What is the GMAT Essay, and Why Does it Matter?
The GMAT Essay is– true to its name– an essay you write for the GMAT. In the GMAT’s writing task, you must give a written analysis of an argument. This task, also known as the Analytical Writing Question, or AWA, has no specific length requirements. But typically, a successful GMAT AWA essay is between 4 and 6 paragraphs long.
The Analytical Writing Assessment measures skills that are important for your studies and career. The arguments you analyze pertain to business operations, governmental policies, and scholarly research. The ability to critically examine such arguments is very important in management classes and in actual managerial work.
So that’s why the skills in GMAT AWA is important. But how important is the task itself? How is your AWA score related to your whole-test score? And how much do schools care about your marks on the GMAT essay? Read on to find out.
Facts about the Analytical Writing question (AWA) and the GMAT Writing Score
Fact: The current GMAT involves just one writing task, the Analysis of an Argument task, a 30-minute essay you’ll see at the beginning of the test that will give you your GMAT analytical writing score. The old (pre-2012) GMAT had two essays, but one was cut when Integrated Reasoning was added.
Fact: Like the Integrated Reasoning score, the GMAT Analytic Writing score does not count in your composite GMAT score. It is a separate score, reported alongside the rest of your GMAT scores. (Currently, the full GMAT score report includes a Quantitative subscore, a Verbal subscore, and the overall composite GMAT score representing a combination of those two, a separate IR score, and a separate GMAT writing score. The overall GMAT score is clearly the most important number in the lot.)
Fact: In addition to seeing your overall GMAT score and Q & V subscores, the admissions committee will see your GMAT essay score.
These facts present a question: how much does this GMAT Analytic Writing score matter? Yes, adcom will see it, but how much does it really matter?
The AWA Task
Before we delve into whether the writing score matters, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page about the task we are discussing. When you sit down at the computer ready to take your official GMAT, after the few introductory screens, your first real task will be the Analytical Writing Analysis of an Argument task. The computer will present you with directions and an argument—typically, a massively flawed argument. You can find the complete list of possible prompt arguments in section 11.6 of the GMAT Official Guide. This essay can be thought of as a freestyle “Critical Reasoning Weaken the Argument” question: in other words, you will have to produce an essay explaining why this prompt contains a poor argument. Here are some AWA strategies, an example brainstorming session, and an example GMAT essay.
That’s at least an overview of what you need to know about the GMAT writing question: those links will provide more information. Now, what about the GMAT Writing score?
The GMAT Essay Score: Not so Important?
We certainly could argue that the GMAT Analytical Writing score is not so important. It’s undeniable that the Quantitative sections and Verbal sections, which contribute to the overall GMAT score, are considerably more important than the separate GMAT writing score. Arguably, the fact that the AWA section was “cut in half” when IR was added in 2012 is a further indication of relative importance of the GMAT essay and its score. It’s true that Business school adcom rely on the Quant, Verbal and Composite scores significantly more than the GMAT writing score. In fact, recent evidence suggest that adcoms also rely on the IR score significantly more than the GMAT essay score.
The GMAT Analytical Writing Score is Less Important, but Not Unimportant
While it’s true that, in your GMAT preparation, Quant and Verbal and even IR deserve more attention than the AWA, it’s also true you can’t completely neglect AWA. The difference between a 5 or 6 as your GMAT Analytic Writing score will not make or break a business school admission decision, but having an essay score below a 4 could hurt you.
The purpose of the AWA is to see how well you write, how effectively you express yourself in written form. This is vitally important in the modern business world, where you may conduct extensive deals with folks you only know via email and online chatting. Some of your important contacts in your business career will know you primarily through your writing, and for some, your writing might be their first experience of you. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and when this first impression is in written form, the professional importance of producing high-quality writing is clear. While you don’t need to write like Melville, you need to be competent. A GMAT Analytic Writing score below 4 may cause business schools to question your competence. That’s why it’s important to have at least a decent showing in AWA.
In particular, if English is not your native language, I realize that this makes the AWA essay all the more challenging, but of course a solid performance on the AWA by a non-native speaker would be a powerful testament to how well that student has learned English. Toward this end, it would be important for any non-native speaker to practice writing the AWA essay and to get high-quality feedback on her essays.
