Tag Archives: MBA rankings

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.


GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!


In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.


Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try starting from the beginning of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a “good” GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.


What the eff does “top 10 MBA” mean, anyway?

Here’s a painfully rigid phrase that I hear far too often:  “I’m only interested in an MBA if I can go to a top 10 program.”  But what the eff does the term “top 10 MBA program” mean, anyway?

For most of you, a certain set of schools immediately leaps to mind whenever you hear the words “top 10 MBA program.”  You’re all thinking of Wharton and Harvard and Stanford, right?  But if I asked each of you to write down the names of the other seven schools on your “top 10” MBA list, you’d all write slightly different lists.  And some of you would be very rigid in your refusal to apply to MBA programs outside of the “top 10,” despite the fact that there’s no real consensus on what the term “top 10” means.

Sometimes we forget that the MBA ranking systems are all somewhat arbitrary, and they inevitably come to different conclusions about MBA programs.  You might notice that Kellogg is ranked #4 according to US News and World Report, but #13 in The Economist.  Yale ranges from #10 in US News and World Report to #21 in Businessweek.  And Darden is #3 according to The Economist, but only #17 on the Financial Times list.

So, yeah:  what, exactly, do you mean when you say that you only want to go to a “top 10” MBA program?  Kellogg doesn’t count if you look at The Economist, but Darden does.  Columbia isn’t in the top 10 according to Businessweek, but Michigan, Cornell, and Duke are.  Was that what you meant when you started thinking about “top 10” schools?

I’ve often argued that MBA rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt, but if you insist on basing your MBA application decisions on rankings, please take a look at the 2012 composite MBA rankings compiled by the always-amazing John Byrne at Poets and Quants.  These rankings accumulate data from all five major rankings systems (Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Businessweek, and US News and World Report), and the results offer some interesting food for thought.

Unsurprisingly, 15 different MBA programs appear in the top 10 of at least one ranking system; only five schools appear in the top 10 of every ranking system.  In other words, there are only five MBA programs that are “consensus” top 10 schools: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, and Booth.  But we can argue about 10 other MBA programs, each of which appears in the top 10 of at least one major MBA ranking:  Columbia, Stern, Yale, Kellogg, Cornell, Duke, Haas, Darden, Ross, and Tuck.

Here’s my point:  sometimes, MBA applicants take the rankings way too seriously, even though the rankings are incredibly inconsistent.  If five respected rankings systems come up with substantially different results, then why would it make sense for you be rigid with your definitions of “top” schools?

If you’re really serious about maximizing your career prospects, I would encourage you to discard your obsession with the rankings, and take a good, hard look at a variety of MBA programs.  (Interestingly, the official GMAT blog has been nagging readers to do the same thing for the past few years; click here or here or here or here for examples.)  Be open-minded as you do your research, and try not to base your decisions on rumors of “prestige.”

Visit as many campuses as you possibly can.  Talk to strangers who have the job you want post-MBA, and ask them if there’s really that much of a disadvantage if you attend the “15th-ranked” MBA program… whatever that means.  You might be surprised by their answers.