When 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.