GMATs and GPAs: Behind the Numbers

One of the greatest myths surround the MBA application process is related to misconceptions of what a top business school considers in giving you a thumbs up or thumbs down. Applicants often ask me what is the single most important criteria to get in the door. The short answer: there is no single most important anything.

Top business schools evaluate candidates across three core areas:

· Academic ability/intellectual aptitude.

· Leadership impact/managerial potential.

· Uniqueness (diverse experiences and perspectives, differentiated personal characteristics).

Ideally, candidates need to be strong in all three areas. Given an extremely competitive admissions landscape, the stronger you are in academic ability, leadership impact and uniqueness, the better your chance of being admitted. That said, the very first hurdle that can also be the most difficult is raw intellectual ability. You can probably do something about leadership impact and even uniqueness, but if you don’t have the intellectual aptitude you’re out of luck.

The curriculum at MBA programs is challenging. Whether candidates can handle the rigor of an MBA program is assessed in two ways: your score on the Graduate Management Admission Test and your undergraduate transcript. Admission directors know that the single best indicator of academic success for a candidate is his or her GMAT score and undergraduate GPA.

The GMAT is the entrance exam required by all top, full-time business schools in the U.S. A recent trend has emerged with several prestige business schools, Stanford, Harvard, NYU, and MIT, giving applicants the choice to submit either the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) score or the GMAT. In any case, the GMAT was once a paper-and-pencil exam. Now it’s primarily a computer-administered test that is adaptive in nature: the computer generates questions based on your skill level and your performance on previous questions.

After a candidate takes the GMAT, the score is active for up to five years, so it’s important to take the exam as early as possible. The test itself is administered six days a week, with the exception of holidays. Applicants can take the test up to five times in an academic year, waiting 31 days between exams. Business schools do not penalize candidates for taking the exam more than once. In fact, they accept the highest score (check with your school to make sure that this is still applicable).

Candidates who are unhappy with their results the first time should definitely retake the exam. Two or three times are acceptable. The fifth and sixth time may be overkill. The important thing here is to invest in adequate preparation ahead of time to avoid having to take the exam too many times. If your score doesn’t improve after retaking the GMAT two to three times, I personally feel it is more effective for you to focus on other parts of the application where you may have greater control in shaping your “story.”

Avoid taking the exam too close to the admissions deadline. I know candidates who have scored unexpectedly poorly on the first GMAT, and because of the 31-day waiting period between exams, they missed applying within the first round. Also, remember that the GMAT test itself is not cheap. Each exam costs $250, so it is to your advantage to fully prepare.

I’m often asked about the ideal GMAT score. The truth is that there is no magic number to guarantee admission. MBA programs often state that they do not have minimum GMAT scores or cutoff requirements for admission. Although this is true, a GMAT of 500 will not earn anyone a spot at Dartmouth or any other top 10 business school where the average GMAT scores of accepted applicants are usually above 700. In fact, average GMAT scores of those who get into the best programs has never been higher. Successful candidates to Dartmouth’s Tuck School, for instance, had an average GMAT score of 648 back in 1988. For the MBA class that will graduate in 2011, the average score hit 712. So the expectations on GMAT scores are rising. On the other hand, a perfect GMAT score of 800 won’t guarantee a candidate admission to a top MBA program, either.

Even so, getting a strong score can keep you in the running for a coveted admission spot, while a mediocre score can end your aspirations to attend one of the best programs. If your score is significantly below that of the median, 640 compared with 706, for example, you should postpone your application to the next round and devote more time and resources to improving your score.

The GMAT score is made up of three components: the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), the Verbal Section, and the Quantitative Section. The AWA is made up of two essays, one on argument analysis and the other on issue analysis. You will be given 30 minutes for each essay. The overall GMAT score ranges from 200 to 800, representing performance in two areas: verbal and quantitative. The verbal section is made up of 41 multiple-choice questions that include sentence correction, critical reasoning, and reading comprehension. The quantitative section is composed of 37 multiple-choice questions covering data sufficiency and problem solving. You will have 75 minutes to complete the verbal section and another 75 minutes to finish up the quantitative section.

In addition to the raw number ascribed to each section, there is a percentile figure associated with it. Admission boards pay very close attention to both of these percentile figures. So not only is it essential to have a strong overall score and percentile, it is also important to perform strongly across both sections.

