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Life After a Low GMAT Score: How to Excel in Your MBA Applications

Kaneisha-GraysonWhen my GMAT score flashed on the screen, my heart sank. I had scored the exact same score on test day as I had six months prior on the diagnostic test: 620.

Six months of self-study and repeated practice tests had not helped my score move up even ten points. Perhaps I had been overconfident, having been one of the highest scorers on the SAT in my high school. Perhaps I hadn’t studied hard enough—or the right way. Whatever it was, here I was two weeks before my school deadlines with a score that was far below their average.

I gathered up my things as I gathered up my courage. I knew that this close to the deadline, I didn’t have enough time to retake the test. I had already worked hard for months on my essays, gathered my recommendation letters, and told everyone I was going to business school.

Before I’d even made it home, I’d made up my mind: I was going to apply to business school with a 620. And I knew I had to do something to make up for it if I was going to have any chance of getting into my dream schools.

Here are the things I did, some things I should have done, and what you can do if your GMAT score is in the low range of your target programs:

Study and retake the test.

If you have at least a month until your school deadlines, I highly recommend studying and retaking the test. I didn’t have enough time to retake the test, but I certainly would have if I did. My own experience and that of many of my clients has revealed that self-study is a last resort option. If you have the budget, sign up for one-on-one tutoring with a savvy test-taker who is also a patient teacher or take a small group class.

Take supplemental coursework.

I wanted to show the admissions committee that I was capable of excelling with rigorous quantitative material. Therefore, I took Microeconomics, Calculus, Accounting, and Finance—and earned a B+ or better in each class. I also recommend you take a course in Statistics (also called Quantitative Methods) and Spreadsheet Skills. You don’t have to take these courses at fancy institutions; your local community college or an online course from an accredited nonprofit university will suffice. Taking these courses and getting good grades in them before you apply is a strong sign of your commitment to proving to the admissions committee that you are ready for the academic rigor of a top MBA program.

Make sure your essays are stellar.

To make sure your essays are as strong as possible, be sure to directly answer the essay prompt (rather than just saying whatever you want to write about). When discussing your career goals, be specific about what you want to do in the short, medium, and long term; what kinds of organization(s) you want to work in, and what kind of role(s) you want to have and why. When telling a story, make it come alive by sharing what you and other characters in the story thought, felt, said, and did.

Write the optional essay.

My last piece of advice is where it all comes together. If any of your schools have an optional essay where you can add additional information, take advantage of this opportunity to address your low GMAT score. Assure the admissions committee that your low GMAT score is not indicative of your true academic capabilities. Briefly share what actions you took to prepare for the test and any obstacles that may have kept you from having more time to study. Then, draw their attention to the supplemental coursework you have completed to strengthen your candidacy and demonstrate your abilities.

In the end, my low GMAT score didn’t keep me out of my dream school. I was admitted to Harvard Business School, waitlisted (though eventually rejected) at Stanford, and admitted to Harvard Kennedy School.

Since my own victory over a low GMAT score, I have helped dozens of other similar clients with scores in the 600s (and one even in the 500s) get admitted to Harvard Business School and other top MBA programs. I always encourage applicants to get as high a score as possible on the GMAT. It’s an important part of your candidacy.

However, once you’ve done your very best in this area, if the score still doesn’t quite measure up, I want you to move on to the many other areas where you can make your application shine. It worked for me. It has worked for others. And it can work for you too if you’re willing to do your part.

 

Kaneisha Grayson is a Harvard Business School MBA, Harvard Kennedy School MPA, and the founder of the admissions consulting firm The Art of Applying. Her clients have earned over $1.8 million since 2010 to attend the world’s top business schools and other graduate programs. She lives, plays, and eats tacos in her hometown of Austin, Texas.

14 Responses to “Life After a Low GMAT Score: How to Excel in Your MBA Applications”

  1. Amanda

    Love this, Kaneisha. Actually, had already read this in one of your blogs, but wanted to read it again, as the GMAT is what I’m most anxious about in my future application. Thanks for writing!!

  2. Priyanka

    Hi Kaneisha,

    I’m planning to apply to US colleges for the full time fall MBA course 2015 and I happened to come across this post in one of my readings. I am sort of in a similar boat as you must have been. My GMAT score is 720, even after hours of studying and strategizing, even after the diagnostic tests indicated a range of 760-780! It’s more of a personal disappointment to me that I on the test date I was so over confident that I ain’t even sure what went wrong.

    It was quite informative to read what you had to say, I’m afraid I do not have enough time now to re-write the exam within the first deadlines but I do plan to take the GMAT again soon. I also do not have enough time to take supplement courses now, I wish I had come across this post sooner. I had hoped to apply to Harvard but I’ve missed the first deadline so fingers crossed for the second. I’m working really hard on essays for Stanford and Chicago,Booth currently. As an international student I am naturally quite anxious about my chances of getting through so is there any advice you would be able to provide on this? I do plan to share what exactly I want to do with the MBA in the next decade but I’m not sure how much detail of my past I should share to provide the background of what motivates or aspires me. Also in your experience with dealing with these colleges anything in particular that struck you that you felt you should highlight to the fullest?

