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How important is the GMAT?

September 27, 2019 - Helen Szyra

If I said the GMAT wasn't important for selection to an MBA programme, I'd be lying. I would like to share why the GMAT is important, why you may still get into a top school with a reasonable rather than stellar score, and what to do if your score is lower than your actual ability.

What is the GMAT?

If you're new to the MBA application process, here's a quick overview of what the GMAT actually is. The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is a test that assesses certain analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading skills in English. Moreover, it gives an indication of your problem-solving abilities, logic, and critical reasoning skills that are deemed relevant and necessary to business and management success. It is used by universities and business schools around the globe as a selection criteria for admissions to a graduate management program, most notably the MBA (Master of Business Administration). Approximately a quarter of a million people take this test per year and it's scored on a distribution curve from 200-800. If you want more details about the GMAT and how to register, go to the GMAT official site, or talk to Kaplan’s GMAT experts, who you can access through classes or events, and who all achieved high scores themselves. They are experts in teaching GMAT content and strategy to help increase your chances of a high score, and can clarify GMAT myths - e.g. ask them about the widespread misconception related to computer adaptive testing!

The GMAT Score and Your Application

My experience with hundreds of candidates has shown that the GMAT is, in fact, a reliable indicator of ability, both in terms of being able to follow the MBA programme intellectually and to communicate effectively with peers and faculty. As an example, if you get a high quantitative score, it tends to indicate that you're likely to be happy with quant courses like some of the tougher finance courses. Moreover, the GMAT is a great indicator of the perseverance and hard work that a particular candidate will bring to the programme. This is because, for many students, this test won't be like anything they've done before, and so perseverance and hard work is essential for most of us to get a good score. I've worked with many candidates and graduates from top universities who were shocked when they didn't immediately get high scores. Even if you're a great engineer and find the quant side easy, the verbal side is likely to need extra study. Top level MBA students will tend to study the question types and the strategy to answer them, and do a LOT (let me say again - a LOT) of practice over several months, preferably on a computer based programme as per the actual test, to increase their score substantially. Interestingly, I've found that the GMAT can be self-selecting for entry to a top business school - as many people just give up! They may give up even before they take the test, often they give up after they get their first low score, and even after stringing out their study for so long that the thought of doing the test again is almost too much to bear. Candidates at the level required to get into a top school WILL persevere, so make that be you!

Let's be brutally frank; a large amount of the GMAT content, formulae and grammatical rules that are so important in getting a high grade are likely to be forgotten soon after the test. For example you'll be using punctuation and sentence structure that is American rather than British English and nowadays, due to twitter etc, less of us are uptight about rules. It is however important to get the best score you can get. (See what I mean? - in British English we have 3 options - no commas with "however", or one comma, or two - all depending on one's meaning. A note to my GMAT trainer colleagues: please forgive any grammar that I've used that isn't in line with GMAT; as you know we use less commas in British English (sometimes not at all) and it's been over 20 years since I did my own GMAT !)

A great GMAT score will NOT, in itself, get you into a top school. You need a combination of a good score and professional and personal experience - but what is a good score? As a rule of thumb, scores of over 700 or high 600's will help reduce doubt about your ability by a top tier school. Top US schools do seem to need higher scores than top European or other world schools, but a score of at least 600 is important. Experience allows me to be optimistic for a top tier school acceptance for any candidate I work with who has a high 600 such as 680 or 690 together with an attractive background or offering, but why not make it easier for yourself by getting a score in the 700’s? A high GMAT score can even go on your CV and help at job searching time.

If your experience is on-trend, especially in the technical space which is likely to be time-critical, schools may accept lower scores. I worked with one candidate who got into a top school with frankly a ridiculously low score (the lowest I'd ever seen), but as the candidate hadn't had time to study or retake and their experience was almost unique and important for that moment in time in a certain global industry. The school had clearly decided that this candidates was worth taking a risk over. Second tier schools, even those rising in the rankings, are often likely to score in the high 500’s, especially if your score is from 550 to 590, so sometimes you may be fortunate and get into a school which, in a few more years, will be considered top tier. By then candidates may need higher scores to compete for a place.

Retaking the GMAT - good or bad?

Although a high first time score would be great, it isn't always possible for many reasons, such as how much time you have available to study. As much as I can't imagine anyone actively enjoying having to retake, a retake can actually look good if the increase in score is large enough. Again it shows perseverance, and is your true level, so it stands out. But try not to retake many times. One candidate who had scored 660, and retook at 660, wanted to retake again. I recommended that he only retake if he genuinely believed he could score higher given his current situation; he scored 660. This result underlined that he really is a 660 student. Fortunately the 660 was ok for the school of his choice but the retaking had been unnecessary. If you don't have time to retake, then, if the school gives you an optional essay, tell admissions any good things about your score e.g. high verbal (but miss out the bad things), give short examples that prove verbal and quantitative skills such as analysis or presentations at work, and finish by saying you are happy to retake the GMAT.

What about the GRE?

Just a quick mention about the GRE. Schools are increasingly allowing candidates to choose between the GMAT or GRE. Which exam you choose to do is dependent on many criteria and strengths that are specific to you. As your choice is a big subject in itself, I'll leave it for another day but I have mentioned it here so that you are aware that you may have a choice that benefits you.

For executive MBA candidates, you'll be happy to know that a high GMAT score, while still an indicator, is not quite as important in selection as it is for the full time programme. Your experience is considered more important for the school than the score, and some schools may even allow you to take an Executive Assessment. The EA is less time consuming in terms of study, if any, as the schools are aware that people at a higher management level or even C-Suite level have limited time.

Finally, as your GMAT study will take up a lot of your time, please try to think of it as an intellectual exercise akin to a computer game or Sudoku. Rather than dread the process of upping your score week to week, try to enjoy it. Who knows, a positive attitude may add even that extra 10 points to your score.