Consider Chad, an applicant to a top school. He has an overall GMAT score of 740, which puts him into the 97th percentile of test takers. After looking at Chad’s overall score, an admissions official will check to make sure there are no issues between his verbal and quant scores. In Chad’s case, he scored a 42 verbal score, putting him in the 95th percentile, and a 49 on the quantitative section, placing him in the 90th percentile. Clearly, he is a very competitive candidate on the numbers. At a minimum, MBA applicants should aim to score above the 80 percent mark on both of these sections. A weak showing on either the verbal or quant section can raise red flags for admissions. An international candidate, for example, who has a 99 percent in the quant section but only a 60 percent in the verbal will surely face questions concerning his or her verbal abilities.

The AWA ranges from 0 to 6, with six being the highest scores. AWA scores of 4.5 and above are considered fine. A high AWA of 5.5 will rarely earn the applicant any major points. However, a low score of 3.5 or less will raise questions regarding a candidate’s writing ability. Although important, the AWA has traditionally been the least scrutinized component of the GMAT at most top business schools.

The first port of call for applicants who are preparing for the GMAT is MBA.com (www.mba.com). This is the official GMAT website and it provides great resources related to the exam, preparing for the application, and MBA program search. Another equally useful resource is Beat The GMAT (www.beatthegmat.com) which is an online portal that brings test prep, admission consultants, and applicants together for the exchange of critical application tips.

The college transcript, meantime, is just as important because they reveal academic performance over a period of time. Someone with an overall GPA of 3.5 who has straight-A grades in the first three years and C and D grades their last year can raise major flags for an admissions staff. Equally problematic are situations where the candidate’s academic performance is like a roller coaster where they perform well in one year and poorly the second year. One thing is for sure, finishing weak is one of the hardest issues to overcome. Therefore, MBA candidates should avoid having their weakest grades in their last year of college. It is easier to explain away a weak start than a weak end.

Admissions staff also takes into account the rigor of your academic experience when evaluating your transcript. No school wants to admit a candidate who could flunk out of an MBA program. So your undergraduate transcript is carefully scrutinized to ensure that you’ve taken a challenging academic program and performed well. The GPA of each candidate provides an MBA admissions board with a general sense of how the applicant has handled academic challenges; this is then used to extrapolate how the applicant will perform in business school. A strong GPA enables admissions to answer the question: “Can this candidate cut it academically?”

A school also goes beyond GPA. It reviews the major and academic strength of your undergraduate school as well. Admissions staff recognizes that some majors, such as physics or computer engineering, may typically offer fewer 4.0 GPAs than less rigorous majors. The admissions staff also is aware of the significant differences that exist between schools when it comes to grading. Some schools are known for grade inflation, others are known for their tough grading policy. As a result, a good business school will be sensitive in evaluating a 3.0 GPA from a school with little grade inflation versus a 3.7 GPA from a school where a significant proportion of the students earn high grades.

Successful candidates do not fall within prescribed categories or profiles. Rather, they have understood the admissions criteria and have successfully presented their own unique experiences to show how they will create value to the MBA program. The good news is that most of your competition is not perfect. They have gaps or weaknesses that they have to address as well. It could be weaker GMAT scores or GPAs, lack of exemplary leadership, or a vague sense of their personal brand. Investing time in assessing and addressing any gaps that exist in your application will strengthen your chance of getting into the school of your choice.

Chioma Isiadinso is the author of “The Best Business School Admissions Secrets” and the founding CEO of EXPARTUS, a global admissions consulting company. She has more than ten years of admissions experience and is a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management.

About the Author...

Chioma Isiadinso

Chioma Isiadinso is the author of “The Best Business School Admissions Secrets” and the founding CEO of EXPARTUS, a global admissions consulting company. She has more than twelveen years of admissions experience and is a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management.

  • james

    Hi. I’m applying round 2 this year to a number of top schools. I’m actually a re-applicant, applied back in 2008 but got rejected. I would really appreciate advice on my situation.

    I was a double major in history and philosophy at an ivy league school. I know it’s not science or engineering, but i took a lot of challenging upper-level courses that required reading lots of difficult material and writing papers. I had a 3.44 overall GPA before my final semester of college, but that last semester, I totally nosedived due to personal issues and general immaturity. I ended up earning straight C’s, and my cumulative went down to a 3.23. This obviously does not look good since it’s a sharp downward trend. Is it best that I address this in the optional essay? How should I approach this?

    I am currently taking 2 math and stat courses through UCLA extension to demonstrate my quant skills and hopefully provide an alternative transcript with solid A’s. Will also be retaking the GMAT to raise my quant. First score was 700 (93% verbal and 78% quant).