P&Q: Why More Applicants Are Retaking The GMAT

V P Blog

Source: Poets & Quants

by John A. Byrne,
August, 09 2016.


Hoping to get a better GMAT score, test takers are increasing sitting for the test multiple times. The Graduate Management Admission Council says that 28% of all test takers now take the test at least twice if not more times, up from the historical level of 22% to 24% before testing year 2016.

The recent jump follows what GMAC calls “the introduction of candidate-friendly features during the past two years,” including the option to cancel a score at the test center immediately after taking the GMAT without a school knowing a test taker did so.

The 28% figure, moreover, significantly underestimates the percentage of test takers who intend to apply to highly selective MBA programs because the current percentage reflects all test takers. According to GMAC, approximately 43% of test takers send scores to full-time MBA programs. Candidates who take the GMAT to apply to part-time and Executive MBA options or specialized master’s degree programs in business are less likely to sit for the test multiple times because those programs tend to have much higher acceptance rates and lower admission hurdles.


MBA admission consultants estimate that anywhere between 60% to 80% of their clients are retaking the GMAT–more than twice the overall GMAT rate. “We have even started to hear applicants who have great scores of 700 and above worry that taking the test once might send a negative ‘lazy’ message, says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, a leading admissions consulting firm. “We don’t think that that is the case, but it is interesting that some candidates think that the AdCom expects them to take it twice at this point.” He estimates that more than half of his firm’s clients are repeating the test.

One thing’s for sure: Those who take the test a second time typically increase their scores. An analysis requested by Poets&Quants from GMAC on the latest data shows that candidates who take the GMAT exam a second time have an average score increase of 30.3 points on a test where scores range from 200 to 800.

Of course, that’s the average gain which is often dependent on how low one scores on the fi
rst try. “We see a broad range of score changes, from -100 to +150 points,” according to Ashok Sarathy, vice president of product management at GMAC. “The level of improvement in a test taker’s performance is dependent on a number of factors, including, the approach towards the first exam and the extent and nature of their test preparation. Those that initially score in the lower score bands do present themselves with a greater opportunity to see a larger gain over repeat testing. The opportunity to increase a score for test takers already testing in the upper score bands is limited.”

Test takers who score between 600 and 690 on the first try average gains of about 20 points on the second and nearly 30 on the fourth try. Candidates who score between 500 and 590 at first average increases of 35 points on the second test and a whopping 60 points on the fourth go round. Some of those increases may reflect the fact that more students are first taking the exam to get a baseline score without prepping for it. If a test taker scored between 700 and 790 in the first sitting, admittedly a wide range, the average gain on the second try is just ten points. Even worse, those high scorers on average see no gain at all on the fourth attempt (see chart below). GMAC says that two of every three test takers score between 400 and 600.

Source: GMAC analysis, July 2016

Source: GMAC analysis, July 2016


Asked how often a candidate might sit for the GMAT, Sarathy adds that “we do not typically observe repeat test taking in excess of four attempts, and instances of testing more than four times are too limited a sample to draw any meaningful conclusions on expected improvement in performance. The significant majority of repeat test takers take the test two times, and a small percentage tests more than twice.”

There’s no one reason for the multiple test taking phenomenon, but rather a host of causes. “Quite simply,” adds Shinewald, “the GMAT is a test that rewards those who take it multiple times. The schools report each applicant’s highest scores only in rankings and the test is designed to make it impossible to do well accidentally. Meantime, GMAC has been making it easier and easier to take it more – shortening the times between tests and allowing for score cancellation. It is a perfect pro-multiple test storm and it – along with the GRE as a workaround for those who are not as inclined with standardized tests – will drive averages higher.”

Many of the best business schools, aiming to increase the average GMATs they report to U.S. News for its annual ranking, have inadvertently put pressure on applicants to get the highest possible scores. “GMAT scores are rising inexorably, as Poets&Quants has reported,” notes Linda Abraham, founder and CEO of Accepted.com. “The 700 that meant you had a competitive score 10 years ago is now 10+ points below average at 12 MBA programs and 20+ points below average at seven. There is more pressure to go for the highest score.”

