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In our “Straight Talk” series, we go beyond schools’ marketing campaigns and give straight answers to MBA applicants’ most pressing questions.

NUS MBA, Nanyang MBA and SMU MBA programs all require the GMAT – the standardized test used to measure an MBA applicant’s verbal, mathematical, analytical and writing skills.   Taking the GMAT is one of the most intimidating and misunderstood parts of the MBA application process.

Having managed admissions for the SMU MBA program for 3 years, I can give you an insider’s look into how MBA programs view and use your GMAT score.

How important is the GMAT score? 

The short answer? Very important.

Admissions officers use this score – along with your undergraduate academic performance – to ensure you can get through an intense graduate level course load.  Since the quality and rigor of universities and degrees awarded vary tremendously, the GMAT score gives admissions officers a universal reference to predict candidates’ academic performance.

Think of it this way: your GMAT score is critical to getting you IN the door.  The rest of your application gets you THROUGH the door.

If your score is significantly lower (> 60 points) than the program average, you must be exceptional in some other way (personal background, work and/or educational history) to get in.  The admissions committee is making an exception for you because your contribution to the program will outweigh any potential academic struggles.

What score must I get to gain admission?

In general, applicants should aim for scores higher than the program average.  As of December 2011, this was 665 for NUS, 670 for NTU and 660 for SMU.

NUS and NTU have openly said applicants should target above 600.  Although SMU says there is no minimum GMAT score, applicants should aim for at least a 600.

Unless you come from an extremely competitive applicant pool (i.e. Indian Male in IT), Singapore MBA programs will have to look at your application if you score close to the programs’ average GMAT scores.  The higher your score – especially relative to the class average – the better.

For those with weak undergraduate GPAs, a high GMAT score can help bolster your academic credentials.

Is it important for me to score high on the verbal section?  Quantitative section?  Analytical writing section?

Admission officers will also be looking for balance throughout your scores, preferably that you scored higher than the 70th percentile in your verbal, quantitative and writing sections.  They want to make sure you have the reading and writing skills necessary for graduate level coursework, and the quantitative skills to get through computationally heavy courses such as statistics, accounting and finance.

If English is not your first language and/or the English in your application appears suspect, your verbal and writing scores will be more carefully scrutinized.

If you majored in the humanities, arts or social sciences, performed poorly in math / quantitative classes in university, or have limited professional exposure to finance and accounting, your quantitative score will be more closely scrutinized.

When should I take the GMAT?

First, when you are prepared.  Second, as soon as possible.

The earlier you take the GMAT the more time you give yourself to take it again, should you need to.  Taking the GMAT for a second or third time impresses admissions officers because it shows your willingness to work hard to improve your score.  Of course, your math or verbal scores dropping precipitously will sound off alarm bells.  Be sure that you can come close to or improve upon your original score.

Should I retake the GMAT?

You should retake your GMAT if:

  • You know you can score better.
  • The admissions office asks you to retake the exam.
  • You’re a non-native English speaker and you score poorly on the verbal and writing sections.
  • You have little to no quantitative background academically or professionally, and score poorly on the math section.

Other GMAT points of interest:

  • Average GMAT scores tend to decline with age.   Younger candidates are expected to score higher on their GMAT scores.
  • Those looking to break into management consulting post-MBA should definitely shoot for GMAT scores above 700.
  • Admissions officers can see your entire GMAT testing history – how many times you have taken the test and a detailed breakdown of your scores.