What Is A Good GMAT Score? Do Percentiles Matter?

What's a good GMAT score?


As Poets&Quants has reported in articles like Columbia GMATs Soar 8 Points To A Record 732, top business schools work hard to recruit students with high GMAT scores.  Why do MBA programs care so much about the GMAT?

The GMAT Proves Your Academic Abilities to Schools (and Employers)

The first reason that schools care about your GMAT is that they want you to succeed in the classroom.  MBA curricula include subjects like finance, economics and data analytics, and having a respectable GMAT score will prove to the school that you can handle these courses.  MBA programs also know that some employers, including consulting firms, use the GMAT as a screening tool to decide which students will receive interview invitations for internships and full-time jobs.

But this isn’t the only reason that MBA programs care about the GMAT…

The GMAT Drives MBA Rankings

In the latest U.S. News MBA ranking, test scores constitute 16% of the total ranking calculation.  This doesn’t sound like much until you consider the fact that the GMAT is one of the only metrics that the school can change in the short term.  Other larger parts of the ranking are very difficult to influence.  Although 25% weight is given to surveys of “peer deans” — at 475 accredited US MBA programs! — it is nearly impossible to influence how these 475 deans will rank a school from one year to the next.  Does anyone have a truly informed opinion on 475 MBA programs?  Likewise, the 15% weight on employer surveys is very difficult to influence because there are so many employers.  Furthermore, MBA career development offices are already doing everything they possibly can to impress these companies!

Think of the GMAT as being similar to a “swing state” in US elections.  It may carry a very small overall weight, but can often be the decisive factor in the contest.  For this reason, schools always value a higher GMAT score, and your chances of admission will increase as you increase your GMAT score — with no upper limit.  This is because admitting a student with a higher GMAT score can benefit a school in two ways:

  • First, they can increase their average GMAT, and therefore their ranking at U.S. News.

To a certain point, this is very attractive.  Schools want to match or just slightly beat peer schools in terms of their GMAT scores.  But schools don’t want GMAT scores to climb forever — a 740+ GMAT average would scare off many potential applicants, who would not apply because they feel that their GMAT scores are “not good enough”.  This brings us to the second reason, which explains why schools still value a higher GMAT even if they don’t want to raise their average.

  • They can accept you, and set off your higher GMAT score against another great applicant with a lower GMAT score, thereby maintaining their GMAT average while increasing the diversity of the class. For example, they might be able to admit a successful entrepreneur whose GMAT score is a bit lower because English is not her native language.

So, raising your GMAT can be an important part of winning MBA acceptance.  As my former client, admitted to Wharton and Booth, comments in their Poets&Quants review: David pushed me to raise my GMAT score. Despite my initial hesitation, I decided to move forward with the process and worked tirelessly with a tutor David recommended, ultimately bumping up my score by 50 points!

So, What is a Good GMAT Score?

This depends on many factors.  You shouldn’t think in terms of “good” and “bad” GMAT scores, but in terms of “How much time and effort would it take me to raise my GMAT score?  Would that be the most efficient way for me to increase my chances of MBA admission?”

The factors to consider when deciding how much to study for the GMAT include:

  • Which MBA programs you are targeting, and their average GMAT scores. The top MBA programs, HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Columbia, and MIT Sloan, are all in a tight group from 728 – 732 as of the Class of 2020.
  • Will you be competing with many MBA applicants with similar professional, personal. and educational backgrounds, or is your pre-MBA background distinctive?
  • Are you a naturally skilled test taker who can rapidly increase your score with a small amount of study, or does each point cost a lot of blood, sweat, and tears?
  • How much do scholarships matter to you? (A high GMAT score is one part of increasing your chances to win merit-based scholarships.)

We layout a clear decision tree for figuring out whether to retake the GMAT at Is Your GMAT Score Good Enough?

Do GMAT Percentiles Matter?

Finally, let’s dispel an old myth.  Most top MBA programs have acceptance rates that range from 6% to 30%, and it seems only logical that a school that rejects 80% of all applicants might want to admit students who score at the 80th percentile on the GMAT.  Although this sounds logical, it ignores one huge issue: there are many GMAT test takers who score highly but have professional backgrounds that would not qualify them for admission to top MBA programs.

In particular, there are a large number of international GMAT test-takers who were educated in STEM fields.  These test takers boast excellent scores on the quantitative section; Q50 or even a perfect Q51 is common.  However, their average scores on verbal are lower because English is their second language, and this means that the high quantitative score might be paired with a low verbal score such as V30.  These extreme scores distort the picture, lowering everyone else’s percentiles on the quantitative section, and raising them on the verbal section.  But, many of these test-takers have worked exclusively in back-end engineering jobs, with no leadership roles, no international exposure, and no contact with clients or business partners.  Because of their work history, they are likely to be declined by MBA programs, and how your quant score stacks up against theirs just doesn’t matter.

With a few caveats, described at GMAT Percentiles (And Why They Don’t Really Matter), your focus should be on raising your total score rather than trying to hit a target like an 80th percentile score in each section.

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David White was recognized as the #1 most favorably reviewed consultant of Poets&Quants in 2018, and is a founding partner at Menlo Coaching. His 15-year tech career included executive roles at startups (Efficient Frontier, acquired by Adobe) and publicly traded companies (Yahoo, Travelzoo), during which time he hired, trained and developed dozens of young professionals. He has been coaching MBA applicants since 2012 with a special focus on developing the right career goals.