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Getting into a top business school with a low GMAT?

Posted by Chioma Isiadinso

Year after year, one of the most common questions I get about MBA admissions is “What GMAT score do I need to get into business school?”

Of course, you already know there’s no magic number. And that your GMAT score, while important, is not the only factor that admissions committees look at when they decide which candidates to move forward.


But the reality is, GMAT scores are important – and they’re on the rise. The days when you could reasonably expect to get into business school with a low GMAT score are long behind us. Average scores have risen appreciably at top business schools over the last several years:

Average GMAT 2009 Average GMAT 2016
Harvard Business School 719 730*
Stanford GSB 726 737
Wharton 718 730
*Tentative 2017 numbers

And in addition to rising GMAT scores, today’s candidates also face greater competition for spots in top MBA programs. Most schools have seen an increase in applications; for those schools that haven’t seen application numbers rising significant over the years, acceptance rates have tended to shrink.

Applications received 2011 Applications received 2016
Harvard Business School 9,134 10,351*
Stanford GSB 6,618 8,116
Wharton 6,642 6,679
*Tentative 2017 numbers

These numbers might seem to paint a fairly grim picture for MBA applicants in 2017. But while it’s true that a low GMAT won’t do you any favors when it comes to b-school admissions, it doesn’t mean that things are completely hopeless. You still have opportunities to leverage your background in order to get admitted to your target schools:

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Strong leadership skills are one of the primary traits that admissions committees value in an MBA applicant. They will look for evidence of your leadership ability in your resume and work history, they will look for examples in your MBA application essays, and – if you get that far – they will ask about leadership during your MBA interview. But this is absolutely a case of “show, don’t tell”.

You can’t just tell the adcom that leadership is important to you, or that you have leadership skills. You need to be able to show specific, compelling evidence of times when you have gone above and beyond, you have taken initiative, you have been at the helm of something.

That could mean leading people, leading a project, starting an initiative, founding an organization – leadership takes a lot of forms, but it’s all about action and the ability to make an impact.

Academic ability

A high GMAT score is one of the indicators that admissions committees use to determine whether an applicant will be capable of handling the rigors of business school coursework. And it is a strong indicator, but it’s not the only one. If your GMAT score won’t persuade the adcom of your capability, you need to point to other indicators that you can handle the work.

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If you have time to switch to the GRE and put forth a strong showing on that test, it may be your best option. The GMAT is still the more popular of the two tests, but all top business schools accept results from both. For example, for the class of 2019, 12% of accepted NYU Stern candidates submitted the GRE only (and 1% submitted both tests).

Additional options for demonstrating academic ability include strong undergraduate GPA, especially in a quant-heavy field; professional certification (e.g. CPA designation); or masters degree work with exceptional performance.

Unique experience

Admissions committees are looking for candidates who are academically strong and able to handle MBA-level work, but they also want to put together a class of students who will benefit from a diversity of perspectives and experiences. Sometimes, applicants are able to make the case that they possess a wealth of knowledge and depth of experience that makes them a strong choice for admission, despite a weak GMAT score.

There is a well-known example of this in the case of the former NFL player who was admitted to Harvard Business School with a sub-600 GMAT score. Despite the low score, his experience as the president of the NFL Players’ Association and his leading roles in community and non-profit endeavors provided the HBS adcom ample evidence that he would bring a valuable perspective to his classes.

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We can’t all play for the NFL, but there are many ways to bring a different perspective to your MBA cohort. If you have a truly unique background that has resulted in work experience outside the norm for b-school, you may have a chance to present the adcom with a compelling case for your admission.

The power of your personal brand

When you’re applying to a top business school with a lower-than-average GMAT score, you don’t have room to be average in the rest of your application. That’s why it’s so important that you understand your personal brand and how it fits in with your target school’s ideal candidate. Only then can you truly make a case to the admissions committee that you are the right fit for their school.

For more help on developing an authentic personal brand that will make you the clear choice for MBA admissions, get in touch with EXPARTUS today. You can reach us at 844-259-4506 or

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