If you’re applying to a top MBA program, you’ve probably read that you need to score above the 80th-percentile in both Quant and Verbal. While this used to be the case, as you’ll see below, percentiles have been changing over the years, and what used to be an 80th-percentile quant score is now around the 70th percentile.
How are GMAT Percentiles Calculated?
GMAC, the makers of the GMAT, provide two fundamental pieces of data on each Quant and Verbal section: the scaled score and the percentile. Scaled scores range from 6 – 51, in 1-point increments, and correspond to different percentiles. As of 2022, a quantitative scaled score of 45 corresponds to the 50th-percentile , and a Verbal scaled score of 40 corresponds to the 90th-percentile (see these charts).
Is My GMAT Quant Score Good Enough?
An interesting phenomenon that’s come to pass over the years is that GMAT quant percentiles have been dropping. When I first took the GMAT in 2009, the “holy grail” of a 48 scaled score was 80th percentile, but now a 48 scaled score is only the 65th-percentile! Why the drop? Largely, two factors explain this situation:
- Over the years, there has been an influx of international test-takers, who tend to perform better on the Quant than American test-takers. As these international test-takers have constituted a larger percentage of the test-taking population, the percentage of people achieving certain scaled scores has increased, leading to a drop in percentiles.
Compare the below charts:
GMAT Quantitative Percentiles in 2015
GMAT Quantitative Percentiles in 2023
2) Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of GMAT courses analyzing GMAT quant questions from every angle. As more students have taken these courses, the baseline Quant proficiency has increased, so percentiles have dropped accordingly.
What’s important to note is that a scaled score is a measurement of your absolute abilities. This means that a 48 on the GMAT quant today indicates the same level of mathematical proficiency that it did 10 years ago. Now, you might be thinking: I’ve heard (insert fancy b-school name here) wants me to score in the 80th-percentile on Quant. A 48 scaled score isn’t enough! But the reality is that business schools ultimately use your GMAT performance to assess your readiness for their curriculum. Since a 48 now indicates the same abilities that it did last year, two years ago, and ten years ago, when business schools see that magical number (or something close to it), fears about your ability to handle their curriculum will be allayed.
How does GMAC Determine The Level of Difficulty of a Question?
Though GMAC doesn’t disclose the proprietary methodology behind its percentile rankings, the general consensus is that they adhere to roughly the following procedure:
#1) Incorporate experimental questions into each test-taker’s exam (these “experimental” questions are not counted toward a test-taker’s score).
#2) Once GMAC has accrued enough data on an experimental item, they’ll assign it a difficulty based on scaled score. A crude example: If 10,000 people answer a question, and, on average, everyone who scored below 47 Quant answered the question incorrectly and everyone who scored about 47 Quant answered the question correctly, then the item has a roughly 47 scaled score difficulty.
Are GMAT Verbal Percentiles Also Dropping?
Nope! They’ve actually gone up slightly. In 2015, a Verbal scaled score of 40 was 89th-percentile, and, as of 2023, a Verbal scaled score of 40 is 90th-percentile (see below charts). Why haven’t these budged? Largely for the same reasons that Quant percentiles have! The influx of non-native English speakers tend not to do as well on Verbal, so high scores in Verbal are as rare now as they were in years past.
GMAT Verbal Percentile Rankings in 2015
GMAT Verbal Percentile Rankings in 2023
What About the Percentiles of Composite GMAT Scores?
Yes! Interestingly, percentiles haven’t budged much in the very upper range of GMAT scores. In 2015, a a 99th-percentile GMAT score was anything between 760 and 800, and that’s still the case now. However, all other percentile rankings have dropped. For example, a 700 has dropped from 91st percentile to 87th percentile.
So why do 99th-percentile scores still range from 760-800, despite the fact that test-takers, overall, are doing better on Quant? Put simply, to achieve such a high composite score, you need to perform exceedingly well on Verbal, and, since many of the test-takers doing better on Quant aren’t blowing Verbal out of the water, they’re not attaining the high composite scores needed to budge those percentiles.