Despite App Declines, Top 25 Schools Still Boost GMAT Averages

Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that if a school receives fewer applications, it would most likely end up with an incoming class that would have a slightly lower average standardized test score. After all, if there are fewer applicants from which to pick a class, it stands to reason that there would be fewer high test scores in the batch.

But when it comes to business school average GMAT scores–a core metric in the annual U.S. News’ ranking of the best full-time MBA programs-that’s just not the case. The early data, in fact, suggests the exact opposite, with many school reporting record averages for the test. Although only two of the top 25 U.S. MBA programs bucked the downtrend in MBA applications this past year, 19 schools are reporting average GMAT scores that either equal or exceed their year-earlier averages.

In fact, slightly ore than half of the top 25–13 to be exact–are publishing higher averages than they had last year. At Columbia Business School, where applications fell by 2.6%, this year’s average class GMAT soared eight points to a record 732 to equal Stanford, Wharton, and Kellogg for the first time. Those four schools now boast the highest average which puts their scores at the 96th percentile of those who have sat for the GMAT, meaning that only 4% of test takers scored higher. Columbia now says the average GMAT score for its entire applicant pool is now 713–152 points above the average GMAT score for all test takers of 561. After a 4.3% drop in applications, MIT Sloan managed to increase its class average GMAT score by six points to 728, also a record.


Even more astounding, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business saw a 16.7% falloff in applications, a decline that was exacerbated by the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., last August. But Darden boosted its average GMAT number by five points to a record 718. And after MBA applications fell 8.5% at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, the average GMAT this year went up by four points to a record 720.

NYU Stern, UCLA Anderson, and Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business all reported average GMAT scores that were three points higher this year. Yet Emory saw a 6.8% drop in apps, and Stern experienced a 3.7% decline. At least, UCLA Anderson was able to eke out a 3.3% increase in applications to help it rise the average GMAT score for this year’s incoming class to 719, also a record.

Of course, these days GMAT scores are only part of the picture. Increasingly, schools are enrolling more MBA students who submitted GRE scores and at several schools average GREs are now on an uptrend trend as well. At Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, only one of two top 25 schools to buck the downward trend in apps, 15% of the 287 students in the school’s Class of 2020 got into Tuck with a GRE, with the verbal average at 163, up from 161 last year, and the quant average at 161, up from 158 a year earlier–all records.


Scott Shrum of Veritas Prep

Many of these highly selective business schools, of course, have applicant pools of significant depth so that anything other than a dramatic decline in applications would not really impact reported academic or test scores. “Many of the top schools talk about how they could easily fill their class at least once more with great applicants from the pool of denied applicants each year,” says Scott Shrum, president of Veritas Prep. “So, even if you trim away 5-10% of applicants, there are still plenty of fish in the sea in terms of looking for very competitive applicants with strong numbers. And if applications are dropping and schools are becoming even more hyper focused on rankings–getting more pressure from the dean and so on–then they still will have plenty of high-powered applicants to choose from.”

Underlying these higher scores, however, is evidence of how important this metric has become in MBA admissions. “I think there is an inadvertent race going on,” believes Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “The decline in number of overall applicants to business schools compels the schools to make themselves more attractive to potential candidates than their peer schools. One way to do this is to maintain, if not improve, their published rankings, and higher average GMAT scores is one obvious way to do that. As applicants see those average scores rise, they’re highly motivated to make themselves more competitive by maxing out their GMAT scores. Given today’s liberal policy for score cancellation and re-testing, and the abundance of low-priced test tutors, MBA candidates have few constraints in pushing higher and higher GMAT scores.”

The rise in GMATS have also been aided by changes in the test. Three years ago, for example, the average GMAT score was 547. Today, it’s 14 points higher at 561. “Over the past several years, GMAC has introduced score cancelation policies that are far more applicant-friendly than they used to be,” explains Shrum. “In 2014, they started letting applicant see their unofficial scores before deciding whether or not to cancel them. In 2015, they stopped including canceled scores in the score reports that applicants send to schools. They also gave applicants the ability to cancel their scores after walking out of the test center, up to 72 hours after taking the test. More than a quarter of test takers were canceling their scores. GMAC also started letting people retake the test just 16 days after the previous exam. Add it all up, and applicants are able to take more shots at the test, and submit more favorable scores to schools when they finally do well.”

Shrum also believes that the increased numbers of people who are now submitting GRE scores has led to an increase in GMAT numbers in applicant pools. “With more students taking the GRE for MBA admissions, this may be causing the following effect: Applicants continue to see the GRE as the ‘easier; test, and some who are scared off by the GMAT end up fleeing to the GRE, leaving behind a more competitive pool of people who focus on the GMAT.”

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