Is Your GMAT Score 30 Points Below the Average Score of Your Target School?

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This post may resolve some of your dilemmas on retaking the test in such situations.

There are applicants who think they’ve blown away their chances of making it to top-ten schools after getting an unsatisfactory 720 in GMAT (this post holds good for GRE as well), cursing lapse of those few crucial moments of concentration while taking the test.

Though this example of 720 may be bit extreme, there are genuine cases of concern where applicants fall short of the average GMAT score of their target school by a tantalizing 30-odd points.

What do you do in such cases?

Do you retake the test?

Or, go with what you have, hoping for the best?

And, what if you fall short by a bigger margin, say, 60-odd points.

Given the multitude of variables that go into deciding an application’s fate, it’s difficult to offer a one-size-fits-all solution, though. Regardless, I’ll try to go as granular as possible in offering few guidelines that can help you when faced with such a situation.

Before answering these questions, let’s first understand why B-schools need a test score in the first place and how they interpret it.

(Note: Admission policies of schools and guidelines for standardized tests can change. Refer to their website for the most updated information.)

Role of GMAT score in the admission process

While considering your application for their forthcoming class, MBA programs primarily look at your track record of professional advancement, leadership experiences, organizational & teamwork skills, and academic excellence to decide whether to extend the journey of your application till interview or not.

For example, HBS mentions habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship as their criteria for evaluating applications; Stanford GSB mentions intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities & contributions; and Chicago Booth breaks down their criteria into even more detail under three broad categories of curriculum, community, and career.

If you notice, the criteria these schools look at are much more encompassing than just academic brilliance, and most schools follow similar criteria. It’s not difficult to see why. An MBA program is a professional course focused on producing future leaders – mainly business, and not academicians. Therefore, admission committees look for well-rounded students who are good in academics too. And not just one-dimensional academic nerds.

Your academic horsepower is measured by your test score, GPA of undergrad program (or post grad, if applicable), rigor and prestige of your undergrad program, and nature of professional or other experience (did it involve quant work?). Of these, test score assumes disproportionately high importance as it’s usually the most recent and the most objective (for example, same GPAs could mean very different things because of variations in difficulty of the program and grading systems).

Now, when the admission committee is evaluating your academic credentials, they are not looking at the next Fermat-theorem-solver. They only want to get convinced about your ability to cope up with the academic rigor of their program. Nothing more. So if you’ve a 780 in GMAT, it’s definitely better than, say, a 740, but only marginally. Once you cross 720 odd (close to average GMAT score of top schools), the admission committee is pretty much convinced (unless you’ve a disaster of a GPA, which you need to explain then) that you can cope up with their curriculum, and, therefore, the marginal benefit of additional 10+ increments to your score will be limited. That way, 710 is much better to 670 than 770 is to 720, even though the difference is more in the latter.

In that sense, your academic credentials, including test score, are just a hygiene factor – if you cross certain threshold, you tick the checkbox. Beyond that, you’ve to mainly prove your case through other parts of the application – essays, recommendations, resume, and interview.

Let’s now come to the questions which I posed in the beginning of this post.

Other posts you may find relevant:

Should I retake the test if my GMAT score is 30 points less than the average test score of my target school?

To recapitulate, higher the score the better it is, but the marginal benefit of additional 10 points diminishes rapidly once you cross the average test score of your target school.

But, here, your GMAT score (30 points less than the average) is on the lower side, though not bad.

Should I retake the test?

Yes, no, and maybe!

(Well, I said earlier that there can’t be a straightjacket, one-size-fit-all solution in a process which considers so many variables.)

Yes, if you are from an overrepresented, high test-scoring applicant pool such as software engineers from India or consultants, then you should consider retaking the test just to stay competitive with your peer group.

No, if you are from an underrepresented applicant pool such as entrepreneurs, war veterans, and countries from where only few apply, reason being that admission committee is more accommodative of such applicants because they add much-desired diversity to the class. Though, they can’t escape from convincing the admission committee of their ability to take the academic rigor of their program. A deficit of 30 points is not bad at all, nonetheless you can project your other academic credentials as well (elaborated in the next subheading) in order to bolster your case further.

Maybe, if you fall somewhere in between the two categories.

Whichever category you fall in, you might come to a situation where you can’t retake the test because either you’re fatigued (already taken thrice) beyond measure or you don’t have enough time, and would want to apply with the existing score?

In such cases, you can still present a solid application, minimizing the impact of a slightly sub-par test score. Specifically:

Project other evidences, if any, of your academic credentials

As mentioned earlier, the admission committee looks at other parts of your academic profile as well such as GPA, rigor and prestige of your undergrad program, and nature of professional or other experience, and if they are convinced that you can cope up with the academic rigor of their program, then you should be fine even with slightly sub-par score.

In her blog on 25th August 2014, Dee Leopold, Director, MBA Admissions at HBS, said this about how they look at test scores while evaluating an application:

Those are the numbers, but the reasoning behind how we look at the scores is probably important for you to understand. We care less about the overall score than we do about the components. And we look at the subscores in the context of the candidate’s profile.

