Why You Don’t Deserve A 700 On Your GMAT

by Brian Galvin on

Woody Allen is famous for saying that 80% of success in life is just showing up. If, as many would agree, that’s true, then the GMAT is the other 20%. Where this creates problems for many test-takers is that up until your mid-twenties it’s entirely possible to be considered successful by simply having shown up. You had perfect attendance. You did all your homework. You completed extra credit assignments and showed all your work for partial credit so that you got Bs and even As even when you didn’t really understand the material from that chapter. You attended review sessions and dutifully studied the notes from them. You showed up early in a freshly pressed suit for your job interview, then sent a thank-you email afterward. You attended your boss’s daughter’s baptism or bat mitzvah and went back to the office to finish a project.  You’ve always shown up with enthusiasm and responsibility. You are a success in the realm of mid-twenties young professionals.

You do not deserve a 700 on the GMAT.

Now, that may sound unduly harsh and in a way it is. That should actually read “you do not necessarily deserve a 700 on the GMAT.” But you should know this: by far the vast majority of GMAT test-takers fit the description in that paragraph above. They’ve always shown up, and they’ve gotten mostly As and Bs their entire lives. They’ve all been to college and done well enough there that they believe a graduate business degree is a wise investment of time and money. And only 10% of them score 700 or better.

The GMAT isn’t a proficiency test; it’s a separation mechanism.

If it were easy to score in the 700s, the GMAT would lose its value to business schools. Its job is to take the herd of already-successful applicants and provide a metric to sort them. The GMAT is only one dimension of your application, but it’s an important one – it reliably* sorts applicants by their higher-order reasoning abilities and tells business schools which are the most likely to come to campus prepared with the reasoning abilities that it takes to succeed in and beyond an MBA program. (*”reliably” is a subjective term, but admissions offices maintain that the GMAT is the single greatest predictive factor of first-year core course success, so admissions offices highly value the GMAT score) This is one test that cannot reward you for showing up, for simply studying your flash cards or going through practice questions. The GMAT must necessarily be difficult, and that top 10% bar must necessarily be high.

The Graduate Management Admissions Council used the term “Next-Generation” quite a bit this spring to advertise the new-and-improved GMAT test and its Integrated Reasoning section, but in a way “Next-Generation” is the best way to describe the GMAT as a whole.  It’s a test beyond college – it’s a lot like the scouting combine before the entry draft for a professional sports league. The GMAT is a step “from college to the pros” – it’s a next-level test.  And so it bears repeating:

You do not (necessarily) deserve a 700 on the GMAT.

So now that we’ve accomplished the Tough Love portion of this article, let’s discuss what this means for you:

1) The competitive standard for quantitative skills is high.

Many students lament that they haven’t taken math in several years, and that they worry because they got by on partial and extra credit in high school. How will they succeed on the GMAT quant section? The answer isn’t necessarily a friendly one, but it’s true – they’ll succeed by getting up to speed on most of those math skills. And here’s the double-edged silver lining: the GMAT tests essentially 6th to 10th grade math.

If you’re struggling with the math it might sting to hear that, but the upside of it is this: the pure math skills required to succeed on the GMAT aren’t much different from the pure math skills required to get a GED. It’s just that there aren’t many easy shortcuts – the GMAT isn’t a cram-and-regurgitate test, so you need to understand and be comfortable with algebra and fundamental geometry. “Hoping to remember” is too low a standard for success on the GMAT – if you’re cramming the Pythagorean Theorem and Difference of Squares equations from your flashcards the night before the GMAT, your fate (at least with regard to 700) is pretty much assured. You need to replace “hoping to remember” algebraic principles with “ready to use” them. The quantitative section is competitive, so if the top 10% is your goal you have to be above average with the core math skills to even stand a chance.

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  • Roger

    Sorry but 700 is a very low bar for top schools. In fact I consider 700 to be a very mediocre score.

