GMAT Tip of the Week: Good, Better, Best. When Can You Let Your GMAT Score Rest?

GMAT scores are frustrating entities.  If you’re like most students, you work hard to maximize your score, and once you have a score you feel is competitive you inevitably start to wonder whether it’s really “good enough.”  Many a student has said something to the extent of “my dream goal is 700+ but I’d be happy with anything over 650”, then scored 680 and called her tutor to say “I’m so excited – I scored 680!  Thankyouthankyouthankyou!!!!  But I’m thinking of retaking it…”

On the other end of the spectrum, many a candidate has looked at the middle 80% range at his elite target school, seen that his 640 forms  that lower border, and said “great – I’m in the range…no need to worry about the GMAT again!”

And then there’s that guy that everyone hates – the guy who scores 730 and goes on every GMAT forum and attends every free GMAT seminar declaring his intentions to the newbies in the room:  “I have a 730 but it’s imperative to me to know which strategies will help me get to 770.”

What these stories all have in common is this thread – people really don’t know when their GMAT score is good enough.  The MBA admissions process twists and turns ones nerves inside out and the GMAT requires such a focus on numbers and quantitative analysis that, at a certain point, applicants’ heads are spinning when it comes to how their scores will really impact their applications.  With that in mind, here are some guidelines to consider when assessing your own GMAT performance.

You Should Strongly Consider Retaking the GMAT If:

1) Your score is flirting with the bottom of that middle 80% range at your schools (or below)
It’s easy to look at that range, see that it includes your score, and think “they accept applicants like me!” or “I’m good – I’m right in their range”, but consider the facts about the bell curve distribution of GMAT scores.  There are considerably fewer people who score at the top end of that range (for example, at NYU Stern it’s 660 to 760…only 1% of all test-takers score 760 or higher whereas about 3% of test-takers score 660, exactly), and if all things are otherwise equal the schools have an incentive to admit those with higher scores.  Meaning this – those who are admitted with scores near or below that bottom-of-the-middle-80% threshold tend to stand out quite a bit.  Sure, it happens, and most schools have stories about that one student with a 580 who they admitted anyway, but chances are you’re not that student.  A 630 and a call from a senator or a Fortune 500 CEO may well get you into Harvard, but a 630 and an application story more consistent with the typical Harvard MBA applicant isn’t likely to help your cause.

If your score is more than 20-30 points below the median/mean scores at your target school, you could certainly benefit from boosting your score.  Remember, it’s not enough to just “be qualified” when considering a top business school; top schools have to reject a higher number of qualified applicants than they can accept, so you need to find ways to stand out.  If your GMAT score is already pulling you down below the “average” candidate at that school, your application needs to stand out all the more.  If you have the opportunity to hit or exceed the average score, you add quite a bit of value to your application.

Now, retaking the GMAT doesn’t guarantee that you’ll improve your score, so also consider:

2) You know you left some points on the table
This is an important consideration that many fail to consider – how likely is it that you’ll raise your score?  If you’re in an acceptable-but-maybe-not-amazing score range for your target schools, a higher GMAT score can certainly help quite a bit.  But how do you know you’ll get that higher score?

Reflect on your recent GMAT performance.  Do you know that you fouled up your pacing?  Did you spend so much time working on quant that you overlooked the verbal and actually went down on what you considered to be your stronger suit?  Do you remember making silly mistakes that must have cost you?  Were you sick/exhausted/distracted on test day or leading up to it?  If you can pinpoint reasons that “I should have scored 20-30 points higher, easy, and I know how to fix that” you’re a prime candidate to retake the test.  If you feel like everything went as well as it could have, though, you may need to consider the Return-on-Investment of time and money retaking the test.  Would you be better off taking on more responsibility in a community organization to demonstrate leadership?  Working toward a potential promotion at work?  Spending time on your application essays to perfect your story?

3) You can actively do something to improve your score
Again, retake doesn’t necessarily mean “improvement”.  But if you know that you can use a higher score and have a plan in place to improve it, there’s a good chance you can do so.  This requires a change in plans, though – simply rereading the same books or going back to the library with the newest version of the Official Guide isn’t going to do it.  What can you do differently?  Do you need to take some math classes to get more comfortable with quantitative operations?  Should you consult a tutor or study with friends who have  been more successful?  Did you employ practice tests as part of your regimen previously?  If you can find ways to constructively approach improvement, then a retake is likely a good idea.

