The Evolving Landscape of Standardized Testing in MBA Admissions

What do the recent changes to the GMAT and GRE mean for prospective students?

The world of standardized testing, long a mainstay in MBA admissions, is changing. Earlier this year, the administrator of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the Educational Testing Service, said it would reduce the test duration to under two hours, almost halving the previous time requirement.

The decision to switch to a briefer exam followed the Graduate Management Admission Council’s choice to truncate the GMAT exam by nearly an hour and replace the essay requirement with multiple-choice questions.

So what do the recent changes to the GMAT and GRE mean for prospective students?

“Overall, we think that the changes to the GMAT and GRE make both exams a lot more student friendly,” says Stacey Koprince at Manhattan Prep, an American test preparation company. “The GMAT is changing more than the GRE is, but the GMAT changes are more aligned with the skills you’ll need in business school.

“With the GRE, it’s essentially just a shorter exam, which makes the test more like a sprint than a marathon,” she adds. “That’s great, but because the GRE is a section-adaptive test, anyone going for a very high score doesn’t have much room for errors or careless mistakes.”

Research from Manhattan Prep business school admissions officers survey finds no global preference for one exam over another, but Koprince says it’s a good idea to ask an individual school’s admissions office if they do have a preference: “Do your research, ask around, and prepare accordingly.”

Exam length no longer a factor

Because the GMAT and GRE are both becoming shorter, exam length should no longer be a factor in choosing between the two tests, says David White, founding partner at Menlo Coaching, an admissions consulting firm in the Netherlands. “Applicants should choose the test on which they’ll perform best,” he says.

For instance, there are major differences in content and structure. “To give one example, the GMAT is question adaptive, but the GRE is section adaptive. Anxious test-takers can sometimes be intimidated by the way that a question adaptive test always ‘feels hard’ at each point,” White explains.

He advises applicants to choose between the exams after considering their test-taking history and their relative strengths and weaknesses in content knowledge, analytical reasoning, as well as comfort doing math without a calculator.

Why schools love standardized testing

Standardized testing holds significance in the MBA admissions process, with many schools encouraging applicants to submit a strong test score.  

One of the primary reasons why business schools require the GMAT or GRE is to ensure that applicants have the necessary skills to successfully complete an MBA program. “Business school admissions teams view strong GMAT or GRE scores as evidence that a candidate will be able to handle the rigors of an MBA program,” says Michelle Zhu, MBA administration director at China Europe International Business School (Ceibs) in Shanghai, China. 

Standardized test-scores play a role in determining scholarship eligibility and admissions decisions as well. “They can set candidates apart by showcasing their academic abilities and providing a snapshot of their strengths,” Zhu says. “The scores can also help admissions officers compare candidates against a larger pool of applicants, especially if applicants come from different educational backgrounds or have different work experiences.”

Furthermore, she says a high-test score can help to mitigate the lower aspects of an applicant’s profile, such as poor grades or “unimpressive” university education. “Applicants should prepare and study to maximize their scores,” adds Zhu.

A holistic approach to admissions

The Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Canada, accepts either GMAT or GRE scores so applicants are free to choose the test they prefer. The school stresses that it takes a holistic approach to its admissions.

“GMAT/GRE scores are just one factor we consider in addition to other factors such as work experience, academic record and interviews,” says Maria Jimena Rivera, managing director of the full-time MBA program at Rotman, adding: “A test score alone will not be the defining factor for admission.”

She adds that more schools are looking at ways to lower barriers to application by providing candidates with GMAT/GRE score waivers, by making conditional offers to students who have yet to sit for either exam.

Over the last several years there has also been an increase in the variety of test types that applicants submit, says Allison Jamison, assistant dean of admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, USA. “The GRE has continued to grow in popularity, and in the last two to three years the Executive Assessment has become more common. As more options have become available and understood in the application process, applicants are more comfortable trying new tests.”

Fuqua is also seeing more students taking more than one type of test, say the GMAT and the GRE, and submitting both test scores with their applications. “If an applicant has taken more than one test type, I would encourage them to submit both scores,” she adds.

There are other factors that prospective MBA applicants should consider when deciding whether to take the GMAT or GRE, according to Rose Ngo, an admissions consultant at Admissionado in California. “In certain industries, employers might ask for your GMAT score. For example, the top consulting firms will often use GMAT scores as a factor in their hiring process.”

Rose adds that if you’re thinking about applying to other graduate programs before or after your MBA, then you might want to take the GRE. “The GRE is designed for students applying to other graduate programs in other subjects, while the GMAT is really only used for business school applications.” 

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