Dispelling GMAT Myths

Applicants often become anxious about the GMAT, which is only natural given the difficulty of the test and the large impact that it has on the admissions process.

By David White, Menlo Coaching

However, a number of old myths survive that just aren’t true or relevant to applicants. Let’s examine a few of them:

Myth #1: You need to score 80th percentile on both sections of the GMAT

Many years ago, when the GMAT was taken only by a smaller pool of applicants with traditional business backgrounds, this may have been true. But today, GMAT percentiles are distorted by the large number of international test takers with STEM backgrounds. Imagine, for example, a mechanical engineer educated in China who has never lived or worked outside the country, and whose professional role is focused on highly technical tasks.

These test takers are frequently absolutely brilliant on the quant side. In recent years, as high as 4% of all test takers have achieved perfect Q51 scores on that side of the exam. Over time, the high quant scores achieved by such test takers have made everyone else’s percentile lower for a given raw score.

On the other hand, these test-takers often struggle on the Verbal section because English is a second language for them and they have few opportunities to practice it in a professional context. Such an applicant might score only 30 out of 51 on the Verbal.

Most importantly, many of these applicants are not going to be admitted to top MBA programs for reasons that have nothing to do with the GMAT. An applicant whose spoken English is not quite up to the level required to participate in classroom discussions, or an applicant whose professional experience is 100% technical, may be declined for those reasons.

So, you’re not really competing with these test-takers anyway, and you can ignore their impact on your GMAT percentiles. Above all, you should not focus overly on the quant side; the GMAT score tables show that sometimes, improving your verbal score can be the fastest way to raise your total score.

Myth #2: You shouldn’t retake the GMAT

Retaking the GMAT is perfectly acceptable. Schools care most about your highest total GMAT score, as discussed here, because this is the score that they report to publications like U.S. News, and is the score that feeds into the calculation of a school’s rankings.

In fact, I have worked with an applicant who received value from retaking the GMAT even though his second score was lower than his first. The applicant had been waitlisted at a top school, and when he called the admissions officer, she told him that the GMAT score was the problem. I encouraged him to retake the exam immediately, which he did, unfortunately scoring -20 points lower. He updated them, waited a few days, and he was admitted!

Of course, schools like a retake even better if you raise your score. But regardless of your results, schools respect an applicant who is willing to put in a good effort on their GMAT. A willingness to work hard on the GMAT can suggest that the applicant would also work hard on challenges like MBA coursework and post-MBA recruiting.

Myth #3: Anything above 730 is the same

Ratings like U.S. News use the average GMAT score for admitted students as part of the ranking formula. This means that a higher score for any student has a positive impact on the average, and therefore the ranking.

Although schools do compete with each other in terms of GMAT scores, they do not want to raise their scores endlessly. If a school reached an average score of 740+, then the high score would cause many great applicants to self-select out of applying to the school for fear that their GMAT scores were not good enough.

Having said that, schools can still value a very high GMAT score. If the school admits one candidate with, for example, a 780 GMAT score, roughly +50 points above their average, then they can admit a second candidate with a 680 GMAT score, roughly -50 points below their average, without harming their overall stats. This allows the school to admit applicants with distinctive professional and personal backgrounds, but low GMAT scores, without harming their stats and their rankings.

Myth #4: You can be admitted only if you have a great GMAT score

Although a great GMAT score can help you to win acceptance and scholarships, it is not true that you must have a high GMAT score in order to win acceptance. An average is just that — some people will be above, and others will be below. In order to admit you with a lower GMAT score, the school must see value in your profile in some other way. Have you shown great leadership in extracurricular activities? Do you manage a large team at work? Are you practically assured to get an amazing job when you graduate? There are many potential ways to demonstrate value.

Don’t kid yourself by thinking that being a decent human being and writing a good essay is enough to make up for a low GMAT score. But, don’t panic if your score is a few points below the school’s average. When you can show the other ways in which you will bring value to your target MBA program, you can win acceptance for those reasons.


With these myths out of the way, you can make the right decision about how to study for the GMAT, how high you might need to score, and when it’s time to wrap it up and move on to the other important parts of the application.

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