4) Your score is unbalanced
In the GMAT blogo/forum/twittersphere it’s quite common to throw around that 3-digit number between 200-800 as the be-all, end-all number, but schools do look closely at the section scores for quant and verbal.  The “golden ratio” of GMAT scores is 80th percentile quant, 80th percentile verbal, and 700+ overall (which is all but guaranteed if you’ve hit the 80-80 mark).  If your 700 consists of a 99th percentile score on one section but a 60th on the other, that 700 may be a bit of fool’s gold…it’s a 700 that doesn’t hold up as well under close inspection.  If your score is particularly unbalanced, you probably need to consider pulling up your weaker score, particularly if  there’s nothing else in your application to do that for you.  If you’re a mechanical engineer with a 70th percentile quant and 95th percentile verbal, your quant score probably isn’t too much to worry about as the math scores on your college transcript will compensate; if you’re an engineer with a 65th percentile verbal score and not many “soft skills” on your resume, you have some work to do.

5) Your application as a whole leaves something to prove
As mentioned above, if your background doesn’t show much quantitative ability and your quant score is low, you pretty much need a high (75th percentile plus) quantitative score to prove to quant-heavy schools like Columbia or NYU that you have the math chops to compete.  If your undergraduate transcript is lackluster, you probably need a GMAT at or above the school’s average to show that you’re a serious student.  Again, those who are admitted with scores at the lower end of a school’s range tend to stand out exceptionally in other ways with work experience, academic record, etc.  If your application betrays a few weaknesses, or even if it just screams “solid, but nothing spectacular”, you’ll be much more competitive with a GMAT score that pulls the school average up than with one that drags it down, even if only slightly.  The Peace Corps volunteer turned tech entrepreneur with the 3.9 from Princeton is probably set with a 660; the more-typical candidate needs to stay as competitive as possible on the standardized dimensions, so keep that in mind as you consider your score.

On the other hand, some candidates would probably not be well-advised to retake the GMAT.  You’re probably better off sticking with your score if:

1) You’ve done everything you can to improve and hit a plateau
No one is telling to you to “give up”, but you may want to be plausible.  If, on your fourth attempt at the GMAT, you eked out a 680 and felt like you exhausted your return on investment of time and money spent with a tutor, dozens of books, practice tests, and smartphone apps, lunch breaks with the Official Guide and road trip weekends skipped in favor of the library, it may be time to start focusing on the other aspects of your application and leaving well enough alone.  As mentioned above, at any top business school it’s not enough to simply be “qualified” – you’ll need to stand out in essays, interviews, and recommendations.  And if you spend the next few months exiled to a study corral at the library with minimal hope of anything more than 10 more points on the GMAT, that’s bound to affect your application in other ways.  Spend time volunteering, participating in extracurriculars, taking on new responsibilities at work, visiting schools and talking to admissions personnel, etc.  Round out your application.  No one, with the exception of the authors of this blog perhaps, should spend multiple years focusing on the GMAT.

2) Other parts of your application will compensate
If your quantitative score on the GMAT is decent-but-not-great, that’s certainly frustrating.  But if you’ve worked in a quantitative role, or if you have plenty of math classes on your transcript, or you’ve recently enrolled in local finance or math classes to bolster those skills, you’re showing the admissions committee what it needs to see.  And if your score is near the  bottom of that middle 80% range but your boss can’t wait to recommend you for her alma mater, particularly on the strength of your recent promotion, you have some other assets that can carry your application forward.

3) You just can’t stomach it anymore
Sadly, the GMAT becomes a white whale for at least some prospective MBAs, and it doesn’t need to be.  If the GMAT has alienated you from friends and family, considerably set back your fitness and dietary habits, or just impacted your enjoyment of everyday life, it may be time to just apply with your score the way it is.  Even if you need to reapply next year or work your way off the waitlist, sometimes the best way to succeed on a task like the GMAT is to give it a break and come back with a fresh mindset.

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