Are you (re)taking the GMAT? What’s your score cancel strategy?
A key driver of GMAT score inflation among MBA applicants is the relatively new development that allows you to cancel your test score. Years ago, you took the GMAT and that was that. Bad score? Oh well, tough luck, it’s part of your permanent record.
About two or three years ago, the GMAC introduced the ability to cancel your score, but originally it had all sorts of strings attached: The first implementation, you couldn’t even see your score (!) before you had to decide whether to cancel or not, and that decision was irreversible — plus, it showed on your official score report that you’d taken a test and then canceled it. Then, they changed it so that at the end of the test, they showed you the score, and you had three minutes sitting there in the test center to decide what to do, and it was still irreversible.
Now, after several modifications and tweaks to the rules, you can cancel on the spot, or you can do it later, and you can also un-cancel through a certain period of time — and the best part (maybe?) is that nobody but you knows you even tested. The canceled score does not show up on the school’s data. It does not even tell them that you tried to test on that day.
The unintended consequence? Everybody started testing A LOT. There was no risk to testing again and again, because hey! The schools won’t even know! Lots of applicants now use their first GMAT as a practice, without even sufficiently prepping for it. It seems like test-takers don’t take the test as seriously these days, because each one can be a throwaway. It’s the ultimate do-over.
Is this good or bad?
EssaySnark is not so sure.
Yes, empowering you with control over your test scores and giving you more room to use strategy can be a good thing.
But it’s just like the move that the schools did starting around 2011 where they whacked down the number of essays they were forcing you to write. That may seem applicant-friendly, since there’s less overhead to getting an app in. But the net result of that is, more and more people started applying to more and more schools. It ended up creating a very unpleasant situation with massively more numbers of applicants getting put on the waitlist, since it increased the uncertainty in admissions offices around yield. Everyone applying to more schools is not in anyone’s interest — and BTW, we don’t see it as necessary, anyway. Getting into bschool is not a numbers game. Submitting more applications does not mean your chances go up. Submitting a select few incredibly strong applications to schools you’re in love with, that you’ve spent the time working to learn about and understand their value prop, then sweated bullets to put that into your essays… That’s the formula for success. To throw out a reasonable number: Four per round. Maybe five. It’s highly unrealistic to think you’ll be able to do a good job on too many more than that, and anyway, you shouldn’t need to. You can only go to one school. There’s no way that there are ten schools out there that are equally a strong fit to you and your priorities. There’s one school with your name on it, where you will do your best work, that you’re going to end up going to, and it’s your job to figure out which ones that might be, and put all of your heart and soul into making your best pitch to those adcoms. Crapping together a dozen apps to all the “best” schools you’ve ever heard of is not how to do it.
But we digress.
Canceling GMAT scores. That’s what we’re here to talk about today.
Last year and very quietly, the GMAT folks implemented another change to the test that not everyone noticed: There’s now a cap on the number of times you can take it. You’re allowed to test the GMAT five times in a year, up to eight times total. We believe this may have been done partly because of test prep instructors taking the GMAT all the time for their work, in keeping their skills fresh and staying on top of changes on the test. The lifetime limit effectively squashes that for them.
The yearly limit is obviously due to trends where people were taking the test over and over and over again — and now, it’s become not just the low-scoring peeps who keep trying. We’ve heard of people with a 740 who keep testing and testing, trying to break through to 770. There’s no risk now to retesting a bunch of times since you can cancel if you don’t meet your target.
Or is there?
We haven’t seen the actual applications for every school yet this season but we do know that different schools ask different questions for how you need to disclose your test history, and we’ve seen some of these requirements changing.
There’s also a bunch of changes in leadership of admissions offices at lots of top schools, so what one school said a few years ago may no longer apply. Tuck, Darden, Haas, Stanford and Harvard are some of the schools with new (or fairly new) admissions directors on board lately. Plus, the schools are having to adapt to changes among the applicant pool much faster than they ever had to before (this is another reason why you need to carefully vet any admissions consultant you might want to go with, because if they’re not on top of this then it could doom your chances). What a school said in the past may no longer apply. And, certain policies are not exactly being advertised. The adcoms have lots of strategies that they keep close to the chest. These policy changes are only revealed through the results in the applicant pool. One example is that we’re seeing changes in how adcoms are reacting to GRE scores. In addition, there are wide variations among schools on whether number of test attempts is positive or negative on the candidacy.
So we’ll just lay it out in black and white, for those of you focused on getting into a really good school:
Testing a bunch of times is a negative.
Even if you eventually end up with a “good” score — and even if many of the prior attempts got canceled — it’s still a risk to your candidacy.
Because if it takes you many attempts before you really start studying and get focused on the goal, then that is not communicating something very positive. If you have two tests that are very similar in outcome, it’s going to make the school wonder how much you applied yourself. If you have three, or four, with scores largely the same, then that’s just not a strong sign in your favor.
If you have three or four canceled scores, the school will only assume the worst.
Some schools do want to know how many times you have tested. They’re not asking, “How many times did you test and not cancel?” They’re asking, “How many times have you taken the test?” If you’re honest, you need to tell them directly — and plenty of schools require you to upload your unofficial test report in the app. Guess what’s on the unofficial report? A bunch of “Cs” showing you canceled.
If you bounced back and forth from the GMAT to the GRE, it can be even worse.
But then what about a school like Darden? Their former Admissions Director Sara Neher said in the past that you should not cancel your score, and she even suggested that you consider un-canceling. This advice was particularly offered for reapplicants but it applies to “fresh” applicants too. They want to see how you did. The progression of scores is valuable to them.
We don’t think it’s valuable if the scores are all the same, though, and again it can end up working against you if there are too many tests with too little improvement.
Admissions staff at Stanford used to say that testing three times is enough. Three times! That’s it! They say that they begin to wonder about how the applicant is spending their time if they become overfocused on the GMAT. It starts to look like an obsession. It’s unhealthy. (We’re trying to make it clear that these are comments from past administrations at these schools; we believe they’re still accurate representations but obviously The ‘Snark is not sitting on the adcoms.)
Testing more than three times may have a purpose in certain situations, like a BSer who took the GMAT while still in college because she was planning ahead, but now two years later, when everything is more competitive, she wants to try again and increase the score. Taking the test three times in that situation is not excessive.
Taking it three times within the course of six months? Hmmm. That’s probably fine but it’s our upper limit of comfort.
Taking the test multiple times in quick succession also can indirectly communicate your approach to hard work or willingness to knuckle down and master a skill that you perhaps aren’t intending to communicate.
Setting out your full test strategy in advance of your very first test is important — or, if you’re gearing up to retest right now, look at your history of tests and figure out what you’re going to do with this one. Reapplicants have a more unique situation where additional retesting may be less of an issue, but it truly depends on the exact situation and the actual pattern of performance. This is where our Comprehensive Profile Review can come in. We go into all the details of your specifics, looking at the actual test attempts and where you’ve ended up (even in conjunction with TOEFL for international applicants) plus including the context of academics and GPA alongside.
If you go into the test assuming you won’t cancel then our bet is that you’ll take the whole thing more seriously. Perhaps it’s a subtle shift in orientation. But if you take LIFE as utterly important — EACH DAY being meaningful and precious, and not some throwaway trial run that you can always re-do later on if you muff it up — then we will put money on the table and say, your life will result in more meaning and value, because you won’t be squandering opportunities.
You may also be interested in:
- The fallacy of an apply-everywhere strategy
- “How many apps should I plan for?”
- How many times taking the GMAT is too many?