Source: GMAC analysis, July 2016

Source: GMAC analysis, July 2016


Dan Bauer of The MBA Exchange

Dan Bauer of The MBA Exchange

Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, another leading admissions consulting firm, agrees. “Over the past five years, average GMAT scores have increased at 17 of the top 25 ranked business schools,” he says. “For example, Wharton’s average GMAT for the class entering in fall 2015 was 732, up from 718 in 2011. This mass escalation surely motivates serious MBA candidates to use multiple testings to achieve higher scores, especially since they can simply cancel any disappointing results along the way. So, why stop trying if ‘one more GMAT’ could boost your score and make your application more competitive?”

In some cases, increases in the average GMAT scores at leading schools have been steep. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, for example, has boosted the average GMAT for its incoming two-year MBAs by 16 points in the past six years to 728 this year, putting the Class of 2018 at the 96th percentile of all test takers, from 712 in 2011, when the class was at the 91st percentile (see GMAT percentile chart below).

Abraham also notes that GMAT scores frequently figure into scholarship awards and in some highly competitive industries internship and job offers. “Taking the test multiple times, can pay off big time,” she says. “Among the most popular employers of MBAs are consulting and financial services firms. The more elite among them want to see a 700+ GMAT. If you see yourself going into those fields, that requirement creates pressure to take the test until you get the score you want.”

Source: GMAT Total Score percentile rankings are based on three years of GMAT exams taken from 2011 to 2013

Source: GMAT Total Score percentile rankings are based on three years of GMAT exams taken from 2011 to 2013

Moreover, there is no downside to taking the test multiple times, other than the time or the $250 cost. “Responding to competition from the rival GRE test, owners of the GMAT made dramatic changes that enable MBA applicants to, essentially, ‘game’ the test-taking process,” believes Bauer. “Individuals can see and cancel a disappointing score within 72 hours, with no record of that cancellation reported to the schools. And cancelled scores (since January 2014) can be reinstated at will. In addition, the waiting period between repeat GMAT attempts is only 16 days vs. the previous 30 days, so test takers can and do take more attempts as application deadlines approach. In fact, there is no longer a reason against taking multiple tests. One’s ‘batting average’ is almost certain to improve if no one is calling strikes.”


Bauer also points out that today there is a massive array of prep resources and solutions. “Google the term ‘GMAT preparation’ and you’ll find over 641,000 results. Enough said. The variety of tutors, tools and tips is simply overwhelming,” adds Bauer. “The choice of delivery vehicles – from traditional books to in-person instruction to customized e-learning platforms – offers something for everyone at every price point. Today, improved test-taking skills and customized strategies are within reach of everyone on the planet. So, applicants understandably believe that their GMAT scores can almost always be improved though more prep — and more testings.”

The GRE also offers a post-GMAT safety net, according to Bauer. “Many applicants try and try again, but still can’t achieve a competitive GMAT score,” he says. “However, as long as they don’t report those results to business schools, such individuals can simply walk away from even a series of sub-par GMAT results and make a fresh start with the GRE. So there’s no need to throw in the GMAT towel prematurely. Furthermore, most schools don’t report their “average GRE” whereas ‘average GMAT’ is not only published but can impact a school’s prestige and competitive rankings. So, the GRE is readily available, last-minute option for applicants who can’t beat their dream school’s average GMAT score after multiple tries. ”

Ultimately, there may be another factor at work behind all the repeat GMAT testing: The popularity of admission consultants. “I think that the other factor that is driving this are us, the admissions consultants,” concedes Alex Leventhal of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting. “We have a crew of clients and we want to have the best batting average possible so clients are happy and refer. So I think consultants are putting some pressure on too to push clients to do better–and most of the time it works!”