A 780 is a great score, sure—but you don’t need that kind of score. You probably do need something higher than 500, though. How good is good enough?
The short answer to the question is this: a good score is a score that will make you competitive at a particular school. So the first question to ask yourself is where do you want to go?
Then, hit the Inter-web and find out what kinds of scores those schools report. Most schools report both an average score and a “middle 80% score” (the latter gives the score range for the middle 80% of people admitted in that year).
So, if Stanford has an average of 732 (which is what their website says as I write this!), then clearly you need a 750, right?
Wrong. Really wrong, in fact. I was inspired to write this article because of two recent blog posts written by my colleague Jeremy Shinewald, founder of MBA Mission. The posts are fantastic—and they are both linked in this article. They are mandatory reading for all of my students (and not because he mentions me in one of them!).
First, remind me what the word “average” means.
Right … in other words, many of the admitted students scored below 730. In fact, Stanford’s reported scoring range is from 550 to 790. (Yes, someone got into Stanford with a 550! I’m sure that person was absolutely amazing in some other way or ways, and so the admissions committee didn’t care about that one below-average data point.)
I’m not suggesting, of course, that you only need a 550 or even 600 to get into Stanford. Ideally, you want to be pretty close to the school’s average. The school is not, however, going to ding you for getting “only” a 700. (You might get dinged for other reasons of course … )
What’s a good quant score? What’s a good verbal score?
Schools do check the Quant and Verbal sub-scores as well as the overall score—and this is another source of anxiety for test-takers. Have you heard about the 80/80? Many years ago (actually, we could be speaking in decades at this point), some people did talk about wanting to see 80th percentile sub-scores for quant and verbal. I haven’t been able to verify whether actual business schools ever said they wanted this, but the topic has been around for a long time.
As of early July 2014, there are now only two Quant scores above the 80th percentile: 50 and 51. Clearly, the top business schools don’t admit only people with 50s and 51s any more than they admit only people with 750 scores. There wouldn’t be enough people to go around!
So what’s going on? Percentiles are a relative ranking; they change over time. The sub-scores themselves are fixed. The skill level that it takes to score 45 today is the same skill level required to get a 45 five years ago, or fifteen!
In 2007, a Quant score of 45 was the 77th percentile; today, a 45 is the 63rd percentile. But the underlying skill needed to reach that score hasn’t changed one bit, and here’s the important part: the schools know this.
They aren’t actually interested in how your percentile ranking stacks up against the rest of the pool of test takers. Their main goal is to make sure that you can handle the rigorous work that will be required of you when you reach b-school. Pay attention to the actual scoring level, which tells you something real. A quant 45 was once “good enough” for schools and nothing has changed: it still is today!
But seriously … If I just get a 750, I’ll be a shoo-in, right?
Wrong. The schools don’t admit based on GMAT scores. The GMAT is more of a threshold indicator: show me that you can handle my rigorous program, and then I’ll consider the other (more important) parts of your application, such as your work history, your essays, your recommendations…in short, your story. That’s how I’ll actually make my decision about your application.
Seriously, consider who’s telling you that you don’t actually need these crazy high scores. I work for a test prep company; our whole reason for existing (and making money!) is to help people get higher scores. If even I’m telling you that you don’t need a 750 or a 50 or 51 on quant, then believe it!
But … But … This is the only thing I can control …
Here is the heart of the anxiety around this test. Your GPA is already set. Your work career can’t be substantially changed in a few months; your history is what it is. So you feel as though this is it: the GMAT is how you can give yourself the best possible chance to get in!
You can’t bomb the test, of course, but there are a lot of other things you can be doing with your very valuable time than chasing a 750 (or even a 720). You could actually pick up an extra project at work, try to get yourself into a team leader or mentor role, or work towards a promotion.
Also, don’t underestimate the time and effort required to put together a great application package. Ideally, your package will tell a coherent story, something that fits together across all pieces of the application and jumps off the page so that the admissions committee can really visualize you and get a sense of who you are and why they want to have you at their school. For instance, have you thought about what you want to tell your recommenders to emphasize (in terms of both strengths and weaknesses) so that their recommendations dovetail with your own essays?