    Thanks and Regards.

  3. Julia

    Hi Priyanka – I know your comment wasn’t directed at me, but as a recent MBA grad, many of my female classmates came from India and scored in the 700-720, were admitted, and several received full or partial scholarships through Forte. My piece of advice would be to consider applying to Forte schools, and show you how have been a leader – in your community and/or through women’s initiatives. Also, apply in the first round if you can.

    Best of luck!
    Julia

  4. Caroline

    Hi Kaneisha,

    Thank you for writing this! My GMAT score is the component I am most worried about in the applications I am submitting round 1 this fall. I did everything you recommended in the article to supplement my GMAT. 🙂 I retook the GMAT (still same score & even took a Kaplan class), enrolled in an online MBA Math course and did excellent, and addressed the score in the optional essays where I highlighted my career accomplishments as a financial analyst, discussed the supplemental course work, as well as noted my high GPA in a quant heavy undergrad degree. I also had a consultant review my essays to make sure they addressed the prompts directly and had a good story line.

    I hope it pays off for me like it did for you! 🙂 This has definitely provided me a little sense of reassurance.

  5. Kaneisha

    Gah! There are so many awesome responses to this article! Believe it or not, I have a Google Alert set up for my name so I know when people reply to my articles, but for some reason, I didn’t receive them. 🙁

    I’ll reply to each one of you in order and hope that I can help all readers with my replies:

    @Amanda – I’m glad you were already on the up and up on what to do after a low GMAT score. Thank you for commenting and please keep reading!

    @Priyanka – The one thing that helps my clients the most is that I urge them to be SPECIFIC and REALISTICALLY AMBITIOUS. By that, I mean if they are telling a story, they make it juicy with spoken dialogue, mental dialogue, action words, and emotions. If they are discussing their career vision, we aim for the highest level of leadership that interests them and then outline how they plan to get there. I’d love to know how your applications turned out. Email me and my team will make sure it gets to me!

    @Julia – You’re awesome and thanks for giving Priyanka some great advice. I hope your post-grad school life is going wonderfully.

    @Caroline – GREAT JOB on taking the recommended actions for improving your profile in spite of a low GMAT score. Let me know how your applications turn out!

    Thank you to everyone who commented (and all you lovely lurkers as well)! Come visit us over at the website (http://theartofapplying.com). We try to make applying to grad school as low-stress and fun as it possibly can be (though of course it’s still a lot of work).

  6. Kerrie

    I loved this article! I also had an extremely low GMAT score and applied to only top schools. I was admitted to Indiana University and waitlisted at Vanderbilt. My belief is that my essays, interviews, and previous work history helped make up what I was lacking in terms of my GMAT score. Best wishes to anyone going through the application process!

  7. Kaneisha

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kerrie! Congratulations on your admittance to Indiana University! You’re going to have a great time! Thanks for sharing your story in your comment, which I’m sure will inspire others.

  8. Bryan

    Hi Kaneisha,

    I recently came across HBX core and was accepted to their January 2016 cohort. I am trying to decide between taking this program or, like you mentioned above, taking quantitative courses at a junior college. What do you recommend?

    Thank you for your time.

    Bryan
    bryan.chic@gmail.com

  9. Bonnie

    Thanks for posting this!
    I scored a 720 but did rather poorly in the integrated reasoning and only okay in quant section.
    I know that you’re recommending we write the optional essay to explain any professional capabilities in quantitative space, but I’ve also seen other blogs say to not draw attention to the low gmat quant score in the optional essays.

    What are your thoughts on their perspective?

  10. Bianca Bickford

    Congratulations on a strong total score! Happy to answer your question. The truth is the admissions committee will see all the parts of your score (quant, verbal, IR, and AWA), and they will take note of each part. The quant portion certainly holds a great deal of weight, depending on how competitive the program is that you are applying to or how much they are considered a “quant” focused school. Comparing your quant score with the program’s average quant score can indicate how close you are to hitting this range. Highlighting your quantitative ability in your essays (whether in an optional or required essay), and on the resume can demonstrate your ability in this field. With required essays needing to be a concise length, it may be too difficult to include this point. An optional essay is a great place for this discussion. You can include work experience that has a quantitative focus, as well as courses that you took in education. For the IR, this section is still relatively new. There has not been as much data collected on the IR score, and its effects on a candidate’s overall competitiveness. You can always double check with the schools you are planning on applying to, and see how they factor this piece into the overall application.

