5-15-13 This post has been updated to correct a glaring error on our data reporting that a reader pointed out in the comments. The changes are noted with
crossouts and [brackets]. Thanks for keeping us honest, BSers!
One of the saddest, and most persistent, beliefs out there in bschool application land surrounds the GMAT. There’s always some variation of the “I know someone who got into HBS with a 420 GMAT!” story going around. It seems like the most popular thread on the BW discussion boards — for years now.
The problem with the persistence of such stories is that they feed self-delusion. People see tales like that and they look at their GMAT score of 640 and it makes them think they’re in good shape. They may recognize that it’s not a great score, but hey, if others get in with much lower scores… They willingly check out of reality based on false hopes and lottery thinking (“Maybe it’ll be me!”).
A small factor contributing to this phenomenon is bschools reporting average GMAT scores. Some schools [Harvard] don’t do this; if they report anything, they list the median. [Stanford used to do this too but with the Class of 2013, they changed their practices to reporting averages for GMAT and TOEFL.] We used to be annoyed by the ones that reported medians, because it threw off our attempts at apples-to-apples comparisons between schools. Now, we are starting to feel that it’s a better way to go.
Lots of bschools do in fact admit one person at the far left of the GMAT score spectrum. We definitely know of people with low-600s GMAT scores who make it into Harvard every year, and often there’s a student with a score even lower than that. Because Harvard has such a mammoth-sized class, they can absorb that low outlier datapoint and it wouldn’t even affect their mean too much. But it does affect it. For schools with smaller class sizes, one person with a significantly lower score will skew their average even further.
That skewing does not happen with the median.
For those of you not recalling your college stats class (or who never took stats before – but lucky you! – you have that to look forward to in your first term of bschool!): the mean is what we’ve been calling the “average.” It’s the same math you do when you go out for dinner with a bunch of friends and you split the check evenly (even though it’s not fair because Frank ordered the steak AND three glasses of wine, and you just had a salad and a Diet Coke… grrr).
By contrast, the median is the datapoint exactly in the middle of the list.
When Stanford reports a median GMAT score of 729 for the Class of 2014, then that means there are about 199 students who had scores higher than that, and about 199 who had scores lower. (Their Class of 2014 is 398 students.) [When Harvard reports a median GMAT for 730 for the Class of 2014, then that means there are about 460 students who had scores higher than that, and about 460 who had scores lower. (Their Class of 2014 is 919 students.)]
Or to put that in greater perspective:
Stanford has 199 students with a GMAT score between 730 and 800.
[Harvard has 460 students with a GMAT score between 730 and 800. (And wow, that’s even more impressive than the numbers we originally cited for Stanford.)
They have 199 students with a score of anything at all up to 720.
They have 460 students with a score of anything at all up to 720.]
The anything-at-all undoubtedly includes one (or maybe two) students who came in with an otherwise-stellar pitch but a low(er) GMAT.
Derrick Bolton likes to tell a story about how he admitted one of those one year, and that person ended up impressing all the profs as the hardest-working student who pulled the highest grades. [We don’t have a similar story from Dee Leopold but we’re certain that one exists.] The GMAT totally is not everything.
We can interpret more from using the median than if we only had the average, right? Like the most obvious: They accept a helluva lotta BSers with really high GMAT scores.
The high GMAT score is NOT a pre-requisite for a successful application to the
Stanford GSB [or Harvard Business School; yes they’re near-equivalent schools for the purposes of this particular conversation]. But clearly, it doesn’t hurt. They have a preference for that. It doesn’t guarantee you diddly squat to apply with >730 score. However, if we break it down another way: Out of 6716 applicants, how many do you think presented a 730+ GMAT score? (Actually, probably a lot. This is Stanford after all.) [Out of 8963 applicants, how many do you think presented a 730+ GMAT score? (Actually, probably a lot. This is Harvard after all.)] Compare that to how many are (in the realm of mere mortals) throwing their hat in the ring with a more “average” score.
Not technically “average” of course – the “average” GMAT score across the universe of test-takers is currently 544. That’s not gonna get you nowhere, at least in terms of the parties most of you are trying to gain access to.
Our points today are simply this:
- If you’re asking the “what are my chances?” question and you’re looking at how many people get into a place like Stanford [or Harvard], then you must recognize that more people with higher scores get in than with lower scores
- If the schools want to do a better job of communicating that, then the median might be a more useful datapoint for all of them to use in reporting their GMAT numbers
- [And: Why did Stanford have to go and change their reporting practices??? Not only did it muff up EssaySnark’s pretty little example here, it’s not helping with this issue – except perhaps to solidify our point: The Stanford AVERAGE is near-identical to its MEDIAN. Huh. Go put that in your skillet and toast it.]
Please don’t feel like the game is up if your GMAT is not in the 730+ range. As we’ve said over and over on this blahg, and over and over in this post, the GMAT is not the end-all/be-all. But if you have it in your power to boost that score up – and sitting here now, in early May, well before any pressure of deadlines or drafts or anything else has fallen down on you – well, you might give it some thought.
* Hopefully you recognize that a 420 is a seriously impossible GMAT score for anyone to make it into Harvard. Like, what are you smoking, dude?