First, a bit of good news: In the admission offices of top business schools, there are no hard GMAT score cutoffs – well not exactly.
Despite persistent myths, an application will not be rejected due to a verbal score that falls in the 75th percentile rather than 80th. Of course, a Harvard or Wharton may pay little attention to an application with a GMAT score in the 50th percentile, but the distinction is less about cutoffs and more about evidence of whether an applicant can handle the academic rigor of a premiere program.
GMAT percentiles do not function as boundary lines between the accepted and rejected applications in admission offices. Instead, admission officers view percentiles and scores as indications of academic ability – just a single piece in the admission puzzle. Unless they fall significantly below the standards of a school, percentiles and scores do not soley determine whether or not an applicant is rejected or accepted.
This should come as good news. You don't need to score above the 90th percentile to get accepted to a top program. Of course, there's some bad news too, but we'll get to that later.
Scores are stable; percentiles are fluid
Though interconnected, GMAT percentiles and GMAT scores represent two different metrics, and admission offices treat them accordingly. Scores are generated from the number of questions you answer correctly with regard to each question's difficulty. The scaled scores you receive at the end of the exam are a measure of your skill level, your ability to correctly answer quantitative and verbal reasoning questions as well as write and present ideas and arguments cogently.
Unlike percentiles, the meaning of scores are more or less "fixed." In other words, a certain score always represents a certain skill level regardless of when the test was taken: A person who scored 40 on the quant section in 2007 is said to have the same quantitative ability as someone who scored 40 in 2014.
Percentiles are a comparison of scores. Rather than measure a tester's level of ability, they show how common their level of ability is among everyone who took the test. The percentile rank attached to each score shows what portion of test-takers scored lower than this score, so if your total score has a percentile rank of 82, then your scored higher than 82 percent of test-takers over the last three years (percentile ranks are based on GMAT data over the past three years).
Since percentiles are a comparison of test scores and the GMAT is constantly being administered and taken, percentiles fluctuate over time and are influenced by the demographic of test-takers. For example, as more test-takers from Asian have taken the GMAT, high quantitative scores have become more common since this demographic is traditionally stronger at math than American test-takers. Correspondingly, quantitative GMAT percentiles have shifted: Eight years ago a quant score of 45 represented the 78th percentile, but today it represents the 66th percentile.
What do percentiles mean for admission?
Though the skill represented by a score of 45 has not changed, the prevalence of this level of skill level has increased. Such a shift, however, does not suddenly render scores "not good enough" for admission. Schools recognize the fluid nature of percentiles and know better than any other entity what it takes to perform well academically in their program.
While a certain score may not have the high percentile rank it once had, it still communicates the tester's level of ability, which is the critical take-away for admission officers. Once again the key is demonstrating intellectual ability and the potential to meet the demands of a tough business school curriculum. With all the information they have on previous admits, admission officers would be foolish to only rely on percentile rank in assessing an applicant's academic ability.
So what about the obligatory bad news? The bad news is the logical implication of the good news that this article is based on. Since there are no hard cutoffs and admission offices do not soley rely on rank to evaluate students, no GMAT score can guarantee acceptance, especially at top-ranked MBA programs. Even if you scored in the 99th percentile, you can still be rejected from Stanford, Booth, Harvard, MIT or [insert name of prestigious program here].
Business school acceptance can be hard math to swallow. For a few hundred seats, there are thousands of applicants, and top schools turn away applicants with 99 percentile GMAT scores all the time. The actionable insight from this truth is to refrain from playing up the importance of percentiles too much or predicting your admission chances by them.
Your goal in studying for the GMAT should be to reach a score that demonstrates your ability to handle the academic challenges of the programs you're applying to. For top schools, this still means you'll have to score high, but as outlined here, you don't have to be perfect or reach a mythical cutoff.
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