Monthly Archives: June 2013

GMAT percentile rankings, part III: the 80th percentile myth

One of my favorite GMAT students recently called me with some great news: he got a 710 on his first attempt at the test (47 quant, 40 verbal). But despite the great composite score, the poor man was disappointed that he only scored in the 73rd percentile on the quant section, since he had heard that MBA admissions committees prefer to see scores above the 80th percentile on both sections of the GMAT.

Don’t worry, Mr. 710. You’ll be fine.

I say that for two reasons. The first reason is that MBA admissions committees simply aren’t all that rigid about the so-called “80th percentile rule.” Sure, successful applicants usually have somewhat balanced GMAT scores, but no elite MBA admissions committee blindly applies GMAT score “cutoffs” during its evaluation process. When I look through the my list of former students who were admitted to top ten MBA programs over the past five years, barely one-third of them actually scored above the 80th percentile on both the quant and the verbal sections. The 80th percentile clearly isn’t a magic number anymore—if it ever was.

But there’s a second reason why you shouldn’t worry about hitting the 80th percentile on both sections: GMAT quant scores have changed substantially in recent years. If you had taken the GMAT back in 2007—when the percentile ranking charts in the 11th edition of the GMAT Official Guide were published—a quant score of 47 would have put you in the 81st percentile. Just six years later, a 47 lands you “only” in the 73rd percentile. Similarly, quant scores of 48 and 49 would have put you in the 85th and 89th percentiles in 2007; today, you’d only be in the 78th and 83rd percentiles with those scores.

So if you’re trying to earn a score above the 80th percentile on the GMAT quant section, a 47 would have done the trick back in 2007. You would need a 49 now—and that’s a terrifyingly high quant score for many test-takers.

As I discussed in a pair of old GMAT blog posts (available here and here if you’re curious), the pool of GMAT test-takers includes an ever-growing supply of quant studs, largely from Asian countries. I admiringly call this the “Asian effect”: percentile scores on the quant section are changing quickly, simply as a result of the stronger test-taking pool. Interestingly, percentile rankings on the GMAT verbal section have stayed pretty much constant during the past decade, and that’s probably also a byproduct of the “internationalization” of the MBA applicant pool.

The bottom line? Percentile rankings are disturbingly fluid, and you shouldn’t stress too much about them, especially on the quant section. A 710/47Q/40V is still an outstanding score that eliminates all rational doubt about your academic abilities. For the vast majority of MBA applicants, a GMAT quant score in the 73rd percentile is enough to placate MBA admissions officers, and your odds of admission will depend almost entirely on other elements of your profile.

So if you’re worried about the strength of a 47 on the quant section, don’t be. If you’re north of a 700 with a quant score of 47 or 48, put your GMAT books away. Be proud, be confident, and focus your energy on writing a spectacular MBA application instead. The extra handful of percentile points mean far less to MBA admissions committees than a strong work history and a clear, compelling vision for your post-MBA career.


“Close” counts in Russian roulette, but not on GMAT verbal questions

Let’s suppose that you just attacked a long, painful set of GMAT (or LSAT) critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions, and let’s suppose that you weren’t all that thrilled with the results. Let’s imagine that you did, say, 50 questions, and you missed 15 of them.

Like a good GMAT student, you decide to look through all of your errors. And you realize that you almost had the right answer to almost every single one of your 15 misses. Again and again, you notice that you were down to two answer choices… and then selected the wrong one.

And that’s frustrating on one level, but encouraging on another. “Hey,” you think, “I didn’t really miss the questions all that badly. I’m just barely missing them, right? So that means I’m doing pretty well! I just need to have more lucky guesses when I’m down to those last two, and I’ll be fine.”

Sorry, but a near-miss is still a miss on the GMAT. “Close” might be a great result if you’re playing shuffleboard, horseshoes, or Russian roulette, but it doesn’t mean anything on a multiple choice test. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re necessarily close to a score breakthrough, just because you’ve narrowed your critical reasoning or reading comprehension questions down to the last two options.

Think of it from the perspective of the people who write GMAT verbal test questions. I often imagine that some evil little monkey in GMAC headquarters (or, more likely, a very pleasant ACT contractor sitting in her home office) comes up with an idea for a critical reasoning question, and leaps up in a fit of joy. “I have a great idea for a really tough question!” she exclaims, and then writes the CR passage. Her moment of CR-writing inspiration probably included one extremely tempting wrong answer, in addition to the hard-to-discern correct answer.

And then she proceeds to invent three additional answer choices, none of which are as tempting, difficult, or inspired as the first two. After an intense period of testing and editing, the question eventually becomes an instrument of torture for GMAT test-takers around the world.

Here’s my point: the vast majority of difficult CR and RC questions simply don’t have five tempting answer choices. They usually have only two or three, and you’ll frequently struggle to decide between the last two options. At worst, you’ll feel that tossing a coin is a perfectly reasonable way to decide between those final two answer choices. And your coin will inevitably be wrong more often than you’d like.

So don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that some wrong answers are “less wrong” than others. If you miss a GMAT CR or RC question, it’s probably because you misread or misinterpreted something, either in the answer choices or in the passage itself. Even if you feel like you’re “close” on the majority of your misses, stay focused on the fundamentals: read with laser-like precision, practice hard using official GMAT and LSAT questions, and concentrate on honing your ability to distinguish between similar-sounding answer choices.

Eventually, you’ll get substantially better at catching the nuances of GMAT verbal passages, questions, and answer choices. On the majority of GMAT verbal questions, you’ll still be forced into a difficult choice between the last two answers. But as you strengthen your ability to understand the phrasing and logic behind CR and RC questions, you’ll choose the correct option more and more frequently. And then you can put the coin away, and watch your score improve.