Does Acing the GMAT Mean You Failed the Ethics Test?

Is the GMAT to blame for ethically deficient business leaders?

That’s the provocative conclusion of new research in the July issue of the Journal of Business Ethics. The study—by Raj Aggarwal and John Goodell from the University of Akron College of Business Administration and Joanne Goodell from Cleveland State University—draws a direct line between a business school admissions process that relies heavily on GMAT scores, MBAs prone to poor ethical decision-making, and, ultimately, moral bankruptcy in the C-suite.

The problem, according to the paper, is that “higher GMAT scores are associated with males from cultural backgrounds that are less prone toward ethical discernment.” A B-school admissions process that rewards applicants with high GMAT scores in effect weeds out the most ethical applicants in the pool.

“Our paper’s findings have important implications for businesses, business leadership, and business schools,” says Aggarwal. Business school admissions, the paper suggests, should rely far less on the GMAT and more on other metrics. The GMAT is now used by more than 1,500 schools in 82 countries.

It should be noted that the researchers didn’t identify people who aced the GMAT and ask them to make ethics-based decisions. Instead they examined GMAT scores in 25 countries from 2004 to 2010 and their association with cultural characteristics associated with ethical behavior as well as corruption controls in each country.

The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, isn’t buying any of it. Lawrence Rudner, GMAC’s vice president of research and development, says the correlation the researchers found shouldn’t be confused with causation. “I teach statistics classes, and I have examples of the misuse of statistics,” he says. “This example will now go into my portfolio. It’s interesting but not actionable.”

Most business schools rely on a long list of factors in addition to the GMAT in making admissions decisions, including undergraduate GPA, application essays, letters of recommendation, work history, interviews, and more. But the focus on GMAT has grown in recent years. While top programs occasionally accept applicants with low scores—Harvard Business School accepted an applicant with a 550 score this year—the average score has been creeping up, forcing many applicants to take the test multiple times or sign up for a test-prep service.

The typical GMAT score at Harvard is 730 on an 800 scale. At Stanford it’s 729. And at Wharton it’s 725. Draw your own conclusions.

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