Breaking the 700 Barrier

One of the great GMAT myths is that the first 8 questions in each section "make or break" your score and that nothing you do after that point has much of an effect on the score you end up with. False! Eight questions are not enough to determine your score. If they were enough, each section would consist of 8 questions.

One of the consequences of the myth is the belief that in order to break 700, you must answer those first 8 questions correctly. Untold numbers of test-takers have labored over the first eight, afraid that any mistake will send their scores plummeting to unthinkable depths. While it is true that you should give each question your best shot, the absolute number of questions answered correctly is not as important as their difficulty level. Better to have a 50/50 success rate at a high level than a 50/50 success rate at a lower one, even though the percentage of right and wrong answers is the same.

The most serious upshot of this myth is that its believers spend far too much time on the first eight questions and then find themselves racing to finish the section. Often, these test-takers run out of time and leave some questions unanswered at the end of a section. Given that unanswered questions are essentially counted as incorrect answers, it makes more sense to move at a steady pace throughout the entire section rather than concentrate on any particular subset of questions. In fact, spending too much time on early questions may actually damage rather than help your final score.

Also, keep in mind that even for a test-taker of very high ability, getting the first eight questions correct in a section is highly unlikely, even if that test-taker spends a lot of extra time on those first eight questions! Remember, due to the adaptive nature of the exam, if you get the first question in a section correct, you will be bumped up to a very difficult second question. If you get that second question right, your third question will also be at an extremely high difficulty level. You will continue to see questions at this very high difficulty level until you get a question wrong, at which point the exam will adjust the difficulty level downward somewhat. Even test-takers of very high ability levels usually cannot sustain accuracy through the first eight questions in a section.

Do not become a victim of the "first 8" myth: give every question your best shot, but do not let any one group of questions drive your entire performance.

Breakdown of a 700 Score

Many people come to GMAT preparation in mortal fear of the quantitative section. Probability! Exponents and roots! The entire section seems like a parade of horribles. Unfortunately, many of these people spend the bulk of their study efforts honing their math skills at the expense of their verbal preparation. Certainly a great performance on each section is ideal, but experience has shown that an excellent verbal performance affects one's overall score more dramatically than does an excellent performance in quantitative.

Let's take a look at what happens at the highest levels of the exam: 700+. A recent test-taker received a scaled score of 45 in verbal (98th percentile) and 40 in quant (66th percentile) and an overall score of 700 (93rd percentile). Notice how much closer the overall percentile is to the excellent verbal percentile. If the overall percentile were simply an average of the individual percentiles, this person would have received about 640. But because the combination of an outstanding verbal performance with a fair quant performance is so rare, the overall percentile and score will be much higher than the lower quant percentile. Another person, who scored 49 in verbal (99th percentile) and 37 in quant (56th percentile), received 710 (95th percentile), even though the quant performance here was a full 10 percentile points lower than that in the previous example. Again, an outstanding performance in verbal significantly offset a middling performance in quant.

Does this work in reverse? That is, will an outstanding performance in quant so dramatically offset a middling performance in verbal? No. This combination is much more common, given the increasing number of international test-takers, who often have excellent math skills but relatively weak command of English. Even among native speakers of English, it is more common to see relatively high quant scores coupled with fair to middling verbal scores. Because these combinations are less rare, they are not rewarded as highly. For example, a test-taker recently received a 50 in quant (97th percentile) and a 37 in verbal (82nd percentile), but "only" a 670 overall (89th percentile). So the truly excellent quant performance was not enough to pull the overall score above 700.

While an excellent verbal performance can indeed take up some of the slack from a weaker quant score, keep in mind that most business schools want to see strong skills in both sections. In fact, some of the top 20 schools apply the "80/80 rule", which requires that successful applicants reach at least the 80th percentile in both sections. So do not put all your eggs in one basket: make sure you prepare well for both sections.

Breaking the 760 Mark

760 is the threshold for the 99th percentile and the GMAT does not award that distinction to specialists (people who do extraordinarily well on only one section of the exam). At that level, you need to excel in both sections. So, although last week we discussed how the verbal section can pick up the slack from a weaker quant performance, if your sights are set on 760+, you need to be in top form in both areas.

Your overall score out of 800 results from your performances in quant and verbal, each of which is first scored independently on a scale of 0-60. These subscores are then combined to yield your overall score according to formulae to which only ETS (the organization that administers the GMAT) is privy. Each subscore (verbal and quant) receives a percentile ranking as well. This indicates the percentage of test-takers who scored below your level over the past few years. So, for example, if you receive a verbal subscore of 40, you are in the 90th percentile, which means that 90% of all test-takers did not perform as well as you in verbal.

Some recent scores of 760 broke down as follows: 41V/51Q, 46V/47Q, 44V/49Q, 45V/48Q, 47V/47Q. Notice that both sections are strong. Some recent scores of 760 broke down as follows: 51V/46Q, 42V/50Q, 46V/48Q, 44V/50Q. Again, these test-takers posted excellent subscores. To break 760, you more or less need to reach at least the 84th percentile in quant (subscore 46) and the 90th in verbal (subscore 40). While a significant number of test-takers can reach one or the other of these goals, very few can reach both on the same exam. Hence the reward of 99th percentile status to those who can.

