What Is a Realistic GMAT Score Goal?

You should follow me on Twitter. While you're at it, take a moment to subscribe to GMAT Hacks via RSS or Email.


Tutoring the GMAT in New York City, I meet many students who have one number in mind, and one number only: 700. Not only is it nice and round, but it is (or at least it is perceived to be) the magic number for admission in the highest tier of business schools. Many of my students make it; some don't.

The Pool of GMAT Test-Takers

When you're deciding what score to aim for, it's important to remember that the population of test-takers writing the GMAT is smarter and better-prepared than (probably) any other population you've been graded against before. If you got a 95th percentile score on the SAT, or a 3.9 GPA at a good university, those numbers don't mean that you "should" do just as well on the GMAT: many of your fellow test-takers are thinking the exact same thing, with the exact same background!

It's the nature of a test on a curve: if a 680 is a 90th percentile score, that means 89 percent of test takers won't reach a 680. Yes, that's obvious, but it's important to recognize just how good at this test you have to be in order to secure one of those spots in the top 5-10 percent.

How Much Do Most People Improve?

I've been asked that question more than just any other in my career as a GMAT tutor. Most students I worked with in classroom courses improved an average of 40-50 points from their initial diagnostic test. (If a test-prep company cites a number greater than that, take it with a spoonful of salt.) Students that I work with on a one-on-one basis improve much more than that: 80-100 points is common, and occasionally someone exceeds that.

In other words, if you take a diagnostic test, score a 450, and want a 700, you've got a long, long road ahead of you.

Is There Hope?

Well, sort of. If you got that 450 because your time management was an absolute disaster (say, you only finished half of the Quantitative section) you may be able to improve more than that 80-100 point window. You'll need to focus extensively on time management (obviously!), and you may have a shot.

Another group of test-takers who can expect larger gains are those who have been away from math and standardized testing for a long time. If you're 10 years out of college, you can't expect to get the same diagnostic score that you would've 10 years ago. If, once upon a time, you were good at standardized tests (and, centrally, their math content) you can expect those skills to come back. It's just take some time.

What If I Just Work Harder?

Unfortunately, there's a limit to how much preparation you can do before you reach a point of (extremely) diminishing returns. Not only that, but planning, say, an aggressive three-month prep schedule puts you at high risk of burnout. (Read more about that here.) Even a prep schedule to improve your score 50-80 points will be very time-consuming, as I've written in this article.

I don't mean to deter anyone from chasing their dreams: I just want you to know what you're up against. Elite business schools have some of the most competitive admissions processes of any programs (at any level) in the world. Nearly everyone applying is working just as hard as you are, and they were all pretty darn intelligent to begin with. Expecting to get a 90th percentile score just because you work hard and have always been good at tests...well, you're setting yourself up for failure.

Set Yourself Up For Success
By all means, set aggressive goals: plan to improve your score by 80-100 points and work hard to achieve that. Apply to a few of the best schools that may just accept you on the basis of that score along with a couple of others that are a little less competitive.

But most of all, set yourself up for success. Nothing is more disheartening that taking a practice test a week before your exam date, getting a score 80 points below your goal, and having six days to fix it. Most of the time, you can't do it. With more realistic goals, that's less likely to happen, and you can walk into your test feeling less stressed, more confident, and ready to perform at your highest possible level.



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.

Total GMAT Verbal

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Verbal section. Recognize, dissect, and master every question type you'll face on the test. Everything you need, all in one place, including 100+ realistic practice questions.
Click to read more.