Conversations with an Admissions Consultant

By: Manhattan GMAT Staff

We're here with Jeremy Shinewald, founder of our partner firm, mbaMission. This discussion will center on how business schools evaluate the GMAT as part of your application package.

Manhattan GMAT: Why do business schools require applicants to take the GMAT?

Jeremy Shinewald: I am going to start by answering your question with a question. How do you compare an individual who has a 3.2 GPA in history from the University of Vermont with another who has a 68% overall in electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology – Kanpur? These schools have entirely different approaches to grading, and the disciplines themselves are quite different in terms of rigor. The GMAT exists so that there is a single metric by which all candidates can be evaluated in a way that is not obscured by subject matter. The GMAT is indeed a “standardized test,” meaning that everyone has the same experience, so the output—your score—has relevance as a comparative tool.

Manhattan GMAT: Does one's GMAT score correlate with one's eventual performance in business school?

Jeremy Shinewald: The schools have studied the performance of individuals on the GMAT and their subsequent academic performances during business school and there actually is a strong correlation: students who do well on the test tend to do well in school. Of course, there are always exceptions, and individuals do not need to perform well on the GMAT to get into a top-school—GMATs are one metric among many in an application—but it does help to do well on the test.

Manhattan GMAT: Do business schools use GMAT "cutoffs" in evaluating applications?

Jeremy Shinewald: To our knowledge, no top U.S. business school has an official cut-off. Every year, we see MBA candidates with scores in the mid-500s get into top business schools. It is not as though we see this every day, but it does happen. The GMAT is an important metric, but if you have overwhelming professional, community, extracurricular, academic and personal accomplishments, then, in some cases, your GMAT score can be overlooked.

Manhattan GMAT: What kind of score do you need to be competitive at a top 5 school? At a top 10?

Jeremy Shinewald: The average for most top 15 schools is around 700–710. We generally consider a 700 with an 80th percentile on both sides of the test a safe score. Does that mean that if you have a 690 or a 670 that you have no hope? Does that mean that if you have a 770 that you get in? The answer to both questions is an emphatic “No!” Again, you need to consider all of the other aspects of your application. Your GMAT score should not be judged in a vacuum.

Manhattan GMAT: Do schools care if you take the GMAT more than once?

Jeremy Shinewald: There really is no cost to taking the test twice or even three times. These days, schools expect that candidates will take the test more than once. In fact, if you have not done well on the test and do not take it again, the school may question your determination. It is worth noting that one school—Tuck—will even create a synthetic score of sorts. Tuck will take the best verbal score from one test and the best quantitative score from another and recalculate your GMAT as if you had had all your best scores on one day. So, in that case, you even have an incentive to take the test more than once.

Manhattan GMAT: Let's say one applicant scores a 700 on her first official GMAT exam. Another applicant fails to hit 700 on her first official exam but achieves this score on her second attempt. Does the admissions committee look at these two applicants differently?

Jeremy Shinewald: Schools accept candidates’ highest scores. So, both these candidates would be “credited” with a 700 score, and both would be seen to have impressive analytical skills. Neither is advantaged relative to the other.

Manhattan GMAT: What if your score is actually lower on the second attempt?

Jeremy Shinewald: This really is not an issue. Again, the schools do not average the scores down. They only accept the highest score. So, candidates who do well, but who think they can do better, should not be concerned that a strong original score will be compromised by a lower score the second time around.

To pursue this a bit further, it might seem a bit strange, but if I took the test twice and scored a 680 both times, and if you took the test twice and scored a 630 and then a 710, you would actually be better off than I would. Even though my average score would be 680 and yours would be 670, the average is just not relevant. Your highest score is 30 points higher than mine, and the highest score is what is considered. Furthermore, the highest score is what the schools calculate in their class average and then report to the rankings bodies—BusinessWeek, for example. There is an incentive for the schools to have higher absolute scores to have a higher overall class average, which will then be measured against other schools’ average scores for rankings purposes.

Manhattan GMAT: If an applicant has a low quantitative GMAT score, what can he/she do?

Jeremy Shinewald: Well, of course, he/she can take the test again. But, if his/her score doesn’t improve, then that applicant can always take supplemental courses in accounting, finance, economics, statistics or calculus. If a candidates takes two courses in these areas and does well—and by well I mean earns As—then he/she can mitigate some of the effects of the score. Further, the candidate can use the optional essay to showcase quantitative strengths, including, but not limited to, these grades. If the candidate were to work in a quantitative or analytical field, he/she would add these data as well. I should note that candidates should not “abuse” the optional essay—the candidate should not make excuses for a poor GMAT, but should showcase his/her strengths in a way that is very brief and even direct.

Manhattan GMAT: What is the point of the Analytical Writing Assessment (the essay section) of the GMAT?

