Low GMAT Top Reason For Getting Dinged

by John A. Byrne on

Getting dinged from one of your favorite business schools is often as mysterious as it is stinging. That’s mainly because business school admission officials rarely if ever tell applicants why they got a rejection letter instead of an acceptance.

application killersBut a new survey of B-school admissions officers shows that far and away the biggest application killer is a low GMAT score followed by a low undergraduate grade point average. Surprisingly, few candidates are turned down because of their written essays or letters of recommendation.

The poll released today (Nov. 20) by Kaplan Test Prep includes responses from 140 business school admission officials in the U.S. and Canada, including five of the top ten full-time MBA programs. They were surveyed by telephone between July and September. Kaplan’s survey showed that 51% of the officers cited a low entrance exam (GMAT or GRE) as the biggest “application killer,” up a tad from 50% last year and down from a high of 58% two years ago.


That compares with 28% of business school admissions officers who cited a low undergraduate GPA for most likely rejecting an applicant, down from 32% a year earlier. The lack of relevant work experience got 12% of the vote for being an application killer, while poor recommendation letters received 6% and poorly written essays was cited by only 4% of the officials.

Dan Bauer, founder of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consultant, said the findings “should encourage applicants with modest college grades to prep hard and redeem themselves — even in the 11th hour — via the GMAT or GRE. However, it also discourages individuals who demonstrated their academic competence in the classroom for 4 years but can’t overcome standardized-testing issues.  Candidly, it’s faster and easier for an adcom to make decisions based on a common denominator like the GMAT rather than by examining the far more subjective GPA.”

Bauer believes that ‘poorly written essays; probably refers more to writing skill than to actual content.  “This is not surprising in light of the schools’ nearly universal emphasis on ‘authenticity,’ he says. “The fact is that most applicants are not great writers, so adcoms place more importance on substance than style.  All the more reason to build a strong underlying candidacy before you start writing about it.”


Of course, there are plenty of other reasons why a school rejects a candidate and often times it’s a mix of reasons. The Kaplan survey, moreover, may well be designed in a way to limit the number of reasons an applicant gets dinged, suggests Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, which recently asked several admissions directors about candidate rejection as well.

“What’s interesting for me is that a factor that showed up repeatedly in response to Accepted’s survey is rudeness and unethical behavior. Nine out of 13 respondents mentioned rudeness or arrogance,” says Abraham. “Those qualitative measures aren’t even mentioned in Kaplan’s results. Admittedly our questions was ‘What behavior or information would cause you to reject an MBA applicant who otherwise is a strong candidate?’ A different question will get different results.”

She also believes that at schools that are less selective, “the raw numbers play a larger role. At schools accepting one out of every three, five, or 10 applicants, i.e. the top 50 pretty much, the essays and qualitative factors will play a much larger role.”


For the first time, Kaplan also asked admissions officials whether they accepted more students with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) backgrounds and found that 54% said admitted more STEM undergrads for the 2013-2014 cycle compared to three years ago. That trend has been apparent at Harvard Business School where 39% of the Class of 2015 boast STEM educational backgrounds, up five full percentage points from 34% last year.

“Business school demographics are shifting, with growth coming from applicants who are younger, more international, and have STEM backgrounds — and this is translating to growth in specialized master’s degree programs,” said Lee Weiss, executive director of pre-business and pre-graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “A specialized master’s degree can be a great fit if an applicant knows they want to pursue a career in that particular field, while a traditional MBA provides broader options.  Students exploring business school programs should think carefully about why they want to go to business school and how a particular degree can help them achieve their career goals.”
  • gerald

    GMAT first used in in nineties! so, what about people who did MBA for the previous 70 years!

  • G-Rocker

    LOL. Kaplan issues survey results that provide evidence that GMAT is the most important thing. For sure there is no bias or whatsoever. ;-)

  • Permanent

    the standardized test scores businesses estimated to be more than $5b ! it is a big business in very capitalized world!! software hardware industries..services industries..and so on.. yet, there is really no evidence that these score will predict the next Nobel laureates in Physics or medicine..or even the next great entrepreneur..

  • Kap Lan

    Here for 3 years, every year around November Kaplan publish this amazing results :) :)

  • Matt

    It makes sense that GMAT and GPA are so important, because these are the stats that schools publish, and they compete fiercely for the highest scorers.

