When Jose Franco applies to MBA programs, he’s planning to go all out. The schools currently on his list are among the best in the world: Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, USC and UCLA. Franco, the son of migrant farm workers, completed a term with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a prestigious career development institution that strives to increase the representation of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in business. During that time, he got most of his essay writing and school research done.
But he still needs to improve his GMAT score. “I definitely have to improve a lot to get into any of the schools I just mentioned,” Franco says. Right now, he’s scoring in the 500s. He’ll be taking the test again at the end of August. “I took a GMAT course, which ended on June 18,” he says. “I think in the past—I’m a very stubborn person in general, so I was trying to do it on my own and study on my own. Which was great, but it wasn’t helping me as much as I wanted to.”
Franco’s story is part of a much larger one about minority students’ performance on the GMAT. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, in the 2011-2012 testing period, the average score for white test takers was 547. The average score for black test takers, on the other hand, was 433—114 points lower. The Mexican American and Native American averages aren’t much better: 471 and 488, respectively.
“I know there’s been a lot of research on it, and some people have published articles claiming that it is biased in favor of the majority,” Consortium CEO Peter Aranda says. The Consortium is a diversity network that serves the same groups as MLT, i.e. minorities that aren’t well-represented in corporate America. “I don’t think the researchers were doing bad work, so I believe that there probably is some bias built into it. It makes some sense. I think the bigger challenge, though, is less about that bias and more about where our communities are in their progression from being completely underserved to becoming part of mainstream society in the United States.”
“I JUST DON’T SPEAK IN THE FORMAT THAT THE TEST EXPECTS ME TO”
What does it mean to be outside of mainstream society? For starters, Aranda sees differences in test-prep behaviors. “In my experience with many of the candidates that we have—they will be taking the test for the first time three weeks before the application deadline without having the ability to pay for a prep course,” he says.
Denice Gonzalez, a South Los Angeles native who will be taking the GMAT for the first time in two months, remembers feeling left out during college. Two weeks before graduating from UCLA, many of her friends had already taken the GMAT and the GRE; meanwhile, she barely had a sense of what a post-college plan was. “There’s a lot of factors that go into that, right?” she says. “Like, households. We come from parents that didn’t even know—they don’t even know what SAT is. You know, let alone GMAT.”
Franco echoed that idea. “I don’t want to think that that’s a crutch for minorities—but the statistics are what they are, and I think it’s primarily due to a lack of resources,” he says.
Minority students who aren’t native English speakers face additional challenges. Inglewood native Nancy Lopez grew up speaking Spanish at home; at school, she was in a Spanish-speaking program until the fourth grade (California has since discontinued that particular program, she says). Because she had studied the social sciences at UC-Berkeley, Lopez expected to at least have the verbal portion of the GMAT down. But she’s not satisfied with her average score, which she describes as “in the 500 – 600 range.” “A lot of the way the test is, it’s basically proper sixth grade, seventh grade—well, that’s probably belittling the test—but it’s just proper grammar, proper structure,” she says. “Yes, the true test is being able to complete all those questions in the small window of time that you’re given, but I think—at least for me personally—I just don’t speak in the format that the test expects me to or the way the questions are phrased.”
“I WOULD TAKE THAT PERSON OVER SOMEBODY WHO GOT A 750 GMAT SCORE”
When U.S. News ranks business schools, about a quarter of the decision-making is based off students’ undergraduate GPAs and GMAT scores. In other words, schools that want to place well have to take applicants’ GMAT scores very seriously.
Aranda wonders whether that’s wise. “I know plenty of people who have scored lower on the GMAT test and are hugely successful,” he says. “Is it because they’re not as smart? They’re more successful.” Plus, at the end of the day, Aranda believes that GMAT success is less about innate talent and more about knowing how to approach a standardized exam. “It’s an aptitude test, which means that you can absolutely improve your score by applying yourself and studying and being taught certain methods, whether those methods were taught to you and handed down because you’re part of the majority population or you got those methods in a prep course—they can be taught,” he explains. “And they can be learned. The challenge is a significantly larger portion of the minority population doesn’t have opportunities for that learning. And therefore it’s an unfair comparison.”
Still, there are plenty of people—usually white—who gripe about minority students getting into prestigious schools with not-so-stellar GMAT scores. The implication is that they were diversity admits and nothing more.
Gonzalez doesn’t see the logic in that line of thinking. “Even if you say, ‘I’m Latino! Take me!’ They’re going to be like, ‘Okay, excuse me? Show me what you have to offer us,’” she says.
And what does Franco have to say in response? “Come talk to me. Absolutely. Go talk to those individuals who got in with a 600 GMAT score—into Harvard—and get to know them and understand their overall background.” He mentions a friend who started a nonprofit that helps East Los Angeles high school students get into college. “If you look at his GMAT profile, you would say he shouldn’t get into Harvard or Stanford or any of these schools,” Franco says. “But the fact that he started a nonprofit—the fact that he’s managing people, the fact that he’s budgeting for his nonprofit, the fact that he’s been nominated for a lot of awards and received a lot of awards—I would take that person over somebody who got a 750 GMAT score but doesn’t have any substantive professional work experience in their lives.”
THE NEED FOR ADVOCATES
Whether you believe the GMAT is a useful assessment or a ineffective way to level the playing field, one fact remains: admissions officers are under a lot of pressure to keep their incoming classes’ scores high.
Gonzalez thinks that helping minority students succeed on the GMAT is about reaching them earlier—earlier than college, even. That’s why she’s the director of the Saturday Business Academy at the Riordan Programs Alumni Association, the very organization that hosted DMAC. She works with high school students from low income households. “Just that introduction that it’s a possibility gets them thinking about it faster,” she says.
What also helps is having advocates for minority students on admissions committees. When Deena Williams worked in MBA Admissions at UCLA Anderson and Chicago Booth, she took up that role. “There need to be a lot more of you pursuing this particular career path,” she told an audience of potential minority applicants at the 11th Annual Diversity MBA Admissions Conference (DMAC) earlier this August. She spoke about knowing that black, Latino and Native American applicants would generally have lower GMAT scores; thus, she would argue her case with the dean when she found one of those applicants to be particularly compelling. It helped that she had a track record of bringing in leaders.
As far as Williams is concerned, what she did was perfectly fair. Legacies were getting special treatment, weren’t they? In that case, “you’re going to take my person with the 600 GMAT,” she said.