David’s Corner: Low GMAT Scores

You can’t get far in any discussion of b-school admissions without someone bringing up GMAT scores. That isn’t surprising. MBAs often look at things in terms of numbers, so it makes sense that applicants would turn to a set of numbers to try to understand their admission chances. And GMAT score ranges are in fact a quick, reasonably valid way to compare the class profiles of different schools.

But things really have gone too far. People talk about GMAT scores as if they were the one thing that makes or breaks your chances of admission to an MBA program. Some applicants are so spooked that they wind up taking the test two, three, or even more times in an attempt to get the ‘right’ number for admission to their targeted schools. I hate to see people do that, especially now that the GMAT costs $250 a pop.

It’s time for reality check.

No reputable business school admits or denies applicants solely on the basis of a GMAT score. Admissions committees look at your scores in the context of all the information presented in your application. Low GMAT scores can be offset by pluses like great application stories, strong résumés, and glowing recommendation letters. High GMAT scores can be offset by negatives like poorly-constructed applicant stories that are chock-full of red flags, weak track records at school and work, lackluster recommendations — or simply by a sense that the candidate, for all his or her strengths, is a poor fit for the school.

I know for a fact that Stanford has turned down several applicants who had perfect GMAT scores. The admissions committee had no doubts about the applicants’ academic potential but thought they were poorly suited for the school. I can’t think of clearer proof that GMAT scores are not the silver bullet that some people say they are.

When someone asks me what to do about a low GMAT score, the first thing I want to know is, “What do you mean by ‘low’?”

Let’s be honest. There’s ‘low’ in the sense that your score is a bit shy of the bottom end of the GMAT range of students admitted to your targeted school last year, and there’s ‘low’ in the sense that your score would make someone laugh out loud.

If your score is the second kind of ‘low,’ your problem isn’t whether or not your GMAT performance will limit your chances of being accepted to b-school. Your problem is whether the underlying reasons for your score would sabotage your school performance even if you did get in.

But if your score is the first kind of ‘low’ — respectable, but not quite in the range that students admitted to your targeted school usually achieve — your situation may be quite different.

The diagnostic question to ask yourself is why you didn’t do better on the test. If your score genuinely reflects a shaky grasp of the skills you’ll need in b-school, you should  think about doing some remedial study and think about retaking the GMAT.

That said, my general advice is not to retake the GMAT unless you’re sure you can boost your score by at least 30 points. A smaller improvement won’t have much impact on your admissions chances, and there’s no use banging your head against the wall if you’ve genuinely hit your personal performance plateau. You’d be better off putting your time and effort into other things that can strengthen your candidacy. Remember, the GMAT is just one of several factors that admissions committees use to gauge an applicant’s academic potential, which in any event normally accounts for only 30 to 40 per cent of admissions decisions at the top schools.

But if the reason for a disappointing GMAT score is more along the lines that you hadn’t even looked at a standardized test in 5 years, or that you were working 70 hours a week when you were supposed to be studying, your admissions situation is quite different. If the rest of your application is strong – and if you can persuasively explain the circumstances surrounding your GMAT score – you might be accepted at your targeted school even without retaking the test. It’s certainly worth a try, especially if retaking the GMAT would mean putting your application off to a late round.

Your GMAT score is important enough to your admissions chances to merit a serious effort on your part to prepare for the test and ensure that you get a score that fairly reflects your intellectual abilities and aptitude. But it’s not so important that you should go thousands of dollars into debt taking prep courses, or risk getting fired because you’re using work time to do practice questions, or put the rest of your life on hold while you study for the test. And it’s certainly not so important that you should let a disappointing GMAT score keep you from applying to a program that you know is perfect for you in every way aside from the GMAT range of admitted students.

General advice is not to retake GMAT unless you’re confident you can boost your score by at least 30 points. No use “banging your head against the wall” if you’ve hit your personal plateau. There are other things you can do to boost your candidacy that may be a more efficient use of your time. GMAT is one of the factors used to gauge applicant’s ability to clear the academic qualifications hurdle. The academic qualifications normally account for 30% to 40% of the admissions decision at the top schools.