Three Reasons to Retake the GMAT While You Can

We’re just two months away from the first Round 1 deadlines for the 2010-2011 MBA admissions season, and one question that we frequently receive at this time of year is, “I took the GMAT and scored X… Should I take it again before I apply?”

Of course, the answer we give largely hinges on what exactly X is, but let’s make things interesting. Let’s throw out the obvious “Yes!” and “No!” scenarios and assume you scored a 680, with no particular weakness in either the quant or verbal half of the exam. You’re targeting no less than the five highest MBA programs in the rankings. While you’re comfortably in the middle-80% range for each school, you have a nagging fear that your GMAT score might contribute to a ding in a few months. What do you do?

Our money’s on retaking the GMAT. Why? Here are three reasons:

#1: Business schools truly do take your highest GMAT score.
Don’t believe it? It’s what admissions officers at nearly every top MBA program have told us. Still skeptical? Ask yourself this: When U.S. News asks each business school to report its student body’s mean GMAT scores for MBA ranking purposes, which scores do you think the schools submit? Each student’s lowest score? Heck no… If you have a 660 and a 700, they’ll gladly report the latter.

So, if you are worried about taking the test again and scoring lower, you shouldn’t be. The worst you’ll do is get a lower score, which schools will ignore. If you’re still worried, you can decline to send your score to any schools the day you take the test, and later ask GMAC to send an updated score report to your target schools, after you know how you did. There’s truly no downside here.

#2: On average, test takers boost their scores by 31 points on their second GMAT sitting.
None other than GMAC, the people behind the GMAT, reported this a few years ago (see page 5 in the PDF) that the average score gain from the first to second sitting is 31 points. Now, before all of you statistics buffs jump on us for not reporting the whole story, we urge you to read the whole report. Of course, that’s just an average, and your score could in fact go down. But, as GMAC notes on page 9 of the report, “The observed gains for repeat test-takers are greater than the gains one would expect solely based on measurement error.” So, even if you don’t do much additional GMAT preparation before taking the test again, on average, the odds are in your favor.

#3: If you’re applying soon, your GMAT score is one of the few things in your application that you can still change significantly.
We saved this argument for last since we think it’s actually the most important one. Almost all of those things are in your past and can’t be changed: your undergraduate transcript, your work experience, your community involvement, etc. Assuming you will apply soon, from today going forward, the only things you still control are: your GMAT score, your essays, your letters of recommendation, maybe additional college coursework, and your admissions interview.

Yes, how you present all of those backward-looking things will significantly impact your chances (and that’s what our MBA admissions consultants do), but what would you rather do — submit a 660 GMAT score along with a terrific optional essay explaining that you really can cut it at Stanford GSB, or a 700 with no explanation needed? Very few applicants are perfect, and admissions officers accept applicants with blemishes all the time, but why have that one additional blemish (or, at least, something that’s not a strength) on your application when you still have a chance to improve on it?

Different Answers at Different Times of Year
The question gets more interesting as you approach the admissions deadlines. With just two weeks to go before the Round 1 deadline, do you go full steam ahead with your 670 GMAT score, or do you try to take the GMAT again while you’re cramming on your essays and closely managing your recommendation writers? (Or do you take a breath, spend some more time on getting the GMAT score you can really achieve, and apply in Round 2? We normally recommend that approach.) What about if you’re faced with that decision right before the Round 2 deadline? What about Round 3?

It’s more a nuanced discussion in those cases, to be sure, but if you’re still two months away from your target deadlines, the answer is clear: Your GMAT score is still one of the few things you can significantly impact before you apply… Why not make take advantage of one more chance to improve it?

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Photo courtesy of Smath., under a Creative Commons license.