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GMAT Percentiles (And Why They Don’t Really Matter)

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It borders on a cliche that MBA applicants want to get into the 80th percentile on both the quantitative and verbal sections of the GMAT. This probably comes from the idea that most top MBA programs have a 10-20% acceptance rate. Logically, it seems like being in the top 20% on both sides of the GMAT would go along with being part of the group that is most likely to get accepted. But, is this rule of thumb really true?

How is the GMAT Percentile Calculated?

GMAC publishes tables that calculate percentiles by comparing your raw Quant and Verbal scores to other test takers.

What does it actually look like to get into the 80th percentile of the GMAT on the quantitative side? As of 2019, you need an almost perfect score in order to get into the 80th percentile: 50 out of 51 points! However, on the verbal side of the GMAT, you can get into the 80th percentile merely by scoring 36 out of 51 points. A full table of GMAT quant and verbal percentiles is below.

GMAT Quant and Verbal Percentiles
(source: MBA.com; Verbal percentile for 43 omitted in source)

The difference is staggering and clearly something else is at work. In order to understand it, we need to look at the pool of GMAT test takers.

Who Takes the GMAT?

The pool of GMAT test takers is very different from the pool of admitted students to top MBA programs. There are a huge number of test takers with engineering or scientific backgrounds who may want or wish to be admitted to a top MBA program… but do not have a suitable professional profile.

For example, imagine an applicant who was educated in China as a software engineer, and then worked as a programmer for six years on back-end software systems with zero client or partner interactions. Furthermore, imagine that the primary language at work is Mandarin. He may be amazing at what he does and have a promising career in software engineering. Such an applicant may well score a perfect 51 on the GMAT’s quantitative section. On the verbal section, because English is his second language, he scores lower, perhaps 32 out of 51.

The admissions committee is unlikely to admit him because:

Nevertheless, because of the incredible outcomes and career opportunities MBA programs can deliver, applicants like this take the GMAT anyway in the hopes of an acceptance letter. Unfortunately, without these other prerequisites, no amount of success on the GMAT will turn the odds in their favor.

There are thousands of GMAT test-takers fitting this type of profile. Thousands of 50 or 51 Quant scores and 30 to 35 Verbal scores massively distort the percentiles of the GMAT and, as a result, it can seem to many applicants like they score very well on Verbal and very poorly on Quant.

But because those Q51 / V35 applicants were unlikely to be admitted for other reasons, they aren’t actually your competition when it comes to your own application.

So What GMAT Score Do You Need?

There is, of course, a minimum bar on the quantitative side that you will have to clear. A school will need to feel comfortable that you can handle the finance and economics coursework, so it’s important that you don’t do abysmally. There is no specific cut-off, but depending on how much quantitative ability is visible in the rest of your background, you should probably aim to score in at least the low 40s in order to be a serious contender. There may be people admitted with lower scores, but having a respectable quant score is part of most strong MBA applications.

Once you clear the bar on the quantitative side, the real trick of the GMAT is to get the highest possible 800 point score. In short, schools need to maintain certain GMAT averages in order to maintain their rankings in publications like U.S. News. Thus, once you prove that you can handle quantitative coursework, the total score becomes more important than the Q / V split. We describe this at Is Your GMAT Score Good Enough?, show a table of GMAT scores by school, and provide guidance on whether you should retake given your profile and GMAT study history.

So, there you have it. Don’t stress out about your percentile score, least of all aiming for a near-perfect Q50. You can spend the time you might have wasted on trying to raise your quantitative percentile on the rest of your MBA application.