GMAT: The Test Every MBA Applicant Loves to Hate

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A guest post from Matt Symonds, chief editor of, a website dedicated to the world’s outstanding business schools. He is also director of Fortuna Admissions and co-author of ABC of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge.

For those of you who thought you were done with standardized tests when you put down the No. 2 pencil you used for your SAT in senior year, the application to business school can reawaken old wounds. You now find yourself battling with the GMAT or the more recently adopted alternative GRE.

These tests are designed to measure your comfort with numbers, verbal competencies, and—with the June 2012 introduction of an Integrated Reasoning section—critical-thinking skills. But the GMAT is often the primary source of frustration and anxiety for MBA hopefuls.

At Fortuna Admissions, time and again we get inquiries from talented young professionals whose applications may be jeopardized by their below-par GMAT scores. With eight of the top 10 full-time MBA programs in the latest Bloomberg Businessweek ranking posting average GMAT scores above 700, “below-par” can be a relative term. Even applicants with solid quant scores (above the 70th or 80th percentile) can face tough admission prospects at top schools. Candidates with less-respectable quant scores need to be able to demonstrate solid grades in undergrad courses such as calculus, algebra, and statistics to compensate.

Tinkering with the GMAT requirement to allow for a little more flexibility—something many MBA admissions directors might secretly wish for—is more difficult than it looks. As the only common element in the MBA application, it’s one of the few tools schools have to make direct comparisons between applicants. Because the scores themselves are seen as a signal of quality, admitting qualified applicants with lower scores could result in fewer highly qualified applicants and negatively affect a school’s ranking.

So I was interested to learn of the decision taken by the MBA admissions team at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to waive the GMAT for applicants who have passed all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program. Admissions Director Niki de Silva explains that the decision stemmed from creative thinking about the talent pools the school targets and how Rotman could boost interest from these groups.  As de Silva explains it, few applicants with the CFA certification now apply to MBA programs—even though they’re highly sought after by employers—mainly because their CFA prep work leaves little time to study for the GMAT.

The school continues to value the role the GMAT plays as a benchmark for a candidate’s quant skills—and also the less obvious signals it sends about their dedication, perseverance and aptitude—but de Silva says “we didn’t want to continue to require this criteria just because.”

Rotman is probably not alone in wanting to approach candidate evaluation with some creativity and individualization. Some 69 percent of business schools now accept the GRE as part of a move to attract nontraditional candidates. A growing number of executive MBA programs use school-designed exams or—in the case of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and NYU’s Stern School of Business—require applicants to provide sufficient work experience, prior coursework, or certifications.

So should the architect, private-equity associate, or media-marketing manager hold out for other alternatives to the GMAT? Two factors still weigh against them. Schools such as INSEAD that have analyzed the link between test scores and academic performance see a clear correlation, making it difficult to convince the professors on the admissions committee about a borderline GMAT applicant. And the sheer volume of applicants with competitive GMAT scores means that the rest of your application will need to sparkle to mitigate your lower test score.

That still leaves the debate about a business education that is overly focused on numbers, and excludes outstanding candidates whose values, experience and soft skills would make them a great asset in the MBA classroom and beyond. But that discussion will be for another post.

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