Man and exam
The weight given to test performance is declining © Corbis
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The maker of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), the standardised exam used for admission to MBA programmes, recently debuted a new section of the test, designed to help schools identify top applicants.

But in an increasingly competitive environment, the weight given to performance on standardised tests is declining.

In the admissions process, business schools consider the applicant’s undergraduate record, professional experience, the quality of his or her personal essays and how well he or she performs in an interview.

“In reality, business school admissions officers have a surplus of good candidates,” says Andrew Mitchell, director of pre-business programmes at Kaplan Test Prep.

“What [a high test score does] is minimise risk. It helps differentiate candidates – particularly if someone scores 30 points higher than the average.”

The changes to the GMAT also come as schools are increasingly embracing the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the standardised test used by a wide range of graduate programmes, as an acceptable entry test. Today a small majority of business schools – 52 per cent – accept both the GRE and the GMAT.

“There is no better time to make the GMAT more relevant, as the GRE has yet to establish a strong foothold,” says Mr Mitchell.

The new GMAT exam replaces one essay with a section on integrative reasoning that aims to measure the test taker’s ability to parse data to solve problems. The section, which involves 12 questions, requires students to analyse information presented in multiple formats – graphics, text and numbers – and to organise that information to discern patterns.

The skills tested by the section were identified as “important for incoming students” by management professors worldwide, according to a survey commissioned by the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT. They are, for instance, the same skills one might use to put together a compelling PowerPoint presentation.

The new section represents a $12m investment by GMAC.

“It’s a response to what schools are telling us,” says Dave Wilson, the president and chief executive of GMAC.

Mr Wilson says that these analytical skills are in high demand in the workplace. “Schools listen very closely to what employers want,” he says.

“This is the era of big data. Students need to know how to analyse, sort and stack data. They need to determine which data is relevant and which is not, and how to assimilate it.

“We are pretty confident that it will provide a really useful diagnostic.”

Until recently, the GMAT was the unchallenged test required for admission to business school. However, a growing number of business schools are giving applicants the option of taking the GRE. The move is an attempt by business schools to attract a bigger and more diverse applicant pool, including dual-degree students, younger applicants, women, international students and those applicants who were not previously laser-focused on business studies.

To be sure, test scores remain a key element of an MBA candidate’s application. They provide a good threshold for prospective applicants: schools often stipulate that they only consider students who obtain a certain score.

Yet at a time when business school curricula are placing a greater emphasis on the cultivation of soft skills such as communication, consensus building and flexibility, a candidate’s scores on standardised tests are seen less as a determining factor in an admissions decision.

“The GMAT is just one piece of a holistic process,” says Ankur Kumar, director of MBA admissions and financial aid at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Admissions officers say they use standardised test performance as a check on other academic indicators.

For instance, an applicant with a high grade point average but low test scores raises red flags. It might signify that the candidate did not take challenging courses or alternatively it could point to grade inflation.

Competition to get into top business schools is stiff. Wharton, for instance, last year accepted about 16 per cent of applicants. NYU Stern, meanwhile, accepted 15 per cent.

“I think that the folks at GMAC have done a good job of increasing the value of their exam,” says Isser Gallogly, the assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stern.

“It’s an additional data point for how [applicants] will do in the classroom. We’re always looking for data points when making those nuanced decisions [about who to admit].”

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