An interesting change has occurred in the ranges of Graduate Management Admission Test scores that gain applicants entry to the leading business schools in the United States. Not in the ranges themselves — those tend not to see too much fluctuation year to year, though we enjoy the occasional stories about interesting super-low scores that Wharton or Harvard or Stanford overlook to grant admission to one lucky applicant with an otherwise amazing application. And who knows? The admission cycle that is now underway — and that has lasted longer than anyone anticipated — could bring changes so sweeping that the lower end of the range of GMATs could sink to previously unheard-of depths.
No — the interesting change over the last three admissions cycles has been in how schools report the ranges — which is to say, what most report and what they don’t.
In 2017, most schools by far published the full ranges of their enrollees’ scores, replete with the wonderful low-500s tallies that spark the aforementioned feel-good features. The next year, the number of schools declining to provide that information to the public — preferring instead to publish the 80% range of scores in the middle of the spectrum, thus excluding the highest and lowest scores — jumped from four to 13, and grew again to 15 schools out of 25 in the 2018-2019 cycle.
Will the trend continue as the most interesting and disrupted application cycle in more than a decade continues? Signs point to yes.
NO INCENTIVE FOR SCHOOLS TO REPORT FULL RANGES
Why would business schools prefer to give the 80% range of their admits’ scores instead of the full range? There are several possibilities, Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, told Poets&Quants last year.
“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,” said Min, who joined the Boston-based admissions and career services consulting firm in 2007, adding that the 80% range “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.”
In an email Tuesday (March 31), Min says most adcoms still see the 80% range as a way to expand the applicant pool — and after three years of declining applications and the disruption of a global pandemic, that’s not likely to change soon.
“I don’t see the incentive for schools to report full ranges,” he says. “The one exception might be if one of the very top-tier school decides to report their full range, an ‘unraveling’ phenomenon could occur, but I personally don’t think that’s likely.
“We continue to have client successes with low test scores being admitted to top-tier schools. Of course, having higher test scores never hurts, but in the end, it is but one datapoint — that unfortunately too many applicants over-focus on — and we know all applications are looked at holistically, and in context.”
GMAT RANGES: SCHOOLS BY THE NUMBERS
Let’s look at the data for the 2018-2019 cycle, which this time next year may be viewed as the last batch of stats of an era: post-Great Recession, pre-coronavirus. Of the 11 schools that reported a full range of GMAT scores in 2018-2019, 10 had top scores of 780 or more, including Harvard Business School’s 800 — a perfect score. The lowest top score was not a low score by any means: 770 at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Of the 14 schools that publish an 80% range, the upper end of the range was 750 or 760 at five, including 760 at MIT Sloan School of Management and UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business.
But of course the most interesting numbers are the low ones. The lowest scorer to gain admission to one of the 11 schools with full ranges was someone who got into The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with a 540, which was still a much higher score than the 500-scorer admitted to Wharton the year before. Columbia Business School admitted someone with a 560, and HBS accepted an applicant who scored 590 on the GMAT. For 80% range schools, the lowest marks were 550 at Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business and 580 at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Total GMAT scores range from 200 to 800; two-thirds of test-takers score between 400 and 600, and the overall average among the hundreds of thousands who take the test annually is usually between 560 and 570, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.
Outside the United States, someone with a 500 gained admission to the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, while a 570 did not prevent HEC Paris from granting another applicant a spot in its MBA program. HEC Paris also had the highest score on the range among schools we examined, along with London Business School: 780.
UPWARD MOVEMENT FOR TEST SCORES?
Reporting 80% and not the full range of GMAT scores is an approach that leaves a bit to the imagination, Alex Min said in 2019, 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 said. “Likewise with the lower end of the spectrum: Putting 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.”
So many schools opting for the 80% approach reflects a “follow the herd” mentality, Min concluded. “Schools figure that if their peer programs are masking their full range and publishing only the middle 80%, then it’s probably safe to the do same.”
Will coronavirus and the disruption to application rounds it has caused lead to lower GMAT scores overall? Min says considering the recent release of an at-home option (launched to compete with an at-home Graduate Record Exam), the answer is: probably not.
“I do not think the global COVID-19 pandemic will result in lower overall GMAT scores,” Min says. “From the early indications we are seeing, the decrease in applicant volume we’ve seen over the past few years is reversing. A more competitive applicant pool should result in average GMAT scores at the top tier business schools to hold, or even go up possibly. An interesting side thought to consider is the option to take the test at home. Being in a comfortable environment, as opposed to a foreign test center, could also affect test score, upwardly.”
See the next page for the full three-year data breakdown on GMAT averages and ranges at the top 25 business schools.