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The GMAT in MBA Admissions: Fact and Fiction


Most people hate the GMAT, but few understand its role and importance in MBA admissions. Consequently, debates about its role in admissions have consumed forests. Gazillions of electrons have zapped around the Internet arguing about it. Applicants, admissions professionals, and anyone remotely involved in MBA admissions have considered, analyzed, speculated about, and perhaps bickered over the GMAT.

Let's examine four of the most common truisms/myths about the GMAT.

"The GMAT is the most important part of your application."

Definitely true much of the time. ;-).

If your GMAT is more than thirty points below your target school's average GMAT, it could place you at a disadvantage and force the rest of your application to work overtime. You would have to present something most compelling to overcome that kind of a GMAT deficit at a competitive top school. Indeed, if you come from a common applicant background or a group that tends to do well on the GMAT, a below average score could keep you out -- even if the rest of your application is competitive.

Sometimes at a lower ranked school - a school scrambling to move up in the MBA rankings - an above-average GMAT score can boost your chances. Assuming that you have no glaring weaknesses in the rest of your profile, a high GMAT can mean acceptance and perhaps a fellowship.

Finally, the GMAT is critical when you are applying with a below average GPA. In that case, you need a few post-college A's and a high GMAT to show that you have the intellectual ability and self-discipline for a demanding MBA program. (For more information on applying with low stats, please see "MBA Admissions: Low GMAT or GPA.")

So when is this truism mostly myth? When you have an average or above average score and apply to top-fifteen programs. Your great GMAT will not assure acceptance at those schools. At that point, your GMAT score becomes virtually irrelevant in the decision-making process. For example, Pete Johnson, Haas Admissions Director, said in a Fall 2003 Haas MBA admissions chat, "We had 187 applicants last year with GMAT scores over 750, and we rejected 75% of them--mostly because they were not accomplished in other ways that were important to us."

"The GMAT has nothing to do with your ability to succeed in business and isn't/shouldn't be that important to business schools."

A high GMAT score has not correlated to professional success as far as I know, but has correlated closely to success in the first year of business school. And that's one of the reasons MBA admissions folks care about your score.

In addition, that three-digit number enables the schools to compare you to other applicants using a relatively objective, across-the-board criterion. Unlike grades or work experience or even more subjective intangibles, the GMAT is something that all top business school applicants must take.

Finally, US News uses the GMAT as a factor in its highly influential rankings. Schools want to do well in the rankings, and students with high scores make them look good. As much as rankings influence applicants, rankings also influence admissions' behavior.

Combine its predictive value for business school - not business - success with its objective qualities and influence on the rankings, and the GMAT becomes an important element in the MBA admissions equation.

"The GMAT can keep you out of b-school, but it can't get you in."

Usually 100% correct. A low GMAT can certainly keep you out of business school. Can a high score get you in? Only to a school that wants to use your GMAT to make itself look good. These schools are usually outside the top ten.

A high GMAT relative to the school's average could help you get in because your test score will contribute to a higher average score for the school and perhaps a slightly higher ranking when US News hits the newsstand.

"The schools only care about the quant score on the GMAT."

Ding-dong. Sorry, this one is wrong.

Business schools are generally more concerned with the quant score, but they really do prefer a balanced strong score. The top schools use the 80th percentile as a guideline for both verbal and quant. They want students who can read and write, as well as add, subtract, divide, multiply and perform a host of more complex mathematical functions.

And yes, b-schools will cut international applicants a little slack, but they will not ignore a low verbal score. It can hurt you.

"Yes Virginia, the GMAT is important when applying to b-school."

So we have two statements that are mostly true and two that are almost all myth. But the key to understanding the GMAT's role is recognizing that its role and significance is fluid. It changes depending on circumstance.

The GMAT is an important element in admissions decisions at top business schools. Its influence in the admissions process depends on the distance of your overall and separate scores from the school's average, whether your score is above or below that average, and how much the school is trying to raise or maintain its average GMAT.

You can't ignore it, wave it away with a magic wand, or even wish it out of significance. You need to prepare and study for the GMAT. Do the best job you can and earn the best GMAT score you're capable of.

Then develop the rest of your profile so that you provide the schools with many reasons to admit you. With your best GMAT score and a well-rounded, multi-dimensional profile revealed in your essays, recommendations, and interviews, your GMAT won't keep you out and the other facets of your background and experience can earn you the coveted fat envelope of acceptance.

By Linda Abraham, Founder and President of Accepted.com


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Navigating the MBA Maze
5 Fatal Flaws
Best Practices in MBA Admissions Webinar