Jeremy Shinewald: The AWA should not be ignored, yet it is generally not a significant factor in the decision-making processes of the admissions committees. The AWA is an additional opportunity for the schools to judge a candidate’s English language skills. Also, because the school has an impromptu essay on record via the applicant’s AWA and a refined essay on hand with that person’s application essays, the AWA can be a tool to identify and prevent cheating. If a candidate’s AWA scores are particularly low but his/her essays are phenomenal, the disparity may set off alarm bells. Still, this should not cause the innocent to fret—the inconsistencies need to be pretty extreme.

Manhattan GMAT: How do admissions committees verify one's GMAT score?

Jeremy Shinewald: Most schools accept applicants’ GMAT scores on the honor system—students self-report. However, once students are accepted to one of their target programs, the student must follow up and have an official score report sent in to the school. On this report, up to the candidate’s five most recent scores will be revealed to the admissions committee.

Manhattan GMAT: What are some recent trends in business school applications?

Jeremy Shinewald: Over the past few years, application volumes have been rising by double-digit percentages at most top schools. We think that this trend peaked in the 2007–2008 application season. In 2008–2009, many schools saw enormous increases in their application volume in the first round—Harvard Business School was up 24% in Round 1—but by the end of the year, the air had come out of the bubble, and some schools were either flat (Tuck) or down (Cornell -14%). By the end of the year, Harvard was actually up by only 5%, which means that they saw a fairly significant decrease during the second round.

We think that many potential MBA candidates will be more conservative in the coming year. Those who have stable jobs will be less inclined to take a risk and leave them. Meanwhile, given the shaky economy, many internationals will be concerned about taking on significant U.S. dollar–denominated loans and then potentially graduating without a job in the States. Still, graduation would be three years away, and we would suspect that the economy then will not be in the same shape it is now. So, we think that because of the reduced competition, now is a great time to apply.

Manhattan GMAT: Does the round in which one applies make a difference to one's chances of admission?

Jeremy Shinewald: Some schools have an early decision, or ED, round in which they confer advantages on candidates who apply in that round—Columbia Business School being the most notable of the bunch. If one is certain that he/she wants to go to a particular school and that school has an ED round, that candidate would be wise to pursue this avenue. However, most schools work on a simple three-round system with no ED. In such a case, the third round can be particularly challenging, especially for international applicants, but the acceptance rate during the first two rounds—whose deadlines tend to be in approximately mid-October and early January—are roughly equal at most schools. We actually interviewed admissions directors at Chicago, Kellogg, Yale and Berkeley last year, and they all stated that the rounds were virtually even in terms of selectivity. We always advise candidates to place quality ahead of speed and to apply in the second round if they can’t put their best foot forward in the first. Still, all things being equal, we encourage candidates to apply early because the admissions committees are still “fresh,” and submitting all of your applications in Round 2 is much more challenging than “spreading” them across the first two rounds.

Manhattan GMAT: How do international students fare these days in the application process?

Jeremy Shinewald: International students still make up about a third of each class at most top MBA programs. Unfortunately, because of the credit crunch, it was challenging for some to acquire student loans this year, and this discouraged some applicants. However, a variety of schools, including Harvard, Wharton and Chicago, have already announced their own loan programs for international students, and GMAC, the organization that administers the GMAT, has helped facilitate a pool of $500 million in loans to these students. So, the financing concerns should pass, and we should be back to business as usual.

Manhattan GMAT: Are more Americans going abroad for their MBAs?

Jeremy Shinewald: In short, yes. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Americans outnumber all other nationalities for the first time ever at INSEAD this year. It seems that the shorter programs (European programs tend to be one year) and the lower tuition fees at some schools subsequently lower the opportunity costs and increase the return on investment for some candidates. Further, Wall Street jobs are tougher to come by than in past years, but European schools are less dependent on Wall Street, so some students feel that a European MBA can actually provide stronger job prospects now—time will tell. Of course, one can’t put a price on living in England, France, Spain, Singapore, etc. Some people just want the life experience. There are many reasons, but yes, American interest in international programs seems to be growing.

Manhattan GMAT: When is the proper time to apply to business school, in the context of one's overall career?

Jeremy Shinewald: The average age across the top 15 business schools is about 27–28 years for an entering student. Still, this does not mean that a student must wait until he/she is that age. Some schools are open to “direct-admits”—students who enter the MBA program right out of undergrad. Schools do not frown on candidates with just three, or even two, years of experience, and there are candidates in every class who are in their midthirties, though those numbers are small. Schools focus on the quality of a candidate’s work experience, not the quantity.

The bottom line is that this decision is different for every candidate and that each candidate needs to determine for his- or herself when the appropriate time is to take that leap.