GRE Pilots A New ‘Soft Skills’ MBA Admissions Test At Yale SOM

To understand the desire of business schools to get beyond the limitations of traditional admissions tests, consider the case of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. 

Since Luke Anthony Pena joined the school as head of admissions in the summer of 2017, Tuck has made headlines with its innovative approach, particularly its focus on four key attributes: Tuck students are “Smart,” a nod to academic achievement and strong test scores; they have “Accomplishments,” to be revealed in resumes; and they have “Awareness” and “Niceness,” qualities that emerge in essays and interviews. Assessing these attributes — in what is known as an application process “with a heart” — is Tuck’s way of achieving the long-time goal of measuring soft skills in admissions. 

Every school is different, and most prefer to handle the assessment of soft skills, or competencies, their own way. But for years many have lobbied for something more defined, a sit-down test that measures the skills that are not usually acquired in the classroom or measured on standardized tests like the Graduate Management Admission Test and the Graduate Record Exam — things like leadership, strategic thinking, and decision making. They may soon get their wish, if the early success of a new effort is any indication.

Working with Yale School of Management, Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, has been developing a noncognitive online assessment to better determine how applicants will perform once they arrive on campus. For the last two admissions cycles, thousands of Yale SOM applicants have taken ETS’s behavioral assessment, a 25-minute test with a forced-choice design that presents applicants with two statements and requests they choose the one that is most attractive to them. An example would be selecting between, “I work well with other people” and “I work hard.” Test takers have 20 to 25 minutes to select 120 preferences.

“And the feedback is pretty positive,” says Patrick Kyllonen, distinguished presidential appointee for ETS and leader of research on the new assessment tool. “Basically students, I think, appreciate the opportunity to present a side of themselves that otherwise they might not be able to present just through their GMAT scores and their prior GPA. And so it says something about the students. It gives you a bigger picture, a larger picture, more comprehensive picture of the student that goes beyond the test scores.”


How can schools find the candidates who may not test well but who will nonetheless thrive in a B-school setting? Likewise, how can they filter out the good testers who won’t be the right fit? The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, explored a soft-skills test earlier in the decade but concluded that such assessments are “coachable”; instead, beginning in 2013, GMAC offered a test called Reflect that purported to help students identify strengths and choose the right school for them. Afterward, the thinking went, students and schools could use Reflect to guide courses of study and evaluate classes “for group composition and interaction.” However, a couple years ago Reflect was discontinued. 

In the meantime, ETS had began work on a competencies test of its own. About five years ago researchers began to develop the online assessment, a forced-choice module that takes about 20-25 minutes to complete and that does not require applicants to do anything in advance to prepare. Nor does it require any specialized knowledge, background, or information to complete, Kyllonen tells Poets&Quants. The behavioral assessment, as it’s known, “could be a complement” to the GRE test because it measures the interpersonal and intrapersonal attributes the GRE test is not designed to capture.

And in that way, he says, it could soon find its way to other schools.

“I think that Yale has been very eager to try this out and give us a shot because they recognize the importance of some of the personal/interpersonal attributes, the importance of those for success,” Kyllonen says. “I think based on prior research that we’ve done at ETS, other faculty members, other schools, other administrators at other schools, other admissions departments also recognize the importance of these other factors. So my guess is that there will be some more schools that jump on the train here, but we’ll see.”

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