Beating the Competition, Gaining MBA Admission: Averages & the 80% Range

May, 17, 2014

Categories: Admissions Consulting | Advice | application | Rankings | HBS | MBA | MBA留学 | School Selection | Stanford GSB

 This is the second post in a series. In the first post, I looked at competition from the macro-level of Acceptance Rates, Number of Applicants, Number of Enrolled, and Yield.


Given the global nature of my client base and my experience over the past twelve and half years, I am able to assess the competition amongst applicants from a variety of perspectives.   In this series of posts, I will discuss some of the ways to assess your competition and beat your competition.


In this post, I look at some of the key data points that each applicant needs to consider when determining how competitive he or she is compared to other applicants.  Two of these data points are academic indicators, GMAT and GPA. The other two, age and months of work experience relate to a program’s minimums and maximums when it comes to age and experience.   



Who gets 80% of the seats?

Depending on where you apply, your competition might be extreme, possibly overwhelming to the point that your chance of admission is zero, or alternatively, relatively moderate or even possibly non-existent.  To assess where you stand when applying to a particular school, look at its admissions data.  This is consistently easy with US schools which report their data to publications such as US News and World Report and BusinessWeek, but less consistently possible with European and other non-US programs which vary from complete transparency to stated score minimums/ age ranges/ work experience requirements to near complete secrecy.


Numbers are not everything, but the numbers do matter.  The numbers I will be looking at are ones that indicate characteristics of applicants who get in in.  Numbers don’t tell the whole story and can be confusing.  Being in the 80% range in one category does not necessarily mean an admit was within the 80% range for all the categories that I will be considering. In fact, based on my experience those getting admitted with a GPA or GMAT in the lower 10% or are in the upper 10% for work experience (older candidates), usually only deviate from the 80% range in one category.  For example, in past years, I have had clients admitted to Wharton and Yale with low GMATs (600 and 580 respectively), but their GPAs and ages were well within the 80% range.  Generally, unless, there are some strong additional factors at work, things really start to get difficult when an applicant’s GPA and GMAT both fall outside the bottom of the 80% range.  Beyond the 80% range, the remaining 20% consist of those who are 10% below that range and those that are 10% above. In some cases, only average data is available and not 80% range data, so the following tables lists both 80% range and average data and, for consistency and general data availability,  are listed in terms of averages. Just as in my prior post, I am looking at the Top 20 MBA Programs reported in US News & World Report, but I’m also supplementing that table data with additional information in my written analysis.


Table 1: Rank Does Not Tell All

 US News & World Report Top 20 US MBA Programs in Rank Order: GMAT, GPA, Age/Work Experience

 There are many ways to look at a table of school rankings in order to determine what is actually going on, but School Rankings (US News or otherwise) are not a consistently accurate way to measure the actual difficulty of admission.  A higher ranking program is not always a harder program to enter:  For example, It is easier to get into Wharton than NYU,  Yale is harder to enter than Kellogg.  Each program has its own unique characteristics that might make admission easier or more difficult and these characteristics are not always the same. Let’s dig into this date by breaking this table down and focusing on each major factor. The point is to look at the competitive landscape from multiple perspectives.

Table 2: Top 20 US Programs in GMAT Average Order

The first thing you will see from this table is that there is actually quite a bit of inconsistency between ranking and average GMAT scores once you get beyond the top four programs.  The next thing you will notice is that there is an inconsistent relationship between average GMAT scores and acceptance rates: Take a look at Booth, MIT and NYU if you don’t immediately understand that this inconsistency.  If one were looking for proof that GMAT is not the sole factor in determining admission, the inconsistency between acceptance rates and GMAT scores here would be sufficient evidence that other factors are at play.


