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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

  • AMoe

    A,

    It’s nice to meet another tennis player! I really appreciate your time; thank you for writing back. To answer your question, I prepared for the GMAT using Manhattan Prep books and substituted out the CR Manhattan book for the Critical Reasoning Bible. I was all self-study and tried to read on the side to help with my RC. My first attempt was a 680, one year before I scored a 710. To be honest, I never scored over a 720 on a practice CAT, I was consistently scoring around 690-720. I agree, based off of my Q49 V36, I definitely have some Verbal upside; however, I feel like I outperformed my normal quant score, which had been around a 47. I would say my normal test score would have been a Q47 V39. I don’t think I mind the “trade-off”, but I wish I would have scored around my normal verbal and I would be sitting at a 720-730… sigh!
    Since I attained the 710 GMAT score, I have been focusing my efforts on leadership opportunities. I mentioned the coaching for a well-respected division I university and the founding of the ECP Network at work. I thought to myself, “if a school really wants me and wants me for who I am, I am better off focusing on doing the things I am passionate about and leaving footprints in different places than grinding to *maybe* score 10-20 more points on the GMAT with my free time.” If this is the wrong mindset to have, please let me know! What do you think? For these programs, the wishful thinking in me is that if a school did want me with my 710, then there could be plenty of people with 750s that could balance me out and get the two-person average to a 730, which would be right around the program’s average. As I said, this is the wishful thinking in me.
    What do you think about it all? Where do you think I should focus my efforts?
    Thank you for your help!
    Future B-school Applicant

  • pwt

    Hi @ CBS19: What does the rest of your profile look like, and did you apply early? I scored a 710 (Q44/V44) and am planning on applying early.

  • AMoe,

    It’s my pleasure to help out as I can! I’m a tennis player myself (not as accomplished as you!). Nice work on your GMAT. How did you prepare? I’ve had students gain admission to the schools your after with similar stats/stories. It does seem that you have the extra juice to balance out the GMAT. Still, those schools are incredibly competitive and the odds of success are tough to gauge regardless of the GMAT score. If you don’t feel like re-taking the GMAT I’d proceed with confidence. If you do feel like re-taking there seems to be plenty of space on the verbal side for improvement. Shoot over any questions!

    A.

  • AMoe

    Hi Andrew,
    Thank you for taking the time to address all of our posts; you are a good man! I got a 680 (Q47 V35) IR 5 AWA 5.5 on my first attempt and scored a 710 (Q49 V36) IR 3 AWA 5.5 on my first attempt. Yes, I bombed the IR on my second attempt which is frustrating, but I have to hope I don’t get dinged too badly after getting a score of 5 on my first attempt and having a finance background. I typically scored anywhere between a 5-7 on my CATs but remember the questions being very difficult on my second attempt and I struggled big time. Anyways, I have a BS in Finance from a Liberal Arts school (think Davidson) with a 3.8 GPA. I played Division I college tennis and was the team captain for three years. I have worked in Big Pharma for 2 years and am looking to apply in Fall 2019 and will (hopefully) be sponsored entirely by my company as they sponsor a select few financial analysts to go back to b-school full-time. At work, I have worked in two different financial analyst positions, one in the Midwest and the other in the Northeast. I have also created an Early Career Professionals Network which has been a huge hit at my company as we are trying to promote more Diversity and Inclusion. Outside of work, I am a volunteer assistant coach for a Division I tennis program and spend time volunteering in the community, in which case I have connected community involvement with the Early Career Professionals Network at my company. Although a brief background, how well do you think my chances fair at an HBS/GSB/Booth/Kellogg? Do you think I have some offsetting factors for my lower-than-average GMAT score? Through work, I have connections to all of these schools, which would hopefully be helpful as well!
    Thank you for your time!
    Future B-school Applicant

  • Hi Diegoas,

    Good to hear from you! Solid work on your GMAT. How did you prepare? A 680 is an excellent score and you could potentially get in anywhere with that (I’ve had students go to HBS with mid 600 GMAT scores). But I’m sure it’s not news to you that it’s below the median of the MBA programs to which you want to apply. If you’re balancing out the lower GMAT score with something else in your profile then you might be fine. If you want to leave no stone unturned a re-take would be an excellent idea. Do you feel like you maxed out the verbal side? That’s where I’d focus for the next test. Follow up with any questions!

    Have a good day,

    A.