  • DD

    Roger, your statement is objectively not true. How can a 700 be a mediocre score if +/- 90% of test takers score worse than that? And it isn’t like GMAT test takers are a random sampling of the population. They’ve all paid $250 to take the test, most have paid hundreds more for prep materials, and nearly all have studied for dozens of hours to take the exam.
    Futhermore, a score of 700 is in the middle 80% range for ALL b-schools, including the top schools. By definition, then, a 700 is not “a very low bar” for top schools.
    So despite your personal “considerations,” a 700 is an excellent score that will put a candidate in range at any b-school.

  • Sassafras

    Yes, but at many of the top schools, 70% of accepted applicants have 700 or higher. It’s both top notch AND mediocre. If we pretend that the top 20 schools are in the top 10% of schools worldwide (probably more like 1%) then that would make them in the 99th percentile. A 90th percentile is pale in comparison to a 98th percentile.

    It’s all relative, so you’re both right.

  • EmmEss

    Once you’ve topped 700, there isn’t a significant difference, in terms of quality, between an applicant who scored a 700 and an applicant who scored 720. At this point, it’s better to spend your time perfecting the rest of your application.

  • IMG

    Agree with Roger. 700 (90%) is low for the applicants who apply to H/S/W. Their enrolled students average in the 95th percentile. 700 is fine if you want to go to Duke. Not so much for Harvard. And, from closely observing and interacting with HBS/Stanford alums vs. MIT/Chicago/even Wharton alums, the HBS/Stanford have a perceptibly more polish and seeming analytical ability than those from other schools. IMHO.

  • Guest

    I like these posts by essaysnark – drives home the point that once you’ve crossed a threshold, you’ve checked off a box and it’s time to focus on the rest of your application.
    http://essaysnark.com/2011/09/what-is-a-low-gmat-or-are-you-effing-kidding/
    http://essaysnark.com/2011/09/what-is-a-low-gmat-the-real-answer/
    …and I think this guy could have found more productive things to do with his time instead of taking the GMAT a 4th time…is improving his score 20 points from a 730 to 750 going to be the difference between admit and deny? I doubt it.
    http://www.beatthegmat.com/1000-in-gmat-exams-later-t123363.html

  • Guest

    inverse is true. Just because you scored 750 on GMAT does not mean you deserve $2 MM salary.

  • Roger

    My point is the following: with a 700 you are checking the box and “in-range”…no doubt about that. But, with as much competition as we have now, and the competition for post-mba jobs (where many employers look at the GMAT as an additional data point), a strong GMAT score can really help you stand out a little bit. Other things being equal, having a solid score will help you. Of course you dont want to take it 6 times to get a 10 point improvement. Assuming common sense prevails, a good GMAT score is one of the few variables that we have control over. There is nothing you can do about UG GPA, choice of school or choice of employer. GMAT, Community activities, leadership — these are areas where we can show our strengths. So in our competitive world, I think a good GMAT score will help you a little more than just tick the box. In that light — I stand by my comments that a 700 score is not all that impressive for a *TOP* school. It is not my intention to offend you or anyone else — or label anyone as mediocre. Certainly, you are more than just a number on a test. I hope you understand the spirit of my comment. My apologies to you if you felt slighted by comments. Best wishes and good luck.
    Roger

  • Let Freedom Ring

    Are you a part of the 47% of Americans who want handouts?

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    lol

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    I scored exactly 700 and I actually agree with the general spirit of what Roger as well as DD/EmEss were saying; but there is some nuance to this issue as well. A 700 IS a mediocre score at a H/S/W; but mediocre is a relative term. The very people who generally take the GMAT in the first place are far more bright and in many cases more successful than the average person; those who gun for the top 25 moreso than they; and those who gun for the Top 10/M7 (a term that no one uses outside of blogs)/Top 5/Holy Trinity even moreso than they. Mediocre among the best and the brightest among the world (many of whom will be depressed at 50 while some folks without degrees will be rich anyway)? I’ll take it. Besides, most of the richest Americans barely even went to college–let alone a top MBA program. You know how it goes..the A students work for the C students and the B students work for the government; but I digress. Thanks to technology, however, far more A students are working for companies started by other A students (Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, etc.)

