What's a Good GMAT Percentile?

What’s a Good GMAT Percentile?

Although the median score is approximately 560, the latest U.S. News and World Report guide reports that the average GMAT scores of the top 10 programs—such as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Booth—hover around a record-high 720. As you can see, the environment is extremely competitive—a 720 translates into the 94th percentile.

What you consider a good score will depend on your own expectations and goals. Research the average GMAT scores of your target schools and then develop a prep plan to achieve it.

 

Translating Scores to Percentiles

The most important score on the GMAT is the total score, which ranges from 200 to 800. This score is the GMAT result that schools look at primarily. The population of these scores follows a standard distribution: most students score near the mean score, and more than half of all GMAT test takers score within 100 points of 550, the approximate mean. Pulling yourself out of that cluster is an important part of distinguishing your application: the top 10 business schools accept students with an average GMAT score of 720, the 94th percentile.
The total score is calculated from “scaled scores” from the Quantitative section (75 minutes, 37 questions) and Verbal section (75 minutes, 41 questions). Theoretically, these scores range from 1 to 60, but the extreme scores exist only to allow room for future expansion. Currently, possible scores range from about 11 to 51. These scores are meant to provide a timeless, absolute measure of skill. For example, a Quant score of 40 in 2006 represents the exact same level of ability as a Quant score of 40 does in 2016.
The scale might seem arbitrary to you. You may be wondering, “Why 11 to 51, of all possible scales?” One reason to have a scale such as this one is to avoid confusion with percentiles or percentages. If scaled scores ranged from 0 to 100, for example, a score of 70 might be confused with answering 70 percent of the questions correctly.
While the scaled scores haven’t changed over time, the population of test takers has. Quant performance has gone up over time, and Verbal performance has gone down. While Verbal section scores still follow a fairly even distribution, Quantitative scaled scores now skew high. In recent years, up to 12 percent of test takers received a 50 or 51 on the Quant section. Because of the shift over time and the nature of the population, percentiles don’t match exactly to scaled scores. As that fact indicates, there is a third way of slicing and dicing GMAT performance: percentiles.
Schools view your percentile performance (which is the same thing as a “percent ranking”) overall and on each section of the GMAT. The relationship between the section percentiles and the overall percentile is not simple. We’re frequently asked, “One of my scaled scores is 83rd percentile and the other is 84th percentile. How can my overall score be 87th percentile?” This type of outcome is unproblematic. You can see why using a simple, albeit extreme, example. Imagine that of 100 students taking the test, 50 people got a 51 Quant and 11 Verbal, while the other 50 people got an 11 Quant and 51 Verbal. You take the same test and get 40 Quant and 40 Verbal. You’d be 50th percentile on each section, because 50 percent of test takers in this sample group scored worse than you. However, your total score would put you higher than anyone else on the test—99th percentile.

 

Now that we’ve cleared up that point of confusion, let’s note two key takeaways about percentiles. The first is that your overall score is about balanced performance on the two sections. Generally, you will not win on the GMAT by nailing one section and hoping your performance will overcome a deficit on the other. The second key point is that, since Quant and Verbal percentiles aren’t obvious from the overall score, admission officers often look at them specifically. Some admissions officers at top schools have remarked on panels, “We will look specifically at the Quantitative percentile on the GMAT. You should have at least an 80th percentile on that section as well as a strong overall score.” Moreover, at specialized MBA and management programs, a Quantitative percentile of 90th or higher may be the norm.
So which of these measures is most important? The overall score of 200 to 800 is the most important score, since it’s a balanced measure of absolute and relative performance. Next come percentiles, which admission officers often look at. In our experience, B-school admissions officers rarely mention paying attention to scaled scores.
The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) is scored separately from the rest of the GMAT. Unlike the total and scaled scores, AWA scores aren’t available on Test Day. When you do get your score, it will take the form of a number from 1 to 6 in increments of 0.5 (you get a zero if you write off- topic or in a foreign language). The magic number here is 4. Although you should strive for the best score possible, an essay graded 4 is considered “satisfactory” according to the grading rubric, and an essay graded 3 is not.

 

Percentiles give a slightly different perspective on the AWA. An AWA score of 4 ranks at a shockingly low 21st percentile. To break the median, you have to score a 5 or higher. The good news is that few programs, in our experience, use the AWA score to differentiate candidate competitiveness. It’s more of a reality check against the writing skills that you demonstrate in your application essays. In this vein, a little-noticed fact: business schools receive the actual text of your AWA essay in the official score report. They’re not going to spend too long examining your 30-minute analysis of an argument about whether additional taxation is in the greater interest of the citizens of Mauritania, but at least they have the option.
Lastly, you’ll receive your score for the Integrated Reasoning section. As with the Quant and Verbal sections, Integrated Reasoning scores are available on Test Day. Like the AWA, the Integrated Reasoning section has its own scoring scale, independent from the 200 to 800 scale. You’ll receive a score from 1 through 8, in whole-point increments. The magic number this time is 5, as this is the score at which you beat the median.
Integrated Reasoning was introduced to the GMAT in summer of 2012. As of this writing, business schools still don’t weigh it as heavily as they do the total 200 to 800 score, though it is gaining in popularity among admissions officers. You will definitely want to show schools that you’re in the better half of the Integrated Reasoning field, but at the same time, an exceptional 200 to 800 score will do more for your application than will an exceptional Integrated Reasoning score, and you should prioritize your study time accordingly.
The Integrated Reasoning section is very challenging for most test takers, in part because its scoring scale is so punishing. The 1 to 8 score is derived from just 12 questions, nearly all of which consist of multiple parts that must all be answered correctly in order to receive credit (i.e., there is no partial credit). Integrated Reasoning questions come in four types, which are described in more detail in the Integrated Reasoning chapter of this book: Graphics Interpretation, Multi-Source Reasoning, Table Analysis, and Two-Part Analysis.
Unlike the Quantitative and Verbal sections of the GMAT, the Integrated Reasoning section isn’t adaptive: you’ll see a predetermined sequence of 12 questions no matter how many you get right and wrong as you go along. However, despite not being adaptive, the Integrated Reasoning section does not let test takers skip questions or return to previously answered questions. As a result, it’s often advantageous to guess and abandon a hard question early in the section to ensure that no easy questions are left unanswered at the end of the section.