Getting Into HBS With A Subpar Quant

student studying

Grinding for three months through a big box GMAT course, Craig fought for the GMAT score that would give him a chance at admission to Harvard Business School, the only place he wanted to get his MBA degree from. Yet, after so many hours of studying and practice, his GMAT score had only gone in one direction: down.

The course he was taking was based on overly tough, out-of-focus, non-official material which had put a dent in his confidence, leaving him in a GMAT free-fall unable to crack 700. He seemed like a smart, not-afraid-to-put-his-back-into-it kind of person, so I wasn’t put off by his low test scores and lofty ambitions. After a brisk six weeks of working together, he pinged a 710 with a 45 Quant score and a 40 Verbal score.

But wait, 45Q is in the 63rd percentile! Isn’t that a failing grade? As many as 47% percent of all GMAT takers did better than that. So how could Craig possibly get into Harvard, with its super low 11% acceptance rate? Here is an in-depth look at GMAT percentiles, but the short of it comes down to the difference between two types of GMAT scores: scaled versus percentile.

GMAT PERCENTILE SCORE

Your percentile score is a relative score based on your position in a group of test takers. In itself, it doesn’t indicate your quant skill level. You could be in the 99th percentile and still know little to nothing if the rest of the pool of people were more clueless than you are — think of how meaningless it would be to be the best skier in Egypt. On the GMAT, we have the opposite effect. Over the last decade, the quant percentiles have become ever more competitive as greater numbers of foreign test takers with sharp-as-a-tack quant skills have sat for the exam. There is a huge amount of quant talent. So the 63rd percentile actually indicates that you’re pretty good at quant (think a middling scientist at NASA). Still, “the 63rd percentile” looks terrible. Luckily that’s not the only way your score is reported.

GMAT SCALED SCORE TO THE RESCUE

The scaled score ignores the pool of people. It is an absolute measure of your skill. The great thing about scaled scores and why they can be more useful than percentile scores is that they don’t change over time. So a scaled score from 2016 represents the same expertise as a scaled score from 2000. That makes the scaled score a great tool for admissions committees who count on reliability. So the upshot is that a 45Q was sufficient for Harvard in 2000 — and still is in 2016.

A GMAT PERCENTILE HAPPY ENDING

Craig was accepted to Harvard with his deceptively acceptable 63rd percentile Quant score. As was another of my students who scored an on-the-surface stinky 43Q (56th percentile!). A lot of MBA admissions success comes down to the numbers, but, clearly, you can fail Quant percentile-wise and still be accepted to your dream school. As long as your overall score is in the ballpark and your application is strong, your Quant percentile won’t necessarily be the deciding factor.

WILL ANY QUANT DO?

Probably not. Though schools do not release statistics on Quant/Verbal breakdowns, there is an indication that the Quant score matters. So even if you manage to sneak past 700 with a stupendous Verbal score, you might still get snubbed. I’d break things down into three basic ranges.

Score below a 40Q and you’re in a tough spot. Not only are your quant skills in question but you need a 45+ (99th percentile) on the Verbal to reach a 700. Even if you obliterate the Verbal and achieve a 700+ GMAT score, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to re-take the GMAT if you have any hope of getting into an elite MBA program. An extremely unique background might give you a shot, but the odds are stacked against you.

Between a 40Q and a 44Q is a gray zone. First off, it’s still tough to nail a 700 from here. You would need a really sharp Verbal score. Second, at least on the lower end of the scale, there is still some suspicion that you’re not going to hack it on the more quantitative aspects of your MBA. If you’re in a competitive bracket, this score could be in need of a mulligan. That said, if you’ve got a 700+ combined score and some special sauce on your application then you may sail right in.

A 45Q and above isn’t a problem. In the year 2000, this was the 82nd percentile. At this point, your quant skills are just fine.

WHAT ABOUT VERBAL?

A 700+ GMAT score with a questionable Verbal sub-score is a rare bird. It’s very tough to achieve. That said, you could be at the extreme with a 51Q, 32V earning you a 700 but leaving you with a Verbal score in the 67th percentile. Is that an app-killer? I don’t have any personal experience with someone getting dinged for a low Verbal score (with a total score in the right place). Still, I’d hazard to guess that a little balance would be better. Also consider: It’s not possible to hit the average GMAT scores (all 720+) at Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Chicago, Northwestern, NYU, or Yale without getting at least a 36V that lands you in the 81st percentile.

Agree, disagree, have a different experience? Comment away!

Andrew Geller of Atlantic GMAT

Andrew Geller of Atlantic GMAT

A tutor since 2002, Andrew Geller currently heads Atlantic GMAT, a leading private tutoring service that serves clients nationwide. Before that, he prepped GMAT test-takers McElroy Tutoring, where he held a 9.9 rating (i.e. “Exceptional”) from clients. A consummate teacher, Geller joined the Poets&Quants team in 2014, providing readers with expert advice on topics ranging from bumping up quant scores to setting priorities. 

