GMAT Quant percentiles are “sinking”: What should MBA applicants do about it?

E=mc2 on chalkboard

by Margo Diewald, Senior Tutor, The MBA Exchange

Margo Diewald

Here are two timely facts:

• During the past decade, 18% more GMAT takers have achieved a Quant score of 48 or higher.
• In 2008-2009, a Q48 score ranked in the 85th percentile. However, in 2019-2020, the same score is only 67th percentile.

So, why are these trends important to serious MBA applicants? As the average GMAT score for admits has increased and the related percentile has declined, it’s become more difficult than ever to strengthen your candidacy through GMAT performance alone.

Clearly, the goal post for achieving a “very good” GMAT Quant score has moved, causing undue stress and distraction for many MBA hopefuls. Furthermore, compression at the top of the scoring scale makes it harder for selective MBA programs to distinguish between various levels of test performance. (Note: This dilemma is not unprecedented in the academic world. For instance, The College Board, which administers the SAT for college applicants, re-centered its scores in 1995 due to percentile drifts, albeit in the opposite direction.) So, what has happened over the past 10 years that explains this predicament? Did that many applicants really get that much smarter or more efficient?

While GMAT owner GMAC is unlikely to reveal the true reason for GMAT Quant percentile drift, based on my test-tutoring experience here are three educated hypotheses:

• Greater use of the “score cancellation” option. In July 2015, GMAC began suppressing cancelled scores from student score reports, so naturally more students are cancelling more GMAT attempts with low Quant percentiles in pursuit of their highest possible score.

• Demographic shifts in the pool of GMAT takers. Candidates from countries with stronger math curricula and greater cultural emphasis on math excellence now make up a greater share of total GMAT takers. These individuals are raising the bar at the top end of the Quant scale.

• Self-selection by GMAT takers. Educational Testing Service (ETS) overhauled the GRE in 2011, including a change in its scoring scale. Following the GRE’s redesign, more business schools began accepting GRE scores as an alternative to the GMAT. Many MBA hopefuls perceive the GRE – especially in the Quant component – as less intimidating than the GMAT. So, some individuals opt out of the GMAT pool and take the GRE instead. Thus, a percentage of the candidates who otherwise would have scored in the middle or lower tiers on GMAT Quant have switched to the GRE. (Note: In my experience, however, most people score about the same on the two exams.)

So, as an aspiring MBA applicant, what should you do now to maximize your GMAT performance and, thus, your chances for admission at the most selective business schools?

  1. Evaluate your overall academic, professional and personal profile. What are your most significant weaknesses and constraints, aside from your current test score? This list might include anything from at-work leadership to community involvement to public speaking. (If you’re unsure, get a free, expert evaluation of your candidacy.) I suggest prioritizing these vulnerabilities in terms of how much they constrain your competitiveness for admission at your target school.
  2. Outline an action plan for optimizing your candidacy. Estimate how much time it would take you to mitigate each weak point on your list. Be realistic by considering other, unrelated demands and obligations regarding work, organizations, family and friends. And, oh yes, remember your health, fitness and sleep.
  3. Evaluate the tradeoff between test prep and other priorities. What’s the best use of your available waking hours? Trying to boost your Quant score? Taking on a stretch assignment at the office? Accepting a non-profit leadership position? Focus on the most impactful priorities that you can realistically accomplish prior to application deadlines.

Whether you decide to invest your time in test-prep tutoring or some other aspect of your campaign, feel free to contact The MBA Exchange. Having helped over 5000 applicants during the past three decades, we can help you optimize your candidacy, invest your time wisely and maximize your chances for MBA admission.