MIT’s Sloan School of Management is telling applicants to its highly prestigious MBA program that they will not have to submit either a GMAT or GRE score to gain an admission from the school. It is the first M7 business school, the name given to the so-called Magnificent Seven highly selective MBA programs, to go test-optional since Harvard Business School took the leap in 1985 and held onto that policy for 11 years.
Sloan joins an ever-increasing number of prominent MBA programs in making standardized tests an optional part of the application process. The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business announced the change in June and a host of other schools have followed including Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, Rochester’s Simon Business School, the Wisconsin School of Business, Rutgers Business School, and Northeastern University. And when the outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring shut down test centers, a number of schools, including Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and The University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business, began offering test waivers for applicants directly affected by the pandemic.
The change of heart at MIT Sloan has occurred as a result of the pandemic. “Standardized tests will continue to be a requirement but, for this year only, we are allowing candidates to submit an application without them and evaluate their application ‘as is,.’” says Rod Garcia, assistant dean of admissions. ” We did something similar in R3 during the last admission cycle and, in fact, interviewed and admitted candidates without the test but required them to take it before matriculation. We made this decision because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Several candidates were not able to take the test earlier this year because of test disruption and test centers especially in regions where we draw a lot of applications are operating at less than 50% capacity. We’re afraid that if and when a second wave hits, the test centers will be closed again.”
The statement on Sloan’s website makes it clear that applicants who chose not to submit a test score will not be penalized for their decision. “The GMAT and GRE are components of the application process and play an important role in our holistic evaluation process,” according to Sloan’s website. “However, in view of challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, we will allow candidates for the 2020-21 admission cycle to submit their application without the test and review their submitted material as is and without negative inferences. If admitted, candidates will not be required to take a test.”
ONE LIKELY RESULT OF A NO-GMAT POLICY? A BIG INCREASE IN MBA APPLICATIONS
Given the stature and prestige of Sloan, the policy change will likely be highly influential, encouraging other schools to take similar actions. Sloan has yet to release its 2019-2020 application volume numbers but many schools experienced double-digit increases in MBA applications after they extended their deadlines in the wake of the COVID outbreak. But in the previous admissions season, Sloan received 12.5 applicants for each of its available classroom seats, making the school’s MBA program among the most selective in the world. Some 5,200 candidates applied to Sloan in 2019-2020, 759 were admitted and 416 ultimately enrolled. The class average GMAT score of 727, moreover, put Sloanies in the 95th percentile of all test-takers in the world and probably discouraged many other candidates from applying to MIT.
A no-GMAT, no-GRE application would likely result in a big upswing in applications to the school. “I think they will get a LOT of applications, especially since they have one of the shortest and latest applications in the cycle,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “It’s easy to be very cynical about this kind of move since we saw Kellogg get a slew of new applications when they lifted similar requirements. And when Wharton said that they were letting people apply but would have to submit a score at matriculation, it was similar.”
The new policy, of course, makes applicants decide whether to submit a test score or not. “Applicants may struggle to convince themselves to apply without a GMAT, despite MIT’s very clear verbiage ‘without negative inference.’ says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, another top admissions consulting firm. “They are traditionally highly analytical in the MIT Sloan admissions office, and I have to imagine that they have determined that they don’t necessarily need that data to make the right decision.
‘IF THIS STICKS NEXT YEAR, IT COULD BE A CRACK IN THE DAM’
“It’s possible that last year’s R3 trial run really helped show them that the decisions they were making while awaiting GMAT scores, were rarely altered by the score itself,” adds Shinewald. “Other schools are dabbling as well – most notably Darden – and I can’t help but wonder about the future of testing in the MBA realm. There are so many other ways to show that one can handle analytical coursework and I have spoken to many admissions officers who wonder about biases and fairness in standardized tests. If this sticks next year, it could be a crack in the dam.”
The admissions staff at Sloan says that “applicants are welcome to submit other pieces of evidence, such as expired test scores (GMAT, GRE, EA, etc.); MITx MicroMasters, CORe, edX, MBAMath, or any other non-degree coursework completed; or certifications earned such as CPA, ACCA, CFA, etc; all of which may assist the Admissions Committee in its evaluation process.”
If a prospective applicant has already taken the GMAT or GRE, the school is still encouraging them to submit the test score. “If you have a valid or expired test score, please include that as part of your application,” according to the statement on the website. “We will consider both expired and valid test scores for the 2020-21 admission cycle.”
TEST-OPTIONAL POLICY PART OF A MOVEMENT ACCELERATED BY THE PANDEMIC
Sloan’s adoption of a test-optional admissions policy comes at a time of reckoning for standardized tests. More than half of all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission, including Brown, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn, Virginia, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale. In May, the University of California Board of Regents voted 23-0 to no longer require applicants to such schools as UC-Berkeley and UCLA to submit an SAT or ACT score for admission.
It is a movement, clearly accelerated by the pandemic, that is being watched closely by many business school deans and MBA admission officials. After all, graduate schools have access to far more information to evaluate applicants than undergraduate admissions officers. “If three-and-one-half years of high school is more than sufficient to replace a test score at the undergraduate level, graduate schools need test scores even less,” says Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “They have the work experience to look at and fewer feeder schools to evaluate. There are 30,000 high schools in the U.S. but only 2,300 undergraduate colleges that could possibly feed a graduate school or business school. That makes it easier for admission committees to follow and know about the quality of an undergraduate program.”
Critics maintain that the overreliance on standardized test scores in MBA admission decisions– partly a result of their use in U.S. News rankings–puts at a disadvantage students from lower-income backgrounds, first-generation college applicants, and some international applicants who have learned English as a second language. They also claim it is blatantly unfair. At many schools, moreover, admission officials are literally buying high GMAT candidates, offering them the lion’s share of scholarship funds to bump up a class average for ranking purposes. So more financial support is going to people who may have less a need for it, merely because they have 700-plus scores.
‘AN ARTIFICIAL BARRIER TO THE ADMISSION OF QUALIFIED BUT POORER STUDENTS IS UNACCEPTABLE’
MIT’s decision to forego test scores is the first time an M7 school has adopted this policy for an entire admissions season since the mi-d1980s. In 1985, Harvard Business School 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.