Will a Low GMAT Score Doom Your MBA Application?


The GMAT. It’s an acronym that strikes fear in the hearts of many a prospective MBA student. And for good reason: while your GMAT score is just one data point out of your entire package for the AdCom to consider, it’s often viewed as proof of academic prowess. A strong performance on the GMAT is a key component of the MBA application to most top business schools. But what can you do if your score isn’t where you want or need it to be?

Whether your lower-than-desired score is a result of illness, test anxiety, or just plain insufficient prep time, don’t let it throw you off your game. Make peace with the fact that it’s totally normal to take the GMAT more than once. In fact, I typically advise clients to plan for two attempts at the GMAT, leaving a buffer for a retake if needed.

There’s really no harm in taking the test several times, and unless you score well right out of the gate, you often will do better the second time—you’ll have fewer nerves, more familiarity with the process, and no big surprises. There’s no such thing as a bad test, just opportunities to build on and learn from.

If you didn’t prepare enough, then ramp up your studying, take a class, or consider hiring a tutor who can help you streamline your efforts and teach you the best methods for answering the various question types.

Also, don’t worry about how the schools will perceive those multiple tests. Admissions committee members often interpret this dedication to improving your score as a sign that you’ll do whatever it takes to prove you’re ready for business school.

While it’s natural to become hung up on achieving the highest score possible, or fixate on the average GMAT score reported by the schools, I urge test-challenged clients to focus instead on aligning their scores within the 80 percent range. Many schools list this information directly within their class profiles.

Keep in mind that this high number is primarily for those targeting a top-tier MBA program. For example, the 80 percent range for the MBA class entering UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in fall 2016 is 680-750. Columbia Business School had a similar 80 percent range this year of 680-760, and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School listed the 80 percent range as 700-770 for the class of 2017.

If you scored a 680, think carefully about whether a retake would significantly improve your overall candidacy. You may decide your energies should instead go toward focusing on your essays, or coaching recommenders.

Targeting these numbers at the lower end, rather than at the out-of-reach average, may keep your application viable. However, if you’re 50 points away, it’s time to rethink your selected programs and consider adding options in the top 20 or 30.

You can still leave the highest-ranked options on the table, but these have officially become what we call “reach” schools. Applicants looking at programs in the top 20 or 50 should check the average scores of admitted students to determine their personal target GMAT score.

If your score hasn’t improved significantly despite two or more attempts, don’t beat yourself up over it. Turn your focus to taking a broader look at your entire application strategy. The GMAT score foretells how well one would do in the core academic courses of an MBA program, but isn’t a predictor of success throughout the entire b-school experience. This is why most schools have a holistic approach to considering each application.

It’s entirely possible to offset a low GMAT score with a proven track record in a quantitative job, a high GPA from a respected undergraduate school, and compelling leadership activities. Put your energies toward boosting your candidacy in the areas of your application you can control, namely the essays, extracurriculars, and to some extent, the recommendation letters, where your recommenders can highlight your quantitative skills.

Although you may feel tempted to use the optional essay to explain a low test score, try to resist, as this will likely come across as making excuses rather than providing additional information.

Business school hopefuls can be incredibly hard on themselves when they make mistakes on the GMAT, but should actually think of each error as a learning opportunity and a chance to improve. So don’t become discouraged if your first score isn’t where you’d hoped.

The admissions process is a complex one, so after you’ve done the best you can on the GMAT, it’s time to focus on developing your personal brand by packaging your goals, passions, work experience and “why business school, why now” into a compelling case for your admission. In the end, your exceptional accomplishments will likely shine through despite some academic challenges.

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