Since the onset of the pandemic, a growing number of business schools in the United States have forgone standardized test requirements for their applicants. Now, the trend seems likely to stay in place long after the global virus outbreak. Kaplan and Manhattan Prep recently released a survey result of about 100 full-time MBA programs, indicating that 67 percent of them waived exam requirements in 2021, and 37 percent answered that they are considering making the test waiver or test-optional policy permanent.
The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) has been the primary standardized test for business school admissions after its first administration in 1954. On the other hand, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) — which was mainly used for graduate school admissions in social sciences and humanities — started to be widely accepted by MBAs in 2011, with over 85 percent of schools officially offering it as an alternative test option by 2014.
Then, Covid-19 hit the global population in 2020 and still continues to disrupt every part of people’s lives, including on-site test taking for the GMAT and the GRE. Although the test-owning companies, such as the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) for the GMAT and Educational Testing Service (ETS) for the GRE, quickly responded to the spread of the virus by launching online exams, higher education institutions in the U.S. took the situation as a chance to move towards test-optional admissions.
The University of Washington Foster School of Business, for instance, has announced that standardized test scores are optional. Meanwhile, the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester and the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business offer test waivers to applicants who meet certain criteria, especially undergraduate GPA and major.
It is highly recommended for applicants to go on to the schools’ websites to check if the standardized tests are optional, or if they meet the criteria to request a test waiver. Source: Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, and the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, respectively.
Stacey Koprince, Senior Academics Manager for GMAT at test preparation company Manhattan Prep, says, “What business schools may tell you is that going test-optional is a way for them to demonstrate they have the best interests of prospective students in mind by simplifying a rigorous process during a stressful time. It gives applicants one less time-consuming piece of the application to focus on.”
Just as the test-free and test-optional admissions brought a record-breaking number of applications with all-time low acceptance rates for the most prestigious colleges, the same effect is expected to manifest in business schools. “Many potential students see the exams as a barrier, rather than an opportunity. Going test-optional removes that barrier and has sent applicant volume soaring,” Koprince said.
However, the sky-rocketing number of applications following the change may come as good news for MBAs, but not necessarily for applicants; increased applicants without a quantitative measurement, such as the test scores, can make the applicants feel more uncertain and unpredictable about the admissions process and the results.
Such a feeling is, in fact, shared with some admissions officers. Approximately one-third of MBAs in the Kapan/Manhattan Prep survey indicated that taking the test scores out of the equation has made it more difficult to evaluate applicants. Some schools are putting more emphasis on interviews and transcripts, and others on applicants’ professional work experience, in their best effort to compensate for the lack of test scores.
Dawna Clarke, senior assistant dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, says, “If you have a master’s or advanced degree in an analytical subject or a strong undergraduate record with demanding coursework, for instance, that may show as much as a quantitative score.” She also noted, “We also take certifications such as the CPA, CFA, and HBS Online into consideration.”
Nevertheless, many experts recommend applicants continue taking the standardized tests especially if they are aiming for the most prestigious business schools. Koprince advised applicants that reporting an above-median GMAT or GRE score would likely give them an advantage over the others. “In fact, as part of our 2021 business school admissions officers survey, nearly 90 percent of test-optional business schools told us that a competitive score can still help a prospective student get in,” she said.
MIT’s Sloan School of Management, ranked as the fifth-best MBA program in the nation, is a great example. While MIT Sloan does offer test waivers for those who have difficulty accessing an exam safely, the school explicitly states on its website, “Standardized tests, such as GMAT and GRE are a component of the application process and play an important role in our holistic evaluation process.”
Rebekah Lewin, senior assistant dean for admissions and programs at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, also noted that applicants without a quantitative background — such as a major in business administration or math — can utilize standardized test scores to demonstrate their mathematical abilities. Likewise, some admissions consultants argue, though controversially, that submitting a competitive test score provides schools with an objective measure of a candidate’s ability to handle the academic rigor at a top MBA program.
Lewin pointed out another reason for prospective students to consider taking standardized tests. She said, “If possible, we encourage candidates to do the test prep and take the test as a self-assessment of strengths and opportunity areas.” She elaborated, “[if a student performed poorly on math or verbal section of the GMAT], that might be an area where they can do pre-work before business school that will ultimately help their learning curve when they enroll — particularly in the core classes that span many different business areas.”
Despite the growing trend toward test-optional admissions policies at MBA programs across the U.S., there are still many compelling reasons to sit in for standardized tests such as the GMAT or the GRE. It is highly recommended for applicants to first check schools’ websites for test requirements, and then objectively evaluate their own credentials to decide whether they should take the tests for better admission chances.