Did you hear that Ka-Thunk, Ka-Thunk, Ka-Thunk sound last year? That was the sound of GMAT and GRE standardized exams being dropped. During the 2019-2020 admissions cycle, as the pandemic grew, testing centers closed, and online testing caused some headaches, many business schools decided to go test-optional for the first time.
Here at Austin GMAT Review, we heard the Thwap, Thwap, Thwap of GMAT prep books slamming shut, as some students decided to take their chances without exam scores. A few of my clients decided to go ahead and apply specifically to business schools that had gone test-optional. Some of them had never gotten the chance to take the GMAT, while others had been working on raising their test scores. With the GMAT no longer an obstacle, they felt they had nothing to lose.
We don’t have detailed information on the number of schools deciding to waive the GMAT – of all U.S. business programs, including part-time programs and non-MBA programs, 56% waived admissions exams.* At this time, we don’t know how many people decided to apply without test scores. But we do know what happened with our students and my clients.
So, let’s look back at 2020 to answer the question: If you have the option, should you still take the GMAT or GRE, or take that waiver as an easy way out of testing?
Who will do better as an MBA student … someone who earned a 3.9 GPA and a kinesiology degree from Rice University, a 3.5 GPA in the Plan II Honors interdisciplinary program at the University of Texas in Austin, or a 3.0 GPA in the petroleum engineering program at Texas A&M?
Such apples-to-oranges comparisons are made by MBA admissions committees every year, especially because not everyone who applies holds a business-type major (nor do admissions officers want homogeneous classes). This is precisely why the admissions folks use the GMAT exam to assist them in identifying applicants who can sail through the first-year core courses, or at least not become road kill.
For this reason, I recommend that each applicant evaluate, first, whether he or she has a good chance of acceptance without submitting a test score; and second, whether he or she is introducing unnecessary risk into the MBA admissions process, based on what the “test-optional” school is signaling.
Not surprisingly, many of the business schools that offered GMAT waivers required applicants to submit special requests and essays presenting very good reasons for not submitting scores. For example, the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business specifically asked for an explanation on why the applicant was unable to take the exam.
Some schools, such as Texas A&M’s Mays Business School and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, also set strict conditions upfront on who would be approved for waivers, typically a combination of significant work experience, high GPA, and/or advanced degree or professional certifications. The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business – while stating that in its holistic admissions evaluation process, a test score was just one piece of data – said that the work experience (seven years) should be in an analytical field, and the undergraduate / advanced degree should be in an analytical discipline.
I believe that the more barriers that a school sets up to granting waivers, the fewer waivers they probably want to hand out. If the default is “submit a GMAT score,” then some large percentage of people will, of course, submit their scores. You are competing against those people. They can prove that they are academically ready for MBA core courses: Can you?
MIT Sloan was the first Top 10 school to allow applicants to submit without a GMAT / GRE score – not even asking for an explanation – but also suggested providing other types of standardized test scores, providing a list of examples. Michigan Ross began allowing test waivers mid-way through Round 1 decisions, and in May 2021 announced that the policy will continue for the upcoming year – but the school also requested evidence of analytical skills. Applicants were asked to provide the following, if possible:
Business schools known as “quant” schools really seek hard, quantifiable evidence in applications. When they ask you directly for test scores, take them seriously. In my opinion, if you are able to take the GMAT or GRE, just go ahead and do it, and don’t try to get by with substitutions or (worse) nothing at all.
Business schools that go test-optional aren't doing it for purely altruistic reasons. They seek to pump up the application volume to mitigate their own risk of having an unimpressive, less accomplished MBA class, and as soon as they see that risk has been reduced, they quickly pivot. You, too, need to make your plans with a risk-management viewpoint.
Don’t build your application plans on the premise that a top-ranked school that has gone test-optional will stay test-optional. That’s like building a house on sand – whoosh, the next round might sweep it away.
For example, in 2020, Wharton allowed Round 3 applicants to apply without GMAT scores on the condition that if they were accepted, they would take the exam prior to arriving on campus. However, for the 2020-2021 admissions season, once again Wharton required test scores submitted with applications. Similarly, Kellogg went test-optional for Round 3 in 2020, then allowed applicants to apply without scores for Rounds 1 and 2 – with the expectation that they would take the GMAT (or GRE) if accepted – and then reversed course. Kellogg Round 3 applicants had to take the exam to complete the application.
Schools that went test-optional in 2020 seemed to have increased application volume – suggesting that if you applied to a test-optional school, you faced increased competition. For example, Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School, which both maintained test requirements, had relatively flat application volumes, while in comparison...
Texas McCombs and Rice MBA did provide test waivers to disadvantaged applicants. While McCombs saw a small application increase, Rice saw a phenomenal 63% rise in applications. While setting up stringent criteria for waivers, the Rice MBA admissions team also seems to have been proactively reviewing each requester’s information. Two clients of mine were initially denied but then later approved for waivers based on the merits of their resumes and transcripts. This flexibility may have driven the application increase.
Remember, though, Rice admissions also expressed a preference for test scores, so there is a strong likelihood that the majority of MBA applicants did in fact provide test scores. My recommendation would still be to take the GMAT if you can.
Now, I believe that if you prepared seriously to apply to a top-tier MBA program, additional entries from people rushing to take advantage of a “test-optional” admissions round do not pose serious competition to you. They are white noise. At the same time, I do recommend that you submit a high GMAT score to stand out from the crowd.
Admissions teams repeatedly warn that consulting firms and investment banks are still asking for GMAT scores as part of their hiring processes.
As it turns out, “test-optional” does not necessarily equate to “easier” and certainly not “better chances.”
Hard Truth 1: When some applicants have GMAT scores to evaluate, and others don’t, the ones without scores will face harder scrutiny in every other aspect of the application, especially the undergraduate school transcript. If your GPA is on the low side, you took few-to-none business, finance, accounting, or statistics classes, or you bombed them, “test optional” is not a good option for you. The GMAT exam is your chance to prove yourself to the admissions committee.
Hard Truth 2: Certain business schools have always weighed your GMAT score a little more heavily in application evaluation. With rigorous academic standards and prestigious reputations to maintain, the likelihood that they will reinstitute the GMAT and/or GRE as a requirement is very high. “Test optional” may be, quite suddenly, dropped. This is actually a good thing because unless you are a legacy admit or coming from an elite "feeder" school, you want the merits of your application to be quantitatively evaluated.
Hard Truth 3: To overcome the lack of a GMAT score, you must prove, without the shadow of a doubt, that you are MBA material. Two of my clients applied for and were granted GMAT waivers, one from Texas McCombs, the other from Indiana Kelley. Both applicants had common characteristics:
In addition, one client completed an online course that counterbalanced a business class that he had done poorly in as an undergraduate. The other client, who is in finance, directly addressed the fact that he would have to take the GMAT for his future career. Both networked with the schools’ students and alumni; they didn’t just appear from nowhere.
Both were accepted, the one at McCombs, the other at Kelley.
On the other hand, a developer client who was just establishing himself as a part-time entrepreneur decided to take his chances and apply to Kellogg without a test score at the height of the application rush in Round 2. He was ultimately denied, and is currently studying for his test before reapplying this year.
We all learned a lot from 2020. Although some business schools took the GMAT exam out of the equation, the result actually ended up proving the true importance of standardized testing in the admissions process. The "test-optional" route is a self-limiting, risky choice for most North American applicants and a real option only for those who are truly disadvantaged.