  11. Chris

    Hi Kaneisha – thank you for your article. I wanted to ask you about overcoming a slightly lower Q on the gmat. I have been waitlisted by my top choice and though I have not received feedback yet, I am anticipating that my weakness may lie in GMAT..I scored a 690 (46Q,39V) which is on the lower quartile of 680-740 range. I am not considering how I can approach feedback get off the waitlist! I have taken the GMAT already several times which the school has seen. I also have quant courses in undergrad, average a 3.5 GPA during college. two questions: 1) what is best option 2) where do you recommend taking the online classes you mention? Can you recommend where you took these online courses for a grade? Thank you!

  12. Bonne Sante

    Hello Everyone,

    It’s really encouraging to find so many success stories of people who made their career steer clear of all obstacles with low GMAT & GPA. Someone in the forum has rightly said that we are human being and not just “numbers” and so our fate cannot be just decided with a low GMAT or GPA. The good news is that the Ad Coms of most of the premiere (Top-ish) B-Schools realize this very fact and consider the admission application holistically i.e. consider all the factors viz. your profile, education, background, work experience, extra-curricular activities, community service, recommendations / references, English proficiency etc. along with your GMAT scores.

    Three years back, I was in your shoes. Even after thorough preparation, I got a discouraging 570 in GMAT, though my quant scores were decent however verbal score was a complete mess. I tried enough to improve upon my verbal scores; however I met with little success every time. In the end, I decided to move ahead with whatever I had in my hand.

    Well, a little about me at the time of application – I had about two years of technical experience in project management wherein I had managed few contracts and gained experience in robust man management. I am basically an engineer by degree with 60.6% in undergraduates (which I am sure is not impressive).
    I talked with my three supervisors / seniors at work and they agreed to be my professional recommendation providers (admission committees place critical importance on your recommendations). To cover my low GMAT and GPA, I thought to get some score on IELTS and luckily I got a score of 7/9 in the very first attempt.
    I did an extensive research of the B-Schools world-wide for about 3-4 weeks. While selecting the school, I placed utmost importance on the post-MBA job prospects. As such, North America was a natural choice like everyone does have. However, since the immigration policy of US is mostly uncertain (i.e. stay in US after completion of such an expensive degree program – problems with H1B working visa for immigrants- “and now screwed up all the more”), I decided to turn towards Canada.

    On exploring the possibilities, I found the country loaded with great MBA programs. The very encouraging fact for me was the low tuition fees of the MBA program with great scholarship opportunities even for the most reputed B-Schools (FT Rankings Top 100). The Post Graduate work permit program offered by the Canadian Govt. was yet another cherry on the cake. In addition to it, the stable economy, high paying jobs, work-life balance, jobs availability, cost of living, presence of huge Indians community, connectivity with India terrain, permanent residency, citizenship options etc. were some of the many factors for selecting Canada over any other country.

    After earmarking the B-Schools, I started off struggling with my application. I never imagined that preparing the admission application would be so challenging and demanding. I literally went blank when I started off with preparing my Statement of Purpose (SOP). Further, when I asked my recommenders to provide me the recommendation for the 5 B-Schools to which I had applied – they in turn asked to suggest the important points that they should cover while writing a strong recommendation for me.

    By this time, I knew that it would be absolutely not possible for me to complete my admission applications along with my grueling work hours so I started to consult various MBA Consulting firms in India and abroad, however I was stunned after learning about their sky-rocketing consulting rates. Even for a short discussion over phone, Consulting firms were asking several thousand bucks forget about their huge demands for assistance in application (few started their bid with Rs. 1,25,000 per B-School just for the sake of providing advices and reviews). To look out for economical means, I was searching frantically in community forums when some member mentioned about Jugaadugar. Upon enquiry, I came to know that Jugaadugar can help me throughout the application journey and even draft SOPs, recommendations, reviewing and resetting CV, English test waiver appl., help in getting scholarship, interview preparation etc. on my behalf and further help me around in filing visa application, medical test, and provide assistance (free of cost) w.r.t. accommodation, currency exchange, and what not if I am proceeding to Canada for MBA. (I think they have some Canadian affiliation or government funding).

    They helped someone with a profile like me to get admission offers (with modest scholarships) from reputed B-Schools such as Sauder School of Business (UBC), Schulich School of Business, McMaster, and Simon Fraser University. After considering the tuition cost and post-study prospects I had joined UBC and successfully completed the 16 month program in jan’15.

    Ah….so it has been a long read, so to cut it short now…I would suggest all readers not to lose hope on account of your low GMAT or low GPA scores. Stand confident. Make your application strong in all ways possible. Pour down all your efforts. Show the admission committees what they want to see.

    Success will be yours!!

    Best of Luck

  13. Bethany

    Hi Kaneisha,

    I found this post extremely helpful and I was wondering what institution you took your additional coursework from or if there were any online courses you would suggest?

    Thanks,
    Bethany

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