GMAT matters, but it’s not the only way to show a business school your talents

FOR those wanting to take an MBA, sitting the GMAT is something of a rite of passage. The test – whose full name is the Graduate Management Admission Test – has been the gold standard for MBA students since it was launched in 1953. Now it is to undergo its biggest change yet when it adds an “integrated reasoning” element. The new section, which will be introduced in June 2012, is meant to “test advanced reasoning skills” using spreadsheets and graphics.

The changes are designed to reflect the modern business environment, or at least one part of it, but it raises a question: what is the GMAT for? And how important is it? Candidates can get fixated on the test, but is it really that important?

Matt Symonds, founder of the QS MBA tour, which organises MBA?fairs, says that people can “over-focus” on the test. “GMAT is an early filter especially in big schools with lots of volume, but a high score doesn’t mean that you are automatically in the door.” Those who are preparing to take the test should not look at the highest scores of MBAs at their target school, or even the average score, but the average of what 80 per cent of people are scoring, he says. As long as you score inside the bottom of that, and have a 2.1 from a good university and “a pattern of achievement in your professional life” that should satisfy the school about your academic chops. “They are looking at the whole package,” he says, “GMAT just reassures them about your mathematical ability”.

Some schools are starting to move away from the GMAT and the other big MBA test, the GRE. Katie Best, director of MBA programmes at BPP business school, says that although BPP does accept the GMAT, or GRE, it is not the be-all-and end-all. A candidate with a first or a good 2.1 needn’t take any test at all. What is important is demonstrating a history of career success and performing strongly at interview.

Best says that BPP prefers candidates to take its own test, which is focused on business news: “We like students to be up to date with current affairs, the sort of people who should be on the course ought to be able to have a strong opinion on matters like that, and ought to have been monitoring the news.”

There has been a tradition that the MBA is a financial qualification, she adds, and that is important but the modern MBA “is about being a general manager and a good, broad knowledge of business is important. Number-crunching is not necessarily the only skill that you need for that. The GMAT has a use but it is quite stressful for a student. We see the MBA as a learning journey and to start it with something that is so focused on this is the wrong way to start it. It’s not a grown-up approach.”

The GMAT is important; it tests numeracy, which is vital. But like all tests, passing it only really proves your ability to pass the test. The modern MBA is about opening your mind, discovering new ways of doing things, and embracing entrepreneurialism as much as it is about reading a balance sheet. The GMAT?does not test that.

Can we imagine a world beyond the GMAT? Matt Symonds says that in the late 1980s Harvard decided to drop it, saying that it didn’t capture the leadership skills that they were looking for, opting to use interview alone. Interestingly, the lowest GMAT score for a student currently on the Harvard MBA is 490, suggesting that the school still takes the test with a healthy dose of salt.

So why has the GMAT survived at all? Clearly it is useful in some situations and to measure some things, but the cynical might suggest that there’s the small matter of 260,000 people taking the test every year, at a cost of $250 each, and the massive industry of test preparation DVDs, websites, private tutoring and books that has sprung up. A good lesson for any prospective MBA.


GMAT SAMPLES | TESTING TIMES

Sample Analysis of an Argument question
"People often complain that products are not made to last. They feel that making products that wear out quickly wastes natural and human resources. What they fail to see is that such manufacturing practices keep costs down and stimulate demand."
Which do you find more compelling, the complaint about products that do not last or the response to it? Explain your position, using relevant reasons and/or examples.
Sample problem solving question:

If u > t, r > q, s > t, and t > r,

which of the following must be true?
I. u > s II. s > q III. u > r

(A) I only (B) II only (C) III only
(D) I and II (E) II and III