GMAT Score Inflation: What it Means for MBA Applicants

The rise in GMAT scores has heightened the admission standards for exclusive MBA programs, making the selection process even more stringent

Gaining admission to prestigious business schools has never been easy. However, one particular criterion is now proving to be even more formidable: the bar for standardized test scores is on the rise.

According to data published recently by the Graduate Management Admission Council, a noteworthy 18 percent of global applicants taking the GMAT business-school entrance exam attained a crucial benchmark for acceptance into the most exclusive MBA programs — a score of 700 or higher. This marks a substantial surge from the 13 percent who accomplished this achievement back in 2017, five years ago.

In the US, the birthplace of the MBA and home to a majority of top-tier programs, the percentage of applicants achieving scores of 700 or above reached 22 percent. This surge in scores does not imply that the exam has become any less demanding. Rather, it is likely a reflection of the fact that candidates can now conveniently cancel their scores and opt for retests until they attain their desired scores. This change was implemented by GMAC in 2018.

Additionally, a more recent development is the increased issuance of test waivers by business schools, a trend that gained traction following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This has led individuals who lack confidence in their ability to perform well on the GMAT to opt out of taking the exam altogether, potentially considering the GRE as an alternative entrance test.

The inflation in GMAT scores has heightened the admission standards for exclusive MBA programs, making the selection process even more stringent.

Is the GMAT still relevant? 

However, some analysts contend that the significance of testing in MBA admissions is being diluted due to the extension of pandemic-era test-waiver policies by numerous institutions. This implies that pursuing an MBA application without preparing for the GMAT is now a possibility.

“The pandemic has caused significant disruption to GMAT and GRE testing centers, leading some schools to temporarily waive the test requirement to alleviate the burden on prospective students,” says Michelle Zhu, MBA administration director at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

Furthermore, she says many business schools are placing greater emphasis on factors beyond GMAT or GRE scores in their admissions decisions, such as work experience, leadership qualities, extracurricular activities and personal background. Zhu adds: “This trend reflects a growing recognition that test scores alone do not provide a complete picture of a candidate’s abilities and potential for success in an MBA program.”

Nevertheless, Stacey Koprince from Manhattan Prep, a US test preparation company, insists that there’s still an advantage for applicants who can submit a competitive score. “According to Manhattan Prep/Kaplan’s 2022 business school admissions officers survey, the vast majority of test-optional business schools say that submitting a competitive score can help their application even when a score isn’t required,” she says.

Furthermore, Koprince adds that many schools also use test scores as part of the criteria for scholarships, fellowships and other financial packages that schools offer competitive applicants as an incentive to attend that institution. “Investing several months to earn a good score could save you tens of thousands of dollars on tuition and other costs,” she says.

Should you take the GMAT or GRE? 

A further consideration for MBA aspirants is whether to take the GMAT or an alternative examination such as the GRE, now accepted by most top business schools.

“Although the GMAT remains the most common test score submitted by admits to top MBA programs, the share of admits submitting GRE scores has increased over the past few years,” says David White, founding partner at Menlo Coaching, an admissions consulting firm in Europe. “The GMAT and GRE are both well accepted by top MBA programs.”

Besides thinking about which exam best suits their strengths, he says applicants should also consider whether they would apply to graduate programs beyond the MBA. “If a particular applicant would also consider graduate school in public policy, engineering or another field, they may need a GRE score to apply to those non-business degree programs,” White points out.

What is a good GMAT score? 

So, with the continuous upward trajectory of test performance, what should be the target GMAT score for MBA applicants? Ultimately, it could boil down to an individual’s inherent potential.

Brandon Kirby, director of marketing for programs at Rotterdam School of Management, in the Netherlands, suggests that applicants aim for a score that accurately mirrors their potential performance within the academic environment. “There have been instances where students with high GMAT scores actually struggle in the program academically,” he says. “Studying hard to obtain a high score is important, but the test doesn’t cover everything presented in a program.”

Even if a candidate achieves a strong performance on the test, Kirby advises maintaining awareness of any gaps in knowledge or skills that might warrant attention before embarking on an MBA. “A good GMAT might get a person into a top program, but the challenges do not end with the admissions process.”

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