In Search Of Higher GMATs In China

AJ Warner, an MBA admissions consultant in Beijing, says U.S. business schools are using super high test scores from the Chinese to inflate their GMAT averages

AJ Warner, an MBA admissions consultant in Beijing, says U.S. business schools are using super high test scores from the Chinese to inflate their GMAT averages

When prospective MBA students come to AJ Warner, he inevitably gives them the ultimate tough love if they want to get into a highly selective business school in America.

If you’ve already taken the GMAT, take it again.

And again.

And in all probability, one more time.

It might feel like you’re going through a level of hell that Dante forgot, but it’s your only chance to shift the odds in your favor. From his vantage point in Beijing, China, where he is founder of the business school admissions firm Touchdown! Admissions Consulting, Chinese students need to score 30 to 50 points higher than a school’s average to be competitive.

Want to go to Wharton, where the average GMAT score is 728, Warner believes you have to crush the test, scoring well above 760 in the 99th percentile.

How about Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business? You should aim for at least a 750, which would land you in the 98th percentile of all test takers.

And then there are some schools, such as the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where Warner believes a Chinese applicant needs to score a 770 to be considered competitive at an MBA program where the average is only 702.


That’s because Chinese candidates are so overrepresented in the applicant pools of many top U.S. business schools that a score anywhere near the average just isn’t going to cut it. And Michigan’s Ross School, is a very popular school among bright and ambitious Chinese young professionals.. “You have to have really big GMAT scores for Michigan,” he says. “A 750 is really not enough.”

Most MBA admission consultants will tell you that business schools are paying more attention to the GMAT than ever before, partly because of rankings pressure from U.S. News, which weighs GMAT scores in his ranking’s formula, and partly because more and more people are retaking the test to improve the scores they submit with their applications. But for Chinese and Indians applicants, in particular, the expectations are even greater.

China is the second largest GMAT test taking country in the world after only the U.S. The GMAT was taken 53,005 in China in the 2012-2013 testing year, more than half the 90,541 times it was taken in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the average score in China is 582, ninth best in the world. That’s 50 points higher than the U.S. average of 532. The stereotype that Asians are naturally good with math is, well, a stereotype. They are simply willing to work harder to get a high score on a test. GMAC research shows that the typical Chinese test taker studies more than 100 hours for the exam, compared to the 40 hours of study by Americans.


But these are all averages and to get into an elite business school, one has to score far above everyone else—and that is especially true for the Chinese. The prospective applicants that show up on Warner’s doorstep want to attend an M7 or Top 10 U.S. business school and that requires scores that are extremely high. “The schools expect the Chinese to have higher GMAT scores and they also expect the Chinese to bring up their overall GMAT averages,” says Warner, who has been working with Chinese applicants for the past ten years. “Schools that want to have a 700-plus average need people with higher GMAT scores. So they look to China and they look to India for people with higher GMATs. A 700 or a 690 is not good enough.”

As shocking as that may sound to many MBA applicants, in China it feels about right. Students are tested from an early age, preparing for the gaokao, or high test, the nine-hour exam that solely determines whether a student goes to college or university and which one. And the test is a national obsession.

“In China,” notes Warner, an affable American who grew up in Los Angeles, “they spent 18 years to prepare for a test that determines the fate of your life. So people will focus very hard on tests. They feel very comfortable studying for them and many Chinese score very high on the GMAT. There are a lot of 730s, 740s, and 750s. If they don’t have 750, they won’t be competitive with the other Chinese applicants who want to get into elite schools. They are going to have to take the test multiple times, and typically my clients will take it three to four times. I tell them expect to take it three times because you are probably going to have to. I have had clients who have taken it six times to get a 750.”


It’s not uncommon, says Warner, for his Chinese clients to study for six months straight, for ten to 12 hours a day, to achieve their high scores. “People have quit their jobs to focus on the GMAT and nothing else,” he says. “They will take it multiple times until they are able to get a score they are proud of. I had one client who took it six times to get a 750. He was committed. In his heart, he knew he had to get a high score and he was going to do everything he could to get that score. They are under a lot of pressure to do well on their GMATs so there is a lot of stress when it comes to the test.”

For a Chinese applicant, says Warner, the motivation is clear. “People focus on education as a way to get ahead in society. There is a natural tendency in China to study hard as a way to get ahead. If you do well in school, they believe it will open doors for you. And they focus only on the top schools. They are very brand sensitive. They want the best brand possible and will work as hard as they can in terms of their GMAT and TOEFL their essays and interview prep. They really believe that the better the brand, the better the opportunities.”

“From an early age, it is your parents’ mission to get you into Peking University because you will have better opportunities for your life. If you are poor, you will become rich. If you are rich, you will stay rich. If you ask older people in China what is their single biggest regret in life, eight out of ten will say they didn’t get into Peking University. If you ask people about their biggest failure, it’s the same thing. It’s so important.”

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