You Don’t Need an 80th Percentile Score to Get In!

We recently posted a longer piece on our blog entitled, “You Don’t Need a 750 to Get In!” striving to destroy the myth that you must have an above average GMAT score (as paradoxical as that is) to get into a top MBA program. Well, one thing led to another, and I soon found myself [mbaMission Founder Jeremy Shinewald] engaged in a dialogue with two well-known GMAT instructors, Ron Purewal and Stacey Koprince of Manhattan GMAT, with Ron leading the charge on a plea to destroy the “80/80” myth. Hopefully, you have not even heard about the alleged “need” for an applicant to have a “balanced” 80th percentile on both the Verbal and Quant sections of the GMAT exam. If you have not, then let me say, “As you were…” However, if you have and believe that applicants really do need this, then let us get to work destroying that belief. Here is why:

1. The admissions officers say no!: Those pesky admissions officers are constantly trying to get in the way of admissions myths. Here is an excerpt from an interview I did last year with the assistant dean of admissions at allegedly “GMAT-focused” Columbia Business School.

mbaMission: In the admissions mythology, there is this sense that a “safe” GMAT score is a 700 total score with an 80th percentile on both sides of the test [Quant and Verbal], but Quant scores in particular have really been going up, meaning the percentile for some previously high scores has dropped. So these days, even a 48 out of a 51, for example, will not be an 80th percentile Quant score. Should candidates be worried about the percentiles, or are you looking at their Quant scores in absolute terms? …

Amanda Carlson: I know exactly what you’re saying, and what I can tell you is a resounding, emphatic “No.”… People do not have to have this 80/80 type of a breakdown to be admitted. I can’t be emphatic about that enough.

You might say to yourself, “Yes, but that is just one admissions officer.” Touche! So let me share what Bruce DelMonico, the straight-shooting assistant dean and director of admissions at the Yale School of Management, told me in an email exchange:

“We don’t need to see the proverbial 80/80 split …. We don’t have any cut-offs or thresholds, but we do tell candidates that if they can get to the 60th percentile or above, that will serve them well. Again, we certainly have taken people whose percentiles are lower, but ideally you’d want to be at or above 60%.”

And, of course, as I noted in my previous post, when I spoke with Dee Leopold, the managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at HBS, she was explicit about assessing each candidate on his/her individual merits, rather than on a target GMAT score, which is a natural lead-in to our second rationale…

2. An 80th Quant percentile is not what it seems: These days, a 49 out of 51 will not get you an 80th percentile score—a 49 is a 79th percentile. So you need to have either a perfect 51/51 or a 50/51 to even score in the 80th percentile or higher. As Ron noted to me in an email exchange, “The meaning of the Quant percentiles has fundamentally changed. The percentiles just reflect the changing demographics of the GMAT pool.” Indeed, the pool has been profoundly affected by an influx of international applicants who earn high scores on the Quant section, but many never apply to top schools in the United States. As a result, the overall Quant scores are rising, and the percentiles are falling, obscuring what the admissions officers at the top 15 schools actually see in their applicant pool. Ron continued, “It’s obviously not true that the majority of people walking around at top b-schools are all sporting 50s or 51s on the Quant section.”

3. Your score is predictive, not your percentile: The reason I am writing this piece—trying to destroy this myth—is that percentiles have shifted over time, which has created confusion. Raw scores, on the other hand, do not shift and are a far better predictor of performance. A 47 Quant score today represents exactly what a 47 Quant score represented years ago because the score is standardized. The admissions officers can go through data and correlate student performance with scores, so they should be able to predict whether an individual with a 47 Quant score will flunk out or hit a home run. This is not true of a percentile that fluctuates up and down.

4. The GMAT is not the sole measure of competency: The GMAT is only one piece of the puzzle with respect to measuring a candidate’s aptitude. Let’s say you were evaluating an individual who had a 3.6 GPA in business administration, had completed CFA Level 1, and had earned a 47 raw Quant score (68th percentile) on the GMAT. Would you place a bet that this person could manage MBA-level finance, accounting, econ, and quantitative methods courses? His CFA Level 1 achievement alone says that he can, as does his GPA! His GMAT Quant score is actually not all that relevant for assessing his quantitative abilities, because that box has already been checked via his other accomplishments/stats. Now let’s say that you were evaluating a 3.8 English/economics double major with a 33 raw Verbal score (69th percentile). Would you feel comfortable allowing her into your class, confident that she could quickly read and digest information? I imagine you would be. A person’s GMAT score, GPA, and other designations work together to inform the admissions officers—not just that applicant’s GMAT percentile(s)!

What was an eye-opener for me in my dialogue with Ron and Stacey was that the emphasis on Quant percentiles in particular is driving candidates to misplace their priorities. Ron noted that he has several applicants with scores of 48 or 49 who are spending time trying to lift their scores to 50. This is worrying to us, not only because we want people with 48+ scores dedicating time to other parts of their profiles and applications instead, but also because we are concerned that some applicants with 48s (or lower) may unnecessarily become disheartened and decide not to apply.

Let us be very clear, high scores and high percentiles are great. We are not a firm of Polyannas, but applicants need to look past superficialities and statistics to understand the bigger picture, in context. We are always happy to provide that context through a free 30-minute consultation.

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