For example, an engineer with top grades who’s been doing highly quantitative work doesn’t need a high GMAT/GRE-Q to convince us he/she is capable of doing the quantitative work at HBS. But an English major whose transcript shows no quantitative coursework and has not done anything quantitative professionally or in post-college academics would be helped by a strong GMAT/GRE quant score. The corollary is true too: candidates who don’t have a background that demonstrates extensive practice in reading and writing may be helped by strong verbal subscores [emphasis added].

And MIT Sloan:

We accept candidates with a wide range of test scores. If your GMAT is on the lower side, we’ll look to use other parts of your application to balance out that score. For example, we’ll look for strong academic work, and quantitative work experience.

An MBA program often considers test score at a level more granular (as mentioned by Dee Leopold above) than just the overall score. They look at your performance in both Quant and Verbal (though anecdotally the focus has been more on Quant) in conjunction with other aspects of your academic credentials, which you may project through, say, resume or data form in the online application.

In fact, you should be more concerned if you have a higher test score but a more lopsided distribution between Quant and Verbal, though as you go up in 700+ territory it’s unlikely to happen.

Do the best possible job of other parts of your application

Rich Lyons, Haas Dean, says:

Over 80% of the applicants with GMATs of 750 or above are not getting admitted to the school because we are trying to find the most balanced candidates who bring a lot to the dynamics of a class. The GMAT is just one element of the application.

Even a high score will not carry you through, if other parts of your application are not strong. It certainly cannot win the battle on its own, otherwise far greater percentage of applicants with 750+ score will make it to Haas.

Click here to see more evidence of applicants with stellar test scores and GPAs failing to make it to HBS. Other schools too, as seen in the example of Haas above, routinely ding applicants with similar exceptional academic profiles.

As covered earlier in the post, there are other factors too (which, unlike a test score, are not hygiene factors and where a good performance will not have a decreasing marginal benefit) which you should not lose sight of.

So, work your butt off on essays and recommendations. Produce the best you can.

Should I retake GMAT if I’ve 720?

If you belong to overrepresented groups such as consultants, investment bankers, and software professionals, you may be tempted to outcompete your peers at least on GMAT front by taking your score from 720 to 750+ (some even try to improve a 760, even though the improved score is of little additional value). That’s not completely illogical, and few GMAT-obsessed applicants do that. Far worse, few driven test-takers, more so in test-taking cultures, obsess with improving their GMAT score (despite a 720) as if the score itself is be-all and end-all of the admission process. As discussed earlier, it’s not. A score of 720 is right up there, beyond which you are not going to convince the admission committee of your academic ability any further.

Once you’ve that score, you can make a difference to your odds mainly through the rest of your application, and not by further increasing your test score. For example, if you are a software engineer from India, an articulation (in your essays and recommendation) on how and why you are different from your peer group will be much more impactful than a jump from 720 to 760 on GMAT.

Moreover, seeing 720 and, say, 760 both on your GMAT transcript, your application-reviewer may even doubt your prioritization skills – allocating time to GMAT, even though not warranted, than to the rest of your application. Well, it may not affect your odds of admission on its own, but it may when seen in combination with other red flags in your application.

All said, bottom-line is that why would you spend few more weeks on improving a test score which is unlikely to improve your odds of admission. Rather, you can better utilize this time by working more intently on your essays and recommendations.

Should I retake the test if my GMAT falls short of the average test score of my target school by more than 60 points?

If that is the case, then you are most certainly outside the middle 80% GMAT range of admitted applicants of most top schools.

That’s a relatively low score, and you should retake the test.

A good GMAT score can’t get you in, but a low score can keep you out.

There are always exceptions where applicants make it to top-10 schools with even a 600 in GMAT. Such applicants usually have something exceptional (unusual or extremely successful professional career, diversity, leadership experience, other evidences of academic excellence etc.) in their profile, which you may not have. Therefore, in order to give a fair chance to your essays and recommendations to work for you, you should strive to bring this large gap (of more than 60 points) down.

Here is what Tuck says in this regard:

Tuck, like most schools, does not require a minimum GMAT score, and we accept a wide range of scores, so if you are below the average GMAT, don’t write the school off.  But if your GMAT score is significantly below the school’s average, you might want to think about retaking it or adjusting your list of target schools [emphasis added].


If your GMAT score is 30 points or so below the average GMAT score of your target school and

  • if you belong to an over-represented, high test-scoring applicant pool, you should consider retaking the test.
  • if you belong to an underrepresented applicant pool, you may not retake the test.

In case, you decide to apply with the same, slightly sub-par score, then you should focus on projecting other evidences of your academic ability (say, in your resume or fields in the online application) and doing a stellar job of your essays and recommendations.

If you’ve a GMAT score of 720 or so, then any further increase in your score will not be of much value. Rather, you should invest that time in the rest of your application.

And, if your GMAT score is 60 points or so below the average GMAT score of your target school, then consider retaking the test.

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