How To Overcome A Low GMAT Score

by John A. Byrne on

This year, an MBA applicant to Harvard Business School won acceptance with a GMAT score of 490. At Stanford, a newly enrolled MBA candidate had a 530 GMAT, while at Wharton, someone sneaked through with a GMAT of 560.

Those scores are the lowest reported in the rather vague GMAT ranges published by the business schools. But who actually gets into a top ranked MBA program with a GMAT that is, in Harvard’s case, 240 points below the school’s median GMAT of 730?

The answer, according to admission officials and consultants, is a highly exceptional applicant–with just one exception: a lousy GMAT score.

First, some perspective: A score of 490 is in the 32nd percentile at a time when the median GMAT for enrolled students at Harvard is in the 96th percentile. It’s decidedly well below the 544 average score and there are some schools that would immediately toss the application in the rejection pile.

Oddly, in some cases, it may be easier to get into a top school than a second-tier MBA program. That’s because second-tier schools can be more sensitive about low GMAT scores because they take down the reported averages that sometimes are counted in MBA rankings, such the annual list compiled by U.S. News & World Report. Some consultants are now recommending that applicants take the GRE if they have a very low GMAT score. The theory is that U.S. News does not request GRE scores so taking an applicant with a weak GRE result can’t hurt a school’s standing in such lists.

Regardless, if you’re stuck with a low GMAT score, it’s no easy ride. The reality is that getting into a top school with a low score is still the exception, not the norm.  “I would say admission has gotten tougher today than a few years ago for low GMAT admits,” says Chimoa Isiadinso, former assistant director of admissions at Harvard Business school who now runs EXPARTUS, an admissions consulting firm.

“At HBS, there were cases of candidates who have lower-than-average GMATs but get in. But looking at the GMAT score alone misses the point,” she says. “Schools do look at the whole profile of the candidate: academics, leadership, and uniqueness defined as what new or different perspective they will bring to the class. In the case of the guy at HBS who had less than a 600 GMAT and got in, everything else about him was incredible. He had excellent academics at a rigorous and selective university, tons of leadership at work plus leadership in his community involvement plus his recommenders truly raved about him and had tons of examples to reinforce the perspective that he was an outstanding candidate. His low GMAT essentially was an outlier.”

What do applicants who win admission to top schools share in common? “A fierce refusal to allow a set of numbers define who they are and what they can or cannot do – at B-school and beyond,” says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange, a Chicago-based MBA admissions consultancy. “They hear “no” repeatedly, but they just won’t believe it or accept it.”

How are they able to convince admission officers to accept them? They tend to isolate the GMAT as an aberration. “They provide hard evidence of achievement and excellence in every other aspect of his or her life,” adds Bauer. They build and sustain genuine, one-on-one relationships with decision makers at the B-schools. They craft deeply personal essays that leap off the page, grab the reader’s heart, and make it impossible to reject without actually meeting the person behind the app.”

While the 490 score in this fall’s entering class at Harvard is stunningly low, it’s not the lowest successful B-school candidate Bauer has seen. His firm, for example, helped a Wall Street analyst gain admission to a top-10 Ivy League business school despite a 410 GMAT after taking the exam five separate times. Making it even more difficult, the candidate had a modest 3.0 GPA in a non-quant undergrad major.

However, says Bauer, “he was an overachiever in every other aspect of his life, but learning abilities made the GMAT an insurmountable challenge. Our overall strategy for him was to confront his GMAT difficulties head-on, with candor and conviction, defining his candidacy as much more than the GMAT.  More specifically, we encouraged him to: 1) provide third-party documentation of his learning disability, 2) meet with and earn the endorsement of a specialist in learning disabilities at the targeted university, 3) meet face-to-face with the MBA admissions director to tell his story in human terms, 4) produce amazing essays that focused inordinately on the “personal” and “academic” rather than the ”professional” aspects of his candidacy, and 4) persevere by reapplying after being rejected once.”

Adjusting the expectations of an applicant with a low GMAT score is a key issue. Jana Blanchette, president of Inside MBA Admissions, says her approach with low-GMAT candidates is to first look at their overall profile. “If they have a low GMAT score and unrealistic expectations – then I really push hard to lower their target schools to more realistic/target schools,” she says. “If they have a low GMAT score, but have something really impressive to compensate for the low GMAT score, then I am more willing to take them on as a client. I still like to adjust the school expectations slightly.  So instead of all stretch schools – I try to get them to get a mix of stretch (2-3 schools), reach (1-2), and maybe safety (1).”

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  • M.

    Can you do an analagous article on “Overcoming a low GPA”?

  • Alois de Novo

    The very subject of this article makes me wonder whether it wouldn’t be a good thing if all the schools (not just Harvard and Wharton) could agree with each other not to release GMAT information. Also, what were classes like at the b-schools before the rise of the magazine ratings? Is it conceivable that rankings have had a pernicious influence on the admissions process?

