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GMAT Scoring (Beginner's Guide)

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Note: Today's article is the first in a series I'll be running throughout January and February called "The Beginner's Guide to the GMAT." This will be a great place to start if you are new to the GMAT, and an ideal way to fill in the gaps if you've been at it for a while.

As you probably know, the GMAT is scored on a scale from 200 to 800. Scores are distributed along a bell curve, so there are very few 200's, very few 800's, and quite a lot in the mid 500's. The 50th percentile is a little higher than you might expect: it's about 540.

There are three sections on the GMAT: Quantitative, Verbal, and the Analytical Writing Assessment. Only the Quant and Verbal determine your 200-800 score; your AWA essays are given a rating between 0 and 6. (For more on that, read my article on the AWA.)

You'll be given separate "scaled scores" for the Quant and Verbal sections. Theoretically these are between 0 and 60, but scores at the high and low ends are extremely rare. A scaled score above 45 is exceptional; any scaled score above 40 is quite good.

It's important to understand that all of these numbers are based on the bell curve. Both because of the curve and because of the adaptive algorithm (more on that in a moment), these scores don't correspond to a certain number of questions right or wrong. Understanding the scoring system isn't good for much except for generally gauging your progress.

The GMAT Algorithm

The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test (CAT). That means that you won't get the same test as the person sitting next to you, though a few questions may overlap. After answering a few questions that are selected (sort of) at random, each subsequent question depends on how you did on the ones you've already answered. If you're doing well, the algorithm gives you harder problems. If you're not, the test will get easier.

Your score, as I noted above, doesn't depend directly on the number of questions you got right or wrong. (Of course, more correct answers is better, but only to a certain extent.) The score is based on the level you attain at the end of the test. If you've consistent answered difficult questions correctly, you'll get a high score. If you make a lot of mistakes on mid- and low-level questions, you'll get a low score.

Because the test algorithm is trying to determine your ability level, it is almost certain that you'll see questions that are too hard for you. That's OK! It's possible to get a 700 (92nd percentile score) and answer more than a quarter of the questions on the entire test wrong. Of course, you'll be answering difficult questions right and missing even more difficult questions, but it's possible. Only the very highest scorers come anywhere near 100% accuracy.

For a more detailed description of the GMAT CAT algorithm and how you should approach, read this article: Introduction to the GMAT Computer-Adaptive Test.

Combining the Scaled Scores

If you, like many b-school applicants, are aiming for a 700 GMAT score, you're aiming to be part of the top 8% of test-takers. However, you don't need to be in the top 8% of both Quant and Verbal.

In fact, an 80th percentile score on both sections translates to a 700 on the GMAT. (These figures are approximate, and fluctuate a little bit over time.) This makes sense: many test-takers are much stronger at one section than the other, so it's fairly rare that someone is in the top 20% on both halves of the test.

For that reason, it's in your interest to be as even as possible between the Quant and Verbal sections. An 80/80 split will translate into a (slightly) better score than a 70/90 split. Improving your lower scaled score benefits your overall score by a greater margin.

I've already mentioned the most popular number and its corresponding percentile: a 700 puts you in the 92nd percentile. Here are some others:

• 720: 95th percentile
• 640: 80th percentile
• 600: 70th percentile
• 570: 60th percentile
• 540: 50th percentile
• 510: 40th percentile
• 480: 30th percentile
• 440: 20th percentile
• 380: 10th percentile

A final note: recognize when setting your score goals that you are competing against a very talented, motivated pool of test-takers. Many people figure that if they got a certain score on the SAT, that percentile ranking will translate into a similar GMAT score. That's almost never the case.

For most people, a 90th percentile score takes an incredible amount of focus and hard work. It also often means 2 or 3 tries at the test. That, of course, doesn't mean you can't do it, just that you should recognize the scope of the challenge you're about to face!

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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