How low GMAT scores might help your MBA application

 

Almost every week, I hear from somebody who’s worried about a low GMAT or GRE score on their score report. The question usually sounds something like this: “If I got a 500 on my first test but eventually get a 740 on my fourth GMAT exam, will MBA admissions committees think that I’m stupid because of the 500?”

The quick answer: no, they won’t think you’re stupid. And no, the 500 won’t hurt your odds of admission at all. If anything, I think an upward trajectory could help your chances, just a little bit – at least under the right circumstances.

You’ll hear this from plenty of MBA admissions committee members, but MBA programs really do want to evaluate your application based on your best GMAT score – and there are plenty of reasons why. First, using your highest GMAT score is better for the school’s overall average (which, of course, is an important part of MBA rankings). And just as importantly, most human beings understand that other human beings might have a bad GMAT test day once in a while – and the MBA programs want to see how you perform on your best day. That just seems fair, right?

So at worst, I’m convinced that your old, low GMAT scores are irrelevant to your chances of admission to a top MBA program. And at best, I think that a poor start to your GMAT test-taking career can actually help your chances.

Here’s a completely real example, with some details omitted to protect the MBA applicant’s identity. A number of years ago, I worked with an amazing guy who had started his career as an insurance salesman – let’s call him Mr. G, even though he didn’t work at Geico. Mr. G came from a troubled working-class family in a Rust Belt city; his father had addiction problems, and his mom supported the kids on her own.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. G’s youth wasn’t glamorous, and he wasn’t destined for Ivy League undergraduate programs or glitzy investment banking jobs. Instead, he worked in a grocery store when he was in high school, and then continued working in the same grocery store while he attended a state university that you’ve probably never heard of. Mr. G dreamed of a post-undergraduate job in “finance” – and he did, in fact, major in finance. But he attended a no-name university, and nobody ever told him how, exactly, you could land a job on Wall Street. After all, his Rust Belt city was – both spiritually and geographically – a long way from Wall Street, and his grocery store job left him little time for internships, anyway.

Mr. G worked his butt off, and got a 4.0 GPA as an undergrad. But since he attended the University of You’ve Never Heard of It, the only “finance” job he could get afterward was as an insurance salesman. He broke sales records in his first year, but was deeply unsatisfied. So he decided to move to New York City to try to find a job on Wall Street. Of course, no high-falutin’ Wall Street firm would hire the insurance salesman from a no-name university, so he ended up in another sales job – and, since he’s such a hard-working S.O.B., Mr. G again kicked all sorts of butt in that job, unglamorous as it was.

Then Mr. G decided that a top-tier MBA was his best path out of his career slump – and probably his only path to an actual Wall Street finance job.

So he took the GMAT, and got a 580. That obviously wasn’t good enough, especially with the lack of pedigree on his resume. So he called a GMAT tutor (*cough*), got a 660 after about a month of studying, then got a 710 after another month or so of studying. Not bad!

But Mr. G’s MBA application was in big trouble from the start, since he lacked prestigious “MBA-feeder job” experience and had attended a non-selective university. So Mr. G and his MBA admissions consultant (*cough*) decided that the best strategy was to emphasize his working-class roots, highlight his epic work ethic, plainly state that he had no idea how to “play the game” as an undergraduate, and hope that a great MBA program would give him a chance.

And here’s the GMAT-related punchline: Mr. G’s GMAT score trajectory fit right into that narrative. In his MBA applications, we pounded away at a simple message: Mr. G wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he will absolutely outwork everybody else in the room. A 710 on his very first attempt at the GMAT wouldn’t have done anything to support our message. But with his 580-660-710 GMAT scores, he looked like a guy who was willing to work his ass off to achieve his dreams. Which, of course, he was.

In case you’re wondering, Mr. G is doing wonderfully now. He attended an Ivy League MBA program, and finally landed a job with a prestigious Wall Street firm as soon as he graduated. He was a superstar in his MBA program, too – and he really did outwork everybody else in the room.

Your profile may not look anything like Mr. G’s, but if you’re nervous about flashing some low scores in the fine print of your GMAT score report – well, don’t be. At worst, MBA admissions committees don’t really notice if you retake the GMAT several times. And if they notice at all, your willingness to improve your GMAT score might show that you’re also willing to outwork everybody else in the room – and that can only help your chances of admission.

 

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