On a snowy Denver afternoon, I decided to conduct an odd GMAT-related thought experiment, just for the hell of it. Purely for entertainment, I imagined that an all-powerful being forced me to choose any 20 of my former GMAT students to run a business; if the business failed, I would die a miserable death. In a life-or-death business situation, which of my former students would I select?
The catch is that I have no idea what the business actually is. I just have to select the 20 ex-students who would be the most intelligent, nimble, well-rounded, effective managers. The business would be named later.
So I dug through my old spreadsheets and created a list of the most broadly talented GMAT students I’ve worked with. Then, I selected the 20 ex-students who would be the most likely to contribute to the success of an unnamed business enterprise. I didn’t try to balance the list (by selecting a mix of finance, consulting, and industry backgrounds, for example), and I don’t care about their resumes at all. I was just looking for the 20 most incredible people.
After I selected the 20 best business minds, I sorted them by GMAT score. And this may or may not surprise you, but there seems to be absolutely no correlation between GMAT scores and business acumen, at least among my (relatively small) group of students.
Out of my 20 most brilliant students ever, only half scored a 700 or above, and seven of those ten had to work their asses off to get to a 700. Every single one of those 10 test-takers studied for at least two months, five of them improved by 100 points or more, and one of them did 4,000 practice CR and RC questions. Only a very select few of my best students are naturally gifted at taking the GMAT. The rest of them just work incredibly hard.
The other half of the list is even more interesting. Five of my top 20 students were stuck in the 600s, even after herculean efforts on the GMAT. One is still going through the application process, but the other four are currently kicking all sorts of butt at super-elite, top-ten business schools. Adcoms, it seems, are definitely willing to looking past the GMAT score when a candidate is truly special.
The other five students got absolutely clobbered by the GMAT. Three scored in the 500s, and all three are now working for prestigious, household-name-type companies. The other two gave up before they even took the GMAT. One is a ludicrously talented woman with an unusual form of ADD, and another has an interesting learning disability that gets in the way of his math training; out of respect for their privacy, all I’m going to say is that both of them have been featured in New York Times articles, and one of them became a C-level executive before he hit 30. Neither of them needed an MBA. They’re that awesome.
Keep in mind that the majority of my students start in the high 500s or somewhere in the 600s, and most of them ultimately fall somewhere in the 680-750 range. I just don’t get very many calls from students who would be content with a 550 or 600, and it’s interesting that such a large percentage of my lowest-scoring students are so successful.
Let’s face it: the GMAT is an absolutely fantastic measure of how well you fill in little bubbles, and it’s a reasonable predictor of how well you’ll do in, say, a graduate-level microeconomics class. But it’s a terrible predictor of any other sort of success.
As I look at my “dream team” of 20 former GMAT students, I see a few people who were great at filling in bubbles, a lot of people who worked hard at it and improved dramatically, and a handful who were beyond hope when it came to the GMAT. And that shouldn’t surprise us at all.
On a guest post for somebody else’s MBA blog, I once made the case that the most successful people are “grinders”: they may or may not be naturally brilliant at filling in little bubbles, but they’ll work like hell to achieve their goals. They’ll succeed in their professional and personal lives, even if it takes a lifetime of all-nighters to get it done.
Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some incredible “grinders,” and I've probably learned more from them than they’ve learned from me. These are the students that make teaching worthwhile. I can teach them number properties and GMAT grammar, but they’ve taught me a lot about what it takes to really kick ass in this world.
Now if somebody wants to invest $100 million in a business—without telling me what type of business—I have a young, energetic management team ready for you, and I guarantee that they won’t fail. Just don’t ask them about their GMAT scores.