For Executive MBA hopefuls, the first task in pursuing a graduate business degree has traditionally been to conquer the Graduate Management Admissions Test. For nearly half a century, the GMAT has been the gold standard predictor of an applicant’s ability to survive the rigor of graduate business education. But now, many business schools are pondering whether it is the only qualified exam to do the job.
Some have called the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) the “GMAT killer” because of the way it’s aggressively infringing upon GMAT territory. In three years, the number of business schools accepting the GRE has shot up 200%, according to Educational Testing Service, the creator and administer of the exam. In terms of the range of schools, the level of prestige is at an all-time high: Among those that are proudly flashing “Now Accepting GRE” signs are the business schools at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, and INSEAD.
The discussion around this topic has helped fuel a heated debate, butting the two standardized tests against one another. Yet the reality is, most B-schools aren’t nearly as concerned with the debate as is led to believe. Instead, the schools view the GRE as an invitation of sorts to non-traditional applicants. In other words, their eyes are focused on the virtues that GRE applicants bring: more applications and a more diverse student body.
EXPANDING THE APPLICANT POOL.
The GRE is hardly the GMAT killer, but its numbers are rapidly mounting. There are a number of reasons for the shift. At the forefront: by accepting the GRE exam, business schools are able to expand and diversify their applicant pool.
According to Rod Garcia, director of MBA admissions at the Sloan School of Management, “About 95% of Sloan’s applicants use the GMAT. But for people who have only taken the GRE, they can now apply. It’s our way of saying, ‘there’s room for you here.’”
MIT’s Sloan School has been accepting the GRE exam since 2006, but says it has had experience with the exam as far back as 1988.
The Sloan School has a joint program with the school of engineering for which applicants don’t need to take the GMAT, only the GRE. “Because of the experience we had in this regard, in 2006 we said, ‘let’s pilot this for the MBA program too.’ The decision was predicated on the fact that we already had experience with the GRE. Therefore, we saw it as a way to diversify the applicant pool,” says Garcia.
“Most people who take the GRE apply to graduate programs in the arts and in the sciences. For us, that is exactly the type of diversity we want at the Sloan School.”
Administrators at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management had a similar outlook. In an email, a spokesperson for the school said, “The Admission Committee reviewed the practice at other schools such as Baylor and voted that it made perfect sense to consider GRE scores as one way to ensure a diverse mix of backgrounds in our Full-Time MBA program.”
DIVERSIFYING THE STUDENT POPULATION.
Although it’s too soon to tell if accepting the GRE is indeed widening the applicant pool (many schools have only just begun to matriculate GRE test takers) some schools are seeing positive results already. In the fall of 2010, Graziadio enrolled a total of nine GRE students; three for the full-time MBA program and six for the part-time program. One of those students was Oliver Freund.
Having gone to high school in New York City, Oliver Freund says he saw college as an opportunity to learn about different cultures. He studied anthropology at Syracuse University then parlayed his writing skills into a career in public relations. “I started working and built a career in healthcare PR. I enjoyed it and I learned a lot, but I hit the glass ceiling very quickly. In order to get where I wanted to be, I knew I needed to pursue an MBA.”
Oliver’s experience in anthropology and public relations helps foster a more diverse learning environment in Pepperdine’s full-time program. His expertise in healthcare allows him to contribute to class discussions in ways that someone in finance or accounting cannot. “I’m ultimately seeking employment in hospital administration, so I contribute my viewpoints on the regulatory, ethical, and political issues surrounding healthcare. Someone in finance will bring their perspective and I’ll bring mine from a healthcare standpoint. When you bring these two viewpoints together, you begin to draw similarities which make for a much more engaging conversation.”
MAKING IT EASIER FOR APPLICANTS.
Whether it’s to boost application stats or to diversify the student body, the GRE is making noticeable strides in the MBA arena. ETS says the number of B-schools accepting GRE scores is expected to hit an all-time high this year. But schools consistently say it has less to do with GMAT vs. GRE and more to do with making it easier for applicants.
Many GRE test-takers have taken the exam because they’ve already acquired a graduate degree in a non-business field or because they’re currently considering one. “If we have an applicant who has already taken the GRE, we want to remove the impediment of having to take the GMAT,” says MIT’s Garcia. “We just want to make it easier; that is our intention. Not to send a signal that we prefer one test over the other.”
DISPELLING THE MYTHS.
By taking away the stigma that has been historically associated with the GRE exam, ETS is opening the doors for a larger population of potential MBAs. One myth is that applicants who take the GRE aren’t B-school material. They opt for the “easier” test and, therefore, aren’t cut out for an MBA program.
“We hear this frequently,” says David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer for College and Graduate Programs at ETS. “If this were the case, why would it be that doctoral programs in biochemistry and engineering accept the GRE? The same is said for a PhD in physics. To obtain a PhD in physics, you have to take the GRE.”
To further dispel this myth, admissions directors and students have confirmed that the exams are equal in difficulty and the weight that they carry. Oliver Freund, the student from Pepperdine, decided to find out for himself. He took both exams.
“For me the difficulty was the same. The GMAT focuses on math skills and the GRE deals more with vocabulary and your ability to logically reason. But, in terms of difficulty, I would absolutely say that both tests require the same amount of preparation and time management skills.”
“In both cases though, ultimately what they’re testing is your ability to do well on that test,” says Freund. “It’s an assessment of how well you perform on that particular exam, not a test of your ability to do well in an MBA program.”
Freund says this is especially the case for the GMAT. “It’s designed with little tricks where they try to fool you or mess with your head. As a test-taker, your job is to learn how to maneuver through these riddles efficiently. Ultimately, I think admissions boards want to know that you were able to set a goal, apply yourself, and do well. Both exams are simply a means to an end.”
Rod Garcia confirms Oliver’s theory. “That’s all we want to know is that they’re good test takers. Then we move on to other attributes such as work experience, written essays, and so on.”
There’s also the delusion that the GMAT exam is the standardized test for business school and therefore it must test business knowledge. “This is false,” says ETS’s David Payne. “It can’t assume that you know accounting and finance and human resources. Therefore it is a general reasoning test.”
WHAT’S AN APPLICANT TO DO?
If you’re applying to B-school, your first step is to create a list of aspirant schools and do your homework. Contact the admissions offices and inquire about their policies. If the GRE is permissible, examine your personal strengths and make the decision from there. If your background is more quantitative in nature, take the GMAT. If you’re more qualitatively driven, take the GRE.
Dismiss the notion that the GMAT is the preferred test. Schools say that the GMAT will continue to be the dominant exam, but this is expected given that most B-school applicants come from a business background. However, don’t confuse dominant with preferred.
Once you’ve determined which exam is right for you, take that exam and be done with it. Don’t feel pressured to take both exams. This isn’t necessary nor does it give you an advantage over other applicants.
Finally, if you’re thinking is, “I’ll take the easier test,” put it out of your mind that the GRE is the lesser of two evils. It’s not and shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to game the system.