At Elite MBA Programs, GMAT Scores are Soaring to Record Highs

The coronavirus pandemic drove a surge in demand for MBAs, enabling schools to be far more selective in admissions

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) had a torrid 2020 as scores fell across many of the world’s best MBA programs, leading some business schools to question the future of the exam. The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) continued to gain ground as an alternative to the GMAT.

At the same time, many business schools suspended their admissions testing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Some have continued with this policy, hoping to diversify their MBA intakes.  

But now, GMAT scores are soaring to record highs at many elite MBA programs. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, the average score rose five points and reached 738 this year, while the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania boosted its average score by 11 points to 722.

It seems the bumper crop of MBA applications, driven by the Covid-induced economic uncertainty, has enabled business schools to be far more selective, thereby boosting GMAT averages. Indiana University Kelley School of Business notched up one of the highest year-over-year jumps with the average GMAT score increasing by 27 points to 679 in 2021.

“Our fall 2021 applications increased by 61 percent, allowing us to be more selective,” says Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid for the school. “This helped increase the average GMAT for the entering class.”

But he insists that rising GMAT averages at top MBA programs are not necessarily a sign that the GMAT is making a comeback. “Applicants at many schools have options — and the number of alternatives to the GMAT seems to be growing,” he says.

For the Kelley MBA program, prospective students can apply for a place with the GMAT or GRE. “We value both exams,” says Holmen. “MBA candidates should choose the test they are most comfortable with — the test where they believe they can achieve the most competitive scores.”

The GRE and other GMAT alternatives

It was also a record year for the GMAT at NYU Stern School of Business in New York. The average score hit 729. Even so, Stern added three new admissions test options — LSAT, MCAT and DAT — to its application process this year. Stern also accepts the GMAT, GRE and Executive Assessment.

The school is extending its standardized test waiver this year. It was first introduced in 2020 in response to the disruption of the coronavirus crisis, which shuttered testing centers across the world. Lisa Rios, assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stern, believes that “a more seamless process for applicants” resulted in an eight percent increase in MBA applications this year.

But higher GMAT scores aren’t necessarily an indication of a comeback for the test, says admissions consultant Stacy Blackman in Los Angeles. “Schools have become much more flexible on test options; this has allowed MBA programs to cherry-pick the higher GMAT scoring candidates,” she says. “It’s a wise move, because it can help a program to rise in the MBA rankings.”

Blackman says that many test takers who would otherwise score much lower on the GMAT have opted to take alternative exams. “MBA programs that tout higher average GMAT scores are likely just accepting far more applicants who opt to take these other exams — or those who apply without a test altogether,” she adds.

For example, Georgetown McDonough School of Business in Washington, DC admitted a GMAT average that was up 11 points from last year, but it has also accepted a huge number of GRE-taking applicants — 48 percent of the current MBA class took the alternative test.

Average GRE scores actually convert to below average GMAT scores at many business schools, Blackman points out. “Applicants would be wise to consider alternative test options unless they have GMAT scores that are at or above average, unless their profile has true differentiating qualities,” she says.

Of course, there could be variables contributing more directly to the increase in GMAT scores, such as applicants taking the test multiple times to cancel their lower scores. Also, the pandemic afforded much more discretionary time for candidates to study harder and go for the retakes.

More GMAT waivers

But many schools are extending their test waivers, which have allowed MBA programs to attract a more diverse student population, in terms of demographic, industry, function, nationality.  

Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business has eliminated the testing requirement entirely for this year. Three factors drove the decision, says Brian Jennings, associate dean for graduate programs. “GMAT/ GRE scores are not necessary to predict classroom success; the tests are a barrier to entry and perpetuate systemic inequities; and test performance is immaterial to the ultimate measure — career outcomes and market demand for our students.”

Other schools dispute this. Holmen at Kelley believes the future of the GMAT remains bright. “We and other schools have expanded testing options to increase access, but the GMAT remains a trusted and proven predictor of an applicant’s academic potential,” he says.

Blackman agrees. “The GMAT has never lost its relevance. It remains the best indicator of quantitative readiness across all test options.”

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