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Boost Your GMAT: 3 Ways to Improve Your GMAT Score
Everyone wants to get a great GMAT score. In fact, many people are practically obsessed with it. But the MBA applicants who succeed are not necessarily the ones who studied the hardest; they’re the ones who studied the smartest.
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If you took the GRE instead and want to know how that might impact your chances of getting into business school, read this article on GMAT/GRE conversion.
Understanding the GMAT score chart
Use the GMAT score chart to strategically guide your study.
Many would-be test masters overlook the GMAT score chart as a valuable tool to strategically guide their practice goals. It can be confusing at first, but the best way to maximize your study time and achieve the biggest score boost is to make the GMAT score chart your best friend.
To help you understand how the GMAT score chart works, let’s first break down how GMAT scoring works in simple terms.
How GMAT Scoring Works
The GMAT contains four sections: quantitative, verbal, integrated reasoning, and analytical writing. The Verbal and Quantitative sections are each scored on a raw scale of 0 to 60 points. Total GMAT Scores range from 200-800 and represent the scaled combination of both your Verbal and Quantitative scores. (Your Analytical Writing and Integrated Reasoning scores are not included in the scaled score.) So when we say “GMAT score,” we’re talking about what’s officially known as your “scaled score.”
To calculate your “scaled score,” the GMAT folks use an algorithm that factors in 3 measurements of your overall test performance:
(1) the number of questions you answered within the allotted time limit
(2) the number of questions you answered correctly
(3) the level of difficulty of the questions you answered
Since the GMAT is a computer-based adaptive test, test takers get questions at the Medium difficulty level at the very beginning of each section. For the Verbal section, you have 65 minutes to answer 36 questions. For the Quantitative section, you have 62 minutes to answer 31 questions. As you answer questions correctly, the questions become harder and your section score adjusts upward. If you answer a question incorrectly, the algorithm adjusts your section score downward and the exam presents you with easier questions.
The algorithm constantly adjusts your score until you finish the section. With to this method of calculation, your performance at the beginning of each section is weighted more heavily. This means that answering Question 25 correctly doesn’t increase your score as much as answering Questions 2 or 3 correctly.
At the end of the exam, you are given an unofficial score report containing your total scaled score along with your separate Quantitative and Verbal scores. In your Official GMAT Score Report, your Quantitative and Verbal scores are also assigned percentile rankings, which represent the percentage of exam scores below yours for the entire GMAT testing population for the past 3 years. While the percentiles may change from year to year, the scaled numerical score does not change.
Around two thirds of all GMAT test takers score somewhere between 400 and 600. The score you want to aim for will depend on your list of target MBA programs. The 2021 incoming class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (ranked #1 Best Business School by U.S. News) had an average GMAT score of 738 with a range of 610-790. This means that the lowest accepted score at Stanford was a 610, the highest was a 790. Generally speaking, you’d want to aim higher than the average score of 738 to be a competitive candidate for a place in Stanford’s MBA class next year.
For comparison, the average GMAT score for the incoming class at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business (ranked #10 by U.S. News) was 724 with a range of 600-780. For UCLA Anderson (ranked #18 by U.S. News), the average GMAT was 714 with a range of 670-750.
Every MBA applicant’s end goal seems deceptively simple: make their GMAT total score go up. GMAT total scores affect a school’s ranking, so MBA programs place greater emphasis on the total score to help boost their competitive advantage.
Many test takers mistakenly focus on the percentile indicated by a certain raw score per section, but looking at percentiles is only somewhat useful (at best) and can be terribly misleading for someone trying to make a study plan.
For example, imagine a student who takes a practice test and scores 44 Quant, 35 Verbal for a 650 scaled score. They look up the percentiles and think, “Whoa. My Quant score is only in the 48th percentile and my Verbal is already in the 76th percentile. I better focus exclusively on the Quant night and day! My Verbal is good to go.”
This student goes on to put in several Quant study marathons over the next couple of weeks, studying up on all the hard topics – rates, combinatorics, probability, sequences, etc. They take their next practice test and…nothing has changed!!! They get a Quant 44 again, maybe a 45, and another Verbal 35 for a 650/660 scaled score.
If this student had paid more attention to the score chart, they would have noticed a thing or two. First, if their Verbal score does not improve beyond a 35, a 700 is only possible for them if they get a perfect 51 on the Quant. There is no other way to do it. And while 4% of testers will get a perfect 51 on the Quant, that definitely should not be this student’s immediate goal.
Despite the disparity in the percentile ranking of each raw score, most of this student’s leverage is not going to come from Quant, even though there is still room to improve on that section. Contrary to the student’s initial reaction, the Verbal section is what is suppressing their GMAT score. This student should increase the returns on their study time by improving their verbal score, thereby achieving a greater boost in their total GMAT score.
The ultimate goal is to make that scaled score rise, and a tactical consideration of the GMAT score chart can help you better understand which section of the test will give you the most leverage in your quest to make the scaled score increase.
The latest GMAT Score Chart
Published by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)
Invest in the Verbal Reasoning section to boost your total score
The number one mistake people make in studying for the Verbal is to focus on reading explanations and trying to understand what makes the right answer right. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this is not a good approach – especially if you’ve been studying for a long time already. So right away, you can stop reading explanations!
Focus on 3 key areas instead:
1. What was your analysis of the question before you saw the answer choices?
- Did you see the critical elements of the passage/sentence/argument? If not, your issue is vision and you need to train yourself to hunt for information rather than passively skimming.
- If you saw the critical elements, did you then evaluate them correctly?
- And based on that evaluation, did you prioritize the critical elements properly?
2. What exactly makes the wrong answers wrong, and how quickly could/should you have noticed that?
- Is there a single word or phrase that should have disqualified that answer right away?
- Have you seen this incorrect pattern on other problems?
- Can you name them (“This one is just like the Argentine ants problem!”)?
3. How aggressively and efficiently could you have eliminated three choices?
- The vast majority of Verbal problems only have two decent answer choices.
- One of the best measures of the difference between so-so testers and excellent testers is how confidently and quickly they can eliminate the three duds.
- Most testers who underperform on Verbal spend waaaaaay too much effort thinking about the merits of each choice.
Set realistic study goals using the GMAT score chart
Now that you know how to use the score chart and approach the Verbal section for maximum return on your study time, the next thing you need to do to improve your GMAT score is set study goals for the next few weeks that are both realistic and manageable.
Choose an Appropriate Target Total Score
Pick a target score that is both optimistic and realistic based on your unique mix of circumstances. (Hint: you do not necessarily need a 700 to get into your dream program.) Everyone has a different starting score, different timeline, different motivations, and different attention span for this kind of content.
Create Short-Term Raw Score Targets
Once you have a target total score and a starting score from a practice test, work backwards from there to create short-term raw score targets. For our earlier example, someone currently scoring a Q44/V35 could benefit from a study plan that included:
- Relatively light Quant work, including several random timed sets per week and a bit of targeted practice in just one or two challenging areas. Their mentality should be, “What’s the minimum amount of energy I can invest in my Quant score to keep it where it is (for now)?”
- Targeted, untimed work on their two weakest of the three major Verbal question types (Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning, for example).
- Short, mixed, timed sets of Verbal with thorough (Note: the student’s definition of “thorough review” will have a huuuuuuuge impact on whether or not they are able to substantively improve their GMAT score.)
You’ve got this, friend! Stay the course and work smarter – not harder – to keep up your momentum and nail the exam.
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