    It is also generally true, however, that getting over 700 “checks” a box that puts you “in range” for any school, regardless of who you are; but there is more complexity to that. If your post MBA goal is IB, an adcom knows that you will be more attractive to employers with a 750 than a 700; period. If you’re going after non profit goals,on the other hand, that top 1% quant score might be overkill. If you’re an URM, then it depends on who shows up that year and how you stack up next to them. For instance, one friend of mine who is a 2nd year at one top 5 program told me that out of all of the African American guys in her class (about 15), only 2 or 3 has a 700+ GMAT. Another friend who is a 1st year at another top 5 program told me that everyone from that same demographic that she met during her welcome weekend had 700+ GMATs.

    Then beyond demos, you also have the total package. I know of a URM guy from my exact demographic with a 760 that got denied from every top 5 school he applied to. I also know a person who got into both of the #1 schools he applied to with a 660. That latter was a math major in undergrad with a 3.5 GPA; the former had a higher GPA than that, but hardly any math in undergrad. And what do any of these scores mean with the interference from paid courses anyway. Are my quants skills as reflected in my self-study 700 REALLY that far behind my buddy with a 750 who dropped a grand on MGMAT/Kaplan courses? Doubtful. Personally, I think that the essays (if the admissions consultants weren’t so involved in them) and interview are the best determinants of potential. Its been well noted that the quality of someone’s communication is the best predictor of their overall intelligence and ability to be successful. I work at a company full of super-smart nerds where I actually consider myself slightly below average. And you know what? The QA director who had near perfect SATs is also the best speaker and writer. When I read his recommendation, I wish I’d asked the guy to write for more schools; LOL. Same for my boss. VERY sharp quant guy, but also precise and clear in his communication. Meanwhile, there is another guy on our team with like a 160 IQ who is a disaster area because his interpersonal and communication skills are in the gutters. There’s just no way to really tell from what’s on a sheet; so the schools do their best job to gather a 360 degree picture of each applicant.

    The bottom line is you really can’t take too much stock into what is happening with other applicants. Focus on YOUR profile, be aware of (and shore up) YOUR weaknesses and know who YOUR profile will be compared to most directly and be well aware of how you stack up against THAT demographic. And even then, its a crap shoot and 100% subjective. I’ll actually be blogging about this in a few days.

  • Mitt R

    Good post. Communication skills are very important — i proved it just a few hours ago. I hope you enjoyed my debate performance earlier today.

  • Danny

    The gmat has no relevance to future success / doesn’t teach you anything worthwhile. I’m not sure why this dude is idolizing the test but i guarantee you tons of successful CEO’s would bomb the test. B-Schools use it because they need a quick and dirty way to par numbers down. They miss tons of smart / qualified people due to this.

  • http://www.mbaover30.com/ MBA Over 30

    He sells test prep consulting services (to answer your question of why he is “idolizing” the test). Also, I agree with you that the test is just a quick-n-dirty. Basically, schools needs to choose a few hundred folks from a few thousand over a 3-4 month period. They know absolutely NOTHING about these people BESIDES the fact that they (and possibly their recommenders) are all convinced that they’re amazing, brilliant and best deserving of a spot in their next class. The GMAT provides an “objective” data point to cut through the self aggrandizement; however, its not truly objective because not everyone accesses the same test prep; though, I don’t think the interference from test companies causes dramatic inequities. Most people who invest in expensive test prep are A-types who would have been at or near the top of the bell curve anyway; they just want to make sure they’re there. I’ve never herd of a person with average intelligence take MGMAT and bust a 770. Most people who would fit that profile are offended by MGMAT’s core philosophy in the first place. I’ve actually been on an MBA prep conference call where the person leading the call bashed MGMAT for pushing people toward and above 700. I immediately hung up the phone; not the person I wanted to be gleaning wisdom from, if you can call it that; but I also get their angle. Test prep can only teach so much, and there is an entire universe of MBA hopefuls out there besides the fractal universe of folks gunning for top 15 and change programs.

