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My advice to a student w/ a 740 wondering whether to retake

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I've received many emails like the following, so I thought I'd share with this community in case anyone else is in a similar boat. This is from a very intelligent, high-achieving student of mine who wonders if he should retake the test to turn his great score into an EXCELLENT score. It's a common question, but there's no one easy answer.

Background: he took a 9-week Manhattan Prep course after little/no previous prep, and took his 1st exam one week after the course ended. He is currently a college senior majoring in finance at a large American university.

Here is his email to me and my co-instructor (edited for privacy, of course):
Hi guys,

Just finished off my GMAT and scored a 740 (Q49, V41). Thank you both so much for help and instruction throughout the course because I could not have scored that high without your help.

I was hoping to pick your brains a bit regarding the score, so let me know what you're thinking...While I was happy with a 740, I definitely felt like I did not fully perform on verbal. I accidentally came about 2 mins late from break and ran into a tough RC, which is something I typically don't struggle with. I also scored a bit higher on a practice test last week, which I understand is not completely reflective, but coupled with the feeling of an underperformance on verbal, I have the "I could do better" feeling.

If, in theory, I could retake the test and score a 760, would that be worth it? I know we talked in class about the benefits of taking it twice. I am going back in forth trying to decide if the 20 point gap I feel I can close would be worth taking it again. Do you guys have any thoughts?

Apologies I am admittedly a bit scatter-brained after taking that. Thank you so so much again and hope all is well!

And my response to him (again, edited for privacy):
THAT'S AMAZING!!! That is a truly terrific score, and I'm so so so proud of you! You definitely deserve it - your hard work paid off!

To your question... when students ask whether to retake, I always ask these questions:

1. Was this the upper or lower end of your current ability?
This 740 was higher than any of your MPrep CATs, and your highest verbal was a 41. But that said, based on what I saw from you in class, I think you definitely have the potential to score 750+. What did you get on your GMATPrep CAT? Do you think you could get a 760 without a ton of additional effort?

2. How would you weigh the cost of more studying against everything else in your life?
- does the time investment required to consistently get to the 760 zone on CATs take away from other meaningful things, like your current college classes? Extracurriculars that look good on applications? Your social life? You're a senior in college - there's a lot on your plate right now!
- does $250 for the test + 40-50hrs of additional studying feel painful, or does it feel like "might as well! In for a penny, in for a pound"?

3. Where are you relative to your goal for your target schools?
This one is easy for you. Since a 740 is above the median for every single school out there, you have nothing more to prove, even for top 10 schools. I would only tell you to shoot for higher if you're worried that other aspects of your application won't stand out. You're a white male, which is definitely not an underrepresented demographic in the applicant pool, so if you don't have other things (GPA, interesting major, extracurriculars, internships, etc) that set you apart from the pack, a 760 rather than a 740 might help a little bit.

But... conventional wisdom is that if you're under the median, every little bit helps: a 720 vs. a 700 can make a meaningful difference to your application. But once you cross that median, it matters less. You've effectively already checked the "good GMAT" box, and even a 780 v. 740 wouldn't be the difference between an "accept" and a "reject" if the other aspects of your application weren't interesting enough. But... 20 pts might be the difference between high-waitlist & accept in certain cases, so there certainly might be value in trying for it.

TL/DR version: retake it if you feel very confident that you can hit that 760 without tons of extra studying, or if you have a "hey, why not?!" attitude toward the extra time / effort. Don't retake if a 740 is the top of your current ability bracket, and the extra studying to shift that bracket would take away from more productive things you could be doing with that time.

But definitely do the free consultation with mbamission.com first, so they can tell you how stand-out your resume is, and what that means for your GMAT target.

Whether you retake or not - GO CELEBRATE!!! You've achieved something phenomenal and you should be really proud of yourself!
For anyone else out there wondering whether to retake... weigh the amount that it would help your application against everything else you could do to help your application. Remember, GMAT-score-to-acceptance-rate is not a linear graph! It's just one factor among many.
Ceilidh Erickson
EdM in Mind, Brain, and Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education