Seven admissions criteria
It's sad, but it's true: your GMAT score is probably the most important factor in determining whether you will be admitted to a top business school. I want to clarify that statement, though, so you won't misunderstand me.
Most applicants believe there is a significant difference between a 680 and a 720 on the GMAT. There isn't. The extra 40 points won't help your chances of being admitted. That's why I'm frustrated when I hear from people who score 680 and insist on retaking the exam. They would be better served by burning their GMAT-prep books and turning their attention to the application essays (the next step in the process).
If you hope to have a reasonable chance of being admitted to a top program, though, your GMAT score will need to be "in the ballpark."
If it isn't you'll have a hard time winning a spot at A-list schools no matter how good your work experience and undergraduate GPA might be. That's why I believe GMAT score is the most important factor in being admitted to a top program. If your score isn't in the ballpark, you won't be in the game.
So What's Considered "In the Ballpark?"
At virtually all of the top programs, the ballpark starts in the mid 600s. That doesn't mean there is a strict cut-off -- there isn't. But if you look closely at a school's numbers you'll see that below about 620, your chances of being admitted fall pretty dramatically.
Take a look at the graph below. It shows the "middle 80 percent range" of GMAT scores for students admitted to a typical top MBA program.
You can see that the median score is about 680; but the median can be deceiving. You don't need to beat it to be accepted. It should be obvious that half of all accepted applicants score below the median, but for some reason many of my GMAT students feel they need to beat a school's median to have a reasonable shot at getting in. I've had to talk quite a few of them into applying to MBA programs they are now attending (or have already finished) because they were initially discouraged when their GMAT scores fell slightly below their target schools' medians.
What Score Will I Need If I Hope to Attend a Top Program?
If your GMAT score is within a school's median 80 percent range, even if it's 60 points below the school's median, you have a reasonable chance of being admitted. If it's below that 80 percent range you still have a shot, but it's a long shot. (I'll discuss how applicants with GMAT scores below the median 80 percent range get admitted to top programs in the next section on application essays.)
Most MBA programs now print their median 80 percent ranges in their brochures. For those that don't, you can make a rough estimate by assuming the range starts about 60 points below the median and ends about 60 points above it. As long as you are within that range, you have a reasonable chance of being admitted.
Are the Separate Scores for Math and Verbal Important?
Yes, especially the math score. The admissions people put a lot of emphasis on math skills when making their decisions. (See the discussion on GPA for more on this.) So it's important that you do well on the math portion of the GMAT.
The math and verbal scores range from 0 to about 52. (I know that ETS claims the scale can go as high as 60, but it has never actually gone over 52). My strongest students are those in the "40-40 Club." That means they score in the 40's in both math and verbal.
It's great to have that kind of balance, but if you are going to be stronger on one portion of the test than on the other, it's clearly better to be stronger in math.
What if I Hope to Apply to Top Schools But My GMAT Score is Below 600?
You need to take the test again. I'm not saying that you can't get into a top program -- you can. But your chances are slim. So if you have time to take the test again, you'd be foolish not to.
And that brings up a good point about multiple test scores. I'm not aware of a single top school (or even an average school for that matter) that still averages GMAT scores. I'm sure that someone out there will find a program that does so, but until I hear from that person, let's stick to the general rule: Schools consider only your highest GMAT score.
Can I Take the Test 15 Times and Just Report My Highest Score?
Sort of. Before the GMAT exam begins, the computer will ask you which schools you would like your scores forwarded to. You get five schools included in the cost of the test, and any others will cost you $25 each.
You can elect not to have your scores forwarded to any schools. After you have seen your scores (you get them immediately after finishing the test), you can then pay $25 each to have them sent to the schools you choose.
Your "GMAT transcript" will report only your three most recent scores. So if you took the test four times and scored 450 each time, but didn't have your scores forwarded, you could still pull off that miraculous 700 the fifth time and then send your scores. The admissions office would see only two 450's and a 700.
It doesn't really matter, though, whether you send your transcript after each test or wait until you score the number you want. In the end, the school's application will ask you to specify the score you want the admissions committee to consider. (And, no, you can't mix and match your best verbal score and your best math score from different tests).
What About the Essay Score on the GMAT?
You will have to write two essays on the GMAT (the "Analytical Writing Section"). They will be scored on a scale of 1 to 6, and those points will not be added to your other GMAT score.
The essays are extremely simple. I teach my students a basic template to follow and they seem to do very well with it. They regularly score perfect 6's (the 99th percentile) just by following the template.
It's been my experience, though, that your essay score is pretty much worthless, so I spend very little time on it in class. A few years ago I asked the admissions director of a Top-5 school what she was doing with the essay scores. She laughed at me and said she wasn't really using them (though that isn't what her brochures say).
I have to agree with her. The GMAT essays are ridiculous. Given how well some students have done by just following a formula, the scores seem pretty meaningless. And now the essays are being graded by computer, making them even more worthless. So don't spend a lot of time studying for the AWA essays, and don't put too much emphasis on your essay score. I can assure you the admissions committee won't.
Having the list tempts some people to try to write their essays ahead of time. The pool of essay topics is so large, though, that it would be impossible to write an essay for each (and remember them all) before test day. Your time would be better spent studying the other sections of the GMAT.
What About Taking the Exam Under "Non-Standard Accommodations?"
Most people don't know that they can take the GMAT under what ETS, the test administrator, calls "non-standard accommodations." That means you can get twice as much time as everyone else, if that's what you need to compensate for a medical condition. ETS doesn't promote this accommodation very aggressively, but I've had many of my students take the test "non-standard" and all of them who have gotten a truly significant accommodation (such as double time) have gone up at least 100 points from what they were scoring with me on practice tests given under standard conditions.
I had one student who consistently scored in the mid 500s with me. He took the test under non-standard conditions (he got double time), went up more than 100 points, and was accepted at Harvard. I don't think Harvard would have taken him in the mid-500s, so the special accommodations worked out particularly well for him.
Should I Take a GMAT-Prep Course?
If you hope to go to a top school, you'd be crazy not to prepare for the GMAT. Being admitted to Kellogg or Columbia or a similar school is well worth the time and money invested in a good prep course.
I don't want to steer you toward one company over another, but I would suggest that you take the longest, most comprehensive course available in your area. And look for a good instructor. A good teacher can reveal subtleties about the test that aren't written into any book, and just having the structure of a class will force you to work harder than you would if you chose to study on your own.