The Biggest MBA Application Killer

A new survey of B-school admissions officers shows that a low GMAT or GRE score is the single biggest reason why business schools ding MBA applicants.

The survey, published today (Dec. 2) by Kaplan Test Prep, found that 48% of some 288 responding admissions staffers said that a weak score on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is the biggest application killer. A low undergraduate GPA placed second at 33%, while the lack of relevant work experience followed at just 10%.

While the finding is of little surprise to most business school observers, most admissions officials tend to downplay the importance of any one piece of the MBA application. The Kaplan report, which includes responses from the admissions offices of 22 of the top 30 U.S. business schools, confirms that an applicant’s GMAT or GRE score far outweighs consideration of any other factor in a candidate’s chances.

One likely reason for the GMAT or GRE’s outsized importance is that it is a recent objective measure of an applicant’s ability to tackle the academics of an MBA program. Another likely reason is that an entering class’s average GMAT score is heavily weighted in rankings of  business schools by U.S. News & World Report, The Financial Times, and The Economist. So some admissions offices often are under pressure to keep those scores as high as possible. The poll was conducted by phone in July and August of this year.

Surprisingly, admissions officials also told Kaplan that they expect an increase in the number of applicants to business schools for the current cycle. About 78% of the responding admissions staffers said that getting into business school will become increasingly competitive due to their expectations of greater number of applicants. This result stands in contrast to a recent prediction by the head of admissions at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business who is forecasting a 10% decline in applications this season.


The study also found that a far larger number of business schools are now accepting GRE scores instead of the GMAT. Kaplan said 39% of the 288 schools surveyed now allow applicants to submit a GRE score, compared to 24% last year. A quarter of the schools that still accept only a GMAT result told Kaplan that they have plans to consider accepting the GRE in the future.

The vast majority of MBAs take the slightly more expensive GMAT exam, which is exclusively designed for graduate business school applicants. But in the past three years, the GRE has been marketed to the business school community as a viable alternative. The general argument is that taking the GRE provides a candidate with greater options because other master’s programs accept the standardized exam. Many of the top business schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Columbia, now accept both the GRE and the GMAT.


Kaplan found that 65% of the responding admissions officials who accept scores from either test say there is no advantage to applicants submitting one over the other. About 32% of the officials, however, told Kaplan that applicants who submit GMAT scores have an advantage over those who send in a GRE result. Of the business programs that accept the GRE, 69% report that fewer than one in 10 applicants actually submitted a GRE score instead of a GMAT score this past admissions cycle.

“While the GRE is gaining acceptance among business schools, it’s still fairly new to the MBA admissions process and programs are not in a hurry to embrace it due to its lack of history in predicting business school performance,” said Liza Weale, Kaplan’s executive director of pre-business and graduate programs, in a statement. “But there’s currently a bit of an arms race between the two tests, with both making changes to be more reflective of the critical thinking necessary in business school.”

The GRE, administered by Educational Testing Service, is rolling out significant changes to its content, design, scoring and format next August, while the GMAT is adding a new integrated reasoning section in June of 2012. To introduce the newly revised GRE, ETS will be offering the test at a 50% discount for a two-month period starting in August. It currently costs $250 to take the GMAT, while the GRE costs $160 in the U.S.

Kaplan found that 47% of admissions officers have a neutral view about the upcoming changes by GMAT, while 31% consider it a positive development. Some 42% don’t think the new section—which is meant to measure examinees’ data analysis and balanced decision-making skills—will make the exam any harder. About 21% of the responding admissions officials think it will make the GMAT more difficult. Kaplan apparently did not ask the respondents about the upcoming changes in the GRE.

  • Is anybody else not surprised that “lack of work experience” was not listed as the main dinger at a T30?

    In any given entering class at a top business school you will be lucky to find 1 or 2 people with 0-1 year of work experience, whereas there will be PLENTY of people with sub-700, or even sub-650 GMAT scores.

    An example:

    An applicant with three years of solid work experience with a big bank, one of those years in management, a 3.6 in college, and a 690 GMAT is a crapshoot anywhere, but is going to be thoughtfully considered.

    An applicant with ZERO work experience, a 4.0 in college, and a 790 GMAT is a STELLAR hiring prospect, but an EASY ding at a top b-school.

  • John,

    Candidates from certain applicant pools (like Indian candidates) face a peculiar situation.

    A low GMAT score definitely raises eyebrows. But a high score doesn’t necessarily help tilt the scales the other way. The dreaded ‘D’ word (differentiation) becomes all the more important for Indian applicants with high scores to stand out of the crowd. But ironically, the GMAT still gets a whole lot of attention within this pool as well.

