Tested by Changing Times: The GMAT Turns 60

Tested by Changing Times: The GMAT Turns 60
GMAT preparation
Photograph by Nicolas Tavernier/Redux

On Feb. 6, 1954, the first Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business was administered. It would later be renamed the GMAT.

Over six decades, the test has been administered more than 9 million times, and its content has been reworked almost completely. The questions may have changed, but the exam’s difficulty hasn’t: Prospective MBAs have been sweating over the GMAT since the Eisenhower administration.

The GMAT started to take shape in 1953, when representatives from nine U.S. business schools met with the Educational Testing Service to design a standardized test that would improve their admissions processes. About 1,300 people took the first test a year later. It was offered in five countries and—a sign of just how long ago 1953 was—in Hawaii, which hadn’t yet attained U.S. statehood.

Compare that to the 12 months ending in June 2013 (the most recent period for which the Graduate Management Admission Council, the organization that publishes the GMAT, has released data), when roughly 238,000 people in 113 countries took the GMAT (PDF). Sixty-two percent were citizens of countries other than the U.S. Forty-three percent were women, and 30 percent of test scores were sent to non-MBA programs.

The test itself has also changed. GMAC wouldn’t share questions from old exams, citing test security concerns, but vintage questions would undoubtedly seem odd to today’s test-takers. Problem solving is the only category that has appeared on the GMAT every year since the test made its debut.

Testing on antonyms (by which test-takers had to choose a word’s opposite from a group of choices), got the boot in 1976 because it was too easy to prepare for through rote memorization. A category called “directed memory” was dropped the following year because it was a hassle to proctor: The questions asked test takers to study a prose passage, then asked them to answer related questions without looking at the passage. This meant the paper had to be removed, or hidden, manually.

Early versions of the test were peppered with references that U.S. citizens would have been more likely to understand than would international students, says Lawrence Rudner, GMAC’s vice president of research and development. Questions referring to such buildings and institutions as the Sears Tower or the Food and Drug Administration began disappearing in the 1990s, the decade in which the test underwent its most important change.

In 1997, the GMAT became the first standardized test to be given worldwide in a computer adaptive format, according to GMAC, allowing testers to tailor the difficulty of questions to individual test takers’ abilities. (You can learn more about how it works here; at the most basic, after test takers get questions wrong, the next question is easier than if they had gotten the first question right.) A side benefit is that the GMAT has fewer questions now than it did when the test was given on paper.

What’s left from the original test? “The skills we’re trying to assess have stayed pretty much the same,” says Rudner. “We want to stay true to the goal of testing for reasoning skills.” The scoring system has also remained consistent. “If your father took the test 30 years ago and got a 600, and you got a 600 today, you’re on the same level,” he says.

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