  • avizo

    Great article!
    I disagree about “low GMAT – you’re screwed…”. there’s a lot to do even if the GMAT is not 750. Take a look here for example:
    http://www.aringo.com/low_gmat.htm

  • Vlad

    John,

    I really liked this article, I found it very interesting and helpful. I just have one question for you: The article talks about overcoming a low GMAT score, but I’m still wondering, what (in your perception) is a low score?

    Some people tells me that it would be anything below 600, others say below 650!

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Glad,

    Very good question. If you’re aiming at a top seven or eight business school, anything under 700 would make me nervous, if you’re open minded about getting an MBA from the next 10 or so schools in rank, I think anything below 650 would be too low for any margin of comfort. So it all depends on one’s ambitions and expectations.

  • Vlad

    Thank you for your response John!

    I just took the GMAT for the first time a few days ago and scored 610 (Q37, V36), I wanted to take it again but I’m an international applicant, and thus, need to apply to schools by round two.

    I’m currently 28 years old and this feels like the perfect timing for me to enroll in an MBA program (both from the professional and personal perspectives), but I’m not willing to take the risk of enrolling in a program that will not pay back. I guess I’m trying to assess my chances of being accepted at a top business school with my 610 score, and invest the few weeks I have left in my essays rather than studying for the GMAT all over again.

    Some things about me: Currently working for a MNC in the workplace consulting field (very involved in the research of the future of work and workers), previously worked abroad for a Big 4 Firm and have a 4.0 GPA from a decent university in Mexico.

    I know this might be too much to ask, but could you please tell me what do you think would be my best option in this situation?

    Thank you in advance.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Vlad,

    I hate to tell you this (because I despise standardized exams myself), but I think you need to take the GMAT again and try to get a better score. The 610 is just too low to get into a top 15-20 school. Sure, it can be done, but you don’t want to have to overcome such a large hurdle. The work you’re doing and the 4.0 is terrific. If you can get that GMAT up into the 670-690 area, it would help a great deal. I know it’s such a hassle at this point, especially when you also need to get your essays done. But you can’t sit there with a 610 on only one try. Sorry about that.

  • Vlad

    John,

    Again, thank you for your response and honesty. I guess I need to go back to the books now and see if the second time I get a higher score.

    Regards.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Good luck, Vlad. Believe me when I say, I feel for you. I would hate to have to take that test over again.

  • Vlad

    Thank you John! I know, it is a painful process, but a necessary one.

    By the way, what are your impressions about European programs such as HEC, ESADE, IE, MBS, and IESE? I have been told that European schools put more weight on experience and other factors, than on GMAT scores.

  • Vignesh Shanker

    First of all, i would like to thank Poets and quants for shapin my GMAT prep. I jus gave the test and got a 660 (Quant – 46 and Verbal – 36). Though disappointed at not touching the 700 mark, i feel i have a shot at some of the US B schools, and this article has jus increased that belief!!! So instead of prep for a re-take, i’d be focusin on perfecting my essays. Have appended my profile below. Would be extremely grateful if someone can give a list of B schools that i can apply with the score i’ve got. Tks in advance!

    Nationality – Indian
    Background – Chartered Accountant
    Work Exp – 3.5 yrs – 3 with Ernst and Young and 6 months with a UAE Company based out of Dubai
    GPA – 3.6 (Majored in Commerce)
    Have good extra-curriculars and was the cultural secy of my college

    Also, can anyone of you tell me if i have a chance of getting thro at INSEAD or ISB, given that the cut off is 700.

  • Ron D

    Dear John,
    I have been preparing for the GMAT for some time now. My highest practice score is a 480. This exam has started to weigh really heavy on me. I am to the point where I am getting headaches from all the studying and worrying. I graduated high school in 1992. I recently graduated with a 3.61 gpa and applied to a B-School. I completed my essay and all that’s left to submit is my GMAT score. I will be taking the test in about a month and I am really concerned. I think that is even adding to the pressure. I am really comfortable during the practice sets but for some reason little details pass over me. When looking back, I can’t believe I missed the evidence in the question stem or what’s being inferred. I am to the point where I am thinking of accepting another program I applied for. Because I am so stubborn and determine, I can’t see pass not getting into B school. I currently hold a BS in computer science and business and I have been employed in Information Technology for more than 12 years. This degree took me about 15 years. I started in 1996 while I was serving in the US Armed Forces. I never wavered and completed difficult advance math classes with good grades but for some reason, the GMAT is like my worse fair partly because I know it’s the one hurdle that could complicate my chances of getting into business school. Sadly enough, I took the exam a year ago blindly and got the shocker of my life with the score. I do not want to repeat such a score and so the pressure is on. I really would welcome any advice. I am usually good with studying to the point where I dream about formulas, problems and instructions. I am not the person to shy away from a test or to give up. However, I believe my battle has just begun in my quest to B school. Thanks, RD

  • Selvam

    A GMAT score of 610 is a benchmark of mediocrity. That’s what I got.

  • Ramana Dyava

    Hi,

    My academics percentiles are below 60%, Am I eligible for ISB MBA ?

  • Ram123 Dba

    Hi,

    My academics percentiles are below 60%, Am I eligible for ISB MBA ?

