What goes up, must come down? Not when you’re talking about scores on the General Management Admission Test. But while the five-year trend consistently shows GMAT averages on the rise at the vast majority of business schools, a closer look at the latest data for the Class of 2019 suggests a more nuanced reality. Among other things, there has been a leveling off, at least in the short term, among the most elite schools, as the top three schools in the Poets&Quants top 50 all are reporting the same GMAT average from the year before.
Mostly, though, the numbers keep going up. Only seven schools in the top 50 have seen a drop-off over the last five years, while two have remained flat and data for two others data is incomplete. For one school, Boston College, only the last two years are available (though those years have revealed remarkable volatility for the Carroll School of Management, which lost 30 points from 2016 to 2017, to fall to 637). For three other schools, the current year’s data is missing, leaving only the previous four years to measure by (two show a positive trend, and the other, Temple University’s Fox School of Business, has never posted GMAT averages). Still, the data shows that 38 schools are on an upswing in the five-year trend of average GMAT scores, at an average of 9.9 points, led by Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, which grew its GMATs by 35 points to 711.
The five-year metric is only one way to look at GMAT scores. Eleven schools (only three of which are in the top 25) saw a year-to-year drop-off from 2016 to 2017, mostly small declines of a point or two. Eight schools saw no change at all — including the top three schools, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (730), Harvard Business School (729), and Stanford Graduate School of Business (737). Minus the three schools that haven’t reported average GMATs for the Class of 2019, and the one school we don’t have data for from other years (Rutgers), that leaves 27 schools that saw an uptick since 2016, at an average of 5.2 points — a much more mixed picture.
A BIG REASON FOR THE RISE IN GMAT SCORES: THE RISE OF THE GRE
More than any other admissions data point, GMATs are often considered a barometer of student quality. Rising GMATs can also indicate a school’s aggressiveness in offering more scholarship money to compete with rivals and represent a sign that a school is eager to move up in rankings.
In last year’s version of this report, 12 schools had declining GMATs over a five-year period; now only six do. So why do GMAT averages continue to rise? A few reasons. First, it’s about rankings: As schools compete with each other for the top rungs and the top talent drawn by such distinctions, they look to showcase their selectivity and academic prowess by striving for higher scores. This also has the effect of driving up applications — everyone wants to be a member of a club that may not have them — and adcoms get to choose from among a huge crowd of applicants who felt compelled to maximize their scores.
Then there’s the rise of the Graduate Record Examination, which more schools are accepting in place of the GMAT. Applicants with more limited skills — and confidence — are increasingly taking the GRE, reducing the number of low GMAT scores in the applicant pool. The percentage of GRE applicants is rising into the low-20s at some major schools; last year, Boston University even reported that an incredible 42% of MBA candidates had submitted GRE scores, up from 34% the year before.
Other notable schools with high percentages of GRE applicants (according to the latest available data): Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School (39%, up from 15% in 2015), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Business (36%), Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business (35%, up from 12% in 2015), Washington University’s Olin Business School (34%), and the University of Georgia’s Terry School of Business (31%).
WHEN GMATs GO DOWN, IT MIGHT NOT MEAN A DECLINE IN QUALITY
Declining GMATs are considered an indication of an MBA program no longer attracting the top candidates. There are many possible explanations, such as a lack of scholarship opportunities or a redirection of resources into other areas, for example into specialized master’s programs. It’s also true that sometimes top talent is poached from a lower-tiered school by a higher-tiered one. On the other hand, schools have been known to intentionally reduce average GMAT scores with the idea of pursuing more well-rounded applicants, those with stronger interpersonal and communication skills.
That’s the case at the University of Rochester Simon Business School, where Dean Andrew Ainslie has sought to emphasize other aspects of students’ potential since he arrived at the school four years ago. “My concern was that we were picking students who might struggle in the workplace because of the excessive weighting of GMAT in our process,” Ainslie told Poets&Quants last year. “We therefore chose consciously to move our GMAT average down a little in order to allow us to pick more well-rounded candidates, who we felt might do better in the workplace a couple of years later.”
Just as at Rochester Simon, where a bottoming out seems to have occurred with the numbers starting to rebound, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management — one of the other seven schools in a five-year decline — may have seen the worst. Carlson saw a 17-point decline to 675 last year from 692 in 2012, but arrested its fall and saw a one-point bump to 676 in the Class of 2019.
IN EUROPE, SMALL SIGNS OF A CORRECTION
The “leveling off” of GMATs may be happening overseas, as well. While INSEAD realized its spot atop the European B-school landscape, gaining four points to reach 712, both London Business School (708) and HEC Paris (688) lost a point from the year before. Last year, every prominent European school reported a year-over-year increase in its average, with LBS overtaking INSEAD with an eight-point jump.
Elsewhere in Europe, IESE remained flat at 690 a year after gaining 21 points. Oxford saw a three-point boost to 685, and Cambridge got a six-point lift to 696, but Spain’s IE saw a dramatic drop of 10 points to 670 — just a year removed from reporting an eight-point jump.
(See the next pages for the complete five-year breakdown for average GMAT scores for the Poets&Quants top 50 schools.)