The Importance of the GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) for International Students

While GMAT writing scores are not given the same importance as GMAT verbal and quantitative scores by business school admission committees, when the applicant under consideration is an international student, the GMAT AWA score increases in importance. This is because admission committees use the timed essay section of the GMAT, which is rated on a scale of 0 to 6, to assess an international candidate's ability to communicate effectively in English. A low GMAT essay score can in fact mean the difference between acceptance and rejection for international students who may have otherwise received very high scores on the GMAT verbal and math sections.

Close to thirty percent of full-time students enrolled in US MBA programs are international students according to US News & World Report . At some US business schools, international students constitute as much as seventy percent of the student body. The high number of international student applicants, coupled with the increasingly competitive admission selection process, has led admission committees to focus more closely on international candidates' English skills. Admission committees are no longer just interested in ensuring that non-native speakers' English skills are strong enough to meet the academic requirements of the program: they want to ensure that international students will be able to fully participate in class discussions and other program activities.

Because GMAT verbal scores only reflect a candidate's ability to understand written English, admission committees view the GMAT AWA score as a more reliable indicator of a candidate's ability to communicate effectively in English. It is quite common to see international applicants with GMAT verbal scores in the 99th percentile receive a score of 3 on the AWA section, which places them in roughly the 6th percentile. This disparity in scores is quite noticeable to admission committees and raises serious doubts about a candidate's ability to adequately integrate him or herself into the program. By contrast, a candidate with a lower GMAT verbal score (say in the 90th percentile) coupled with an AWA score of 4 would actually fare better in the selection process because the same doubts would not materialize. Although a 4 is by no means a stellar score, the fact that many native speakers receive a 4 on their AWA shifts the emphasis off a candidate's understanding of English.

How International Students Can Raise Their AWA Scores

In many respects, the AWA section of the GMAT is the most difficult section to prepare for because books and test prep courses tend to downplay the significance of this section and give it less attention. Moreover, most books and courses either don't or can't provide students with what they need most to improve: feedback on their own writing so that they can learn where their skills are weakest and how to avoid their most common mistakes. For international students, it is particularly important that they do repeated timed practice essays and that they receive feedback from instructors who are native English speakers and who are trained in writing instruction and working with ESL students.