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.

THE SMARTEST AND DUMBEST GMAT TEST TAKERS?

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.”

ARE AMERICANS REALLY THAT FAR BEHIND?

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)

DON’T MISS: AN UNCONVENTIONAL USERS GUIDE TO THE GMAT EXAM

  • Sarath Chandran

    “A score can mean the difference between a life in poverty or a ticket to the professional lifestyle” is not exactly correct. B-school applicants can clear tests other than GMAT, such as CAT for admission to the IIMs, for example, and receive annual salaries of $90,000 to $100,000 upon graduation. Not exactly poverty-level, either in India or in the US!

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  • George Mack

    You never read my position on it. You could only say that if his position were 100% correct. If I oppose a perfect position, then you could say he is more qualified to speak on this topic without having read my position.

    Retarded trolls annoy everyone.

  • leroy jenkums

    More so than you, dumbass. The primary reason why the US lags behind is because of the lower average scores of blacks especially and hispanics. Black average IQ is only 85 in the US.

  • George Mack

    This writer isn’t very qualified to speak on this topic.

  • White Bull

    I cannot understand the rationale for this post. Average intelligence is tested by checking the scores of a random sample on standardized tests. GMAT test takers cannot be considered a random sample.

    I also think writing skills matter more than verbal scores or quant scores. In my opinion, quant scores are least important.

  • Michael

    Good article, thanks for posting. Also enjoyed the comments. To me, the main point is the “pull factor” of choice. Americans are preparing less for a standardized test because they can aim for seats in the lower-ranking MBA programs. By comparison, greater study times are worth the investment for students in other countries where competition “pushes” applicants toward the top programs. Cannot blame those students who study abroad for wanting to optimize their investment.

    For other factors, as higher STEM baselines are important in standardized tests, it would be interesting to learn about the test support industry in various countries. Maybe we could look at the ratio of tutors to GMAT exam takers?

  • Satyameva Jayate

    How about making the best brains in “THE U.S.” take a quantitative test in Mandarin or Hindi? In fact, is there a considerable amount of western population that even speaks these languages ?!
    Also, when you compare test scores, you conveniently state that the exam takers from China and India are the best brains, and that it would be unfair to compare them with the average american. BUT when it comes to the jobs, you don’t want the same, deserving, candidates to get em. Aren’t they the best brains any more ? Double standards, eh?!
    Stop making excuses and start COMPETING! If not, start ACCEPTING the reality.

  • Rajiv

    Good analysis. I don’t mean to discount anything you presented, but wasn’t China’s # of test takers a typo? I highly doubt 53.005 ppl took the test. 53 K perhaps? Avg = ~40 Not .04

  • Siddharth Kulkarni

    This is the most logical explanation 🙂

  • Tom

    This effect is probably even larger if you measured standard deviation from the mean versus test takers per capita (a direction-neutral weighting to acct for countries like Afghanistan, with 18 test takers and a 308 avg.)

  • Natalie

    Well, In Israel – Universities only demand the Quant Score of the Exam – so test takers just randomly answer the questions for the Verbal part – hence the MUCH lower score…I’m guessing that this might be the case in other countries as well

  • noname

    This was not my point. I just showed that since the Indian and Chinese get worse scores on the verbal part, the reason they outdo the Americans is their higher quant score, which has little to do with English skills. So, learning verbal rules and idioms, as well as reading quickly, has little relevance to this achievement, contrary to the claim I was responding to.

  • guest

    Native english speakers doing better on a english based test? No…… really?

  • Name

    Hi John,
    Thanks for posting the full list. Mali appears twice on the list, maybe a mixup with Malawi?

  • noname

    My native language is not English, I’ve taken the GMAT, and I can say that the level of language proficiency required to understand the math problems is relatively low. The language used there is pretty simple. So I don’t think an English-speaking test taker has any advantage on the math section just because it is written in his/her mother tongue.

    On the verbal section, however, you need a pretty good grasp of English to get a good score. However, this is not the section where Chinese or Indian test takers outdo the Americans; it is the math section. If you look at the verbal score distribution, you’ll see that people from the US do much better.

    Here is a thread on gmatclub where a poster has shown some screenshots containing verbal scores for Chinese, Indians and Americans: gmatclub com /forum/ gmat-tool-109370.html

  • Guest

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Clear example of selection bias.

  • Paul

    Some comments here say that it’s not fair to compare the brightest of China/India to the general population in the US. But can you, a US native, imagine yourself taking the GMAT in Chinese or Korean? Trying to learn verbal rules and Chinese IDIOMS (let’s not kid yourself), reading WSJ level articles under a minute in a foreign language, figuring out awkwardly worded math problems AND beat that country with native official GMAT language by 50-70 points on average?

  • Guest

    Let’s take a look at the populations of some of the countries in this table (in millions):

    Austria 8
    United Kingdom 63
    China 1,340
    South Korea 50
    Hungary 10
    Spain 47
    India 1,240
    Germany 82
    Canada 35
    Poland 39
    Italy 61
    Brazil 199
    France 66
    Russian Federation 144
    Denmark 6
    Turkey 74
    Ukraine 46
    United States 314

    Let’s now take a look at the test takers per million for the same countries:

    Austria 38.81
    United Kingdom 24.68
    China 0.04
    South Korea 90.54
    Hungary 21.82
    Spain 21.59
    India 20.38
    Germany 49.06
    Canada 186.25
    Poland 7.66
    Italy 31.51
    Brazil 8.12
    France 54.84
    Russian Federation 14.20
    Denmark 19.11
    Turkey 18.11
    Ukraine 9.56
    United States 288.44

    Let’s now rank order them by test takers per million and include the average GMAT score:

    Country Test takers/million Score
    United States 288.44 532
    Canada 186.25 565
    South Korea 90.54 581
    France 54.84 559
    Germany 49.06 570
    Austria 38.81 591
    Italy 31.51 561
    United Kingdom 24.68 590
    Hungary 21.82 580
    Spain 21.59 578
    India 20.38 577
    Denmark 19.11 550
    Turkey 18.11 550
    Russian Federation 14.20 553
    Ukraine 9.56 542
    Brazil 8.12 560
    Poland 7.66 565
    China 0.04 582
    Correlation coefficient between test taker per capita and GMAT score = -0.37
    Clearly, there are other factors at play such as the quality of the country’s education, official language, as well as who exactly takes the test. But it is obvious that out of all these countries, the US has the highest percentage of local population taking the GMAT. I don’t really think the averages are comparable unless you want to compare, for example, the top 5% students in China with the 20% in the US (these numbers are random and used just for the sake of illustration).

  • Marcelo

    I totally agree. Here in Brazil, the ones that take the GMAT are the best minds in the country.

  • devils0508

    Sorry typed it on my phone:
    take it*
    a bit*

  • devils0508

    A LOT more USA students are taking it per capital. In other countries, only the best of the best are taking the test, whereas in the USA, many people who are planning to go to a rank 100 school takeit. This gets mentioned a pit when you talk about part-time programs, but it’s really the whole puzzle. You’re comparing apples and oranges. It’s like when everyone says Chinese test better in High School, and then you realize they kick all the stupid kids out of school prior to the test.