2 Methods for Improving an Average GMAT Score

It’s tough to be average these days — particularly when it comes to GMAT scores and the top management programs.  If you’re applying to a high-ranked business school, you are likely familiar with the average scores of their admitted students.  These scores, not surprisingly, are anything but average: They’re what you’d expect at the most selective business schools.  However, what’s perhaps more disconcerting for those struggling to better an average score are the number of ranked schools that have an average admitted score near the reported average score for all test takers. Essentially, there aren’t any.  According to US News’s ranking of the top business schools for 2014, no school within the top 100 features an average admitted GMAT score as low as the national average.

Of course, GMAT scores are not the sole determinate of entry into business school, and attending the best business school for what you want to do with your degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you must attend a top program. However, no matter which schools you apply to, you’ll need to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you’re poised for success in their program, and a great GMAT result will definitely help.

There are a few ways you can strengthen your GMAT score.  One approach focuses on improving your performance on the test, and the other focuses on countering a weak score through the other components of your application.  Before these methods are discussed in more detail, it’s important to better understand what constitutes an average score.

What counts as an average score?

The GMAT was designed to produce a standard distribution of test scores.  What does that mean?  Think of it as the ideal porridge in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”  The test isn’t too hard, which would mean that no one would score well on it, yet it isn’t too easy, which would have everyone scoring very high.  Instead, the test is just right (at least in this analogy), meaning the majority of people who take it score near the middle while proportionately fewer people score very well or very poorly.

A bell curve, shown below, represents this standard distribution of test scores.  The x-axis represents the range of possible GMAT scores, from 200 on the left to 800 on the right, and the y-axis corresponds to the number of testers who received a particular score.  You can see the highest point of the graph falls directly in the middle.  This is the average, a score of 545.6 as reported by mba.com, the official site of the GMAT.  The middle 50 percent of test takers receive a score between 470 and 645 while 25 percent score lower than this range and 25 percent score higher.

While the the average score is in the mid 500s, a solid goal for anyone taking the GMAT is to score high enough to escape the middle range of scores.  However, the specific score you should aim for will depend on where you plan on applying to.  If your current score is stuck in this middle range, consider one of the following approaches.

Method one: Refine your study tactics

The first way to improve an average score is to attack your current weaknesses.  Take an honest assessment of where you stand and how you prepared for the last exam(s).  You not only need to know exactly how far off you are from your goal score but also what changes you need to make in order to get there: How much improvement do you need to make and in which sections?

Apply this same type of analysis to how you have been studying.  If your study efforts have done little to improve your score in past attempts, then this is a sign that it’s time to make changes to your study habits.  Perhaps you don’t have a clear enough idea of what your weak points are.  For example, you may know that Sentence Correction trips you up, but can you identify the specific concepts within Sentence Correction that you find difficult?  Perhaps you have trouble finding dangling modifiers, or comma rules confuse you.  Zeroing in on specific weaknesses simplifies the task of improving these weaknesses.

Of course there are many factors outside of specific concepts in the test that can lead to trouble. For example, it may be test fatigue or nerves that are you biggest obstacles.  Regardless, the first step to improvement is awareness.  Once you’ve brought your difficulties into the light, you can then assess how best to attack them.  It may be a simple matter of making more time to study or making sure to work on the pacing of the test.  For others, the solution may be more complex, and in these cases, additional help like a private tutor may be necessary for improvement.

While most people who retake the GMAT do improve their score, these results are often small to moderate, so if your score is a long way off from where you want it to be, it may be time to consider an alternative approach.

Method two: Counter GMAT weaknesses with your application

This method doesn’t actually improve your GMAT score; rather, it circumvents an average score by focusing on your overall application.  By providing countering evidence of your abilities in your application, you can soften the affect that an average score may have.  The basic idea is to use the other documents in your application — previous work experience, letters of recommendation, transcripts, essays, extracurricular activities — to negate GMAT weaknesses.

Admission’s committees use the GMAT as way to compare your abilities to other applicants and to help gauge how you’ll do in the program should you be admitted.  However, the GMAT is only one indicator, and schools use the other elements of your application in order to build a more complete picture of your abilities and personal qualities.  If you have a weak score in the Quantitative Section of the test but did well in undergrad math classes or were successful at a job or an internship that required quantitative skills, these experiences can outweigh your performance on the Quantitative Section.

To apply this strategy effectively, be mindful of how your application reads as a whole.  Of course you do not have direct influence over some parts of your application like the letters of recommendation, but you can focus on calling out aspects of your prior experiences and skills you want to highlight whether it’s through your resume, essays, or extracurricular activities or courses.

Taking the GMAT a few times is normal, so don’t get discouraged if you fall short of your goal score the first or second time.  Remember also that, no matter what, there will always be variability in how you perform on the test from one try to the next.