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by Mike Chen | August 08, 2007

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Application Components: The GMAT

Of all of the components of a business school application, the GMAT, or Graduate Management Admission Test, gets a lot of focus. The GMAT score, unlike every other portion of a candidate's application, is directly comparable to that of another applicant, and without a doubt serves as the most objective portion of the application.

Although the GMAT is important, I believe most candidates overemphasize the test at the detriment of other parts of the application.

GMAT: The SAT for grown-ups

The GMAT is a 210-minute exam composed of three sections: a 60-minute Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), a 75-minute Verbal section, and a 75-minute Quantitative Section. The AWA is scored from 0 to 6 with half-point increments. The Verbal and Quantitative sections are each scored from 0 to 60 with one-point increments. The Verbal and Quantitative sections are then combined to create a composite score with the familiar range of 200 to 800 with ten-point increments.

Admissions committees are principally interested in your composite score, and then the scores from your individual Verbal and Quantitative sections. Note: to compare apples to apples, most AdComs are concerned with the percentile rank of your individual sections since the distribution of scores on each section are different.

What composite score does one need to be realistically admitted? Most schools say there is no minimum required score, and instead point applicants to the range of scores of their students, which can either be admitted applicants or actual students. This range is often the middle 80% (the 10th and 90th percentiles) or the middle 50% (the 25th and 75th percentiles).

As for the subcomponents, many of the top schools mention they are looking for the 80th percentile or higher on each of the Verbal and Quantitative sections. The AWA typically receives much lower consideration; a perfect score of 6.0 is not likely to help you that much, but a very low score could hurt your candidacy.

What score do I really need?

I believe that most schools are being honest when they indicate that there is no minimum required score for admission. From your standpoint, however, this statement is not particularly useful. The following is much more helpful:

If your GMAT score is much lower than that of the average admitted applicant, you will need to make up for your lower score by having much stronger credentials in the other parts of your application.

If, for example, you have a GMAT composite score of 630 and are applying to a school with an average of 690, what does this mean? The rest of your application, overall, will need to be stellar, or at the very least be unique. To be admitted with a significantly below-average GMAT score, how you position yourself in spite of your score is important. More on this in the upcoming weeks.

Now, what if your GMAT score is truly outstanding, say 750 or higher? Will this help your application significantly? Not likely. If you are applying to one of the Top 10 schools (I use "Top 10" loosely), then I would say that it helps you only marginally compared to an applicant with a score of roughly 700, if at all.

The reason for this minimal benefit is that most of the top schools could fill their classes many times over with applicants with these outstanding GMAT scores. At schools that are not considered as premiere, a very high GMAT score may stand out more but how much it will help you is dubious.

Put another way, if you have a 770 GMAT and are applying to a Top 10 school, your excellent score by itself will not be nearly enough to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. Even at a somewhat less competitive school, your GMAT score will help you, but it cannot rescue you if the rest of your application is merely mediocre. Even applicants with perfect GMAT scores will still receive their share of business school rejections.

At most schools, once your GMAT score reaches a particular threshold, the AdCom will focus on the rest of your application. For example, suppose you have a GMAT score of 690 and are applying to a school with an average score of 680 and a middle 80% range of 630-740. Assuming you meet or exceeded the school's recommended Verbal and Quantitative section percentile scores, the AdCom would likely give you the green light on the GMAT. If the rest of your application was stellar, I see no reason why the AdCom wouldn't give you an offer of admission (unless you were applying near the final application deadline).

Preview of Coming Attractions

Now that we've discussed how the GMAT plays a role in the application process, we can now discuss what kinds of scores are acceptable from an application perspective. Next time, we'll answer the all-important question: Should I sit for the GMAT again? I'll also touch on the GMAT as it relates to international applicants.

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