Reflections on the GMAT for the Next Generation of Applicants

As the 2010-2011 business school application cycle winds down, the next generation of applicants – or perhaps more aptly, supplicants – is preparing for their own trip through the business school application gauntlet, which usually includes taking a standardized admissions test. So, in the hopes of benefiting future test takers, I’m going to share my experiences with and thoughts on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) in the coming weeks/months; plus, it’ll distract me from anticipating who-knows-what blowing in from the Windy City next week.

This post will begin the series by setting up the GMAT in the context of the business school admissions process and emphasizing the ability of applicants to significantly improve their odds of being admitted to an MBA program by doing well on the exam. I’ll leave the debate about the GMAT v. the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)whether current standardized tests put certain groups at an unfair disadvantage and other merits or faults of standardized tests in general for another time, since the bottom line is that business schools currently value (highly) a good GMAT score, rightly or wrongly, and so should anyone who wants to be admitted.

A GMAT score is just one of many things a business school admissions committee evaluates to predict how an applicant will perform in business school, along with essays, prior academic performance, work experience, extracurricular and leadership activities, recommendations, etc., but it is an important one, for a number of reasons. Although admissions decisions supposedly involve more art than science, when an admissions committee has thousands of applications it needs to review in a short amount of time, it’s convenient to have quantitative measurements that it can use to quickly compare applications, like a GMAT score or GPA.

But, unlike a GPA, the GMAT is the only measure of all applicants that has been administered under similar conditions (e.g., exam structure, time limits, testing equipment) and has been evaluated in a consistent, reliable manner. Further, on the official score report you receive after taking the GMAT, it states that the median correlation between GMAT scores and first-year MBA grades is 0.51, compared to a median correlation of 0.28 between undergraduate GPA and first-year MBA grades. So, while the GMAT is far from a perfect predictor of first-year MBA performance, it appears to be a better predictor of MBA academic performance than undergraduate grades, which may vary among different schools, majors, teachers, etc.

Since Kellogg is nice enough to share data on the GMAT distribution of its applicants, it is pretty easy to estimate the chance of acceptance to Kellogg based solely on GMAT score. The previous link lays out the premise behind the calculations, so I’ll just show the back-of-the-envelope results (updated to reflect Kellogg’s Class Profile for 2010 Entrants, which includes data for the MMM, JD/MBA and 2-year and 1-year MBA programs):

GMAT Score Total Applicants* (a) Enrolled Students* (b) Admission Offers**
Acceptance Rate
Up to 640 699 (12%) 41 (6%) 65 9%
650-690 1340 (23%) 139 (20%) 221 16%
700-740 2796 (48%) 362 (52%) 574 21%
750-800 932 (16%) 160 (23%) 254 27%

*Total applications and enrolled students are 5,826 and 697, respectively, but differences between those numbers and the column totals above are due to rounding errors
**Uses 19% as the total acceptance rate (i.e., 0.19 * 5,826 total applications = 1,106 total acceptances) and assumes an even yield across GMAT scores (i.e., b/c)

As you might expect, the higher your score, the higher your chances of being admitted (and the table above likely understates those chances for the highest scores). While the reason that applicants with a higher GMAT score appear to have a better chance of admittance might be because they tend to have better undergraduate grades or other selling points, let’s just say it’s probably better to be in the range of GMAT scores that has the highest acceptance rate. It’s also not a stretch to think this plays out similarly at other top schools as well, where the average GMAT scores of applicants often exceed 700.

Particularly for those applicants that are applying in the upcoming application cycle, the GMAT is one of the few remaining aspects of their application under their control – by now, grades, work experience and extracurricular activities are largely set (although it is important to note that the way they are described in an application is up to the applicant). Fortunately, the GMAT is a test that can definitely be improved on, given the right mindset and study plan. And, by planning early, it allows the focus to be on putting together a compelling application package later.

Although different strategies work for different people, hopefully the way I came up with mine and the various considerations I looked at will help others make the decisions that work best for them, leading to a better GMAT score. In the meantime, on a completely unrelated note, I leave you with these thoughts, courtesy of Mr. Edwin Starr: YouTube link.

This post is adapted from Just Ship, a blog written by an anonymous MBA applicant who has a GMAT score above 760 and is targeting six or seven of the top ten business schools. You can read all of his posts at Just Ship.

“Just One of 4,653 Applicants Trying To Get Into A Top B-School”

“Why I’m Not Applying to Harvard Business School”

“The Deafening Silence Is Broken: An Invitation to Interview from NYU’s Stern School”

“Why An Applicant Interview Requires A Different State of Mind”

“All Is Quiet on the MIT Sloan Front”

“A ‘Yes” from NYU Stern. A ‘No’ from MIT Sloan”

“Kellogg Gets His (Likely) Final Application”

“A Rejection from Columbia B-School”

“Prepping for a Kellogg Interview”

“Doing the Analysis on the Pros & Cons of Going to B-School”

“The Road Not Yet Taken & What Motivated Me To Apply to B-School”

“Waiting for An Invite from Chicago’s Booth School of Business”

“In the Nick of Time: An Invite from Chicago Booth to Interview”

“The End Is Near”

“Two Years of Hands-On Work Experience or Two Years at Stern?”