Retaking the GMAT: Yes, No, Maybe So
By Ajay Amar, Ph.D., Nov 4 2014 07:55PM
With few exceptions, the average GMAT score at top business schools has been slowly creeping up. Here are a few GMAT averages from the Class of 2016: Stanford, 732 average GMAT score, +2 points from 2011. Harvard, 726, +2. Wharton, 728, +8. Chicago Booth, 724, +5. NYU Stern, 721, +2. Kellogg, 717, +3. MIT Sloan, 713, +3. It’s not surprising that the anxiety levels of GMAT test-takers have also risen, and aren’t always relieved when that highly important score appears at the end of the test.
The question: Should I retake the GMAT? The answer: Maybe. Given the time that it takes to prepare for the GMAT exam and apply to schools, the decision to retake the GMAT is not made on a coin toss. Here are seven questions to consider – the answers will help you decide.
Question 1: What is your target school’s GMAT score range?
Become familiar with the class profiles of the MBA programs you are targeting. When deciding whether to retake the GMAT, I recommend that you focus less on a school’s GMAT average than its middle 80% range of GMAT scores. More than that, however, you must factor in the school’s size and selectivity.
Let’s take a look at Stanford, for example. Its entering class in 2014 had GMAT scores ranging from 550 to 790. “Woo-hoo!” you cry. “I have a 600 GMAT score! Stanford, here I come!” Not so fast. With a class size of only 410 students, and its global reputation attracting 7,108 applications last year, Stanford is highly selective. Your GMAT score would ideally be at the average or above, and must be accompanied with demonstrated leadership and vision – and even then, you may not make the cut. Retaking the GMAT to ensure that a lower score will not weaken your candidacy might make sense.
Also on the West Coast, UCLA Anderson has a 714 average GMAT score (+4 since 2011), with a middle 80% range of 680-750, and a small class of 360. The Anderson MBA program had 4,129 applications last year, so again the school can afford to be pretty selective. The narrow range of GMAT scores seems to signal that the admissions team is indeed putting weight on candidates’ scores. If your score falls much below 680, you probably need to retake the GMAT.
Yet if you fit the school’s MBA profile, you’ve got a strong resume, and clear career goals, your 680 score may be enough to get you in the door.
Your takeaway: The GMAT score is just one part of the total picture. If you fall in the lower 10% of your target school’s range, depending on the school, you may just need to focus on building a compelling application. If you fall well below that range, you probably need to retake the GMAT.
Question 2: What are your other qualifications?
MBA admissions officers often say reassuringly that the GMAT score is only one of many criteria they use in their decision process. MBA candidates rarely believe it – but it’s true.
When deciding whether to retake the GMAT, don't fixate entirely your GMAT score. Just as the admissions officer would, consider yourself as a whole package. If you have other outstanding qualifications, including a decent GPA and a track record of accomplishment in your career, I recommend turning your focus to assembling a stellar application.
Your takeaway: Your GMAT performance demonstrates that you can function in the core MBA classes, but ultimately, the GMAT score is just a number. You’re more than a number.
Question 3: In comparison to your most recent practice score, how did you do on test day?
I assume that you went into the official GMAT exam having already taken several GMAT practice tests, and that you had a baseline score for comparison.
Often times, GMAT test-takers don’t do so well the first time around. You may have been nervous or lost track of time. If you did not finish the GMAT, statistics from GMAC (the company that offers the GMAT) suggest that you will probably finish the second time. In that case, simply practice, practice, practice, and try again after the mandatory month’s wait.
However, if you have been struggling with certain types of GMAT questions all along, then my guess is that you were not that surprised by your GMAT score. Plan to retake the GMAT, but not immediately.
You will need a corrective plan of action, and fundamentally better GMAT preparation, typically taking more than a month. For example, if you obtained a scaled score of 28 on GMAT verbal (48th percentile), scoring a 40 (89th percentile) will take several months of sustained effort.
Your takeaway: If your GMAT score fell below a recent practice score, determine why. Was it your nerves, or were you really not ready? Yes, retake the exam – the question for you is “When?”
Question 4: Do you have time to retake the GMAT?
You are unhappy with your GMAT score. The application deadline will soon be here. You’re in a panic, so you schedule a new exam date as soon as possible.
Do not retake the GMAT without systematically evaluating (1) what needs to change in your concept mastery and strategy, and (2) whether a month is enough to make the requisite changes. Evidence suggests that test-takers often overestimate what they can change in a month. Remember, your GMAT score could go down, especially if you do not change your strategy and methods.
Your takeaway: Be realistic. If you really need to retake the GMAT, consider moving your MBA application to Round 2 from Round 1, if that’s what will give you adequate time to achieve a significant improvement in your GMAT score.
Otherwise, Keep Calm and Carry On.
Can you retake the GMAT after you have submitted your application?
Yes, you can. Have an improved GMAT score sent to the school, and admissions will usually take it into consideration.
Question 5: How many times have you taken the GMAT already?
Most MBA admissions committees do not view retaking the GMAT as a negative ... if you retake the test once or twice. In fact, if you do improve your score, you have demonstrated that you have motivation and the capacity to learn. One of my favorite students, Javier, had taken the GMAT four times before he finally came to me, focused, and radically improved his test performance on his fifth attempt – but he also had to write an admissions essay explaining why that improvement was not an anomaly. (Yes, he was accepted into most of the schools to which he applied.)
On the flip side of that story, if you retake the GMAT several times with no score improvement, you have only confirmed the score, and wasted time that could have been better spent on the rest of your application.
In that case, forget retaking the GMAT yet again, and run on your resume. If you have the kind of background and track record that are of interest to a business school, a standardized test score won’t stop admissions from inviting you to an interview.
Your takeaway: Officially, most schools only look at your highest total GMAT score. Realistically, admissions officers can see all of your GMAT scores, and they notice your improvement or your inability to improve. You can only beat your head against the wall for so long.
I cannot emphasize enough: Do not take the official GMAT test as a practice test! You can only take the GMAT eight times in all.
Question 6: How well did you do on the quantitative section?
Of course, MBA admissions would prefer you to have a high GMAT total score and be the perfect candidate. In reality, admissions may overlook a low verbal score if it’s balanced out by a high quant score and well-written essays.
A student of mine from overseas lost his nerve on test day and received an average score on GMAT verbal, although he did exceptionally well on GMAT math. He concentrated on perfecting his application, and after being wait-listed at a Top Ten school noted for its emphasis on quantitative skills, he was accepted.
Your takeaway: If you received a high GMAT quant score, you may not need to retake the GMAT.
Question 7: Is your target business school really a good fit for you?
Assess your target. For example, if your target business school is known to be quantitatively challenging, like Wharton or Chicago Booth, and you believe that you can raise your GMAT math score, you may decide to re-focus your GMAT preparation and retake the GMAT. However, if you are really afraid of math, there are many other excellent business schools that might make a better fit for you.
Your takeaway: Sometimes retaking the GMAT makes less sense than readjusting your goals.
The truth is that no matter what your score is, you’ll always feel a little regret. One of my more motivated students got a GMAT score of 740. Yet she felt that she had left points on the table and wondered whether she should retake the test.
Again, your GMAT score is just one part of your MBA application. If retaking the GMAT exam makes sense for you, give it all you’ve got! But rarely is the decision simple.
Note: The GMAT exam now allows you to cancel a GMAT score and completely remove it from your official score record. Read more about the changes in 72-Hour Decision: Should You Cancel Your GMAT Score?
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