For GMAT, the question many applicants ask is how low do they go?
  After all 10% are getting below the range. HBS, always the leader when it comes data transparency, actually indicates that in the Class of 2015, the GMAT range (100% range, not 80% range) was from 550-780. At Stanford GSB, the 100% range was 550-790. Based on my experience, I have worked with clients who entered Stanford with a score in the low 600s and another who was  invited to an interview with 580 (That person was rejected from Stanford, but admitted to other top programs).  I have had clients enter Wharton and Columbia with 600. Based on those experiences, I would caution readers to understand that highly unusual candidates are gaining admission with very low GMAT scores.  By unusual, I am someone who is highly accomplished and strong in other respects, but weak at GMAT. This person might be extremely impressive in terms of their professional background. They might be company-sponsored and come from a company with influence at the school. They might come from a prestigious background and have institutional influence.  For the right candidate, applying with low GMAT can be fine, but if you think you are not exceptional, don’t count on being the statistical outrider who enters HBS with a 550.  In general, if you are 10-50 points outside the bottom of the 80% range, you might still have a shot. If you are 60 or more points below the bottom of the 80% range, you best be exceptional. 



Table 3: Rank and Average GPA in the Age of American Undergraduate Grade Inflation

 Top 20 US Programs in GPA Average Order

 As many applicants soon realize when they start looking into US MBA programs, American B-schools seem to really place a high degree of importance on GPA. The absurdity of GPA is painful because Grade inflation is extreme at many US schools, so anyone going to a school (American or otherwise) where the grades were not inflated is at an apparent disadvantage.  For the record, “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.” No forced curves there.  Harvard College is not alone in the US:

About 1.8 million students will graduate from college this year [2013], according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At least one-third of them will graduate with honors. In some colleges, about half will be honor graduates.


It’s not that the current crop is that bright, it’s that honors is determined by grade point average. Because of runaway grade inflation, the average grade in college is now an “A.” About 43 percent of all college grades are “A”s, according to a recent study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, and published in the prestigious Teachers College Record.  About three-fourths of all grades are “A”s or “B”s.


Everyone applying to top US MBA programs is applying to programs  where the majority of students (including many of the international students) have undergraduate degrees from the US.  To a certain extent you will be compared to those students, especially if your application is initially being read by an admissions reader who is not completely sensitive to the distinctions between the school you attended and US schools.  Given that in any particular year about 65%-75% of my clients have undergraduate degrees from outside the US, I  have become an expert in analyzing what their GPA means and helping them explain it to an admissions committee. Fortunately, at least based on my interactions with admissions officers and experience with clients, differences in grading systems are accounted for. To be on the safe side, if one of my clients has a substandard or substandard appearing  GPA, I have them address it in the optional essay. If you look at these GPA ranges and start to feel doomed, ask yourself the following:

-Was my GPA on a forced curve?  Can I document that? If so, what is my adjusted GPA when that forced curve is taken into consideration? If the school compares my GPA to that of other graduates of my school does my GPA look average or even good?

-Did I have a problem in a specific course that is lowering my GPA? If so, can I explain this?

-Did my GPA increase over the length of the program?

-Do I have provable extenuating circumstances why my GPA is low?

-If you did graduate from a US university and your GPA appears relatively low is there any way to show that the grading in your program or at your school was actually strict.

If you can answer “Yes!” to any of the above, there is still hope. You simply can’t rely on the intelligence, attention span, and capability of your reader. You need to control what you communicate.  While I know the admissions director will account for differences between educational systems, I would not leave that to chance with the other readers: The optional essay is your friend.


As far as how low of GPA they will go, this is often difficult to determine with precision because finding any data for the lower 10% is quite hard.  While both HBS and Stanford provide 100% range data for GMAT neither provide that data for GPA. However if we look at the Top 20 list as a whole, it is pretty clear that applicants applying to Top 20 programs with less than 2.9 are going to begin to have a hard time, those with a 2.7-2.5 are going to have an even harder time, and those with less than a 2.5 are going to be really challenged. Given that schools do put significant emphasis on demonstrated academic potential, in my experience those with GPAs below the bottom of the 80% range and with GMATs in the 80% range have a much easier time gaining admission.


