How To Overcome A Low GMAT Score

This year, an MBA applicant to Harvard Business School won acceptance with a GMAT score of 490. At Stanford, a newly enrolled MBA candidate had a 530 GMAT, while at Wharton, someone sneaked through with a GMAT of 560.

Those scores are the lowest reported in the rather vague GMAT ranges published by the business schools. But who actually gets into a top ranked MBA program with a GMAT that is, in Harvard’s case, 240 points below the school’s median GMAT of 730?

The answer, according to admission officials and consultants, is a highly exceptional applicant–with just one exception: a lousy GMAT score.

First, some perspective: A score of 490 is in the 32nd percentile at a time when the median GMAT for enrolled students at Harvard is in the 96th percentile. It’s decidedly well below the 544 average score and there are some schools that would immediately toss the application in the rejection pile.

Oddly, in some cases, it may be easier to get into a top school than a second-tier MBA program. That’s because second-tier schools can be more sensitive about low GMAT scores because they take down the reported averages that sometimes are counted in MBA rankings, such the annual list compiled by U.S. News & World Report. Some consultants are now recommending that applicants take the GRE if they have a very low GMAT score. The theory is that U.S. News does not request GRE scores so taking an applicant with a weak GRE result can’t hurt a school’s standing in such lists.

Regardless, if you’re stuck with a low GMAT score, it’s no easy ride. The reality is that getting into a top school with a low score is still the exception, not the norm.  “I would say admission has gotten tougher today than a few years ago for low GMAT admits,” says Chimoa Isiadinso, former assistant director of admissions at Harvard Business school who now runs EXPARTUS, an admissions consulting firm.

“At HBS, there were cases of candidates who have lower-than-average GMATs but get in. But looking at the GMAT score alone misses the point,” she says. “Schools do look at the whole profile of the candidate: academics, leadership, and uniqueness defined as what new or different perspective they will bring to the class. In the case of the guy at HBS who had less than a 600 GMAT and got in, everything else about him was incredible. He had excellent academics at a rigorous and selective university, tons of leadership at work plus leadership in his community involvement plus his recommenders truly raved about him and had tons of examples to reinforce the perspective that he was an outstanding candidate. His low GMAT essentially was an outlier.”

What do applicants who win admission to top schools share in common? “A fierce refusal to allow a set of numbers define who they are and what they can or cannot do – at B-school and beyond,” says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange, a Chicago-based MBA admissions consultancy. “They hear “no” repeatedly, but they just won’t believe it or accept it.”

How are they able to convince admission officers to accept them? They tend to isolate the GMAT as an aberration. “They provide hard evidence of achievement and excellence in every other aspect of his or her life,” adds Bauer. They build and sustain genuine, one-on-one relationships with decision makers at the B-schools. They craft deeply personal essays that leap off the page, grab the reader’s heart, and make it impossible to reject without actually meeting the person behind the app.”

While the 490 score in this fall’s entering class at Harvard is stunningly low, it’s not the lowest successful B-school candidate Bauer has seen. His firm, for example, helped a Wall Street analyst gain admission to a top-10 Ivy League business school despite a 410 GMAT after taking the exam five separate times. Making it even more difficult, the candidate had a modest 3.0 GPA in a non-quant undergrad major.

However, says Bauer, “he was an overachiever in every other aspect of his life, but learning abilities made the GMAT an insurmountable challenge. Our overall strategy for him was to confront his GMAT difficulties head-on, with candor and conviction, defining his candidacy as much more than the GMAT.  More specifically, we encouraged him to: 1) provide third-party documentation of his learning disability, 2) meet with and earn the endorsement of a specialist in learning disabilities at the targeted university, 3) meet face-to-face with the MBA admissions director to tell his story in human terms, 4) produce amazing essays that focused inordinately on the “personal” and “academic” rather than the “professional” aspects of his candidacy, and 4) persevere by reapplying after being rejected once.”

Adjusting the expectations of an applicant with a low GMAT score is a key issue. Jana Blanchette, president of Inside MBA Admissions, says her approach with low-GMAT candidates is to first look at their overall profile. “If they have a low GMAT score and unrealistic expectations – then I really push hard to lower their target schools to more realistic/target schools,” she says. “If they have a low GMAT score, but have something really impressive to compensate for the low GMAT score, then I am more willing to take them on as a client. I still like to adjust the school expectations slightly.  So instead of all stretch schools – I try to get them to get a mix of stretch (2-3 schools), reach (1-2), and maybe safety (1).”