low Integrated Reasoning score alone.
That said, I also do not recommend just “blowing off” the IR section by randomly guessing or exerting little to no effort. Admissions officers may view an unusually low IR score as a sign of lack of effort, which might cause questions about your work ethic while in school.
On the flip side, a few MBA admissions officers have mentioned that the Integrated Reasoning score is valuable in discerning among the highest-scoring applicants. Particularly if you are among the most competitive demographic groups of MBA applicants (see below), you may want to improve your Integrated Reasoning score to maximize your chances of admission.
MBA programs seek to attract and admit a class of students with a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. They don’t want to admit students all from the same profession, geography, or personal experience, even though certain groups of students may apply in far greater numbers.
As a result, if you come from an overrepresented group, the average GMAT score of admitted students like you may be higher. Likewise, if your background or geography is underrepresented, then the average GMAT score will be slightly lower.
Male IT engineers from India and China tend to be the most overrepresented groups in MBA admissions, so the average GMAT scores from admitted candidates tend to be extremely high. If you are a male IT engineer from one of these locations, plan to score 740 or higher on the GMAT for serious consideration to the top schools. Look to score at least 20‒30 points higher than your target schools’ averages to maximize chances of admission
Males in the finance and management consulting industries also tend to be overrepresented. I recommend an overall GMAT score of 730 or higher. A score of at least 10‒20 points higher than the school’s average will improve chances of admission.
Of course, MBA admissions are not strictly statistics-based. Exemplary accomplishments in your professional life and/or unique personal qualities and backgrounds will also play a role in building a diverse and powerful MBA class.
We continue to see gains in the numbers of female and underrepresented minority candidates to top business schools, but percentages of these applicants continue to trail behind their proportions in the overall population. As a result, average GMAT scores of admitted candidates tend to be slightly lower as MBA programs seek to attract more qualified, underrepresented candidates.
In addition, many developing nations around the globe tend to be underrepresented, particularly in U.S.-based MBA programs.
If you fall into an underrepresented applicant group, I still recommend maximizing your GMAT score as a key way to improve chances of admission. Seeking a GMAT score at or above your target schools’ averages is ideal. For top schools, a score of 700+ may be satisfactory for admission, and numerous underrepresented applicants are admitted with a score of 680+.
Some members of overrepresented groups of applicants may view these score trends as discriminatory, but business schools view MBA admissions through a holistic lens. A higher score on the GMAT alone does not necessarily translate into greater potential as a business leader. Since these programs seek to admit the next generation of business leaders, it is vital to admit candidates with a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds to build the best possible MBA classes.
Until you start nearing the 99th percentile range of scores, the “higher is better” standard will apply to any candidate. Statistically speaking, maximizing your GMAT score is the #1 best thing you can do to improve your chances of MBA admissions.