Tag Archives: GMAT score report

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.

 

How lucky was Mr. Fat Pants?

If any of you are expecting a practical, useful article about GMAT tutoring, I apologize in advance:  this is going to be a pretty useless, vaguely technocratic article about standardized testing.  Consider yourself warned.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about a fellow named Mr. FP (Mr. “Fat Pants”), who once wrote a brilliant MBA application essay about his lunchtime festivities at the office.  Mr. FP deserves to be a legend simply because he actually used the phrase “fat pants” in his MBA admissions essays, but he’s also notorious (in my little GMAT world, anyway) for springing a huge test-day surprise on both himself and his GMAT tutor:  he scored a 680 and then a 640 on his only two full-length GMATPrep practice tests, then nailed a 720 on the actual GMAT—just a few days after the 640.  Mr. FP is a great guy who kicked all sorts of ass at a top-10 business school… but we agree that he got a little bit lucky.

But how lucky did he get?  And can we somehow quantify his luck?

The quick answer is that Mr. FP was pretty darned lucky.  If you dive deep into the bowels of your GMAT score report (sorry for the image; do you really want to dive “deep into the bowels” of anything?), you’ll see some mumbo-jumbo about something called the standard error of measurement, and the score report will tell you that the standard error of measurement is about 30 points on the GMAT.

To understand the idea of a standard error of measurement, imagine for a moment that you have something called a “true” GMAT score.  There are two ways to think about a “true” GMAT score.  First, you could imagine that it’s the score you would receive if the GMAT always did a 100% perfect, 100% consistent job of measuring your verbal and quantitative reasoning skills (or whatever it is that the GMAT actually measures).  If that doesn’t seem intuitive, imagine this:  you’ll take the GMAT, I’ll wipe out your memory of the exam using the “flashy thingy” from the Men in Black movies (so that you don’t remember any of the questions), then I’ll send you back to the very same GMAT test appointment using a time machine from the Back to the Future movies.  I’ll do this an infinite number of times.  Assuming that you don’t get brain damage, your average score on your infinite number of GMAT exams would be your “true score.”

Of course, you wouldn’t always get exactly the same score on every single test appointment, even if we conjure some Hollywood magic to eliminate all day-to-day variations in your test-taking behavior.  The truth is that GMAT scores are a little bit random.  Or maybe a lot random.  Even if you behaved exactly the same way every single time you took the test, you’d still get slightly different GMAT scores from one day to the next.  That’s an inevitable part of standardized testing, especially on an adaptive exam that spits out somewhat randomized questions.

Back to the technical crap:  the standard error of measurement is basically a measure of that random variation in your scores from one GMAT exam to the next, even if we assume that you’re a robotic test-taker who always behaves the same way.  If you’ve taken a few statistics courses, you could think of the standard error of measurement as the rough equivalent of a standard deviation for your GMAT score:  since the GMAT’s standard error of measurement is around 30 points, roughly 2/3 of all test-takers will score within 30 points of their “true” GMAT score, and roughly 95% of test-takers will score within 60 points of their “true” GMAT score.

In other words, your GMAT score could plausibly fluctuate by around 30 points from day to day, but you aren’t terribly likely to gain or lose 60 points simply by random chance.

With this in mind, Mr. FP seemed to be a very lucky man.  We’ll never know Mr. FP’s “true” GMAT score, but based on his homework and GMATPrep test results, I would have wagered that he was in line for a 660 or so—halfway between his two GMATPrep scores.  If we pretend that 660 really was his “true” GMAT score, then Mr. FP scored 60 points—or two standard errors of measurement—above his “true” score.

If you’re a statistics geek, you’re welcome to bust out your favorite z-chart and do the calculations yourself, but the bottom line is that there was roughly a 1 in 40 (2.5%) chance that Mr. FP would receive a random gift of 60 or more points from the GMAT gods.  And keep in mind that any random, luck-based deviation from your “true” GMAT score could work in your favor—but it’s equally likely that it will work against you:  if 1 out of every 40 test-takers will earn at least 60 “measurement error points” that they don’t “deserve”, then 1 out of every 40 test-takers will lose at least 60 points on their GMAT score, just from bad stinking luck.  The gods of random chance are sometimes very kind, but they’re also randomly very cruel.

