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March 31, 2009


We're happy to present an interview ManhattanGMAT recently held with Graham Richmond, a former admissions officer at Wharton and now an admissions consultant with Clear Admit. Our discussion focuses on how business schools evaluate the GMAT as part of your application package.

Manhattan GMAT: Why do business schools require applicants to take the GMAT?

Graham Richmond: For a variety of reasons. First, they see it as a measure of certain specific math and verbal skills. Second, they see it as a measure of your ability to think under pressure - the exam is timed. Third, it allows them to compare the academic preparation of people from very different backgrounds. A high GPA from one college, for example, may not represent the same level of achievement as a high GPA from another - but the GMAT allows business schools to level the field, so to speak. Finally, it is important to remember that business schools are evaluated in several areas for the purposes of published MBA rankings, and that the average GMAT score of the incoming class is one of those areas. As such, the schools do have an additional incentive to require candidates to take the test (and to ideally accept students who perform well on the exam).

Manhattan GMAT: Does one's GMAT score correlate with one's eventual performance in business school?

Graham Richmond: Studies have shown that one's GMAT score is a pretty good predictor of one's academic success during the first year of business school. Having said that, it is clear that business school coursework requires a number of skills, and if the GMAT were the sole predictor, the admissions officers wouldn't need to require essays, undergraduate transcripts, recommendations, etc.

Manhattan GMAT: Do business schools use GMAT "cutoffs" in evaluating applications?

Graham Richmond: Not in any systematic way. Generally, top schools like to see a performance at or above the 80th percentile on both sections of the exam, but this isn't a hard and fast rule. It also depends what part of the applicant pool you're in. For example, if you're a male engineer from India, you're competing against a lot of people with similar backgrounds and your GMAT score will therefore be that much more important in distinguishing you as an applicant. The same is true for undergraduate business majors who go on to consulting or banking work. If, however, you're part of an underrepresented group - such as people working in the non-profit sector, or from a more obscure country, or even women, who make up only 30% of the student body at most business schools - there may be more leeway in terms of your GMAT score because other factors make you unusual and attractive.

Manhattan GMAT: What kind of score do you need to be competitive at a top 5 school? At a top 10? Top 20?

Graham Richmond: This is somewhat dependent on the candidate's overall profile, but generally, if you're at least in the mid-600's, you're going to be in the game at every school. Of course, if you're looking at a top 5 school, 680 and above is probably more realistic. If you're looking at schools lower in the top 20, 640 and above should be sufficient to have your application taken seriously.

Manhattan GMAT: How does the GMAT compare with GPA for the admissions committee?

Graham Richmond: The two work in tandem. These are the two main pieces of information schools have to evaluate your academic achievement and potential. Ideally, both numbers will be high. Schools can also tell something about your GPA from your GMAT score. For example, if you have a high GPA, say a 3.6, coupled with a 620 GMAT score, it may make your GPA seem less impressive because one might expect a higher GMAT score from someone with such good grades. It may lead a committee to devalue your GPA a bit. That said, it's easier to use a high GPA to offset a lower GMAT score than the reverse. A high GMAT score coupled with a low GPA sometimes sends a message to a committee that an applicant didn't work very hard in college.

But one should keep in mind that these numbers are only part of the process, albeit an important one. Things like work experience, recommendations, essays, the interview, all contribute to the picture a committee has of an applicant. Often, the GMAT is just the first impression. A fuller picture develops when the committee looks at the rest of the packet.

Manhattan GMAT: Do schools care if you take the GMAT more than once?

Graham Richmond: In a nutshell, no. To elaborate, though, it depends on the context. If your first score is significantly below a school's reported average, it doesn't make sense to take the exam only once. It sends a message to the school that you're not realistic and you don't have the drive to succeed. If you have to take the exam two or three times to get the score you need to be competitive, that's ok. If you take it more than that, schools may begin to look askance. Also, be careful of cancellations. One cancellation is understandable. Perhaps you were sick or had other problems in your life. Multiple cancellations, however, look bad in the eyes of an admissions committee.

Manhattan GMAT: Let's say one applicant scores a 700 on her first official GMAT exam. Another applicant fails to hit 700 on her first official exam but achieves this score on her second attempt. Does the admissions committee look at these two applicants differently?

Graham Richmond: From an admissions perspective, no.

Manhattan GMAT: What if your score is actually lower on the second attempt?

Graham Richmond: It's a little difficult to assess a situation like that out of context. But an admissions committee would probably view the higher score as the more accurate gauge, even though the lower score is more recent. There are many reasons that someone could do less well on a subsequent attempt: personal or physical problems, for example. And even if the second attempt produces a lower score, the mere fact that the applicant took the exam again can show the committee that the applicant is driven and determined.

