High Overall but Low AWA Score: Should I Retake the GMAT?

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You just got a 740 on GMAT.


One step close.

After few weeks you receive your AWA score.



You start wondering, “How is 3.5 going to affect my odds of getting admission? And should I retake the test just for that?”

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

Before answering these questions, first let’s see what GMAC, the organization that owns and conducts GMAT, says on assessment of AWA score.

According to this table, you start entering the red zone when your AWA score dips below 4.0.

A low AWA score, though, may not dent your chances in isolation unless it’s too low, but can work against you subtly when juxtaposed with other parts of your application. Here is how:

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Are your essays too polished for your AWA score?

If you’ve a bad, say 3.0, AWA score, and your essays ooze the class of a Pulitzer awardee, it may raise suspicion that your essays are not your work – either excessively edited or completely written by someone else.

In 2010, Penn State, after discovering 29 cases of plagiarism in admission essays, became the first B-school to announce the use of anti-plagiarism software, Turnitin. And, after more such exposes in subsequent years, more and more schools have started using this software.

This software, though, has limitations. It can detect only those cases of plagiarism where applicants use exact same language from either published work including that on web or unpublished work including application essays from previous years which form part of Turnitin’s huge database. It cannot, for obvious reasons, detect cases where applicants submit original essays, though written by someone else.

So, a quick, effective way for admission committee to get hold of such cases is to detect excessive difference between the writing styles of an applicant in AWA section and the essays. It should be excessive, though. Something that stands out. In fact, GMAC specifically mentions this part in its evaluation criteria of AWA score:

Consider that the scores are based on 30-minute, first-draft writing samples. They are not comparable to prepared essays that may be submitted with a school application.

Evaluating communication skills especially of international applicants

Although verbal section of GMAT or GRE measures the ability to comprehend English, it does not test your written communication skills, which are so important to survive, let alone succeed, in a B-school and thereafter in job (video by GMAC), where you’ll be routinely required to write persuasive presentations, reports, and emails.

In an internal study,  of admission data and employment outcomes of more than 1,000 MBA graduates, Rotman School of Management has found that AWA score is a much stronger predictor of an applicant’s post-MBA employability risk (which is one of the most important concerns of any B-school) than the overall GMAT score. And, as a result, they are more deliberate in keeping AWA score in mind while taking admission decisions.

The importance of AWA score may or may not be this pronounced for other schools, but it may count if your score is disastrous, because written communication skills do matter.

Therefore, for an international applicant whose first language is not English, admission committee relies on AWA score in combination with tests such as TOEFL to make a judgment about her/ his ability to communicate effectively through written words.

Thus, for an international applicant, a poor AWA score may leave doubts about her/ his candidacy despite a good GMAT score without any other evidence of strong written communication skills such as exposure to English language in college or job, or through observations of the recommenders.

So, what’s a safe AWA score?

Admission committees are generally much more tolerant of a low AWA score than a low total score not just because total score is a reflection of your ability to cope up with the rigorous curriculum of an MBA program, but also because it’s the one (and not AWA score) that is reported for B-school rankings.

Like any test score, higher the AWA score, the better it is. But a score of 4.0 or above should be fine. Even GMAC’s evaluation criteria of AWA score find scores of 4.0 or above to be ‘adequate’ or better.

But if it’s less than 4.0, then it could be a cause of concern, more so in cases where your application lacks other instances of strong communication skills.

NYU Stern, for example, has additional requirement if your AWA score is below 4.0:

Admitted students with Writing Assessment scores below 4.0 on either test with their highest total score will be required to take an additional business writing course prior to the start of classes.

Remember top schools receive 4-10 times more applications than the number of admissions they  offer, so you don’t want to give them a conspicuous reason for weeding your application out.

Should I retake the test, if I’ve a 740 GMAT score and an AWA score of 3.5?

It’s one of those grey areas where you can’t have one emphatic answer.

Nevertheless, if you fall into any of the two categories (described earlier in the post), then it’s better to take the test once more and improve your AWA score especially if you’re applying to top schools. You don’t want to leave any room for doubts.

But if you’re test-fatigued or you don’t have enough time, then your best bet is to write thoughtful essays and get good recommendations.

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