Planes, Trains & Automobiles: MBA Applicants Traveling Great Distances For In-Person GMAT

Flying from San Francisco to Austin. Or New York to Florida. Driving from Chicago to Iowa City. These are the drastic — and potentially dangerous — measures many MBA applicants are currently taking to avoid the at-home GMAT. The reason? The virtual GMAT — and particularly its online whiteboard function — is perceived to be so cumbersome and difficult to use, that desperate MBA applicants are traveling great distances to states with looser shelter-in-place guidelines in the middle of a global pandemic to avoid it and sit for the exam in-person at the few available testing centers.

“The online whiteboard is just ridiculous. It’s just a ridiculous concept and idea,” Michael Schmidt, an MBA applicant currently based in Chicago tells Poets&Quants. “It’s a huge impediment, especially if you’re going to be graded against the rest of the pool.”

Schmidt isn’t alone. Another MBA applicant who asked to remain anonymous says she is flying from her home in California to Austin, Texas, where she was able to find an open test date on June 29. “It’s terrible. Everything takes so much longer,” says the applicant about the whiteboard feature on a phone call with Poets&Quants.


The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) first announced an at-home GMAT in April when virtually all of the U.S. — and many countries around the world — were under shelter-in-place guidelines. Not long after, MBA applicants came out in droves to express their frustrations with the clunkiness of the whiteboard, which replaces the traditional pen and scratch paper allowed when the GMAT is taken at a test center. When the at-home GMAT was launched, there was neither a tutorial on how to use it nor a practice whiteboard for people to get used to it. About a week later amid the complaints, GMAC rolled out an online practice-whiteboard for candidates to prep for the at-home version of the GMAT. But the practice version of the whiteboard has also led to more frustrations and panic.

“From the beginning, I pose the question, are you willing to drive or fly,” says Marissa Samuel Vecsler, the founder of 99th Percentile Tutoring. For most of her students planning on taking the GMAT, Vecsler says the at-home version should basically be the last resort. She recommends finding an open testing center somewhere or switching to the GRE — all because of the whiteboard. “There are students that can do it for sure. But they’re few and far between,” Vecsler says. “I would drive or fly. I would do whatever it takes to get out and take it because I think the score differential can be huge.”

Marissa Samuel Vecsler. Courtesy photo


One of those students is Schmidt who says he’s been studying for the GMAT for two years. The Chicago-based investment manager has taken the GMAT three times and was hoping this spring would be the last time before applying to the round 1 application deadlines at many of the “top-10 schools” this coming fall. Schmidt used self-study books during the first two attempts and despite “hundreds of hours of prep,” those times “didn’t go well.” Next, he used an online tutor, and even though his scores improved, they weren’t where he wanted them to be. So for the fourth time, Schmidt says he “pulled out all the stops,” and hired a private one-on-one tutor. That made the difference and based on his recent practice tests, Schmidt says he “just needed to show up” for the real version.

Then, COVID-19 intervened. Schmidt signed up for the at-home version of the GMAT for May 12, but when he started working with the online whiteboard, he realized he might need to start looking at alternative options. “I was just hoping COVID would kind of blow over and I’d be able to take it whenever and wherever,” Schmidt says. But then, as coronavirus cases in Chicago continued to climb and there was “really no end in sight,” Schmidt says he “had to take some drastic measures.”

“And for me, that was going to a state that is open,” Schmidt explains. He looked at test centers that had opened in bordering states like Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Schmidt says he even considered looking at states with lower COVID-19 cases like Montana and Wyoming. But Schmidt eventually settled on Iowa City, which is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Chicago. Schmidt says the June 10th date he found was the last available one in Iowa City. “That was the single last test date available and I got the single-last seating in June in Iowa. Maybe additional ones will come available, I can’t speak to that, but when I looked it was the single-last one,” Schmidt says. “The options are really picked over, and I’m thinking a lot of people must have the same plan I do to go to a state that’s more open socially and economically.”

Even then, there are a number of restrictions being imposed on test-takers. Students won’t be admitted to an open center if they have tested positive for COVID or have experienced symptoms, from shortness of breath to a cough, associated with the virus. If a test-taker lives or has had close contact with either a confirmed or suspected case of COVID or has been under home quarantine, they also will not be allowed to enter the test center. And if you get in, you have to bring and wear your own face mask and stay six feet away from other test-takers. Candidates can wear disposable gloves during testing and some centers may require test-takers to provide a temperature check upon arrival.

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