GMAT Percentiles (And Why They Don’t Really Matter) – Updated for 2021

It borders on a cliche that MBA applicants want to achieve an 80th percentile GMAT score on both the Quantitative and Verbal sections. This probably comes from the idea that MBA programs at top business schools usually have 10-20% acceptance rates. Logically, it seems like being in the top 20% on both sections of the GMAT would make you more likely to be accepted. But is this rule of thumb really true?

How are GMAT Percentiles Calculated?

GMAT percentiles are calculated by GMAC, the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which owns and operates the GMAT. They compare your scaled Quant and scaled Verbal scores, which have score ranges from 6 to 51, to other test takers. This is separate from your total GMAT score, which can range from 200 to 800 points. Your percentile for each section of the GMAT represents the percentage of applicants who you outperformed on that section.

So, for example, if you score in the 80th percentile on the Verbal section, you did better than 80% of all other test takers on that section. By definition, the percentile ranges from just above zero, to 99.99. (You can’t reach 100th percentile because you can’t outperform yourself on the GMAT.)

Your GMAT score report will also include percentile scores for the Integrated Reasoning (IR) and Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) sections, but here we focus on Quant and Verbal scores as the two most important sections for business school admissions committees.

Finally, you will receive an overall GMAT percentile score based on your total GMAT score. If you score highly, your overall GMAT percentile will probably be higher than either your Quant percentile or your Verbal percentile. This is normal and reflects the fact that although many people score well on one section or the other, only a small number score highly on both sections. As of 2021, the overall average GMAT score is 565 points, which is around 40th percentile. (The average would fall at the 50th percentile only if scores were evenly distributed above and below the average, which is not the case.)

What does it actually look like to get into the 80th percentile of the GMAT on the Quant section? As of 2021, you need an almost perfect score: 50 out of 51 points! Missing even a few questions would put you at a Q49, which is only a 76th percentile.

However, on the Verbal section of the GMAT, you can get into the 80th percentile merely by scoring 36 out of 51 points. A table of GMAT percentiles, broken out by Quant and Verbal, is below.

GMAT Percentiles: Quant & Verbal

  Quant Score     Percentile Ranking  
51 97%
50 86%
49 74%
48 67%
47 60%
46 57%
45 54%
44 48%
43 45%
42 41%
41 38%
40 36%
39 33%
38 31%
37 29%
36 26%
35 24%
  Verbal Score     Percentile Ranking  
51 99%
50 99%
49 99%
48 99%
47 99%
46 99%
45 99%
44 98%
42 96%
41 94%
40 90%
39 89%
38 85%
37 82%
36 80%
35 76%

(Source: MBA.com; Verbal score 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.

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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 Quant section. On the Verbal section, because English is his second language, he scores lower, perhaps 32 out of 51.

A business school admissions committee is unlikely to admit him because:

Nevertheless, because of the incredible value of a top MBA, 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 GMAT score percentiles 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 Quant section that you will have to clear. Business schools 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 official GMAT 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 MBA 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.

Planning for the GMAT Based on Your Needs

Each applicant should set their target GMAT score with reference to their background and their target schools. We describe how to do this at Is Your GMAT Score Good Enough?, show a table of GMAT scores by school, and provide guidance on whether you should retake the test given your MBA 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 Quant percentile on the rest of your MBA application.