Manhattan GMAT: If an applicant takes the exam more than once, will schools take the better quant subscore and better verbal subscore if they're from different exams? For example, if on the first try someone gets 45Q and 35V and the second time 42Q and 40V, will a school take the 45Q and the 40V?

Graham Richmond: The only school I'm aware of that will split up scores like that is the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. All other schools I know will take the higher overall score, even if there's a similar pattern to what you described.

Manhattan GMAT: What is the point of the Analytical Writing Assessment (the essay section) of the GMAT?

Graham Richmond:The Analytical Writing Assessment was added to the GMAT to give business schools a way to test applicants' "natural" writing abilities. The essays they receive with your applications have probably been reviewed by friends, colleagues, perhaps even an admissions consultant. But the essays you write during the GMAT are ostensibly a better indication of how well you write on your own, since you can't receive any help with them. Keep in mind, however, that they are not the biggest factor in a committee's evaluation of your application. Schools will want to see scores of 4 and higher on the essays, but this is a minor variable in your overall package. Most schools don't even read the AWA essays; they simply look at the score.

Manhattan GMAT: How do admission committees verify one's GMAT score?

Graham Richmond: During the main evaluation of an application, we at Wharton relied on the self-reported scores listed in the application itself. After we made a favorable decision on an applicant, a member of our operations team would check the self-reported score against the official score report to make sure they matched. Also, if you take the GMAT again after your submit your application, it's your responsibility to inform the schools of the new score, since they will have only your first, self-reported, score to work with at that point. You can also use your application to explain to a committee that you're willing to take the exam again if your score is deemed too low.

Manhattan GMAT: What are some recent trends in business school applications?

Graham Richmond: The last few years have seen steady increases in application volume across the top schools. This year is shaping up to be no exception. Most of the top 10 schools will see 10-20% more applications this season as compared to last. In addition, the applicant pool is more and more competitive and savvy. GMAT averages at the leading schools have also been on the rise, creeping up above 710 at many leading programs.

Beyond the high level of interest and increased competition, we're seeing applicants apply at a younger age, driven in part by marketing efforts from schools like HBS and Stanford who have expressed an openness towards looking at 'early career' candidates (0-2 years of experience).

Finally, the MBA application process is increasingly international with more non-US MBA programs on offer, and more non-US applicants in the pool.

Manhattan GMAT: Does the round in which one applies make a difference to one's chances of admission?

Graham Richmond: Yes. It gets harder to pass muster as the rounds go on. This is especially true in the third round. Basically, each round is considered a separate applicant pool, but by the third round, many of the places have been filled and you really have to stand out in order to get yourself noticed. It's much better to submit your application in an earlier round. Stanford, for example, admitted only 4 applicants in its third round a few years ago. Sometimes schools waitlist applicants in earlier rounds to see how the class is shaping up before making a final decision on them, so in the third round you're competing not only against new applicants, but also against waitlisted ones from earlier rounds.

Manhattan GMAT: How do international students fare these days in the application process?

Graham Richmond: We're seeing more and more international students applying to American business schools. Currently, international students represent about 40% of the applicant pool at American business schools. The GMAT is more important for international students because admissions officers aren't as likely to be familiar with foreign universities and so foreign transcripts are harder to evaluate. The GMAT, though, is a more reliable way to compare international students to one another and to American applicants.

Manhattan GMAT: Do international business schools require the GMAT?

Graham Richmond: Some international schools use their own entrance exams, but the majority now require the GMAT. First, it offers them the same kind of reliable measure that it offers American schools. Second, it allows them to compete against those schools for applicants because it gives them a quantifiable way to compare the quality of their student bodies that is understandable by applicants from various countries. GMAT preparation is a thriving business overseas because of all the international applicants these days.

Manhattan GMAT :What are the best international MBA programs?

Graham Richmond: A few international schools have earned reputations that stack up against American programs, such as the London Business School, Insead (France), IESE (Spain) and IMD (Switzerland). These schools draw talented students from all over. England, for example, has a number of excellent programs that keep growing in stature: Cranfield, Manchester, Oxford, and Cambridge, to name a few.

Manhattan GMAT: Are more Americans going abroad for their MBA's?

