The standardized test has long been a mainstay in MBA admissions, assessing readiness for the academic travails of the degree. But an increasing number of business schools are now sticking with their pandemic test-waiver policies, introduced in the earlier stages of COVID that disrupted the MBA entrance examinations. This has raised questions about the ongoing role of standardized testing in MBA admissions.
During the pandemic when it was difficult for many candidates to complete the GMAT or GRE, test waivers removed a barrier that would have kept many from applying. While testing availability has increased, there are still populations that struggle with the cost of testing and test preparation, schools say.
“Providing an option for candidates to apply for a waiver opens the door to candidates who may have decided against applying for an MBA degree, simply because they considered the GMAT or GRE an insurmountable barrier,” says Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.
“Our application volume has increased over the past two years — thanks in part to the availability of test waivers,” he says.
Demonstrating academic potential without a test score
Schools primarily use GMAT and GRE scores to assess an applicant’s academic potential. When MBA programs evaluate a waiver request, they look for strong academic achievement in prior education, especially quantitative and analytic coursework.
“We find that our candidates often have alternative evidence to validate their readiness for a top MBA program,” says Dawna Clarke, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “Often, a demonstrated record of professional leadership, non-degree coursework, or certifications can tell an admissions committee more than a test score.”
Indeed, Clarke says Darden’s classes as a whole have “reached new levels of academic excellence” since instituting the test-waiver policy at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Such a move also likely diversified the pool of applicants, in terms of both professional background and various historically underrepresented demographic groups, according to Stacey Koprince, director of content and curriculum at Manhattan Prep, a test prep company. “For many, this was a strategic decision and wise insurance policy against the pandemic,” she says of test-waiver policies.
Overall, MBA application volumes have fallen in 2022 because of the strong job market that makes people reluctant to leave the workforce and pay for an MBA. “Many test-optional business schools are essentially trying to mitigate an even more significant decline by streamlining the process and making it easier to apply,” Koprince suggests.
According to Manhattan Prep’s business school admissions officer survey, MBA gatekeepers are increasingly looking at prospective students’ GPAs as the top admissions factor. “Pre-pandemic, a low standardized test score was consistently the biggest deal breaker,” recalls Koprince.
Are test scores a competitive advantage?
Yet even at test-optional business schools, applicants who do submit a competitive GMAT or GRE score may have admissions edge over applicants who don’t. “Even for some programs such as MIT Sloan, which temporarily waived the test requirement due to the pandemic, we find that clients who submitted a test score have had more favorable admit outcome results overall,” says US based admissions consultant Stacy Blackman.
“Any test is better than no test for applicants focused on the top MBA programs with competitive acceptance rates,” she explains. “Not submitting a standardized test score is only beneficial if all other measures work well, especially the grades.”
These exams can offer an objective data point regarding an applicant’s readiness for the curriculum. So, while they never tell the complete story of an applicant, they can offer a valuable window into the ability to succeed in an MBA environment.
“GPA can also help with that evaluation, and your personal essays can help gauge fit for a certain program, but only a standardized test score serves as a common measurement across all applicants,” points out Koprince.
“We think it’s very likely that standardized tests will have at least some role to play in the MBA admissions process in the long term. It’s just a matter of how important an admissions factor it will be,” she adds.
There is no reason to think standardized test scores will go away, but they may evolve. “In the short-term, it’s hard to imagine standardized tests completely disappearing as long as they serve a useful function for some applicants and schools,” says Holmen at Kelley. “The long-term future of standardized testing is unpredictable.
“It is difficult, however, to imagine going back to a process where everyone must submit standardized test scores, without exception,” he adds.