By definition, only 10 percent of GMAT test-takers reach a score of 700 or above, and even though business schools don't use minimum scores to make admission decisions, a 700 is often seen as a prerequisite for acceptance at a top MBA program.
A look at any top-10 business school's range of accepted GMAT scores quickly proves this notion false, yet a 700 remains a popular benchmark for which to aim.
So what does it actually take to reach the top percentiles? If you've taken the exam before or if you've practiced enough GMAT sample questions, you know that just being good at math, grammar and reasoning is not enough to score highly. In addition to mastering the test content, top scorers have honed a variety of skills including pacing and mental stamina.
If you want to join their ranks, it helps to know to what level you need to develop these skills. This article shows the anatomy of a great score by breaking down how 700 scorers perform in the following test performance areas:
- Content knowledge
- Question recognition
- Minimizing careless errors
- Mental stamina
You can view these as the fundamentals to GMAT performance – the range of skills you should develop in order to reach a higher GMAT score.
Knowledge of test content
The content of the GMAT — the actual academic subjects tested — ranges widely. For example, the quantitative section covers subjects such as geometry, algebra and measures of central tendency as well as sub-subjects such as rate of change, binomial equations and permutations.
To reach a 700 GMAT score, a tester will know all of the GMAT's most common content, the subjects that appear most frequently in verbal and quant questions. Additionally, he or she also knows most of the less frequently tested subjects. Check out the following links for articles that outline the most common verbal and quantitative subjects and question types on the GMAT.
What often separates a good score from a great score is the test-taker's familiarity with GMAT questions. Question recognition means more than just being familiar with test content; it means recognizing styles of questions. To recognize a question is to notice a question's similarities to a previous question you've answered.
Noting the similarities between the questions, you can quickly determine how to solve the question, given your prior experience. This works for verbal questions as well as quant questions. When you recognize a question, you essentially have a head-start in answering it: You know what you need to do and what traps to avoid.
A 700-level scorer has practiced and analyzed enough GMAT questions that they recognize nearly half the questions encountered on the test. Only half of the questions are actually "new" to such a tester. Though the wording of the question is different, the pattern it follows is familiar.
For many testers, pacing is the toughest obstacle to beat. You may have a firm grasp on test content, but if you cannot work through questions in a timely manner, you'll be forced to abandon points by guessing too often or leaving questions blank.
Even someone who scores a 700 can run into pacing issues though for this level of scorer the issues are minor and do not significantly damage their score. Minor issues include having to rush through a few questions, perhaps in their weakest section of the test, but on average they have adequate time for each question.
No matter how much you study, don't expect that you'll know every question or be able to figure it out under test conditions. The highest scorers, those whose scores put them in the 90th through 99th GMAT percentiles, still have to guess.
Obviously, the less you have to guess the better, and someone who scores in the 700s guesses on three to six questions per section. They also guess strategically.
Minimizing careless errors
The easiest way to boost your score is to reduce the amount of careless mistakes. Unfortunately, like having to guess, making careless mistakes are almost a guarantee on the GMAT. Stress, mental fatigue and a ticking clock can all contribute to errors you would never make under more relaxed conditions.
However, 700-level scorers are proficient at minimizing the effects of pressure and limiting the number of avoidable errors they make. In general, these test-takers only make three to four careless errors per section. Though it may sound like a lot, careless errors can be endemic, especially on first tries at the GMAT.
Sitting for a 3-hour test is not natural. It takes practice to keep your focus for that long while answering tough questions, and fatigue can damage a score as much as lack of knowledge or poor pacing.
Part of the reason high scorers can minimize the number of careless errors they make per section is because they have developed a healthy amount of cerebral endurance. This comes through practice: taking full length GMAT practice tests while simulating test conditions – for example only taking the allotted time for breaks. A 700-level tester has developed the capacity to maintain focus and clam without significant dips in energy for the length of the test.
You don't have to be perfect, but you do have to master the fundamentals
If anything, looking at the attributes of a 700-level test taker shows that a high GMAT score takes a broad base of abilities beyond intelligence. These skill levels also point out that 700-level scorers are far from perfect, but that they've minimized their weaknesses.
As professional athletes master the fundamentals of their sport, the best test-takers develop multiple aspects of their testing abilities.