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MBA Admissions Edge step 4: Presenting your academic profile - GPA and GMAT

Caroline Diarte Edwards of Fortuna Admissions - April 28, 2017

Presenting your academic profile

Positioning yourself as a credible candidate for a top MBA programme means proving can you handle the quant-heavy coursework. You’ll need to be savvy with critical reasoning, language and, of course, maths. Your academic credentials, as evidenced by your undergraduate transcripts and GMAT scores, are integral components of your MBA application.

It’s easy to see why these pesky data points have taken on obsessive importance for so many applicants – they’re comparable data points that schools use both to predict your academic success for the MBA and measure you against other candidates. But, as they’re one piece of a broader application, they need to be put into context.

Does your undergrad GPA fall below your target programme’s standards? Or, were you a humanities major with little quant exposure? You can compensate for perceived academic shortcomings by enrolling in a standard quant-based course such as accounting, statistics and finance. It’s an opportunity to build your skill set while demonstrating your ability to handle the academic rigour. Usually, it doesn’t matter where you take the class, but you’ll want a B+ or higher (according to the American system) to be taken seriously.

You might also overcome a subpar GPA by showcasing a strong GMAT (or GRE) score - particularly in the quant portion of the exam. Some top schools are placing increasingly greater emphasis on this section.

Most schools publish scores achieved by the mid 80% range of their students, giving you a sense of where they’re setting the bar. And, competition for a competitive score on the GMAT continues to increase. Not only are applicants investing more effort and time to study, but there’s also an abundant array of test information and practice material online.

Over the last 15 years, MBA programmes have reported a significant rise in GMAT averages. Last fall, the average GMAT score for Stanford GSB’s incoming class hit a record-breaking 737. Meanwhile, Wharton boasted a 14-point rise to a GMAT average of 732 for last fall’s intake, up from 718 in 2011, and Northwestern Kellogg reported a 12-point jump to 724 from 712 five years earlier. 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 some business school rankings.”

So what does that mean for your application planning? While your undergrad studies are in the past, you can influence your performance on standardised tests with dedicated study. First, you should plan to take the GMAT more than once – that way if you ace it the first time it’s a nice surprise. And if you’re not sure if your GMAT is good enough, or think you can do better, I recommend taking the GMAT again.

You can now cancel your score without penalty. No reference to a cancelled score will appear on score reports sent to business schools - a change from a couple of years ago. Just retake the GMAT after 16 days, though the rule remains that you can’t retake the exam more than five times during a 12-month period.

So, how decisive is your GMAT score? It depends – on you, but also on your desired programme. For those of you with undergrad coursework that’s strong in quants, and who work in a related field, the GMAT may be a necessary hurdle more than a point of differentiation. Yet many schools like Harvard, Chicago Booth, Wharton, MIT Sloan and Columbia are unapologetically quant driven. Others like Dartmouth Tuck, Kellogg and Duke Fuqua appear more flexible in considering candidates with GMAT scores that don’t start with a 7. Depending on the type of programme and its academic culture, your professional distinction, personal accomplishments and other unique differentiators will receive greater emphasis.

Ultimately, you won’t be admitted or denied because you met the magic numbers for your school’s stats. In our days as directors of admissions at Wharton, INSEAD and other top schools, my colleagues and I at Fortuna Admissions saw plenty of candidates scoring 770-800 on the GMAT receive dings because he or she had little else to offer. Sure, you’ll need to convey you can thrive in a numbers-driven classroom at any credible business school. But thankfully, there’s much more that goes into positioning a successful application. 

This is the fourth in a 12-part series for Prodigy Finance by Fortuna Admissions on how to boost your chances of getting into a top business school. Stay tuned for more.

The Fortuna team are former admissions gatekeepers from top-tier institutions including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, and Johnson Cornell.


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