    As much sweat, tears etc. as went into writing my essays (and the emphases I feel like the schools put on this piece), I am shocked to see it rank at the bottom. Even below recommendation letters!? That seems odd to me.

  • Jimbo

    The wording of the survey results is interesting. It says, “Poorly written essays.” I wonder if that is just referring to grammar/structure, or if it referring to content. It seems to me that the content of your essays, what essentially differentiates you from other candidates, would be much more important.

  • Martín Rodríguez

    Matt, probably the fact that you put some much effort into your writing is somehow connected with your abilities in other areas or topics such as taking a test like the GMAT.

    What I’m trying to say here is that there’s a bigger chance to write a good essay, when you are the kind of person that scores high on the GMAT.

    The GMAT score is probably the first piece of the application they evaluate, so that would explain the answer. I’m sure though, that among those applications that were rejected, because of GMATs, there are plenty of “poorly written essays”.

    This would actually be consistent with your observation about the recommendation letters. Guys that get high GMAT scores can be assholes, and won’t get good recommendation letters.

    Good luck on your applications!

  • Matt

    This is actually a great explanation. So to sort of restate you, essentially this would mean 1) the GMAT is the 1st thing adcoms look at (so it is going to cause a high portion of the dings right off the bat) and 2) the GMAT is an effective filter of the other general aspects of an applicant (so it is rare for someone who scores well to write bad essays, for example). Thus even though the essays ARE important, they would be the reason for a decline in a comparatively rare # of cases. Or so we are supposing.. ;)

    Thanks for the well wishes, Martin, but I am actually a new student of MBA@UNC, the distance program at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

  • JohnAByrne

    I think a “low” score would obviously differ by school and program. Generally, wouldn’t you think that any score that is more than 20 to 30 points below the average for the school would be considered low?

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    That’s how I define it.

  • Martín Rodríguez

    I’m gonna propose a slightly different approach, now that I have matured the idea.

    I still support my belief that there’s a positive correlation between GMAT scores and the quality of the essays: high achievers would do good in both, low achievers wouldn’t.

    Now, it’s probably safer for schools to declare it was the low GMAT which dinged a particular applicant that also wrote poor essays. Do you imagine the reaction to a statement such as “The very well regarded School X rejected 50% of the applicants due to their essays”. Everyone would go crazy.

    This explanation would be more consistent with the holistic approach, which my first comment didn’t address.

  • carlos

    KAPAN sells GMAT books why do anyone even publishes this!?

  • New2Poets

    I guess you would also need to take into account background.
    An applicant from an over represented group probably would be considered low if he/she was under the Mean.

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    Absolutely, the 20-30 point number is an elastic rule of thumb. Definitely not set in concrete. For over-represented groups, at the average could be “low.” For underrepresented groups, 20-30 points below could be competitive.

    And then there are other factors to consider. For someone with a high GPA, schools may cut a little more slack with the GMAT. For someone with a low GPA, that GMAT better convince of academic ability.

    And of course, it ‘s not just about the total score. The breakdown counts too. The rule-of-thumb is an easy tool, but nuances and details count when it comes to evaluating your GMAT score.


  • MBA2016

    And yet, they predict 1st year performance in MBA programs…the exact thing they are supposed to measure…

  • Gina

    Im opposed to GMAT testing when: 1) I’ll never use geometry or some of the other mathematical equations in grad school, 2) in the outside business & professional world calculators are not off limits, 3) my being able to respond to and articulate to business correspondence does not require dyshypering a bunch of repeative word puzzles, and 4) no university or business gives you a matter of minutes to respond to questions. At $250.00 a pop, the GMAT test measures nothing more than highway robbery based on academic assumptions. End of story!

  • Ron H

    Hi Linda, John

    You raise a very good point regarding ‘over represented groups such as Indian IT engineers. I have a question which has been bugging me for some time now. Would say a Chinese-American or Indian-American engineer who has done his/her studies in the US and are American for all intents and purposes fall in the same ‘over represented ‘category or does the term only apply to those who are born and brought up in say China or India ?


    Ron H

Partner Sites: C-Change Media | Poets & Quants for Execs | Tipping the Scales