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Applying to MBA Programs — How Important are GMAT Scores?

This tutorial answers common questions about how the GMAT scaled scoring system works, how admissions officials at MBA programs (B-schools) interpret GMAT scores, and how to know whether your GMAT scores reflect your true potential.

Q: What sort of scale is used to score the GMAT?

A: Your official GMAT score report, which you can access within a few weeks after testing, will consist of five separate scaled scores:

  • a Quantitative score (on a 0-60 scale)
  • a Verbal score (on a 0-60 scale)
  • a Total (combined) Quantitative/Verbal score (on a 200-800 scale)
  • an Integrated Reasoning score (on a 0-8 scale)
  • an AWA (Analytical Writing Assessment) score (on a 0-6 scale)

On each scale a higher score indicates better performance. Let's focus on the first three scores listed above. The 0-60 scaled Quantitative and Verbal scores do not simply reflect the number of questions you answered correctly on these two sections. These scores also account for the difficulty level of the questions you answered correctly, as well as the extent to which those questions cover disparate question types and skills. It's a complex calculation, of course. Your Total score, though on a different scale, simply combines your Quantitative and Verbal scores, given them equal weight.

Your Integrated Reasoning scaled score (0-8) is based on your responses to this section's 12 questions, some of which are multi-part. Unlike the Quantitative and Verbal sections, the Integrated Reasoning section is not computer-adaptive (it doesn't adjust to your ability level as you go), and so the scoring algorithm is simpler than for the other two multiple-choice sections.

The fifth scaled score listed above — for the GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment — is the easiest to understand. There's no conversion or complex calculation; the score is based on the overall quality of your writing and your reasoning, as determined by an automated writing evaluator (called E-Rater) and by either one or two GMAT readers, who follow general scoring guidelines established by the testing service.

Q: What do your GMAT scores tell you in terms of your performance on the exam?

A: Accompanying each of the five scaled scores on your official GMAT score report will be a percentile rank, which indicates the percentage of test takers scoring lower than you. For example, a percentile ranking of 65% indicates that out of every 100 test takers 65 scored lower than you, while 34 scored higher than you.

Percentile rankings are based on the entire GMAT test-taking population during the three most recent years, and the rankings on your score report are adjusted yearly to account for performance trends. (Percentile rankings for Integrated Reasoning are adjusted more frequently through 2012.)

Percentile rankings are provided in order to help you, the test taker, and the schools gauge your GMAT performance relative to other test takers. Each school decides for itself whether to compare your scores to those of the entire GMAT test-taking population or only to those of other applicants to that school.

Q: How do the B-schools evaluate and process your scaled GMAT scores?

A: The first step in the evaluation process takes into account only your Total score (combined Quantitative/Verbal, on the 200-800 scale). It's this score, along with your GPA, that B-schools generally use to evaluate applicants during their initial screening. In other words, if these metrics, considered together by whatever formula the school uses, fall below a certain level, the school rejects your application without considering other factors — such as your GMAT Integrated Reasoning score, GMAT AWA (essay) score, letters of recommendation, personal statements, in-person interviews, and work experience.

Once you're past the first cut, the school will take a closer look at your GMAT AWA score. If you've attained a high AWA score, the admissions committee might rank you higher among its remaining applicants despite a run-of-the-mill Verbal score. (This is where the individual Verbal score can become a factor in the admissions process.) In reality, though, applicants with lower GMAT Verbal scores typically score poorly on the AWA as well. What's more, in this case an outstanding personal statement would not accomplish much toward redeeming your application, because too many applicants obtain help in writing their personal statements. In other words, the personal statement is not a reliable indicator of your writing ability, or you verbal skills generally.

By the same token, if you've attained a high GMAT Integrated Reasoning score, the admissions committee might rank you higher among its remaining applicants despite less-than-stellar Total, Verbal and Quantitative scores. Again, however, in reality a test taker with a low Total, Verbal and Quantiative scores is unlikely to score high in Integrated reasoning.

Q: Does the overall performance among the GMAT testing population remain about the same from year to year. If not, how does the scoring system account for performance trends?

A: The overall performance of the GMAT testing population has been improving gradually over the last 15 years or so. The reason for this trend has to do with the fact that the MBA degree has become increasingly popular, and that as a result the B-schools have become increasingly selective in admitting new students. The end result is that a given GMAT score doesn't get you as far as it used to in B-school admissions. Thus, test takers are taking the GMAT more seriously than ever before; they're studying harder, and therefore scoring higher.

Another factor contributing to the trend toward higher GMAT scores is that, since the introduction of the computer-adaptive GMAT in October of 1997, test takers can take the GMAT any month of the year, as many as a dozen times a year, rather than only four times per year — as was the case when the GMAT was offered as a paper-based test. Repeat test takers tend to score higher than first-time test takers, and with year-round availability of the GMAT there are more repeat test takers.

Since the current testing system has been in place for well over a decade, it's safe to conjecture that these performance trends have leveled off by now. Nevertheless, test takers' percentile rankings for each exam section are adjusted yearly to account for performance trends among the overall testing population.

Q: How do the B-schools process GMAT scores of applicants who have repeated the test?

A: First of all, every score from the last five years is included in your score report and provided to the B-schools to whom you direct your report. Scores dating back more than five years drop off your score report.

