Why MBA admission is like getting six-pack abs

As an admissions consultant, what I do in a nutshell is to coach people on their applications – the essays, resume, recommendation letters, application forms, interviews, and just about any issue under the sun that pertains to business school: career goals, business school life, and whether even to bother applying to school at all.

In many respects, what I do for business school applicants is analogous to what a personal trainer does for fitness clients.

One of the most common queries I get from prospective clients is this:
“I have a GMAT that is much lower than the averages for my target schools. Can you help me overcome that?”

The quick answer is, no. Is there a chance you can get in DESPITE a lower GMAT? Absolutely. But that doesn’t involve “essay magic.” It’s luck and highly unusual circumstances (you’re sleeping with the adcom, you have the President of the United States backing you, your parents have a building in the school named after them, and so forth).

Believing that somehow a low GMAT can be easily mitigated by an exceptionally executed application assumes that there are enough of your fellow applicants who will have crappy applications. The thing is, regardless of GMAT score, just about all applicants will be putting in their best effort. A lot of applicants with GMAT scores that are average or above average are going to be putting in great applications. Gone are the days where the majority of applicants were submitting in crappy essays. With all the resources and knowledge out there that are just a few Google searches away, most applicants have the savvy and know how to put together specific, clear, organized and polished essays.

And yes, quite a number of these folks who have average to above average GMATs are also getting help – from consultants, MBA alums, colleagues, and other people who are giving them feedback on their applications.

So any consultant who claims that they can somehow pull the wool over an adcom’s eyes and get them to admit you in spite of a low GMAT is akin to those TV infomercials selling abdominal machines with the promise of six-pack abs.

To claim that using their abdominal exercise contraptions can give you six-pack abs isn’t outright lying, but it’s misrepresentation. Yes, you can get six-pack abs with exercise (crunches, sit ups and any form or combination of abdominal exercises). But all the exercise in the world won’t give you those six-pack abs if your diet and genetics aren’t already putting you in a position to make those exercises effective.

And that’s what the GMAT is – it’s like diet and genetics. All the “essay magic” in the world won’t really help to fundamentally change your chances if your GMAT is out of range.

So this may seem like I am working against my own interests – I mean, as an admissions consultant, I should be telling you that “hey, if you sign with me, I can help you overcome your GMAT score!”

But that would again be akin to a personal trainer telling you that your diet and genes are not important – so long as you follow his/her patented “transcendental metaphysical crunch!” method, you will get ripped in just 45 days or less. Would you trust someone who is more focused on sales than on giving you honest advice that serves your best interest? In other words, are you looking for a sales person, or an advisor? There’s that old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is (or they are giving you a sales pitch).

In other words, I can certainly help make sure you’re doing the best you can on the applications so as to maximize your chances – but you’ll still be a stretch if your GMAT isn’t competitive, plain and simple.

I know that the GMAT is a pain in the ass. I hated it myself. I have a greater aversion to sitting still figuring out multiple choice questions than the average person. But it’s one of those necessary evils. And if you have tried all you can, taken it multiple times and still cannot hit the ranges of your target schools, then it’s something you have to simply man up and live with. This doesn’t mean you should just give up and not apply at all – but that if you do apply with a significantly lower than average GMAT score, just have some realistic expectations of where you stand. That may be hard to hear, but it is the truth.

Before embarking on the actual applications, you need to do whatever it takes to score within range for the schools you’re targeting.

The irony is, those who care least about the GMAT are those who probably need to boost their score, and those who obsess over their GMAT probably need to relax and focus on the applications.

In short, here’s the rule of thumb:

You need to be within 20 points of your target school’s incoming GMAT average, and ideally at the average or more. That’s it. A much higher than average score will not help, but a score that is 20 points or more below the average will be a significant handicap.

In sum, the GMAT isn’t the ONLY factor for admission, but it is an important first hurdle. In other words, having an average GMAT is just the starting point to determine whether you are even in the running or not for your target b-schools – much like a great diet and genes are necessary before even determining whether exercise can even get you the six-pack abs you want.