    I disagree, however, that the schools miss “millions” of smart/qualified people. They are simply sifting through large numbers to select those most likely to be of value to their program based on their own subjective criteria. Seeing as the schools themselves admit that 70% of applicants are admissible without hurting the quality of their programs, they know who they’re missing; and the admissions process is designed not to pick the people who are best qualified (based on subjective value) in relation to all of the other qualified people. There is a clear and conscious choice to leave large numbers of qualified people out; it’s by design.

  • theKomodo

    Great reply. I concur about someone’s communication skills being the best predictor of his/her overall intelligence and ability to be successful. I’ve been in the management consulting industry for 7 years, and at my firm, the more senior my colleagues are, the better their communication and interpersonal skills are, as these skills become increasingly relied upon in sales (In consulting, partners/execs handle the relationship-building and overall sales process instead of a separate ‘Sales department’).

  • ivy

    stop obsesing over HSW
    there are enough CEO’s and top hedge funds who graduate from chi/mit/columbia
    you give too much credit to the admission officers of HSW like they are so great to pick the best of the best
    the admission officers of HSW are no geniuses or they would be running google

  • IMG

    I said polish and analytical ability. No doubt hedge fund managers and some CEOs come from those other schools, which are more focused on finance, less so general management. I’m not obsessing, just stating my humble opinion. And, I work for google and about to move to another best in industry company that the chi/mit/columbia drool over. No geniuses at either places. So, I’m not sure what your point is. Also, I’m applying this year and chi is my safety school. Not applying to MIT/columbia, though would be an auto-in.

  • Patrick

    Awesome article. Definitely puts things into perspective and is essential reading for someone before they start studying for GMAT. I wish I read this before I started. I’ve been studying for about 6 months. First Diagnostic test was a 520, then after taking the Manhattan course and after 3 months of intense study got an official score of 560 – lower than my practice exams. My goal was 700 and I foolishly thought I could do that if I put 3 months of good study in. The last 3 months I’ve been studying and just took another practice exam and only improved my quant score by one point. Definitely disheartening, but I’m not giving up. I investing in a private tutor, although expensive and continuing to analyze my study plan and methods.

  • http://www.facebook.com/guille0328 Andrés Ruiz

    Hmm..I just took the GMAT this evening without studying a single minute (got hired to an industry position and therefore will not be applying to B-school anymore but had paid for the test already) and got a 700. The reasoning/logic required for math AND verbal is at a painfully low level compared to what the typical engineer/person in the sciences sees on a daily basis.

  • Guest

    We’re all so proud of you!!! If we all could only have your intellectual ability life would be complete.

  • Marushka

    I would disagree with some that say that GMAT is a purely academic exercise and doesn’t test any “life skills”. The GMAT tests the ability to use logic and critical thinking skills much more than it tests actual knowledge of math formulae or grammar rules.

  • Marushka

    LOL, I don’t see why more people didn’t appreciate that.

  • veteran222

    communication? huh? It’s about failing, it’s about learning, and growing from what you’ve learned. All of these characteristics, along with the ability to persevere = success.

  • Theron

    Yes. Communication and interpersonal skills are all that you need to succeed in this world assuming you have *reasonable* intelligence.

    *reasonable* >= the top 5 % of society.

  • Guido

    GMAT is social darwinism. That’s the real purpose of the exam. It is the perfect tool to “clean” immigrants (Verbal Part) and “dumb” people (Quant Part).

    No preparation course is useful, because in the exam the questions are always different.

  • sam

    i got 700 and planning to take once again ,but my cgpa is 67% only in my UG. there are any chance of getting into good b-schools in us.

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