Why 53 Countries Beat The U.S. On The GMAT

11890The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is given in only one language: English.

It is the only required exam to get into a program to largely study American-style capitalism.

And the exam tests for whether a student can successfully complete the first-year core of a graduate business program.

Yet in the latest 2013 testing year, Americans trail citizens of 53 other countries on the average score of the GMAT. You might expect the U.S. to be behind China, India and Singapore, among other countries. But Kyrgyzstan? Serbia? The Ukraine and the Russian Federation?

The mean GMAT score of the 90,541 tests taken by U.S. citizens in the 2012-2013 testing year was all of 532 on a scale of 200 to 800. In New Zealand, where test takers averaged the highest score, the mean GMAT was 608, a score that is in the 65th percentile and a formidable 76 points higher than the U.S. average. New Zealand is the only country to have posted average GMAT scores above 600 in three of the past five years. In Singapore, the country with the second best score, the average GMAT was 605. The top five highest scoring nations include Argentina, Austria and Belgium (all averaging a hefty 591 each–59 points higher than the U.S.).

The U.S. average, moreover, is even below the entire worldwide GMAT score of  545.6 over the past three years, an average significantly dragged down by U.S. test takers. And for the U.S., where the single largest group of people take the GMAT annually, the average has been pretty much steady for the past five years, hovering between a high of 533 last year and a low of 531 in the 2008-2009 testing year.


If GMAT scores are a reflection of a country’s intelligence, among the smartest nations besides the top five would be Australia, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, China and South Korea, all with average test scores between 590 and 581. Test takers in India also fared extremely well, with an average score of 577, 14th among 155 countries. But India, where 25,268 GMAT tests were sat for last year, was still behind Spain, Switzerland, and Hungary.

The dumbest? Afghanistan test takers had the lowest average score of any country in the world last year: a miserable 307 for the 18 tests taken. Saudi Arabia was not far behind with a lowly score of 311, though the GMAT was taken 2,663 times. Saudi’s average, moreover, was much improved from the 301 mean for the country a year earlier, a score that put the country dead last in the 2011-2012 testing year.

So while the U.S. can take some solace from the fact that there are 101 countries behind it, the GMAT average for American test takers is still pretty mediocre. The unimpressive performance follows similarly lackluster scores on international math, science and reading exams by American teenagers. But why should there be such an achievement gap on a test that is generally taken by a much smaller sub-section of U.S. citizens who already are somewhat accomplished, driven and ambitious? In other words, GMAT test takers are not 15-year-old students in every class and school district in the U.S. They’re a self-selecting lot of people on a path toward more successful and fulfilling careers.

Consider No. 1 New Zealand. Unlike the U.S. or Europe, the country lacks a world class business school with global clout. Lee Weiss, executive director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep, says that New Zealand’s number one standing may be “because they travel so far to go to business school so you are getting a very select group of high achievers. Clearly, they have the skills and the English language in their favor.”


There’s no one answer that can explain the performance gap between the U.S. and other nations. In some countries, particularly China and India, students may be more practiced at taking standardized exams. Their access to higher education is often determined by the use of standardized tests. A score can mean the difference between a life in poverty or a ticket to the professional lifestyle. So standardized tests are taken far more seriously in many countries than they are in the U.S. where the stakes on such tests are not nearly as great.

One thing is undeniable: students in other countries tend to spend far more time preparing for the GMAT than Americans do. The median number of hours that students in India spend preparing for the GMAT is 100, and the median for test takers in China is even a bit greater. Compare that to European students, whose median is 60 hours, and U.S. students, whose median is just 40 hours.

“From anecdotal experience with American and non-American culture, I find that Americans are more likely to explore various potential career paths rather than committing to one single path,” says Bhavin Parikh, CEO and founder of Magoosh, an online test prep company. ” I suspect many American GMAT takers are testing the waters–is business school something they really want to do? On average, they likely don’t prepare as much for the test.  Students from outside America may be more committed to attending business school and will dedicate the time and energy necessary to get a good score.”

Many Americans who sit for the test, moreover, are not trying to achieve the highest possible score. Instead, they want to earn a grade that will allow them to get into a part-time MBA program which in every case accepts applicants with lower GMAT scores than full-time programs. In contrast, most test takers outside the U.S. are hoping to study in a different country, often in North America or Western Europe.  They have more to prove and therefore work harder to get a higher GMAT score.

If you segment the U.S. population so that it approximates the socioeconomic class in other countries, Kaplan’s Weiss suggests that “U.S. candidates are scoring pretty similarly to their international counterparts. But there are a lot of business schools in the U.S. and as you get further down the rung you get applicants who can get in with lower GMAT scores. Whenever we talk about mbas, we think about Harvard and Stanford, but there are plenty of business schools that require much lower GMAT scores. So you are looking at a more selective GMAT pool outside the U.S.”

Another factor also comes into play: the far greater percentage of non-U.S. test takers who apply for one-year master’s programs in business that require no prior business experience. “These students are younger and score higher on the GMAT,” says Rahul Choudaha, a higher education strategist who blogs at DrEducation.com. “In testing year 2012, 81% of Chinese test takers were less than 25 years old as compared to 41% for the U.S.”  Younger test takers almost always score higher on the test than older applicants.

Academics also point that that performance differences on standardized tests can be the result of home and community as well as school influences. So for a more valid comparison of scores across countries, some argue that it’s important to compare students who have been shaped by approximately similar home and country environments–and by social class. It’s possible that a broader swath of Americans–by socioeconomic status and class–enter MBA programs than from other countries where inequality is an even greater problem.

(See following page for average GMAT scores by country)