A testing time for potential MBA students

Academic tests are the first hurdle on the road to business school

The path to business school is a bumpy one, with many hurdles to clear.

Before applying to the school of their choice, would-be students must sit an admissions test. The global nature of business education means that internationally accepted qualifications are required. The tests are seen as a reliable indicator of performance and potential and cover academic ability and English language proficiency.


Prospective students take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or the GRE Revised General Test.

The GMAT is run by the Graduate Management Admissions Council. It is the most commonly accepted test, with 287,000 students sitting the paper in 2012. About 5,700 programmes accept the GMAT and students pay $250 to take the test.

The GRE costs students $185 and is run by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). It is becoming more widely used by business schools. However this is mainly in the US, reflecting its position as the standard accepted test across general US graduate education. It has yet to make headway in the UK; according to ETS, only two university business schools accept it: Leeds and the Judge, University of Cambridge. The total number of GRE tests taken in 2012 for all types of graduate education globally exceeded 655,000.

According to David Simmons, MBA admissions director at Cranfield School of Management, the GRE is better suited to younger students because it is designed for general graduate education.

Both the GMAT and the GRE can be taken at test centres worldwide all year round, with most individuals taking the exam three to six months before going to school.

Test structure

The GMAT comprises four sections – analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal – taking three hours and 30 minutes. It is a computer-adaptive assessment and becomes more challenging as more questions are answered correctly.

The integrated reasoning section, which measures the ability to analyse various sources of information, was added in June 2012 in response to demand from teachers.

“Business schools need somebody who can look at emails, graphs and charts,” says Dave Wilson, president and chief executive of GMAC. “If the [business] school is a microcosm of the real world into which the students are going to graduate, the GMAT is a microcosm of what will be in the business school classroom.”

GMAT scores range from 200 to 800. Top-level schools look for a score exceeding 650 or even 700.

The GRE consists of six parts: two sections each of analytical writing, verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning, and takes three hours and 45 minutes to complete. Schools tend not to state a minimum requirement but for verbal and quantitative sections, scores need to exceed 160 to be in the 80th percentile or above. The GRE is also computer-adaptive but unlike the GMAT, it allows test-takers to review and alter their answers. The GRE also has a “score select” option allowing students to decide which test results the business schools can see. All GMAT scores are automatically sent to business schools.

English language skills

Proving competency in English is vital for non-native speakers. Business schools tend to accept one or more of three tests: ETS’s Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL); the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) – owned by the British Council, Cambridge English and international education organisation IDP Education; and a relative newcomer offered by Pearson (owner of the Financial Times), the Pearson Test of English.

However tough they may seem, students need to remember the academic hurdles are just the first aspect of an overall application that includes interviews and applications to a school of choice.

“I look upon them [tests] as an intellectual safety net,” says Mr Simmons. “They’re an indicator of ability to be able to follow the programme successfully. They are not a determiner of success on the programme.”

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