If you’re applying to business school with a subpar GMAT or GRE score, either a low total score or a significantly low subscore especially if it’s on the quant side, then in addition to the preamble talk we gave you yesterday about school strategy, there are in fact steps you can take to improve your chances.
At risk of making you depressed, most of these steps do involve retaking the test. If your score truly is in trouble territory, there’s just not any way around that. There are exceptions, of course: If the adcom is truly impressed by the qualitative aspects of your background and profile, in the ways you bring differentiation to their class, then it’s possible they’ll admit you even with the blemish of a test score on your record. That’s typically where you get scores like a 530 admitted to Harvard or Stanford: The test score sucked, but the PERSON who was presenting the test was so darned amazing that it just didn’t matter. These are the 1 in 10,000 candidates, though, so be real in assessing if it’s you.
For most people, if you’ve got like a 650 GMAT, then you’re going to need to take action to mitigate this weakness in how you are presenting yourself in the apps.
First bit o’ advice: Never tell the admissions team that you’re “willing” to retake the test “if you want me to.” No. Don’t say that.
If you know that your test score is poor, you need to take that bull by the horns and tell the adcom that you have your next test date already scheduled on [insert specific date] and that you’ll send them your new score as soon as it is available. Obviusly you’ll only do this with a school that accepts in-cycle updates. Some schools, including Harvard and Stanford, do not accept such updates, so please don’t inform the admissions team in those apps that you’ll be sending stuff. Because they won’t accept it.
But many other schools will let you send in a new test score even after the app has been submitted and the deadline has passed, and they will try to incorporate that score in their assessment of you — note the emphasis on “try.” If you send in the new score after your app has already been processed and reviewed, they won’t go back and re-review it. They might hold your app to the side if you alert them that a new score should be coming their direction on X date. That’s why being specific and scheduling the test and informing them in the optional essay of this test date is critical to the strategy.
Some schools even let you inform them of a future retest within the application. Columbia is one that does this.
The other part critical to this strategy is that you actually take the test when you’ve committed to do so, and you do better.
(Though, honestly, some admissions directors will be pleased with the retake attempt as a show of determination, even if your score doesn’t improve terribly much.)
Oddly, we’ve seen BSers make this commitment to the adcom that they’ll retest, and then they somehow forget to actually go through with it. And then when the adcom contacts them a few days after that scheduled retake date to get the new score, they’re surprised. Don’t be that guy.
You need to retake the test? Plan to retake the test. Take your studying seriously. Then take the test, and report the score that you earn. Even if it’s still not what you wanted. You have to report it to the admissions office if you promised them you would do so.
So what else can you do, besides the terror-inducing strategy of actually taking the darned test again?
You can look for ways in your app to show that you have strong quant skills. (Presumably quant is where you were weak on the test. A very low showing on the verbal side is less common, typically only happening for international applicants with less experience in an immersive English environment, and the risks to the candidacy with a very low verbal score could actually be more extreme in that case. But that’s a post for another day.)
Come up with examples to highlight on your resume, and for a recommender to mention, that show you doing good things with numbers. Proficiency. Competence. Comfort. These things are what will help the admissions team believe in you even if a test score is low.
The entirety of your package will of course be evaluated. This is why they say they do a “holistic review.” It’s not one number in isolation. And that’s a good thing, as it means you have access to the entirety of your application package to find ways to convey this.
Do you write an optional essay?
Only if you are committing to retaking the GMAT (or GRE) and there’s nowhere else in the app itself to convey that. Beyond that tactic? We don’t see the value of writing an essay trying to explain a low test score.
After all, what can you say?
The content we’ve seen from most every BSer who’s tried explaining it just don’t cut it. The best way to offset a low GMAT is retaking the test.
Everyone has a glitch or two in their apps. Nobody’s perfect. It’s all about how you play to your strengths, while not ignoring the weaknesses, that determines if you have a real chance.
Want to get our take on whether the full pitch you’ve put together appropriately offsets a weakness or in some other way compensates? Our Sanity Check service will give an objective view of your app, with a discussion of where you’ve done well and where… maybe not. And let you know if you’ve got a chance at that school. Hit us up! We’re looking at essays and apps all weekend. There’s still time to get help and make the most of your Round 2 opportunities!