A New Test for MBA Wannabes?

The GMAT is good at evaluating analytical skills. But what about common sense or right-brain skills? Enter the SIA

Does the GMAT test have you down? Researchers at Yale and Michigan say they have a new test that could supplement the 47-year-old exam that's required for applying to B-school.

On Nov. 7, representatives of the two schools met to finalize the results of two years of research at Michigan's B-school on an exam called the Successful Intelligence Assessment (SIA). Among other things, they agreed that the new test accurately predicts the performance of entering students in an MBA program. What's more, it does that as well as the GMAT. The primary researchers -- Robert J. Sternberg and Jennifer Hedlund of Yale University -- proposed that Michigan, which funded the research, confirm its results at other B-schools, so that the exam can be used to help make admissions decisions as soon as possible.

B-schools have relied on GMAT scores for decades as a way to predict an applicant's performance in the core courses of an MBA program. But "standardized testing has been stuck in a groove for 100 years," says Sternberg. His study began in the spring of 1999, when Michigan decided to explore ways to assess applicants' potential for business success -- not just their ability to do well in math, which the GMAT stresses. About 800 current Michigan MBA students completed two pilot exams.

The SIA is based on Sternberg's 1997 theory of "successful intelligence," which proposes that analytical, creative, and practical abilities all are necessary to succeed in any endeavor. The GMAT measures analytical abilities primarily. The SIA tests a person's "acquisition and utilization of tacit knowledge" -- meaning common sense -- according to Stenberg's final report. Sternberg is also collaborating with the College Board to research a creative-ability test to supplement the SAT, an undergraduate entry exam.


  Unlike the GMAT, the SIA doesn't include multiple-choice questions. Instead, test takers read about six scenarios -- mini business cases -- and write essays in response to questions about them. They also read excerpts from those cases and rate the possible outcomes from a list the test proposes. An example of a scenario would be a human-resources manager who has to deal with low employee morale at a manufacturing plant. Test takers are asked such questions as what they see as the main problem, what they would do to address the problem, and potential obstacles to their solutions.

Though applicants who do well on either test will probably perform equally well in B-school, the SIA picks up subtleties that the GMAT misses. For instance, while men score higher on the analytically focused GMAT, women tend to outperform men on the essay-based SIA. Sternberg's explanation: "Women are higher in social intelligence than men."

One other interesting result: "The exam greatly reduced differences [in test scores] among ethnic groups," Sternberg says. The reason, he explains, is that the lives of "many children of color and of poorer households...are more challenging [than that of white, middle- and upper-middle-class students]. Hence, they have to develop their practical skills in order to survive." The SIA tests such practical skills.


  Don't expect the GMAT to disappear anytime soon. While the report suggests that admissions committees may want to use the SIA to supplement the GMAT, schools aren't actively seeking a new admissions exam. "It hasn't been top of mind that the GMAT has been a major barrier to entry for women and minorities to Kellogg," says Michele Rogers, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

Though Rogers isn't familiar with the new exam, she says she already has a way to compensate for a low GMAT score when she reviews an application: "I look at how well they did in their course work and sometimes their work experience."

For now, students who have taken both seem a bit ambivalent. "The GMAT is a reasonable test for basic intellectual horsepower," says Wade Warren, 36, a second-year student at Michigan who completed an SIA as a first-year student. But while he sees it as good at measuring an applicant's ability "to make good business decisions," he also says it would be "one more thing for an applicant to do to satisfy a particular school's requirements." It would also be one more expense -- and could become more of a hassle than a benefit.


  Still, the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which runs the GMAT, sees enough value in the new test that it would be willing to fund research into it, says GMAC CEO and President David Wilson. "One of the things that GMAC needs to look at is including more exams as part of its portfolio and letting schools decide what pieces they want [to use for admissions]. I expect in the years ahead, that GMAC will have a complete portfolio for people to choose from, and for schools to add as requirements."

Whichever organization decides to offer the new exam will face numerous hurdles. The first will be to persuade admissions directors that the test is a valid predictor of MBA success and that they should require applicants to take it. Second, until an automated way is found to grade the exam essays, the cost of running it will remain high and, therefore, prohibitive for many. (GMAC uses a computerized system called E-Rater to grade the analytical writing component of its exam, but currently humans grade the SIA.)

Jeanne Wilt, Michigan's assistant dean of admissions and career development, says the school may create a student team at its Zell Laurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies to examine ways to promote the test. If it becomes widely adopted, Wilt believes, it could also be used in other graduate school programs. Sternberg and Hedlund will help the school in the next phase of research, including proposed studies at Michigan and other B-schools.

MBA wannabes have reason to be curious. David Weisberg, a 24-year-old investment accountant at Zurich Scudder Investments in Boston, is studying to take the GMAT in the next two months. He expects to do well but doesn't think his score will fully reflect his various skills. "I'm trying to get my personality across in 700 words or less to a person sitting behind a desk reading my essay," he says. If the SIA proves its worth in further studies, thousands of future Weisbergs may have another way to demonstrate their nonanalytical, right-brain skills.

By Mica Schneider in New York

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