So if you’re still 60 or so points away from your ideal GMAT score and you want to roll the dice, go for it.  But your odds of a Mr. FP-esque stroke of good luck aren’t all that good, and it’s probably better to hit the GMAT books hard and make your own luck.

why you should (almost) never cancel your GMAT score

Suppose that you took the GMAT exam, and you felt like you got the living #$^%*&@! beaten out of you.  Maybe the quant section felt ridiculously difficult, and you had to race through the last 12 questions to finish the section before time ran out.  Maybe all of your reading comprehension passages felt completely incomprehensible.

By the time you finish the exam, your heart is pounding out of your chest, and you have two minutes to decide whether to cancel your test or view your GMAT scores.  Should you cancel your test?

Probably not.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1:  it’s almost impossible to know how well you did

Once upon a time, I worked with a skittish woman who always seemed to doubt her capacity for GMAT success, especially on the quant section.  She earned a 660 on her first attempt at the test, and then contacted me for some help.  After a couple of months of tutoring, she went back to face the beast.  And I made her promise not to cancel her score, no matter what.

The poor woman was convinced that the quant had beaten her to a bloody pulp.  The questions seemed strange, and she felt bewildered for most of the section.  She only had about 15 minutes left for the last 12 questions, so the final third of the quant section passed in a blur.  Pardon the expression, but she was convinced that she had shat the bed.

And guess what?  She got a 760, and was offered merit-based scholarships everywhere she applied.

I’ve heard this sort of story dozens—or maybe even hundreds—of times over the years.  The GMAT is a sneaky, slimy, deceptive creature.  You never know how well (or how badly) you’re doing until the score pops up.  Unless you literally wet your pants during the exam, you can’t possibly know whether you did terribly.  And if you don’t believe me, click here or here or here or here to read recent GMAT forum debriefs written by test-takers who struggled during the exam, but were somewhat surprised by their fantastic scores.

So “feeling bad” about your test is a lousy reason to cancel.  You might be canceling the GMAT score of your dreams, and that wouldn’t be cute at all.

Reason #2:  even if your GMAT score was bad this time, you’ll learn from the result

I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “No really, ninja dude:  I know when I’m getting my butt kicked by the GMAT.”  And I respectfully disagree, but let’s pretend that you do know that you had a crappy test.  Should you cancel your score?

Again, I’d argue that you shouldn’t.  While it’s maddening that you can never see exactly what you missed on the actual GMAT, the score does provide you with some feedback.  You might be surprised by how high (or how low) your score is on one or both sections.  And as you prepare for your next battle with the test, that can be an invaluable piece of information.

Let’s suppose that you were aiming for a 710, but only got a 600Now you know exactly what it feels like to get 600, and as you replay the test in your mind, you’ll almost certainly learn from it.  Even a disappointing exam can be a great learning experience, and the score provides you with some feedback that can help you move forward.

Reason #3:  why waste $250?

This might sound silly, but I always feel like a complete chump whenever I spend money on something I don’t use.  For example, there are a few test-prep books on my shelf that I almost never touch.  The $20 or $30 that I spent on each of the books isn’t going to destroy my bank account, but I still feel like a moron for buying them.

Couldn’t we say the same thing about a canceled GMAT test score?  If you “buy” a GMAT test for $250 and never actually get a score from the experience, wouldn’t it feel like a complete waste of money?  You’ll basically spend $250 for some frayed nerves and an unsatisfying, blank line on your GMAT score report.

The GMAT is already sodomizing your wallet for $250 whenever you take the test; personally, I would feel even worse if I didn’t at least get something back from them in return.  A bad score at least counts as something.

So don’t feel like a chump with a sodomized wallet:  take a good look at your score, even if you’re pretty sure it’s going to be crappy.  At worst, you’ll have a rallying cry for your future studies.  And at best, you’ll be surprised with a 760, even if you felt terrible during the exam.

One last thing:  if you’re worried about having a crappy result on your GMAT score report, don’t be.  An upward score trajectory always looks great, and MBA programs are being completely honest when they say that they consider your highest score.

So unless you really do have a bladder malfunction during your test, please don’t cancel your score.  At the very least, you’ll have a data point to work with as you continue your GMAT studies.  And if you’re really fortunate, your score might surprise you.