GMAT Percentiles and 80th Percentile Confusion
You’ve decided that an MBA is the right path for you. A diligent person, you make a list of your favorite MBA programs and note the median GMAT scores so you can set a proper goal. Because you’ve got your sights set on the top ten with a soft spot for the top three a 700+ score seems imperative. Fair enough. You’ve done well on standardized tests and aren’t afraid of a good challenge. Three months later after grueling through a couple hundred hours of studying you are sitting in front of a rather schlubby looking computer taking your official GMAT. It’s challenging, especially on the Quant side. You were a bit rushed there. Verbal was a slog but there were no surprises. A few clicks after the last verbal question and: 720! 94th percentile! You made it!!! Or did you? You notice that you nearly failed the Quant with a percentile in the low 60’s. What?!! How is that possible? Damn you GMAT Quant percentile! Is Harvard slipping away? The short answer is: no, Harvard is not slipping away. Everything is OK. Read on for a detailed analysis of GMAT percentiles and why the 80th percentile on Quant isn’t necessary for admission to a top MBA program.
A brief history of GMAT Percentiles and the mysteriously shifting 80th percentile Quant Score
Back in 2000, a GMAT scaled score of 45 represented the 82nd percentile (see table).
That seems to be when the 80th percentile really mattered. Since then, as illustrated in the accompanying tables, what was the 80th percentile has dipped to the 78th, 75th, 71st, and now D grade 63rd percentile. Astonishing! So, yes, the 80th percentile does matter. But not the 2016 80th percentile, the 2000 one:). Why have the GMAT percentiles changed? The simple answer is that more people are getting perfect or near perfect scores. In fact, the way that the GMAT percentiles are now, there is no 99th percentile. You can only get to the 97th percentile. A full three percent of GMAT test takers are ringing up a perfect score. Why are people doing better? I’d like to think that Atlantic GMAT is the sole reason but the facts point elsewhere. It has to do with the shifting demographics of GMAT test takers. People from countries that tend to provide a better math education than is provided in the US have been taking the GMAT in much greater numbers. These folks are making the GMAT percentiles (on the Quant side) much more competitive. Here is a more in depth discussion on changing GMAT Quant percentiles and how Americans are lagging. One interesting little tidbit from the article, "according to GMAC, Asia students spend an average of 151 hours in test preparation; U.S. students average 64 hours."
Here you can see a Quant scaled score of 45 drop to the 78th percentile,
and then to the 75th!
Here the Q45 plummets to the 71st percentile
and then, finally, the sad looking 63rd percentile where it sits in 2016.
GMAT percentiles vs GMAT scaled scores and Why a 63rd percentile GMAT Score is OK
Part of why achieving a 2016 80th percentile GMAT Quant score doesn’t matter is that a GMAT percentile score only measures relative ability. It is the scaled score that measures absolute ability. So a Quant 45 from 2016 is the same as a Quant 45 from 1997. That’s why the sub-section scaled score is more meaningful than the percentile score. It is a measure of your skills. And, people who have been doing admissions for years recognize that. The percentiles may change, but the scaled scores still represent a known quantity in terms of ability. Here's an article straight from the 'horses mouth' (GMAC) discussing GMAT scaled scores and GMAT scoring.
With a Quant 45 you have the skills to face the rigor of an MBA even if your percentile seems pathetic. Do you need to have a near perfect quant score to do well in an MBA program? Nope. Think about it like this: let’s say there’s a certain amount of weight that you have to be able to lift in order to become a fireman in New York City. Let’s say that’s 200 pounds. Does it make you a more qualified fireman if you can lift 400 pounds? Not necessarily. Once you've crossed the 200 pound threshold, there are probably other skills that are more important than lifting weight. So it is with the GMAT. At some percentile (well below the 80th percentile) your Quant skills are proven and so your total GMAT score, combined percentile, and the rest of your application become more important.
A few recent examples of real people with sub 80th percentile GMAT Quant scores admitted to top ten schools
Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 710 Breakdown: 45q 42v (2015)
Semi-Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 670 Breakdown: 43q 39v (2015)
Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 720 Breakdown: 46q 44v (2014)
Less Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 620 Breakdown: 36q 40V (2014)
Semi-Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 710 Breakdown: 45q v42 (2015)
Less Competitive Bracket - GMAT Score: 700 Breakdown: 43q 42v (2015)
When does an imbalance in GMAT percentiles warrant a retake?
This advice really depends on who you are (as seen in the examples above). If you have a proven math background, a 700+ score, but a super low quant percentile, you might be totally fine. If you have a desirable background/story that a particular school is looking for, again, a lower Quant score could be A-OK.
Here are some rough and ready guidelines for when to consider a retake (assuming you are applying to the “crème de la crème” MBA programs)
- Most people with a Quant score below a 45 gunning for the top two or three MBA programs.
- Most people who are in a competitive bracket with a Quant score below a 45.
- Any applicant applying to top ten-ish schools with a quant score below a 40.
Have you had a different experience with your admissions process? Follow up with any questions or comments!
Just for fun, here are the GMAT percentile charts composite scores over the past 15 years or so starting from the year 2000 all the way to the most current GMAT percentiles: