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!
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.