When it comes time to put together your MBA application, you'll probably stress a bit over the GMAT. You'll find a lot of conflicting guidance out there on this exam, much of it emphasizing the need to score high and earn an impressive GMAT percentile rank.
But what exactly is a good GMAT score? And what do GMAT percentiles mean? Are they significant?
In this article, we’ll look at some of the basics of the GMAT as well as dispel some persistent misconceptions. Let’s get started.
A percentile represents your ranking on a test relative to others taking it. In short, it tells you what percentage of test takers you outperformed. If you score in the 80th percentile, you did better than 79 percent of all test takers.
Your numerical score on the GMAT, in contrast, is calculated on a 51-point scale for the verbal and quantitative sections, which is also converted to a 200-to-800 point cumulative score.
You have probably seen numerous GMAT score tables that translate point scores into percentiles. Because GMAT percentile rank is based off the performance of test takers over the last three years, the exact percentile-to-score conversion may vary from year to year. GMAC posts official GMAT percentile score charts on its website.
The GMAT is divided into four sections: quantitative, verbal, analytical writing, and integrated reasoning. We focus in this article on the two most discussed sections, quant and verbal, which result in two separate percentile scores: a quant percentile and a verbal percentile.
In addition to your quant and verbal percentiles, you will also receive an overall percentile score. It may surprise you that your total percentile score can vary quite a bit from your percentile performance on each section.
Consider one recent applicant we spoke to who earned a total score of 750, with a 50Q / 41V split. Although the 50Q translated to an 85th percentile score and the 41V to a 94th percentile score, the total score of 750 landed the applicant a 98th percentile score, higher than the percentile on each individual section. This happens because many test takers who achieve a 50Q score lower than 41V (or, conversely, many test takers who achieve 41V score lower than 50Q).
All of this raises the question of what a “good" GMAT percentile is. Common wisdom holds that 80th percentile on both the quant and verbal sections represents "a good score." But, your quant score must be nearly perfect to reach the 80th percentile (50/51), while your verbal score will hit the 80th percentile by scoring a mere 36/51!
This occurs in part because so many GMAT test takers are non-native English speakers. As a result, the section that employs the universal language of math (represented by the quant side of the test) is highly competitive. In contrast, the culturally specific English that makes up the verbal side gives a marked advantage to native English speakers, making it much easier for them to score well.
But that also should clue you in that the across-the-board 80th percentile scores are not required for successful MBA admission. A quant score in the low 40s suffices to indicate you can handle the math involved in economics and finance courses. While a higher score is certainly better, you would do better to focus on your total 800-point score and its impact on MBA rankings, once you have cleared a certain minimum bar with your quant score.
Because of the diminishing returns of chasing a higher and higher quant score, the real trick (for most American and European applicants) for upping your total combined GMAT score is picking up gains on the often neglected verbal side. Topics such as sentence correction respond nicely to study.
That said, if you can pick up easy gains on the quant side with a little studying, do so. Neither the verbal nor the quantitative side of the exam is inherently more important than the other, and the best way to increase your score efficiently is to recognize where a small amount of study will result in bigger score gains. Smart studying is key.
In the end, it is the combined total GMAT score that most schools care about. While the percentile score is not entirely meaningless, it is important not to spend an excessive amount of time chasing after an 80th percentile quant score that isn’t required for admission, anyway. Your personal statements, essays, employment records, recommendations and other, less quantifiable parts of the application are as important indicators of your strength as a candidate. Make sure to give them at least as much attention as you give your GMAT scores.
David White is a founding partner at MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. His 15-year tech career included executive roles at startups (Efficient Frontier, acquired by Adobe) and publicly traded companies (Yahoo, Travelzoo), during which time he hired, trained and developed dozens of young professionals. He has been coaching MBA applicants since 2012 with a special focus on developing the right career goals.