How do you get there? By understanding how the exam changes at its highest levels. At the 760+ level, you will no longer be tested on the basics; by the time you start seeing 760-level questions, you will already have proven to the CAT that you have mastered the fundamentals and are ready for the tough stuff. So the CAT will try to gauge your level by taking the same concepts you would see at the 650 level and "gussying" them up. In quant, it is now more about logic than about calculation. Did you spot the pattern hidden in the numbers? Did you spot the hidden equations? In verbal, you will need to resolve subtle flaws of logic and grammar. The issues no longer announce themselves; you have to seek them out. The 760+ exam is for active test-takers. If you sit back and let the exam wash over you, chances are you will not break 760.

What about 800? Does anyone ever get the "perfect" score? Indeed. But a score of 800 does not necessarily mean you got every question right. It means that you answered so many extremely hard questions correctly that your few errors were statistically insignificant in comparison. What kind of numbers do you need for 800? A recent test-taker who managed an 800-level performance received 51 in verbal and 51 in quant, subscores so rare that the GMAT does not even separate them in percentile (99th) from the theoretical upper limit of 60 on each section.

So to break 760, review the most challenging questions you can find. Pick them apart. See how underneath all the fuss, they still test the same basic concepts. The only difference is the amount of insight needed to see which basic concepts are being tested. That insight will come with practice.

Taking the Exam More than Once

What happens if you take the exam and you do not break 700? A common myth among GMAT hopefuls is that you only get one bite at the apple. In other words, if you do not hit your target score on your first attempt, all your subsequent efforts, even if successful, are somehow diminished in the eyes of b-school admissions committees. This is totally false!

The vast majority of business schools take only your highest GMAT score into account when evaluating your application. Why? First, it is in their best interest to inflate their mean and median GMAT scores to keep their rankings high. Second, business schools do not see the GMAT as a test of innate intelligence but rather as a measure of your preparation for business school. They want to know that at the time of your eventual matriculation, you will have the basic skills (quantitative, reasoning, writing, etc.) necessary for success in their programs. Whether you prove yourself on your first, second, or third attempt is irrelevant as long as you demonstrate your readiness somewhere along the way.

Also, keep in mind that business schools evaluate not only your academic qualifications (e.g., GMAT and GPA), but also your professional promise. They gauge this by your career choices and successes and by your demonstrated determination to succeed. If you present a GMAT score that is clearly below a school's standards, the admissions office will question your drive and consider you unrealistic. Taking the exam again shows determination and an appreciation for what it takes to achieve your goals, all desirable traits in a business school applicant.

How likely is it that your score will improve on a subsequent test? It is more likely than not. Many test-takers succumb to nerves on their first try, letting time slip away as they fumble through the exam. On a second attempt, the exam is no longer a mystery. Having learned from experience, many test-takers are better able to manage the time and to recognize the warning signs when they find themselves dealing with questions beyond their reach. Recent test-takers have gone from 620 to 720, 650 to 710, 580 to 670, 630 to 680, 520 to 690, and these are just a tiny sample of people whose scores improved significantly on a subsequent try. Of course, they continued to study and hone their skills, but an essential component of their eventual success was their prior experience with the exam.

If your first attempt at the exam falls short of your target score (i.e., a score that will make you competitive at the schools to which you plan to apply), you will need to take the exam again. But do not see this as a failure. Rather, it is a second opportunity to show the business schools that you are ready. In fact, we recommend that everyone plan to take the test twice, right from the start. The first try is a "practice run" to shake out your nerves and familiarize yourself with the timing and pressure of the real exam so that on your second attempt you can concentrate on the content and time management.

How Business Schools View the 700 Barrier

The 700 barrier has taken on a life of its own among business-school applicants. It seems more and more that applicants are shooting for 700 in order to "seal the deal" at a top-20 business school. But is 700 really necessary for admissions success?

While the vast majority of business schools still report average GMAT scores below 700, the uppermost echelon increasingly reports averages at or above that mark. You have to be careful, though, when evaluating reported GMAT scores. Is it an average or a median? If a school reports an average GMAT score of 700, for example, you have no way of knowing what proportion of students scored above that mark, or below for that matter. A few very high or very low scores can skew the average up or down. If a school reports a median GMAT score of 700, by contrast, you know that approximately 50% of its students scored above that mark and approximately 50% scored below. Accordingly, median GMAT scores are more indicative of your admissions chances than are averages, though for most schools the two will be quite close.

For example, the average GMAT score in a recent year at The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (GSB) was 687, but the median score was 700. The slight discrepancy indicates that even though 50% scored above 700 and 50% below, there were more very low scores (relatively speaking, that is – it is still Chicago, after all) than very high scores. What does this mean? It means that some applicants with comparatively low GMAT scores were admitted to Chicago GSB. Another top school with a similar discrepancy is the Fuqua School of Business of Duke University. In a recent year, it reported an average GMAT score of 701 but a median of 710. MIT and Hass (UC, Berkeley) also reported similar discrepancies between their mean and median GMAT scores in recent years. This shows that while your GMAT score weighs heavily in your application, a score above 700 is not necessary for admission to some of the country's most prestigious business schools, even when they report average scores at or above 700.

In fact, you should not think of average or median GMAT scores as "cutoffs". One very prestigious b-school reports an average score above 700, but its admissions officers have been known to tell applicants that the real minimum in their eyes is 660. Will you have a better chance with a score of 760 than 660? Sure, but your application would not be summarily dismissed if you submitted a score of 660. And remember that more goes into the admissions decisions than just the GMAT score: work experience, GPA, recommendations, essays, etc.

Of course, breaking the 700 barrier can only help your chances. So aim high and study hard!