Each B-school establishes its own policy for processing multiple GMAT scores. The most common policy is to average multiple scores. (Scores for each exam section are each averaged separately.) A minority of schools will disregard all but your highest scores. (Again, scores for each exam section are each considered separately.) A few schools have adopted a hybrid approach, whereby they average scores from multiple tests unless there is a large enough discrepancy between scores — in which case they look only at your highest score.

Q: What do B-school policies regarding multiple GMAT scores suggest in terms of application strategies — whether and how often to repeat the test? What else should a test taker consider in deciding whether to repeat the test?

A: Before identifying the factors that should enter into your decision, let's identify a couple of factors that definitely should not influence that decision. First, keep in mind that B-schools don't frown on repeat test takers. In other words, you won't be penalized merely because you've repeated the test. Secondly, take any advice you receive from others through online discussion forums with a grain of salt — these people don't know you or your specific circumstances.

The chief consideration in deciding whether to repeat the GMAT is that a significant percentage of test takers improve their combined Quantitative-Verbal score by repeating the test. This doesn't mean, however, that every GMAT test taker should repeat the test. Other factors should influence your decision as well. Perhaps you prepared diligently for the exam, during which your concentration and your pace were both good, you felt alert and clear in your thinking, and you had time to consider all questions on the three multiple-choice sections without panicking or rushing. If so, think twice about repeating the exam; you run a real risk of sabotaging yourself by performing worse the next time around — especially if you're applying to schools that average multiple GMAT scores.

Many test takers hold unrealistic expectations in terms of their GMAT scores. It's understandable that you might want to gain admission to a top-tier B-school, which will require very high GMAT scores. But don't base your decision about whether to repeat the test on the admission standards of your first-choice school. Instead, focus on whether you performed as well as you can realistically expect, given your innate cognitive abilities and your English-language skills.

Q: How do you know if you've performed just about as well as you can reasonably expect on the GMAT? What's the best way to measure your performance against your potential?

A: Prior to taking the actual GMAT, you should take several full-length practice tests under simulated exam conditions. This advice might seem obvious, but many, many test takers fail to follow this advice strictly. They'll take one exam section now, then another later. Or they'll cheat a bit on the time limit during a section. Or they'll take practice tests at the time of day they function best — even if it isn't the same time they'll be taking the real exam. Without a true GMAT simulation, you really can't gauge whether you performed optimally on the actual test.

This advice assumes, of course, that your practice tests actually simulate the style and difficulty level of the real GMAT. Much of the online discussion at the various GMAT forums centers around this issue — specifically, what books and software products do the best job at simulating the real test.

Q: Helping you decide whether to repeat the test isn't the only reason to take practice tests under simulated exam conditions, right?

A: Of course not. Obviously, by taking practice tests you hone your skills, find your optimal pace, build up endurance, and so forth. Another good reason to take simulated exams is that doing so will help you decide whether to cancel your scores immediately after the test. When you finish the GMAT, the computerized testing system will ask you to decide whether to cancel your scores or to see them immediately. (You'll be given five minutes to decide, and you should use that time to compose yourself, gather your thoughts, and reflect a bit on your performance.) Note that canceling your scores is an all-or-nothing option; in other words, you can't elect to cancel fewer than all of your scores.

Once you elect to see your scores, you forfeit the opportunity to cancel them, and they automatically go on your GMAT score report. The more experience you've already had with practice tests, the better you can gauge whether you've performed optimally on the real test — and whether you should cancel your scores.

Q: So is taking practice tests the best way to prepare for the GMAT?

A: Simulated testing should be an integral part of GMAT prep — no doubt about it. But to optimize your score you'll also need to identify your weak areas within each test section, and strive to improve your performance in those areas. Remember: your GMAT score for each section depends in part on the breadth of cognitive abilities measured among the questions you've answered correctly.

Taking full-length practice tests will help you identify your weak areas. But to improve in those areas you should focus on building skills rather than on rote practice. Most online and brick-and-mortar bookstores offer a variety of workbooks targeted at specific areas of the GMAT.

Besides, placing undue emphasis on practice-test scores can easily result in performance anxiety, which can be counterproductive. Instead of obsessing about scores, you should focus on what you can realistically do before exam day to improve the skills needed to better those scores.

Q: If you're reasonably sure your GMAT scores are as high as they're going to get, but not high enough to get into your first-choice B-school, is there anything you can you do in the way of damage control on your application for admission?

A: Any B-school admissions officer would agree that you should refrain from apologizing for or otherwise explaining a low GMAT score. Calling attention to your weaknesses won't help your case; its bad salesmanship. A better approach is to call attention to the highest among your AWA, Quantitative, Verbal and Integrated Reasoning scores, in terms of percentile rank, and then present yourself throughout your application as particularly keen in that skill area.

Another idea is to look carefully at the admissions criteria of the schools you're interested in, to see which ones focus less on the numerical data (particularly GMAT scores) and instead take a holistic approach toward the admissions decision. There's a strong trend in this direction anyway, as schools are beginning to acknowledge that other intelligences, such as leadership and other interpersonal skills, have just as much bearing on success after B-school as your performance on one half-day standardized exam.