Graham Richmond: Actually, yes. Increasing numbers of Americans are going to European business schools, for a number of reasons. First, it can be a great way to gain international experience and give yourself an advantage if you're thinking of working overseas. European business schools also tend to have a more diverse and cosmopolitan student body. Second, many international MBA programs take only one year and are thus attractive to people who want to finish quickly. International MBA's can also be significantly less expensive than their American equivalents. However, many international programs require that their students be proficient in two or three languages, which can often put Americans at a disadvantage, since Americans typically don't have the broad language skills that Europeans have, for example. Americans should keep in mind, though, that international degrees don't carry the same weight back in the U.S. If you're thinking of going abroad to study but want to work in the U.S., an international MBA might not be the best route. Where you go to school can have a significant impact on where you can get work once you graduate.

Manhattan GMAT: If an applicant has a low quantitative GMAT score, would it help to take a college math class and get an A?

Graham Richmond: Absolutely. In fact, this sort of thing is a fairly common practice among applicants to the top MBA programs. If an applicant is below the 80th percentile in the quantitative section of the GMAT, it often raises a 'red flag.' The admissions office may have concerns about the candidate's ability to handle the rigor of MBA courses such as finance, accounting, economics, operations, and statistics. In these cases, the admissions officer will closely inspect the candidate's undergraduate transcripts for evidence of math skills (e.g., grades from calculus, statistics, and/or other quant subjects). This can be of particular concern for non-traditional applicants (e.g., English majors, etc.). If the applicant doesn't have a strong quantitative track record (low grades on their undergrad transcripts, low GMAT quant score), then it usually makes sense to build a "supplemental transcript". This involves taking college-level courses in calculus, statistics, micro or macro economics, and accounting - and earning A's. In most cases, we recommend at least one course (though perhaps two or three in some cases). We find that these courses not only increase the applicant's chances of admission, but also help to prepare the applicant for business school.

Manhattan GMAT: If your GMAT score is weak, even after multiple tries, what is the best way to minimize the impact in your application - how can one do 'damage control'?

Graham Richmond: The best remedy for a low GMAT score is a high undergraduate GPA, ideally from a top school and in challenging courses. A high GPA from a master's program, if you've already pursued an advanced degree, is also a good way to counterbalance a low GMAT score. Of course, at some of the top b-schools, high undergraduate/graduate GPAs may not be enough. In such cases, we typically advise candidates with low GMAT scores to pursue supplemental coursework - as I mentioned earlier - since this gives the schools recent data on your ability in the classroom. It is crucial, though, to present a GPA of 4.0 for all supplemental coursework. Finally, in most cases, we encourage applicants with low scores to draft supplemental essays that explain why their GMAT scores are not the best measure of their ability.

Manhattan GMAT: How do admissions committees view the range of schools a candidate applies to? For example, if someone applies only to schools such as Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford? Or if someone applies to only one top school but also to a bunch of low-tier programs?

Graham Richmond: In most cases, the schools that ask for this information are using it for statistical purposes (i.e., to understand who their main competitors are in the b-school marketplace). That said, there are some admissions officers who enjoy analyzing school selection, since it can often be a window into the candidate's goals - and a tool to judge how much thought they've given the admissions process. So it makes sense to be consistent in your school selection. But there are many ways to do so. For example, a candidate who loves the case method may apply to Harvard and Darden (University of Virginia), whereas an applicant who wants a small student body might focus on Tuck (Dartmouth) and Haas (UC Berkeley). Similarly, there might be applicants who crave an urban environment and a strong finance program but who want to stay on the East Coast. These applicants might choose to apply to a set of schools including Wharton, NYU, Columbia, and MIT. As long as there is some logical consistency behind your list, you should be in good shape. It's the students who apply blindly to the top 10 that can raise an eyebrow, given the important differences that exist across these schools. It can make a school think the applicant hasn't done any research into the school and is just applying based on rankings.

Manhattan GMAT: When is the proper time to apply to business school, in the context of one's overall career?

Graham Richmond: The beauty of business school is that there really isn't a set time when one needs to apply. The typical MBA program will feature students that range in age from 22 to 40+. That said, most MBA applicants have at least a couple of years of work experience under their belts and the average age at top schools tends to hover between 25 and 29. The reason for this is that students tend to get more out of business studies if they've already been in the workplace (they typically also have more to contribute to the classroom). In addition, as young workers move up the ladder, they have an increasing need for management skills and a more sophisticated understanding of various business disciplines - the sort of things an MBA program can provide. In the end, the decision to apply is a personal one - closely intertwined with one's career path and educational needs. Good luck to everyone reading this!

Manhattan GMAT: We would like to thank Graham Richmond for participating in this discussion. We hope it has given you a better sense of the admission's officer's perspective.


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