     

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  • gmat no problem!

    I just took the gmat in the new format and scored a 720.  I did not perform any type of prep work and went into the test blind as far as the format.  The test is pretty easy if you remember basic algebra and geometry.  This along with some basic english skills and welcome to 700 or above.  I graduated with a 3.8 from a top university, but I am not above average.  I would say use your brain, think about every question and relax.  If you can’t score atleast a 650 go to Phoenix online as you are not cut out for a top university.  Good luck.

  • Rose

    You are nothing but an arrogant SOB, there are many people who don’t score 650 but can go to a university better than Phoenix.  Who are you to tell people what they are and not cut out for. The GMAT is not a test of intelligence, but a test of your ability to take the GMAT.  You’ll make up to the top, but your arrogance and false sense of superiority will bring you down flat on your face.

  • Aces_diamond2002

    I could not agree more. You have dumb skills, such being able to score well on a computerized test, and solid skills, such as being an amazing salesman, extraordinary interpersonal skills and an ability to network. Nor an MBA from Harvard, nor a 800 GMAT score will teach you that.

  • Nishant Shah

    my gmat score is 480 and gpa of 3.5. can any one help me out whether what i can do about this. i plan on doing mba in supply chain management and logistics. is it possible for me to get into a well reputed university?

  • BMCHI

    In my experience if you truly are a strong candidate your GMAT will not stand in the way, even at a top-tier program. I took the GMAT twice and could not get above a 560….I was devastated, I simply could not overcome that test! However, I knew I went to a top-tier undergrad B school program where I received great grades and had a strong work history, so I was hopeful that this would shine through when applying. I applied to Kellogg (my top choice), and got in. As of now I am nearly done with the program and have a 3.5GPA, and have enjoyed my experience – I did not struggle to keep up whatsoever and actually found the program to be more manageable than I had expected. I think the difference was my ability to interview well with the dean of admissions and quickly build rapport, I recall her verbalizing that I really had a ‘great interview’….and coupled with my previous academic record, I think Kellogg figured out that my GMAT score was simply an outlier…my current grades speak to this!
    So…don’t lose hope if you push that ‘score’ button on completion of the GMAT and see a score that makes you cringe….you still have a shot, just make sure you’re well rounded in other areas.

  • RahilJ

    top 25 doable…top 10 no chance.

  • Kam

    Hi BMCHI, I took the GMAT twice and got a 530 as my highest score. I struggled with the GMAT despite doing well in school and having a well-balanced impressive record outside of the GMAT. Do you think its worth me taking the GMAT a 3rd time and waiting to apply to other B-Schools. I really want to go to a top-tier school but am stuck in a road block here. Any help would be great!

  • gtr

    He said “..helped a Wall Street analyst gain admission to a top-10 Ivy League business school despite a 410 GMAT after taking the exam five separate times. Making it even more difficult, the candidate had a modest 3.0 GPA in a non-quant undergrad major.

    However, says Bauer, “he was an overachiever in every other aspect of his life, but learning abilities made the GMAT an insurmountable challenge. Our overall strategy for him was to confront his GMAT difficulties head-on, with candor and conviction, defining his candidacy as much more than the GMAT. More specifically, we encouraged him to: 1) provide third-party documentation of his learning disability, 2) meet with and earn the endorsement of a specialist in learning disabilities at the targeted university, 3) meet face-to-face with the MBA admissions director..”
    I say – Someone with a learning disability has no business pleading to get into a top MBA program. Lowers the luster of the degree.

  • Manik

    Indian school of business (ISB) is not known for its flexibility. Try to score above 700 in GMAT and apply for some other college.Good luck !!

  • Manik

    Try to raise that GMAT score to around 650 .Good luck !

  • Manik

    This statement is a benchmark of mediocrity as well !!

  • Ms. L

    “go to Phoenix online as you are not cut out for a top university. ” ?? oh boy arrogant much?. Remember what goes around comes around ..

  • Yash T

    I am in almost exactly the same situation as you are, except that I dont have your work experience. I too am stuck at a 480 in the practice test AFTER getting 530 twice in previous practice test. I am lost :(

  • Julia Smith

    Good post about GMAT it is very useful for students

    Skills for GMAT

  • Bob

    BMCHI,

    I just took the GMAT and got a 540, but feel as if I have a similar profile to yours. Would you be able to tell me a little more about your background?

  • c. pushpalatha

    I got 510 gmat score but my background is fine. I am working in tcs project doing as testing for bank of america. Got 3 appraisal certificate for my work can u help me to know whether ican get mba admission in your university or any good university in singapore please reply

  • sunny

    ISB is not premium, not so good placements as IIMs

  • modesty

    Basic idiot!! I had 410 the first time and got 760 after 2 months of personal prep. Guess what MBA I could get?? So you better shut it up with a big smlile on your lips ;)

  • Geoff Kirwan

    I say – you’re ignorant. Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett, Henry Ford, Ted Turner would all also disagree with you, as they all have various learning disabilities too. Having a disability, other than innate ignorance, is not a cap on your ability to learn, lead, or innovate.

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