Christmas Miracle

This message was originally posted in 2009, but alas is still relevant today!

Every year about this time I get a few “Christmas Miracle” phone calls. The callers don’t see it that way, but that’s in essence what the calls are. These calls (or sometimes emails) usually start rolling in around mid-December, when people are nearing crunch time for second round b-school application cycles and frantic that their GMAT scores haven’t progressed to a point they feel will give them a reasonable shot at their schools of interest. Let’s take a look at the particulars of a couple such cases from this month.

Caller 1: We’ll call her Nunya Biznez

The first call was from a young woman who wanted to know how I could help her “get over the hump” and reach a GMAT score that would improve her chances of getting into the schools of her dreams. As I commonly do, I asked her to email me the relevant data (target schools, GMAT score history, GPA, etc.) so that I can be a bit more informed for the conversation. Here is what I received:

Official GMAT Exams

Date Taken Overall Quant Verbal

August 2008 440 19/8% 29/52%
June 2009 340 23/13% 13/5%
Nov 2009 360 27/20% 15/8%

GMAT Practice Exams

June 2009
500 23/12% 35/77%
August 2009 540 35/44% 30/59%
October 2009 500 31/31% 28/51%
October2009 540 37/52% 28/52%
November 2009 460 27/20% 27/46%
December 2009 580 35/44% 34/72%

I’m applying to the Consortium second round and am scheduled to retake the GMAT on Dec 30. My Consortium list is UNC Kenan-Flagler, Emory, Indiana, then Rice and HBS.

The following are the mean and middle 80% score range for the above schools:

UNC (Kenan-Flagler) – 664 // 600 – 740

Emory (Goizueta) – 690 // 630 – 740

Harvard Business School (HBS) – 711 // N/A

Rice (Jones) – 632 // 560 – 700

Indiana (Kelly) – 645 // 560 – 710

So in essence I was being asked to help Ms. Biznez do two things (1) improve her GMAT score significantly in 10 days and (2) improve her GMAT score by an amount that she had not be able to accomplish in almost 2 years of “study.”


On to Caller #2, who we’ll affectionately call Noah Fense.

Noah called me after recently completing his 3rd attempt at the GMAT and emailed me the following information:

Here is my GMAT practice record and I was taking this tests every week before my test:

Math Verbal Total
GMATPrep I: 21 28 410
GMATPrep II: 39 27 550
Princeton Test: 36 28 540
PowerPrep I: 33 37 510
PowerPrep II: 38 34 590

And I was going crazy the days before the test so I started taking the CATs every day on Bell Curves…

GPA from University of Southern Cal: 2.97

I have a 530 (my best gmat) here is my school list:


Consortium Schools:

What should i do?

The following are the mean and middle 80% score range for the above schools:

UPenn (Wharton) – 714 // 670 – 760

Chicago – 703 // 640 – 760

Stanford – 720 // 660 – 770

NYU (Stern) – 700 // 640 – 750

Indiana (Kelly) – 645 // 560 – 710

Cornell (Johnson) – 679 // 600 – 740

Michigan (Ross) – 701 // 650 – 750

So looking at the numbers, Noah was asking me to give him some hope he stood a chance of getting admitted to the programs on his list. He wanted to hear from someone “in the field” that his application would be seriously considered and that he had a good chance of getting into his schools.

What we are looking at here are two really common questions we get. The first is, “How do I raise my score by XXX points in XX days?” Note that the points’ number has three digits (100+ points) while the time frame has two (less than 30 days, or one month). The second is, “Do you think I have a shot?” The people who ask both these questions, in my experience, are serious about their goals, and have dedicated considerable time, effort and expense to improving their GMAT standing. Both are also stressed over the current predicament, and setting themselves up for a high potential for for disappointment. Lastly, at present levels, the scores for both people do not place them in a position where acceptance to their preferred schools is likely.

It is not to say that continued work and progress won’t yield the improvements (and thereby the scores) that would give them each a much better shot at getting accepted. It is possible, entirely possible. But what is not very possible is making an unreality a reality. I hate having to break this news to people, but I’d feel disingenuous if I gave them the answers they wanted rather than the answers they needed. The answers needed are these:

1) It’s pretty much impossible to get 200+ points score improvement in less than 30 days. The GMAT is designed to resist any score improvement at all (average retake improvement: 30 points), let alone such a drastic increase. To get this kind of score change you’ll probably have to quit your day job and dedicate most of your waking hours to preparing for the GMAT. (Most reputable prep courses boast a 80+ point improvement in a matter of months.)

2) Good GMAT scores are earned, not delivered by Santa. “Earned” is a relative term, but essentially it boils down to the fact that improving GMAT scores takes time and effort, then more time and more effort, and then more time and– you get the point. Tutoring and related instruction play a role, but its a role designed to supplement, guide, and maximize time and effort. It is not a replacement for time and effort.

3) No amount of massaging or beating around the bush or cosmetic treatment is going to make the numbers any less real. Schools publish their accepted students’ GMAT, GPA and work experience information for a reason: to appraise potential candidates of the viability of their application being accepted. Only in rare circumstances do those ranges NOT apply to a candidate (read: your name is Bush, Winfrey, or Zuckerberg). Those exceptions not withstanding, your odds of acceptance drop dramatically for every criterion in which you do not meet the ranges presented by those schools.

4) Know when to fold ‘em. If you are not currently a realistic candidate for the schools you are interested in, you need to seriously consider taking time to apply more effectively next year. Given that most applicants submit applications in the first or second round, it follows that at most top 50 schools the vast majority of spots are filled by the time second round admissions are complete. If you are an outlier applicant you will probably be ill-served applying in the 3rd round, unless your story is so compelling that they will overlook any other shortcomings. My advice for people in Noah’s or Nunya’s position is to wait a year, firm up the GMAT score, take some quant classes, and apply first round the following year.

I know this advice is not what most people want to hear, but its what most people need to know and seriously consider.

Good luck!

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