DON’T MISS: INCREASING YOUR GMAT SCORE — THE BEST OF ANDREW GELLER

  • Gojira

    It’s such a big relief to hear that. Thank you!

  • Hi Gojira,

    Great work on your GMAT! A 740 (q49) is a stellar score and not keeping you out of any b-schools. I would focus on the rest of your application. Again, nice work. Good luck with admissions.

    A.

  • Gojira

    Hi Andrew, I got a 740(Q49,V42) on the GMAT. Is Q49 going to cut it for schools like Kellogg/Haas/Booth considering I’m in the highly competitive pool of Indian males? (I have been in the US for ~7 years but I am an Indian citizen) I know I can do better and I plan to apply in Rd 1 this fall BUT my job is very demanding (I’m a combustion physics guy…) and I don’t want to retake the GMAT if I can get away with it. (I have a GRE score of 1600/1600 which is sadly no longer valid. )

  • JohannesDT

    Haha glad I passed the test. Thanks for the interesting article!

  • Just testing you Johannes:)! Thanks for pointing out the mistake. Will put in for a revision.

    All the best,

    A.

  • JohannesDT

    Andrew, I’m quoting you from your article above: “But wait, 45Q is in the 63rd percentile! Isn’t that a failing grade? As many as 47% percent of all GMAT takers did better than that.” If you think someone in the 63rd percentile has been beaten by 47% of test takers, you’re really not the right person to train people for the GMAT. JK, but suggest you edit this 🙂

  • Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the question. By the numbers you’re starting from behind. Still, a 700 is an excellent GMAT score and a Q47 demonstrates excellent quant skills. If you are a part of a group that’s underrepresented or highly desired (demographically or work/life experience) at a particular school then your numbers should be fine. If not then it’s going to be tough to get the green light to the top of top MBA programs. I’d chat with an admissions expert who knows the ins and outs of the particular schools that you are interested in. If you feel up for it, putting a bit more umph into your GMAT score would likely help. If the 39 on the verbal wasn’t a huge amount of work for you then I bet you can boost it a few points. Good luck!

    A.

  • greg9243

    Hi Andrew,

    Want to hear your thoughts on my candidacy for top programs (HBS, Wharton, Booth, etc.). 700 GMAT (Q47, V39), associate at private equity fund in new york, graduated cum laude from top 2 liberal arts college (history major – 3.45ish gpa), varsity soccer, owned/operated business in college.

    Thanks!

  • Hi SF,

    Great work on your GMAT! Even with the low-ish GPA the 740 puts you in a great position for a majority of top MBA programs and certainly leaves the door open for HBS, GSB, and CBS. The GPA puts some strain on things but how relevant that is really depends on your personal story. And, if you’re in a more sought after contingent then the GPA will matter less. The opposite is also true. I’d chat with an admissions consultant about your specifics. Hope that is helpful!

    A.

  • guest

    no chance at HBS/GSB. Apply ED to CBS

  • SF

    Hi Andrew,

    Want to hear your thoughts for chances at HBS/GSB/CBS:
    740 GMAT (Q49 V40), Top 20 ranked Finance & Accounting undergrad (3.2 GPA), worked in consulting for 5 years (Management – non MBB) in financial services vertical, currently in Corporate Strategy as a Manager for a F500 Media company

    Thanks!

  • Out of this world verbal score! Nice work. Did you do anything special on the verbal side in your GMAT preparation? Thanks for adding to this I think it’s really helpful for people to see that you don’t need the 80% Quant or anything near that to be admitted to a top MBA program.

    Good luck with school,

    A.

  • Hi MBA Chaser!

    Great job on the 710! The 47 on the Quant side is excellent and certainly puts any Quant concerns to rest (regardless of the percentile score). Just curious: How did you prepare for your GMAT? Where did you start from?

    Overall your numbers look really solid and should give you a shot absolutely anywhere. I’ve had several students get into top 5 programs with less impressive numbers. That said, the GMAT score is below the median at a few of the schools on your list. Does that matter? I think it depends. Let’s say there are three types of candidates in terms of their scarcity with a 1 being extremely scarce and a 3 being extremely common. If you’re a 3 then the lower GMAT score could be an issue. If you’re a 1 I wouldn’t think about it at all. Whether you are closer to a 1 or a 3 for a specific school is something I’d discuss in more detail with an admissions consultant.

    Again – a 710 is a stellar score. Really nice work on that. Feel free to follow up with any questions!

    Good luck,

    A.

  • CBS19

    Throwing in my two cents – I recently got into Columbia with a Q43 (52nd percentile). Overall I had a 720 with a V46.

  • MBA Chaser

    Would love to hear your thoughts on my early planning for an elite MBA:

    Studied 6 months and scored a 710! Quant 47 and Verbal 40 with a 6 AWA and 6 IR. 3.9 GPA double major (econ with honors/film) from top 50 lib arts college, Phi Beta Kappa, graduated early. Club 2 sport Athlete/theater/screenwriting.

