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You know the story. You haven’t taken a math class for eight (or ten, or fifteen, or twenty) years. You weren’t even that great at math when you were in school! And now that it’s been a decade since you last simplified a quadratic or calculated an average speed, you’re feeling rusty. You’ve got a lot of work to do.
GMAT Verbal, on the other hand, feels more natural to you. You read and write every day; you may even be a bit of a grammar maven. Critical Reasoning isn’t so tough—after all, you flex your logical thinking muscles every time you read the news or make a proposal to your boss.
When you took your first practice GMAT, you probably weren’t too surprised by the results. Let’s suppose that you scored in the 30 th percentile in Quant and the 70 th percentile in Verbal. What does that really mean? How much of your study time should you devote to each topic? And is it safe to totally ignore GMAT Verbal for now?
Let’s talk about percentiles, first. A percentile, by definition, compares you to your peers. Your 30 th percentile Quant score indicates that you did better on Quant than 30% of test-takers. Likewise, you did better on Verbal than 70% of test-takers.
If everyone does very well on a test, a low percentile may still represent a strong performance. If everyone does very poorly, a high percentile may still represent a weak performance. Imagine being in the 10 th percentile of intelligence… among NASA scientists. You’d still be crazy smart!
This quirk of percentiles has had a dramatic effect on the GMAT. To see why, focus on a different pair of numbers: your subscores . Those are the numbers ranging from 0 to 51, which represent your ‘Quant score’ and your ‘Verbal score’. For instance, if you’re at the 30 th percentile in Quant, your Quant subscore was approximately 35. If you’re at the 70 th percentile in Verbal, your subscore was approximately 33.
Look at those numbers one more time. Your Quant subscore was actually higher than your GMAT Verbal subscore, even though you were at a much lower percentile!
When you take the GMAT, you’re being compared to a very unique population. Many of the people who take the GMAT aren’t native English speakers. In 2013, only 38% of GMAT takers were in the United States. Although non-native speakers can achieve very high GMAT Verbal scores, it’s a greater challenge than it is for native speakers. Many GMAT test-takers from outside of the U.S. also have very strong quantitative backgrounds. Worldwide, the average GMAT student is much better at Quant than at Verbal—and that student is who you’re being compared against, when you look at your percentiles.
Admissions committees aren’t unaware of this trend. They like to see high percentiles, but they’re familiar with the GMAT. They know that a 70 th percentile Verbal score represents a pretty strong performance, but a 70 th percentile Quant score is spectacular.
In short, you shouldn’t directly compare your GMAT Verbal percentile to your GMAT Quant percentile. Because of the unique population of test-takers, the two percentiles mean different things.
Here are a few other facts about percentiles on the GMAT:
We all want to get to our goal score—let’s say it’s a 700—as efficiently and quickly as possible. The way to do that is to gain as many easy subscore points as possible first.
If you’re very weak in Quant, you definitely have some easy points to add to your Quant subscore. For instance, you may need to brush up on some of the basic math rules. However, even if you’re at the 70 th percentile or higher in Verbal, you probably have some easy points in Verbal, too. For instance, it’s likely that you’re still making a few simple grammar mistakes without realizing it.
Your GMAT score is (roughly) based on the sum of your subscores. Right now, a 700 requires about 87 total subscore points. Let’s look at those subscores from our example scenario one more time—33 in Verbal and 35 in Quant. That’s a sum of 68, or 19 points shy of our goal.
It doesn’t matter whether those points come from Quant, from Verbal, or from a combination of both! (Again, some schools may want to see a minimum subscore in one or both areas. That’s a conversation to have with the admissions committee, or an admissions consultant like the folks at mbaMission .) When it comes to hitting a 700, you just need as many subscore points as you can get, and Verbal points and Quant points are worth exactly the same amount. If you gain your easy points first, regardless of where they come from, you won’t have as far to go when you need to start studying the really tough stuff.
In fact, it may not even be possible to hit your goal score by solely improving in Quant. Once you’ve taken at least one practice test and decided on a goal score, check out our GMAT Score Calculator for the details.
It’s easy to put too much emphasis on GMAT Quant, once you see that your starting percentile is pretty low. There are a lot of reasons not to do that! It’s okay to spend a bit more of your time studying Quant, but unless your GMAT Verbal score is already very high—90 th percentile or higher—you certainly still have some points to gain there as well. So treat yourself to a break from math and crack open your Sentence Correction Strategy Guide !