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In many rankings of business schools, all the information you can find about GMAT scores is the median score of the most recent incoming class, or perhaps the average score of accepted students. It's a good place to start–you can quickly tell, for instance, which schools are the most difficult to get into, but it isn't enough.

For example, let's say the average GMAT score of admitted students at Stern last year was 700. (I'm not sure what the exact number was, but it's in the neighborhood.) Does that mean you can get in with 680? A 650? A 600?

I wish I could answer with a simple "yes" or "no." Of course, there are many more factors, including your essays, recommendations, academic background, and work experience. How you stack up in those departments will affect how good your GMAT score has to be.

The Bottom Tenth

That said, I can give you some guidance. While many schools published a 10th or 20th percentile score, you might as well ignore those. Most top schools have various agreements in place with board members and major donors that prevent you from grabbing one of those bottom-tenth spots.

Here's an example: a couple of years ago I worked with a student who was employed at a big-name financial services corporation in New York. He was an up-and-comer in the company, whose CEO sat on Stern's board. In addition, the company paid tuition for all of their employees who attended, and made a donation to the school equal to the amount of the tuition. Apparently, Stern sets aside about a few spots per year for employees of that company. When I met with the student in question, he told me he really just needed to get a 580.

There are other types of students who get in with below-average GMAT scores. Business schools, like just about every other type of institution of higher learning, love diversity. If you're a member of an underrepresented ethnic group, or come from an industry that feeds relatively few students into MBA programs, you can probably get away with a lower GMAT score. If not, you'd better have something else really special in your application.

There Probably is a Baseline

As a rule of thumb, if your score is more than 30 or 40 points below the average for that school, you're a long shot. It's an oversimplification, but I like to think of admissions officers sifting through applications, taking a first glance and sorting into two piles:

1. Within 20-30 points of target GMAT score: consider further
2. Outside of that range: you'd better be really good

In other words, the GMAT serves as a box you have to check. At some schools, you pass the test with a 520; at others, it might take a 700. Regardless of the threshhold, that line is there for most people.

What Else You Can Do

Unfortunately, most of the things that will make your application stand out (and, thus, make you a legitimate candidate at schools where the average GMAT score is 30+ points above yours) are things that you can't create in a short period of time. In addition to being a member of a target minority group or an employee of a favored corporation, here are a few more:

• You have unique work experience (perhaps you started your own business, or have consistently worked on cutting-edge projects)
• You have more than average work experience (think 5+ years after college instead of 3-4)
• You have an extremely strong academic background (perhaps a Masters in Economics from a good school)
• You have a good relationship–perhaps a recommendation letter–from an important member of the school's community.

Remember that admissions officers at top schools are looking at hundreds of applications, and just about every one of them represents someone who's quite intelligent and has accomplished quite a lot. Tutoring in New York, I'm always amazed at how nearly every student I work with seems impressive. It's wonderful for me; it's probably confounding for admissions departments.

The Horse's Mouth

Of course, none of what I've said is "official." I don't work for an admissions department and never have. What you see here is my summary of what I've learned from several years in the industry.

Many admissions offices, however, are very forthcoming with what they expect from you. This isn't true of every school, but in many cases, if you contact admissions, you can speak to someone who will give you an idea of just how good a candidate you are–and how you may be able to improve. If you can get that kind of information from your target schools, you should take full advantage.

Thanks to reader Jessica, who suggested this topic. Congratulations, Jessica, on your success on the GMAT!

About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

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