An MBA emphasizes studying business and often the “M” in MBA, which stands for “Master’s”, is overlooked. Any self-respecting business school will want to ensure that you have the academic aptitude to handle a graduate degree. You’ll need to be skillful in math, critical reasoning/logic, and language. Therefore your academic results are important components of your application. These are defined by your grade point average (GPA) in college or university, (or equivalent). In addition, for most top MBA programs, you must take the standardized test ‒ the GMAT or GRE ‒ before applying to business school.
Since they’re easily comparable data points that can be measured against other applicants, they’ve become a subject of near obsessive importance for many MBA candidates. Both results need to be placed in context, as they’re just one piece each of a broader application.
If you’re worried you have a ‘below average’ GPA, this can be mitigated by other achievements or a strong GMAT or GRE score. To further compensate, you could even take a class to demonstrate your quantitative ability. Additional coursework shows determination, and can help admissions officers decide whether you’re able to undertake the academic rigor in the classroom. And if there was a reason why your grades suffered at some point during your studies, for example, a time consuming part-time job or a health concern, provide a brief and straightforward explanation, not an excuse, preferably with an illustration of your academic potential when you were able to focus on your studies.
Most schools will tell you that your GMAT or GRE scores are NOT the most pivotal part of your application. As former directors of admissions from top schools around the world, we’ve seen candidates with 800 GMAT scores denied, because the candidate had little else to offer. Most schools will publish the range of scores achieved by the middle 80% of their admitted students, giving you an idea of what has proved to be competitive. Though you can achieve a good overall score if you do much better in either the verbal or quantitative parts of the test, schools will see the breakdown of scores and might be apprehensive about the weaker section.
You certainly don’t want an admissions officer to trip on a low test score while reading your profile. But ultimately you’ll not be admitted or denied because you exceeded the magic number for your school. There’s much more to the application process than that. However, don’t make poor excuses for having a weak GMAT or GRE. Whereas your undergraduate studies are in the past, you can still influence your performance on these standardized tests with committed study. Admissions officers roll their eyes when they read “my GMAT does not reflect my true academic potential” or “I could have done better on the GMAT, but was on an incredibly intense project and didn’t have much time to prepare”. These are among the most overused phrases in applications. Remember you’re up against candidates who are so hungry to be admitted they will rise at 4 o’clock every morning to prepare for their test (and that’s before they volunteer at a local shelter and then head off for another 14-hour day to work on their spectacularly successful start-up!)
If you’re wondering whether your GMAT or GRE is good enough, perhaps the rule of thumb is this: if you’ve any reason to be concerned, retake the test. By that we don’t mean turning a 730 in to a 740, but rather finding the 30, 40, or even 60 points that bring you within the competitive 80% range that we described. The last thing you want is a feeling of doubt thinking “I could have, should have, would have”.
As the next step of this series, we’ll discuss the importance of your resume and the application data form.