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Opinion: As Business Schools Ignore the GMAT Integrated Reasoning Score, So Will Test Takers

By Ajay Amar, Ph.D., Mar 4 2015 05:37PM

It was 2012. The GMAT Integrated Reasoning (GMAT IR) section had just been launched to much fanfare by GMAC (the makers of the GMAT). Many test takers had rushed to take the exam before the GMAT IR was officially introduced: they feared trying to take on an unknown factor in the already rigorous test.


Then, one influential business school came right out and said … Don’t worry about it.







Allison Davis, Stanford GSB’s associate director of MBA admissions, blogged “Why you shouldn't worry about GMAT Integrated Reasoning.” She said: “Rest assured that the IR is new to us, too, and it’s going to take us (and our peer schools) some time before we know how to interpret it.”


At the time, Ms. Davis said that the admissions team would review IR scores in that first year, and determine how to evaluate them in the admissions process for next year. Fast forward to the 2014-2015 admissions season. In the Stanford GSB application instructions, the applicant is told to self-report the unofficial GMAT Total Score, but not the GMAT IR and Analytical Writing scores. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not.


One more data point is added to a big bucket of data points.


“A test score is only one data point in a much larger picture,” the Stanford blog concluded in 2012 … echoing how GMAC described the GMAT IR: “The GMAT exam, now with Integrated Reasoning, gives schools another data point to differentiate among candidates while providing continuity with previous GMAT scores.”


Back then, I questioned how the GMAT IR – which was created with input from business schools, including Stanford GSB – had become just another data point among many for admissions officers to try to interpret. I still question it. Although MBA essay sets have been abbreviated, the top business schools increasingly ask applicants to submit additional qualitative information in the form of video essays, slide sets, multimedia presentations, social media, and the like. In this vast bucket of applicant data, the GMAT IR is yet another number, and it is not clear whether it is a meaningful supplement to the total 200-800 GMAT score that has been around for 60 years.


If anything, it probably creates data overload on the admissions committees. Many of the admissions directors whom we asked said that they are not yet using the GMAT IR in their admissions criteria.


How much weight can business schools give the GMAT Integrated Reasoning section?


The GMAT IR tests your ability to assess information from several sources, and synthesize, organize, and prioritize that information to solve complex problems and predict likely outcomes – “integrated reasoning” skill sets that you will likely need for success in business school and your career. On the eight-point GMAT IR scale, 7-8 is considered to be a high score, 4-5 is average, and 1-2 is low. So, in theory, if you score a 7 on the GMAT IR scale, you possess valuable skill sets that will make you a high performer in business school.


That’s the theory. MBA admissions officers still await benchmarking data. The GMAT score is good for five years; therefore, the GMAT IR was not taken by some applicants who were accepted during the last three admissions seasons (2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015). Those accepted in 2012-2013 started in 2013 and are just graduating this year – so really, there is not much real data to show how well IR scores may predict academic and/or professional success.


Here’s another factor that admissions directors must consider. A competing exam, the GRE, does not contain an equivalent to the GMAT IR. Today, roughly 10% of all MBA applicants submit GRE scores. So, in addition to the applicants who took the GMAT pre-IR, there are applicants who took the GRE instead – making it that much more complicated for schools to figure out how to use the GMAT IR score in admissions decisions.


Until they see how the GMAT IR score correlates to actual performance by real MBA students, many admissions officers will continue to withhold judgment.


Which came first, the chicken or the egg?


All MBA programs emphasize that they evaluate candidates “holistically,” and this is true. However, we all know that business school class profiles publish the average GMAT Total Score, or the 80% range of GMAT scores. So, clearly, the GMAT Total Score matters to schools.


Tellingly, it’s hard to find schools that report the MBA class’s GMAT IR average.


Until business schools say, “We look at your GMAT IR score (and publish our class averages) in the same way that we look at your GMAT quantitative and verbal scores,” well, the smart candidate will keep the eye on the prize, that 700+ score.


GMAT test-takers have a lot less incentive to prepare for the GMAT IR, unless they plan to apply a few years down the road, when, perhaps, the GMAT IR will actually matter. In the meantime, the bar will have been set pretty low.


Most people need to prepare in some form or fashion to achieve their peak performance on the GMAT. If test takers are not preparing, scores will slide. As scores slide, test takers will see less need to prepare.


While last year the mean GMAT Total Score rose slightly (550 in 2014 from 546 in 2013), the mean GMAT IR score slipped slightly (4.33 in 2014 from 4.34 in 2013).


One of my own students divulged to me that he had clicked quickly through the GMAT IR section so as not to waste his energy on a section that would have little bearing on MBA program admissions. Was he penalized for this? No, he was admitted pretty much everywhere, and will start at Wharton in the fall.


Simplify, simplify.


If GMAC is really committed to GMAT IR, it should incorporate the IR score into the 800 total score.


The best metrics are simple and transparent. Business leaders don’t use the Dow Jones Industrial Average to track 30 separate data points – the value of the Dow Jones is in the whole. Likewise, for MBA admissions committees and candidates, both dealing with the complexity of applications – that total GMAT score is what resonates.


The whole of the GMAT is greater than the sum of its parts. If GMAC would integrate the GMAT Integrated Reasoning section into the total score, admissions committees would quickly see the value. And needless to say, test takers would prepare for IR more seriously.


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