It would be a mistake to devote 30% of your available study time to AWA. It would also be a mistake to devote 0% to AWA. Between those, erring on the low side would be appropriate. If, in a three-month span, you write half a dozen practice essays, and get generally positive feedback on them with respect to the GMAT standards, that should be plenty of preparation.
For concrete advice on improving your GMAT essay score, sign up for Magoosh GMAT. We have over 200 lesson videos, teaching you all the content and strategy you will need for the GMAT, including a video series specifically addressing the AWA question. Magoosh is the best way to help not only your GMAT Analytic Writing score, but also every aspect of your GMAT performance.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
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Prepping for the GMAT is hard work! But it’s worth it; a good GMAT score is essential if you want to get into a top MBA program. At the top 10 business schools in America, you need a score of at least 715 to be competitive.
For perspective on this 715 minimum, the highest scaled score you can get on the GMAT is 800. The Verbal and Quantitative sections also have a scaled score that goes up to 800; the whole test score is an average of these two section scores. (You get these final scores right on test day, immediately after you take the GMAT.)
So you need at least 715 out of 800 at the 10 best b-schools, ideally. Still, even in these top programs, some applicants are accepted with scores lower than 715. And a school’s own stated GMAT score preferences can change from year to year.
So, what is a good GMAT score, and who defines this abstruse and perplexing standard? Can good GMAT scores and average GMAT scores differ by a single point? Do business schools agree on a single definition of good and bad scores at some top-secret GMAT Scores for Business Schools Convention?
When we discuss what’s a good GMAT score versus a bad score, there are a lot of questions to answer (see above). But the most important thing to know is that a good GMAT score for one person is not necessarily the same as a good GMAT score for another person. Your goal GMAT score may be 10 points above or below that of your friend or peer. So the question really becomes: What is a good GMAT score for you?
Before we get into a discussion of setting a target GMAT score for yourself, let’s take a step back and discuss GMAT scores in broad strokes.
GMAT Scores: Percentiles
The GMAT is scored from 200 to 800. About half of students score between 400 and 600 on the exam. According to GMAC, the folks who create the GMAT, the GMAT score percentiles reveal the link between GMAT score and percentile of everyone who takes the GMAT. To start, here are some of the correlations between GMAT score and percentile.
The mean GMAT score is 556.04.
Sample Size: 767,833
Standard Deviation: 120.45
Data Period: 2015 – 2017
Notice that 780 and 790 and 800 all mean about the same in the great scheme of things. What constitutes a “good GMAT score” to some extent depends on what you mean.
If you score anywhere over 600, you have done better than the majority of folks who take the GMAT — you have an above-average GMAT score but far from a perfect score. If you score over 600, and certainly if you score over 650, that will be high enough to get you into relatively respectable schools. But what if you have set your sights higher?
What is a good GMAT score for top business schools?
Each year, US News & World Report ranks the “Best Business Schools”, and if you sign up with them, you can get the full information for these schools (tuition, enrollment figures, average GMAT scores, average undergraduate GPA, acceptance rates, and percent of students employed at graduation). Harvard and Stanford top the list. The 2017 average GMAT scores for students at these two universities are 730 and 737 respectively.
Remember, those are average GMAT scores, which means that individual scores at each of those schools can be either above or below those numbers. After you calculate your GMAT score and your GMAT score is, say, 740, then it would be above-average for every business school in the world. For the other “top ten” schools, the average GMAT scores are between 715 and 733. If you score above 710, your score is in the territory of the elite schools, and if you score anywhere above 750, your GMAT score is stratospherically high. At that point, business school admission depends far more on the other aspects of your application, especially your work experience, your references, your interview, and your essays. A high, even perfect, GMAT score will not help you if you have no valuable work experience or cannot make a compelling case for yourself.
For more information on the GMAT scores needed for top business schools, I highly recommend taking a look at our GMAT Scores for Top Business Schools infographic.
Perfect GMAT score, average GMAT score, or in between
If you are currently at 600, getting up to 650 would be a huge move — a push from the 57th percentile to the 75th percentile. If you are at 680, then getting up to 710 would be enormous — crossing the great 700 threshold, moving from top 27% to top 9%.