Table 4:  Age 30 OK, but by Age 35? Well…

 Top 20 US Programs in Average Age of Entrant Order 

(Stanford does not provide Average Age Data, )

If you are planning on entering an MBA program  between the ages of 24 and 30 and have from 24-96 months of work experience, age is probably not really something you need to worry very much about
. If you are a college student applying to a program with differed admission (HBS, Stanford) and/or a policy of taking recent grads or those with limited work experience (Check with each program to determine that), again, no problem.  What makes the age issue such a sensitive one for schools is that they clearly don’t want to be accused of age discrimination while simultaneously they feel an institutional need to discriminate based on age to make certain that all the participants fit within the program.  However, for those who age is above the 80% range, the question becomes how old do they go?  The Average Age data above tells us that paranoid talk to the contrary, schools are admitting plenty of people in their early 30s.  Since most of these schools have an average age of between 28 and 29, clearly they have plenty of entrants in their 30s. The Average Months of Work Experience also indicates this.  At all of these institutions, entrants have an average of between 4 and 5.5 years of experience by the time they enter.  While manyentrants began their full-time employment  at age 21- 23, many pursue graduate education (Most likely 1-6 years beyond an undergraduate degree), may take a gap year before/during/after college or between jobs, many graduate in 5 years,  many have experienced unemployment etc.  


The  admissions picture becomes significantly less positive when applicants are planning to enter at age 34 or older, but not necessarily impossible.  This is true even at Stanford, the B-school with the biggest reputation for preferring younger applicants. Stanford’s  Class of 2015’s work experience range was from 0-12 years, so unless the oldest admit or admits started working much before the age of 22, they entered Stanford at 34-35 years old. Still, given Stanford’s average of 4 years of work experience, they can’t be taking many older candidates.  I think the fact that their MsX program admits those with eight or more years of experience, is a good indication that Stanford’s MBA program is primarily focused on those with up to eight years of work experience, but does not exclude exceptional candidates with up to 12 years of experience.  Also, consider that since MsX is a full-time management program, it  provides a program specifically designed to meet the needs of “more experienced managers.” This is a major externality that the above data cannot account for because except for MIT, none of the rest of these schools has a full-time graduate degree in management for this specific demographic. Most have EMBAs and/or part-time programs, but this is not the same.


How many older applicants are actually getting in?  HBS is the only program that systematically accounts for age distribution. HBS does this based on years since undergraduate graduation. The following is taken from a July 24, 2013 post of  From The Admissions Director


“This histogram shows the “number of years since graduation from undergraduate school” for the classes of 2013 – 2015.”


Keeping in mind that HBS has both a low average age and low number of months of work experience, we can assume that the distributions are more favorable to older candidates at schools with higher average ages and months of work experience because HBS gets the most applications and is the second most difficult program to enter. What we can see from the HBS numbers distribution is that about 100 or more of the HBS Class of 2015 must have been around age 30 or more at the time of entering the program.  My oldest admitted client so far was 32, but somebody is getting into HBS who must be a bit older than that, but just a bit.   Based on the available data and the admissions outcomes I have seen,  it is pretty clear that age 35 represents the typical high end for admission though exceptions can be found with candidates getting admitted to about age 40. 


If you have from 7 to 10 years of work experience and are age 30-32 at the time of matriculation,  my advice would be to simply apply where you really want to go, but to make sure that you are applying to at least one school with a relatively higher age and/work experience range to better hedge on this.  To be even safer, apply to more schools with higher age and work experience averages.


If you are over age 32 and have over 10 years of work experience, in addition to applying to programs that have high average ages and work experience numbers, I would really recommend that you look at the full-time residential programs at Stanford, MIT, USC, and LBS designed for mid-career managers as well as EMBA programs.


Finally, I just want to emphasize again that while the numbers considered in this blog post do matter, they don’t tell the whole picture and are far from the only factors you need to look at in order to understand and beat your competition. 


In the next post in this series, I will be looking at demographics.


-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

Latest from the Blog