Why Do MBA Admissions Rely So Heavily on the GMAT?

September 11, 2013 | by Matt Symonds

Top b-schools are looking for competitive scores in both quant and verbal sections of the GMAT test

Top b-schools are looking for competitive scores in both quant and verbal sections of the GMAT test

The GMAT is often the primary source of frustration and anxiety for the MBA hopefuls whose chances of admissions success we assess at Fortuna Admissions. From successful entrepreneurs to fast-track financial analysts, time and again you see talented young professionals whose applications are let down by their overall GMAT score, or a below-par score in the Quantitative or Verbal sections.

With eight of the top 10 full-time MBA programs in the latest Bloomberg Businessweek ranking posting average GMAT scores above 700, “below-par” can be a relative term. Even applicants with solid quant scores (above the 70th or 80th percentile) can face tough admission prospects at top schools. Candidates with less-respectable quant scores need to be able to demonstrate solid grades in undergrad courses such as calculus, algebra, and statistics to compensate.

Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards, the former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD, explains that tinkering with the GMAT admissions requirement is very difficult. ”I think there is a often a tension in the school between faculty who can be sticklers for the GMAT, and admissions staff who would sometimes like to be more flexible in the interests of attracting more diverse candidates, and to be able to admit certain candidates who are likely to do brilliantly professionally but just don’t have a great GMAT.”

She also points out that with a diverse application pool, the GMAT is the only common element for MBA applicants, irrespective of their cultural and academic backgrounds.

Other realities include the fact that data points such as the GMAT and GRE help to benchmark candidates relatively easily, and that the GMAT is seen as a signal of quality. So schools are extremely nervous about changing GMAT requirements because of quality perceptions, or fear that doing anything that could negatively impact their ranking. Though the Harvard Business School abandoned the GMAT for a number of years in the 90s, it is unlikely that top tier schools will offer substitutes other than the GRE.

The MBA admissions team at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management have decided to waive the GMAT for applicants who have passed all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program. Admissions Director Niki de Silva explains that the decision stemmed from creative thinking about the talent pools the school targets and how Rotman could boost interest from these groups. “CFA was a top priority for a number of reasons – the deep finance expertise is a strong match with Rotman’s reputation as a top finance school, and this student group is also sought after by our employers.” With low volume of candidates with the CFA pursuing an MBA, the school realised that the GMAT was actually a barrier, due to the amount of required prep time competing with the demands of CFA study.

The school continues to value the role the GMAT plays as a benchmark for a candidates quant abilities, and also the less obvious signals it sends about their dedication, perseverance and aptitude, but de Silva says “we didn’t want to continue to require this criteria just because.”

Rotman is probably not alone in wanting to approach candidate evaluation with some creativity and individualization. Some 69 percent of business schools now accept the GRE as part of a move to attract nontraditional candidates. A growing number of executive MBA programs use school-designed exams or—in the case of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and NYU’s Stern School of Business—require applicants to provide sufficient work experience, prior coursework, or certifications.

So should the architect, private-equity associate, or media-marketing manager hold out for other alternatives to the GMAT? Two factors still weigh against them. Schools such as INSEAD that have analyzed the link between test scores and academic performance see a clear correlation, making it difficult to convince the professors on the admissions committee about a borderline GMAT applicant. And the sheer volume of applicants with competitive GMAT scores means that the rest of your application will need to sparkle to mitigate your lower test score.

That still leaves the debate about a business education that is overly focused on numbers, and excludes outstanding candidates whose values, experience and soft skills would make them a great asset in the MBA classroom and beyond. But that discussion will be for another post.

Sign up for a