The only constant is change. In the business school universe, it happens fast and often. Sometimes changes are small, but even these can have a big impact.
Here’s a case in point. Among the top 25 schools, only four neglected to publish the full range of Graduate Management Admission Test scores for the fall of 2017’s incoming MBAs students. That range, for an elite school, typically looks like this: 530-780, or 580-790. Sometimes the first number can be quite low: In 2017, someone got into Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business with a 510 score. The full range of GMAT scores shows us how even the best schools are willing to overlook a bad score in favor of … what? Certain other qualities, among them a host of intangibles. It’s a question of hope. In 2018, for example, we know that Wharton admitted someone with a 500 — which, if nothing else, sends the message that anything is possible.
We know about Wharton’s 500 admit despite a small change that seems to be happening at other leading schools. Between 2017 and last fall, schools opting not to publicly release the very lowest and the very highest scores on the spectrum of admits — preferring instead to release the “80% range,” or all scores between the 10th and 90th percentiles — tripled from four to 12. Now, more than half (13 schools, including the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, which publishes neither number), won’t tell the public, or inquiring reporters, the full range of GMAT scores for each admitted class.
Why does that matter? For one thing, it means we don’t get to imagine the qualities of a candidate who overcame a bad day of testing (or bad testing abilities, period) to gain admission to their dream school. But another view is that including the full range of GMAT scores might actually be a disservice to potential applicants.
“Personally, I think that the middle 80% gives prospective students more information than a straight range,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Chalk it up to exceptionalism, but the minute you put in a number in the 500s students will think they are going to be that one who gets to take home the big prize of getting into a school that normally takes students with scores between 710 and 760. A middle-80% range helps a student understand what is a stretch school for them and what is a possible.”
SCHOOLS FOLLOWING THE HERD ON GMAT REPORTING?
GMAC, the Graduate Management Admission Council, administered a total of 242,714 GMAT exams around the world in testing year 2018, which ran from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018. These examinees sent a total of 493,101 score reports to graduate-level management programs across the globe. The average of all scores was 565, up from 558 in 2016. Many test takers scored perfect 800s on the test in 2018, as they do every year; far fewer were so unprepared as to score lower than 400: the lowest score anyone had last year was 220 (200 is the absolute lowest it is possible to score on the exam). GMAC further reports that the middle 80% range of GMAT scores in test year 2018 was 400 to 700.
But why would business schools prefer to give the 80% range of their admits instead of the full range? There are several possibilities, says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, a consulting firm providing admissions and career services. It’s a small change but one with a potentially big effect.
For one, “This approach provides adcoms greater flexibility to consider and admit otherwise attractive applicants who have low scores without implying the school has officially lowered its overall admissions standards,” Min tells Poets&Quants. Moreover, “This approach expands the applicant pool by preventing applicants from knowing how close to the bottom of the full range they really are. A candidate with a 620 is less likely to apply if he sees the lowest score for all admits was 630. However, that same candidate might give it a shot if he sees the lowest score in the middle 80% is 660.”
It’s an approach that leaves a little to the imagination, Min says, and that can be appealing for applicants. Without knowing the actual highest score, the more high-scoring applicants might envision themselves at the upper end of the GMAT range. “A candidate with a 710 is more likely to apply if the top end of the middle 80% is 700 than if top end of the full range is 750,” he says.
So many schools opting for the 80% approach reflects a “follow the herd” mentality, Min concludes. “Schools figure that if their peer programs are masking their full range and publishing only the middle 80%,” he says, “then it’s probably safe to the do same.”
FOCUS ON THE SIGNAL AND NOT THE NOISE
Betsy Massar’s view, however, shared by many, is that the 80% range is a gift to would-be applicants.
“As a consultant, I think it is more responsible for schools to give the middle 80%,” she says, “so students can get a sense of what the vast majority of students have scored in the previous year. In statistics-speak, that extra 20% around the edges is noise. First, because no one is looking at the upper band – people tend to think that the 20% number is all in the bottom quintile. Second, because the very lowest score could be a huge outlier, so better to see where the normal distribution falls. Third — in admissions, we have zero idea what the rest of those applicants’ profiles look like. We don’t know if they have A’s in organic chemistry and they just don’t take tests well.
“I really want my students to get in, and encourage them to apply to every school they want to go to (no downside!). But I also don’t want students to end up thinking that they have a great shot at a school because they are considering data that leads them to make over-optimistic assumptions about their profile. I’d rather they focus on the signal, in statistics-speak, which is the middle 80%, than the noise, the outlier numbers, to draw conclusions about where they want to focus their efforts.”
BREAKING DOWN THE DATA
Poets&Quants found some interesting nuggets in the GMAT score range data from 2018. As mentioned above, The Wharton School admitted someone with a 500 score — the lowest reported score among the top 25 schools. Among the 12 top-25 schools that provided a full range of scores, four others admitted someone — or multiple someones — with sub-600 scores: Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (590), Columbia Business School (530), New York University’s Stern School of Business (590), and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (530). On the other end of the range, only Harvard Business School confirmed an 800 admit, but five of the other top seven schools reported a high score of 790.
The average low for the 12 schools for which we have the full range: 540.77. The average high: 781.67. In terms of average scores, most top schools have seen their average rise in the last three years; click here for a complete picture of the top 50 U.S. schools.
Outside the U.S., as usual, the bag is mixed. Three of seven schools we studied randomly have seen their mean GMAT scores rise; five of the seven publicized their most recent cohorts’ full GMAT range. That’s how we know someone with a 500 got into the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and someone with a 510 gained admission to Oxford University’s Said Business School. Oxford also was the only school out of seven to report admitting an 800.
(See the next page for a full list of the top 25 U.S. schools and their GMAT score ranges and score averages for the last three years.)