The GMAT exam structure

The GMAT™ exam is a key part of the MBA application process. By assessing the analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal and reading skills of test-takers, business schools can better understand the suitability of MBA applicants. According to GMAC, the company that runs the GMAT, it can also help to predict how well a candidate will perform in the program itself.

To learn more about the structure of the exam as well as how to understand your results, we spoke with Anjali McKenzie, Senior Product Manager at GMAC. She begins by breaking down the four sections of the GMAT.

“Your official score report includes your score for the four sections, so you have an AWA (Analytical Writing Assessment), IR (Integrated Reasoning), Quantitative Reasoning, and Verbal Reasoning. Those are your individual sections and then you have a total score which is composed of the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning section scores. Your total score ranges between 200 and 800 points,” she explains. (00:06)

Of these four sections, only the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning section scores contribute towards your total score. However, business schools will still use your AWA and IR scores to assess your overall application, so you should approach all sections with the same level of care. Once you’ve done the test, you’ll receive a score report containing your individual section scores and total score. You’ll also receive a GMAT percentile ranking from 1 to 99 for each section score.

What your GMAT percentile ranking means

With more than 200,000 GMAT exams delivered each year, your GMAT percentile ranking is a way of putting your test score in context. According to Anjali, it allows business schools to understand how your score compares with other test takers around the world.

“I know there are sometimes questions about what exactly a GMAT percentiles ranking means. This number actually indicates the percentage of test-takers that you performed better than,” she says. “Let me give you an example. If you have a percentile ranking of 75, that means you performed better than 75% of test-takers, and 25% of test-takers performed as well or better than you.” (00:50)

It’s up to the individual business school whether they assess your application based on your GMAT score or percentile ranking. But as we’re about to find out, although your overall score will always stay the same, your percentile ranking can (and probably will) change over time.

Why GMAT percentiles change over time

Due to increased competition around the world, average GMAT scores are on the rise. This affects your GMAT percentile ranking. To give an example, a total score of 630 in 2000 would have placed you in the 80th percentile, meaning only 20% of test-takers performed better than you. In 2021, the same score would put you in the 64th percentile.

Anjali explains that GMAC recalculates the percentile rankings every year to give an accurate picture of where your test score sits in comparison with others.

“Another thing to keep in mind while looking at GMAT percentiles is that they may change over time,” she tells us. “The percentile rankings are recalculated every summer using GMAT exam data from the prior three years. We take a look at the past three years and leverage that data to create the percentile ranking.” (01:20)

When you take the GMAT, your score remains valid for five years. So if you decide to delay your MBA application for an extra year, you don’t have to take the GMAT again. However, delaying your application for too long after taking the test might mean that your percentile ranking slips. For that reason, Anjali says you should always check the latest GMAT percentiles before applying.

“If you took an exam one or two years ago, maybe you kind of sat on that score and didn’t do anything with it. [If you’re] now ready to apply to business school you may want to check out the updated percentile ranking and see what it looks like,” she suggests. (01:41)

What is a good GMAT score?

The question “What is a good GMAT score?” depends on the business school you’re applying to. Although the top business schools in the world may expect a 700+ score, the majority of business schools acceptwill ask for a much lower score. Two-thirds of all GMAT scores are between 400 and 600, so you should aim for a minimum score of 400.

This question is also complicated by two factors. Firstly, schools tend to include their minimum GMAT score as a guide rather than a concrete requirement. If your GMAT score falls short of the school’s minimum, you can likely make up for it by excelling in other parts of your application such as the essay or interview. No matter what your score is, having a GMAT score on your application will demonstrate your commitment to preparing for and pursuing business school. 

Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated issues with taking the GMAT have meant that many schools are choosing to waive the test as an entry requirement. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the test. With an increased demand for MBA programs around the world, the GMAT remains a great way of distinguishing yourself from other applicants. And while percentile rankings may change over the years, the importance of making your application stand out will remain the same.