Presenting Your Academic Record In The MBA Application: GPA, GMAT & GRE

The good news is you can often overcome a below average GPA by serving up a strong GMAT or GRE score, along with other academic achievements. 

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With all the focus on studying business, it’s easy to overlook that the M of an MBA stands for Master’s. Any self-respecting b-school wants to know you handle the quant-heavy coursework.

This means proving you’re savvy with critical reasoning, language and, of course, maths. So your academic credentials, as evidenced by your GMAT and/or GRE scores and undergraduate transcripts, are critical components to your MBA application.

The good news is you can often overcome a below average GPA by serving up a strong GMAT or GRE score, along with other academic achievements. If you think your undergrad GPA falls short of a program’s standards, there are still things you can do to compensate, like take a class in finance, statistics or accounting to demonstrate your quant ability. Additional coursework shows determination, and helps to convince admissions officers you’re ready for the academic rigor of an MBA classroom.

The bad news is that the competition for competitive GMAT scores is increasing year over year. Not only are candidates investing more time and effort, there’s a glut of online resources and test prep material. MBA programs have reported a significant rise in GMAT averages over the last 15 years. (Last fall, the average GMAT score for Stanford GSB’s incoming class hit an eye-popping 737.) As my Fortuna Admissions colleague Matt Symonds puts it, “Higher GMAT scores are perceived to create a virtuous circle of school selectivity and positive impact in the US News ranking.”

It’s clear why standardized tests have taken on obsessive importance for so many MBA candidates: they’re comparable data points used to measure you against other candidates as well as predict your academic success for the MBA.

What does it mean for your MBA application planning? Your undergrad studies are behind you, but you can certainly impact your performance on standardized exams with committed study. First, plan to take the GMAT more than once – that way, it’s a pleasant surprise if you ace it the first time around. Next, if you’re uncertain about retaking, or have reason to be concerned about your score, take the GMAT again. If you do, be sure to make the effort worthwhile—it’s not about raising your score a few points, but rather finding the 30 or even 60 points that will bring you within the competitive 80% range published by your target school.

So, how decisive is your GMAT score? It depends on your desired program. Many schools like Chicago Booth, Columbia, Harvard, Wharton and MIT Sloan are unapologetically quant driven. Others like Kellogg or Dartmouth Tuck seem more flexible in considering applicants with a GMAT score that doesn’t start with a 7. Depending on the program and its academic culture, factors like your personal accomplishments, professional distinction and other unique differentiators will receive greater emphasis.

It’s clear why standardized tests have taken on obsessive importance for so many MBA candidates: they’re comparable data points used to measure you against other candidates as well as predict your academic success for the MBA.

Certainly, you don’t want the admissions officer reading your profile to trip over a low exam score. But you won’t ultimately be admitted or denied because you met the magic number in a program’s incoming class profile. That said, avoid making weak excuses for having a poor GMAT or GRE. Some of the most overused phrases in applications include, “my GMAT does not reflect my true academic potential” or “I could have done better on the GMAT, but was on an incredibly intense project and didn’t have much time to prepare,”—which is sure to prompt an eye roll. Remember you’re up against candidates who are so driven to get in they will rise at four o’clock every morning to study for their test (and that’s before they volunteer at a local shelter and head off to another 14-hour day at their spectacularly successful start-up!).

Is your GMAT or GRE score a deal-breaker? Most schools will say it is not. As former directors of admissions at INSEAD, Wharton, and other top schools, we’ve seen plenty of 790 GMAT scores denied because the candidate had nothing else to offer. Sure, you’ll need to show you can thrive in a quant-driven classroom. But thankfully, there’s much more than that to rounding out a successful application.

Author: Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD.

Fortuna Admissions is a team of former business school professionals from top-tier institutions, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, London Business School, Chicago Booth, Columbia, NYU Stern, Duke Fuqua, IE, UCLA Anderson and UC Berkeley Haas. They have reviewed tens of thousands of applications from candidates all over the world, shaped admissions policy, devised the application processes, and had the final say on who got in.