BUT, if you already have scored between 710-750, adding another 30 points to your GMAT score really won’t do much for your application — and if all the extra blood & sweat & tears it takes to get that additional 30 points take away from the rest of your application, it’s not worth it. With a GMAT in the 710-750 zone, you have already abundantly demonstrated that your academic ability is quite sufficient to prosper at Wharton, Sloan, or Kellogg. There are other dimensions you need to demonstrate as well.
If you take the GMAT once, and score higher than 750, that’s great. If you take it once, get a 720, and want to take it again in an attempt to score higher, think again. There’s a diminishing returns problem here.
In simple terms, once your GMAT score is more than about 700, the “academic achievement” box is checked. The schools know you can handle the academic load — both a 720 and a 770 make that same basic statement. What matters after that is whether the rest of your application is well-rounded — whether you are good fit for the school and whether the admissions people think you have promising leadership potential. If you have that, then all you need from the GMAT, even for the top schools, is something in the 700+ range; if you don’t have the well-rounded stuff, adding another 50 points to an already high GMAT score will not do bupkis for your application.
Once you get a 700+ GMAT score, it’s insanity to spend more time trying to improve it: at that point, you are done with the GMAT, and you should work to make the rest of your application show that you are a well-rounded candidate. Getting a 770 GMAT score is a neat trick, but if that’s the only thing you have to your credit, you’re just a “one trick pony” as far as elite business schools are concerned.
Want a higher GMAT score?
What if the hazards of the stratosphere are not your concern? If you have little idea of your own starting point, I would suggest beginning with the Magoosh GMAT Diagnostic Test.
What if your GMAT score is currently in the low 600s and you would like to move to the high 600s or even low 700s? Read the articles on this free blog and check out our resource recommendations. We have a series of study schedules you may find helpful — check all the study schedules out here. Also, read our review of the best GMAT books and resources! Your personal best GMAT score is not necessarily a perfect score, but it’s what you can do when you are fully prepared and on your game — that’s exactly what Magoosh can do for you!
So, what’s a good GMAT score for you?
Ultimately, you need to identify the GMAT score you would need to get into your target program or programs. Many students apply to target schools, safety schools, and reach schools. At the very least, you should apply to programs that you have a reasonable chance of getting into. Once you have your list of the schools you’d like to apply to, do some research:
- Identify your target school
- Research the programs you’re interested in attending and make a list of the business schools you plan to apply to.
- Research the program’s application requirements
- Go to the school’s admissions website and figure out what their application entails. Make note of important application deadlines so that you know how long you have to prepare for your GMAT and complete the rest of your application requirements.
- Research stats on the program’s most recently admitted class
- GMAT score ranges can vary widely from one program to another. Most business schools will openly state the average GMAT score of their recently admitted class on their admissions website. Some even offer GMAT score percentile ranges for the recently admitted class. Start there. You can always subscribe to US News & World Report to get more information if you can’t find it for free.
- Talk to current students and the admissions committee
- In addition to learning more about the program and the culture of the school, talking with current students and the admissions committee can help you gain insight into the admissions process. Maybe your chosen program values your essay and recommendation letters more than a top 20% GMAT score. Or maybe you really do need a 710 to get in. Either way, it’s useful to know how things work.
- Set your target GMAT score
- In order to increase your chances of admission, you’re going to want to aim for a GMAT score that is higher than the average score of the recently admitted class. If you’re scoring in the 75th percentile of students, then you’re in good shape. If you’re in the 50th percentile, then you’re going to either need to try for a higher score or spend a lot of time perfecting the rest of your application.
- Prep with your target GMAT score in mind
- Determine your baseline score, sign up for a prep course, start using a study schedule, take timed practice tests, and be sure to focus your energy on your weaknesses, not on re-affirming your strengths.
GMAT Scores: Summary
Who knew that determining your “good GMAT score” would be a challenge in and of itself? Hopefully you now have a better idea of how it’s accomplished and can go about researching your target schools and setting your goal GMAT Score.
So tell us: what are your GMAT score aspirations? What are your plans for the GMAT and for business school? Have you taken the GMAT cost into consideration? What has been your experience in the B-school application process? What about taking the GRE instead? Maybe check out this GMAT to GRE score conversion to see where you would stand. We would love to hear from you in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Mike McGarry in February of 2013, and has been recently updated by Rita Kreig for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.