    Work experience: Interned at top tier entertainment companies in film development/finance (WME, three A-list production companies). Was a financial consultant at EY after graduation for 8 mos and currently doing film finance at top 4 talent agency. I’m 22, probably will work another 2 years and am hoping to go to: UCLA, Harvard, NYC, Columbia, Stanford, USC, Vanderbilt in that order or interest. Also planning on volunteering at an animal shelter in LA because hey, who doesn’t love animals!

    Wondering if i have the stats to have a shot at any of these schools! Thank you!

  • Hi Yasser,

    Thanks for the note! Great work on your GMAT. A Q47 is a solid score. It doesn’t seem great because the GMAT percentiles are whacky. With that in mind, I haven’t seen any evidence of a 47 Quant score keeping someone out of an elite MBA program and in my mind a 45+ seems to be a safe zone. Could you make up for the GPA with a higher composite score? I think that’s possible but I don’t have a data point to back that up. Whether the higher score comes from a better Quant or Verbal shouldn’t matter. My guess is that if you can muster a 40 verbal you should be able to hit a 42. If you haven’t done any LSAT for GMAT work that could be helpful should you decide to retake. You might want to get some direction from someone with more admissions experience. Maybe the rest of your application completely balances out the GPA even with your current GMAT score. Hope that is helpful – good luck!

    A.

  • Yasser Clor

    I scored a 710 with a 47 Quant and 40 Verbal (IR of 7 and AWA of 6). I’m not coming from a math/engineering background; I majored in political science in undergrad and am actually an Attorney. Do you recommend I retake to try to boost my quant score? The only issue is that I have a cumulative GPA of 2.8 (but with upward progress and a decent explanation since I was a division one athlete). I’m looking at schools like Tuck, Sloan, Ross, Darden, and Johnson. Would I need a higher quant for these schools? I did do well in math courses: A’s in Financial Accounting, Statistics, Microeconomics and B+ in Calculus.

    Thanks so much for the help!

  • Hi J,

    Hope you are doing well – great work on your GMAT! A 44 is monster verbal score. In terms of a retake that depends: where are you applying? I should have also asked Daphne this same question. If you’re looking at the top 3-4 schools then your GMAT is on the lower side. It’s not really the Quant that I’d be concerned with but the overall score. That said, considering your verbal score, it will likely be easier to boost the overall score by improving the Quant. If you’ve got something else on your application that’s a big plus then perhaps the slightly lower GMAT score doesn’t matter. Take all of this advice lightly. I am not an admissions expert. I’m just giving you insight based on the experience of my GMAT tutoring students. Hope that is helpful!

    Good luck,

    A.

    PS: Also, same idea as with Daphne, if you feel the 44Q is on the low side for you then I’d be more inclined to recommend a retake. If it’s the highest you’ve scored on your official practice tests then that creates a tougher decision. You might also take a look at your enhanced score report to see if there was some big issue on the Quant with timing or with fatigue (fading or running out of time at the end).

  • JSmith

    Similar to Daphne below, I scored a 44 on Quant and a 44 on Verbal (98th). My GPA is average, but my background is in engineering a top 3 engineering school. For some reason, I had a hard time with the quant, but have never had a problem with math. Is it worth retaking?

  • Hi Daphne,

    Thanks for the note! Super job on verbal and great work overall. At this point the rest of your application is more important. That said, if you feel that the 44Q is way below what you’re capable of and you don’t mind working more on the GMAT then go for it again. If the 44Q is near the top of the range of the Quant on official practice tests you’ve taken then you might think twice about more studying. But, just to be clear, I don’t think that the 44Q is something to be concerned about. It’s a solid score. If you really want to make sure, perhaps consider asking an admissions expert.

    Good luck,

    A.

  • Daphne

    I got a 44 in Quant and a 42 in Verbal (96th percentile), and a 3.8 GPA. I’m nervous that I won’t get into a top business school because of my quantitative score – do you think it’s unlikely given my scores?

  • NULL NULL

    Ahh..that makes much sense now..

  • Hi there,

    The combined score does vary although I’ve never seen more than a 10 point swing. It seems that a V35 Q51 could be a 700 or 710. I haven’t seen a 720 for those sub-scores. I think the variation has to do with rounding. Your V35 might have been a 35.1 while someone else’s might have been a 35.9. I do not have facts to back that up but have no other explanation for this variation.

    A.

  • NULL NULL

    I opine that this score varies incredibly with the year/ time of GMAT. I appeared for GMAT and scored 710, with V-35 and Q-51. In a different time, that might well be 700 or even 720. That’s so confusing!!

  • Good to know – thanks for the addition. My guess is if you are at or above the average GMAT (the 710 would have put this person above the average for Ross) with a massive tilt towards Quant then in many cases you will be just fine. It would be great to hear from more people with real experiences. I don’t have a lot of data for people with perfect quant/middle of the road verbal 700+.

  • AP

    Since you asked, I know a guy from India who got into Ross with a 710. 51Q and 32V. Strong tech background and now works at Microsoft