    – Sameer
    MBA Crystal Ball

  • I’ve asked to see the survey instrument but haven’t heard back from Kaplan on that request. I would presume, however, that the survey didn’t get into the detail of the importance of one section of the GMAT or GRE over another.

  • Shashank

    Hi JTBB. Makes sense. That has already got me into trouble resulting in an average verbal score! Nonetheless, I continue to persist with my applications!
    John, out of curiosity, does the survey also include other parameters of a GMAT score? Factors like an exceptionally high quant score or an exceptionally low verbal score? Then again judging GMAT scores does not become as objectiveas one would hope!

  • No because Kaplan is simply reporting the results of its survey of business school admissions officers. But you’re making a very good point nonetheless. This finding is certainly in the interests of a test prep company because it elevates the importance of both the GMAT and the GRE in the application process.

  • Bob Jones

    Do you guys question the validity of this report which has been conducted by a test prep company? Obviously they want you to believe that test scores are the most important part of your application.

  • John d

    I am in a MBA program right now. If I have had to take a test twenty years removed from undergraduate school, I would have told them hell NO! Tests are for nineteen-year-old, snot-nosed kids! My work experience should be sufficient. If that means I don’t receive a MBA from a university that has its nose in the air, so be it! That is the trouble with the academic world.

  • Tyler

    Story of my academic life.. I have the experience, cash and network of contacts, but I don’t have the GPA/GMAT scores. So, I won’t get an MBA anytime soon even though I want one. So, I bought a commercial lease property below tax value, and took some calc & econ courses as a post-bac’er instead.

    My success came from being tri-lingual, make quick meetings, and holding a security clearance, but many employers still want the paper on the wall. I know I’m not the only one in this little predicament. MBA is like learning Latin in the middle ages just to get an apprenticeship that doesn’t require Latin.

  • jtbb

    It’s really simple. This article is about “application killers”; you’ve taken that and started thinking about what it’s necessary to GET IN. That’s not what the article is about. Careful to take too many leaps in your own reasoning – that tends to get people on the GMAT Verbal!

  • Thanks Scott for your point of view. That’s an informed and thoughtful response. You can’t say it any clearer: “One reason the GMAT/GRE score is such a candidacy killer is that it’s so easy to judge at a glance.”

  • One reason the GMAT/GRE score is such a candidacy killer is that it’s so easy to judge at a glance. Admissions officers tell the truth when they say that no single part of one’s application matters way more than any other, but it’s simply too easy for them to spot a low score (and then move on to the next application) for them not to do it.

    All of the other parts of an app — essays, letters of recommendation, data sheets — really are important, but they don’t allow for the easy, almost instantaneous “apples to apples” comparison that GMAT scores allow for. Even undergrad transcripts, which probably come closest to GMAT scores in allowing clean comparisons of applicants, are still much too complicated for an admissions officers to make an immediate decision on them. What’s “better,” a 3.8 in English from Amherst or a 3.6 in mechanical engineering from Berkeley? You need to keep digging to really judge one way or the other.

    So, I believe many people are misinterpreting these results. It’s true that many applicants’ candidacies die as soon as admissions officers spot their low scores, but that doesn’t mean that the GMAT score is the most important part. It’s just such an easy first screening mechanism that it’s going to catch more “duds” in the applicant pool than any other part of the application.

    Admissions officers at top-ranked schools really do try to look at the whole application for every applicant, but how closely do you think they read an app after seeing that a candidate has a 560 GMAT score?

  • Shashank

    Hi John,

    I agree with you when you say that the GMAT score is the single best predictor of your success in a B-School. But I refuse to believe that above a certain score (let’s say 680-700), the score continues to remain much of a factor. It’s the other parameters that then come into the picture. Hence, the score isn’t much of an indicator. It’s probably just another statistic.

  • Vishal, That’s a good question. I’ll ask Kaplan for you and get back. I would be surprised if they were not included. Evaluating an essay, an interview, or work experience, for that matter, is far more subjective. A GMAT or GRE score is an objective fact and the single best predictor of your ability to do graduate work and not flunk out. So it’s not really too surprising that it is that important.

  • Vishal Rana

    Hi John,

    Were factors like ‘Quality and relevance of Admission Essays’ and ‘Interviews’ included in this survey?
    I doubt. It’s extremely hard to believe that good colleges, specially top 15, would focus more on GMAT scores and less on Essays and Interviews..!