Should MBA Programs Make The GMAT & GRE Optional?

The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Photo/Andrew Shurtleff Photography, LLC

In adopting its test-optional policy, Darden also did a study to track the academic performance of past students against their standardized test scores. “We looked at the students who came and the indicators of those who struggled and the predictors of academic excellence,” says Beardsley. “The truth is that there were multiple predictors of success and parts of the standardized test were not. We found that a person’s ability to communicate, participate in the classroom and their qualitative abilities are more relevant than their quant scores. The verbal test score had higher relevance, and undergraduate grade point averages were very relevant. We are open-minded to excellence, and we don’t believe that any single indicator has a monopoly on excellence.”

No less problematic is the concern over whether standardized testing is fair. In testing year 2019, ending June 30th, the average GMAT score for a Black American on the GMAT was 459, more than 100 points lower than for Caucasian Americans who on average scored 570. Hispanic Americans averaged 504 on the GMAT, with the highest scores reported by Asian Americans at 593. “Whatever their failures, the tests are a pretty good measure of the opportunities people have had from before birth,” says Schaeffer. “Young people who have had every advantage in life are more likely to be born to mothers who have had excellent prenatal care. They have a leg up from the womb. They grew up in houses with more books, more words spoken and more opportunities throughout their lives. When you look at backward-looking assessments like a standardized test, you end up excluding many kids who could succeed if given the chance to catch up. A person who went to a poorly resourced high school and did adequately in an undergraduate college may still be an exceptional candidate in a graduate program because the arc of their life is getting beyond where they started from.”


The late Harvard Business School Dean John McArthur made the GMAT optional for 11 years

Darden is not the first elite business school that has made the GMAT or GRE optional. In 1985, Harvard Business School did the same thing for pretty much the same reason. Then Dean John McArthur worried that the use of standardized tests put applicants who could not afford expensive test prep courses at a disadvantage. For the next 11 years, Harvard did not ask applicants to take a standardized test. It was optional.

It was a courageous move, in part, because no other prominent business school followed Harvard’s lead. Yet, McArthur held firm. “He firmly believed that what makes a great leader isn’t a test score,” remembers Angela Crispi, executive dean for administration at HBS. “It was a belief that there are all kinds of people who should be here and their test scores shouldn’t define them. It definitely was a catalyst for how to make HBS more inclusive.”

John Lynch, then the admissions director who would later become a four-term governor of New Hampshire, was outspoken on McArthur’s behalf. He pointed out that in a blind test, HBS found that admissions decisions made with and without the GMAT were essentially the same. Success at Harvard depended on intangibles such as motivation, interpersonal skills, perseverance, and hard work – all factors not measured by GMAT. Looking at the undergraduate grade-point average, ethics, leadership, community activities, prior work experience, and the interview made GMAT scores “superfluous.”


Lynch made clear that Harvard also was concerned about the perceived emphasis applicants place on the GMAT and that strong applicants with scores below the 99th percentile were intimidated from applying. Reinforcing McArthur’s position, Lynch also pointed out that an “artificial barrier to the admission of qualified but poorer students is unacceptable.” It wasn’t until 1996 when McArthur’s successor, Kim Clark, reinstated the test.

Ultimately Darden is trying to do what Harvard wasn’t able to accomplish: To get other schools to follow its lead in recognizing that standardized tests are over-indexed in admission decisions, less predictive than previously thought, unfair to certain segments of the prospective student population, and a barrier that prevents many highly qualified young professionals from pursuing a selective MBA degree.

“There are people who won’t apply because of the GMAT,” believes Beardsley. “So they say, ‘Maybe I won’t even go to school or I am going to apply for a different degree.’ We know we need more leaders in the world and there are many pathways to it. The GMAT or the GRE shouldn’t be the knockout factor, the single gateway to future success. I don’t think it would be the primary determinant of what makes a business school excellent or not.”

Beardsley relates that one person recently told him the biggest competitor to the MBA is no MBA. “I think that is true,” he says. “If you have to study for many months to take a standardized test, that becomes the main barrier for you and your family. I thought, maybe we are missing the point here. Maybe we are missing out on a whole category of people who are truly excellent, who were the stars of their undergraduate class, and clearly have leadership capability. Instead of asking how do we triple down on a narrow group of people who have a certain test score, we want to give people the chance to put their best foot forward. If you have a 770 GMAT and did well during your undergraduate studies, you are still a great candidate. But we want to hear all the things about your readiness to pursue an MBA and not be exclusionary by over-indexing on one factor when there clearly are other factors to assess a person’s success.”

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