Can a Low GMAT Score Kill Your B-School Dreams?

Why your GMAT score is important, and what it tells MBA admissions people about you

For many MBA applicants, the GMAT can be an intense source of stress. Especially if you've been out of school for a few years, it's probably been a while since you applied geometric or algebraic concepts, or had to write an essay in under 30 minutes.

However, according to many MBA admissions people, the GMAT is a very important part of the overall application process. According to Yvonne Li, director of MBA admissions at CEIBS in Shanghai, a GMAT score can provide an admissions committee with a range of indicators about a potential MBA student's skills, as well as his or her overall fit with the school. 

“It helps in assessing candidates' capacity for learning, whether they are logical and analytical in their thinking, and their English proficiency,” says Li.

A GMAT score can also help a business school understand if an MBA candidate is up-to-par when it comes to quantitative skills, which can be a big part of the business school experience.

“Because our program is rooted deeply in analytics, a student's ability to process and solve complex problems is important,” says Kelly Wilson, the executive director of masters admissions at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

“So the GMAT is an important indicator for us, but it's only one indicator across the entire application.” 

Should you take the GMAT or the GRE?

Other parts of an application can help show a business school that you have the quant skills it takes to do an MBA program. If a GMAT score indicates that a candidate's quantitative ability may not be strong, then the Tepper admissions staff will look to other parts of the candidate's profile to find evidence of quant skills. 

“I'm going to look at an application to see what are the quantitative courses that you've taken, and how well did you do in those courses,” says Wilson. “I can't stress enough that it's a holistic process, so there's not one component that would stand on its own, it's really the entire picture that is most important.”

Likewise, Pejay Belland, INSEAD's director of marketing, admissions and financial aid for degree programs, says that beyond a GMAT score and academic experience, there are a number of factors that go into an MBA admissions decision. 

“Of course we equally consider professional background, international motivation and ability to contribute to the program,” she says.

The middle 80 percent

So, how low is too low? Interestingly, many business schools, including Tepper and INSEAD, do not have a minimum cut-off where a GMAT score is officially too low to be considered. But by and large, most MBA admissions staff agree that a competitive candidate is one whose GMAT score falls within the school's middle 80 percent range of scores – referring to the scores that the majority of admitted schools tend to get. For instance, the middle 80 percent range of admitted MBA students at Tepper is 630 to 750. 

“Those are the people that have been successful in joining the program,” says Kelly Wilson.

“Now, having said that, ten percent of the students in the class score above that range, and ten percent score below that range,” and that “if someone has a score that's below that, other parts of the application we would look to be a little stronger to balance.”

CEIBS' Yvonne Li would agree. The CEIBS's middle 80 percent GMAT score range has been 640-740, and if an applicant's hasn't reached 640, “the applicant needs to prove he is above average in other aspects.”

Use FIND MBA's Advanced Program Search to find MBA programs by average GMAT

Middle 80 percent GMAT scores can vary depending on business school. At Pennsylvania State's Smeal College of Business, for example, the 80 percent range of the most recent MBA class was 680-760; at Wharton it's 690-760; and at Ohio State's Fisher's College of Business it's 600-720.

Should I retake the GMAT?

If your GMAT score is lower than the middle 80 percent range for the business schools that you're looking at, an important question to ask yourself is whether or not you should retake the test. According to MBA admissions staff, in some cases, it can help. 

“If a candidate has an excellent profile except for the GMAT, then we may encourage an applicant to reapply if they are able to improve their score,” according to INSEAD's Pejay Belland. 

According to Tepper's Kelly Wilson, retaking the GMAT might be beneficial for some students with lower-than-average scores, who feel that they could do better on the test. 

“There is never a point where I will tell somebody 'you have to re-take the test,'” she says, “but if when they took the exam, they felt like they could have prepared differently, or they feel that they in some way they didn't perform up to their own expectations, then they may want to consider retaking the test.”

Additional information about the GMAT

  • The middle 80 percent ranges or average GMAT scores of recent MBA cohorts can sometimes be found on business school websites
  • There are alternatives to the GMAT. Many schools now accept the GRE, and some business schools, like CEIBS, allow candidates to take school-specific tests
  • There are a wide range of GMAT test preparation options, from practices tests to study books, as well as class-based and one-on-one tutoring.

Photo: M. Filtz

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