Test-Optional Business Schools – Is Applying without a GMAT Score a Good Idea or Bad Strategy?

by Elaine Conces, VP of Graduate Programs
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"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."
— MIT Sloan School of Management, 2020 statement

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?

Schools That Actually Want You to Take the GMAT and How to Spot Them

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.

1. High Hurdles, Extra Essays = Submit a GMAT Score, if At All Possible
"Remember, even if you qualify for a waiver, you’ll have to make a compelling case for your skills in other ways. On the other hand, a test score in our range quickly and definitively says: yup, you’re Rice Business material. Tests also show more than quantitative chops. It takes time, work and money to take a test. To us, this translates as commitment. Rice Business chooses – and rewards – committed learners."
— Janice Kennedy, Exec. Director of Recruiting and Admissions at Rice Business, in blog post

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?

2. “Hey, Can You Send Other Standardized Test Scores?” = Submit a GMAT Score, if At All Possible
"The best candidates for a test waiver are those who can demonstrate analytical skills in another way. That said, for some candidates, a strong test score can strengthen their candidacy."
— Soojin Kwon, Managing Director of MBA Admissions at Michigan Ross, in an announcement extending the GMAT waivers into the 2021-2022 season

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:

  • Expired test scores (GMAT or GRE)
  • Executive Assessment score (another exam offered by GMAC)
  • MCAT, LSAT, PCAT, or DAT score
  • MITx MicroMasters, Wharton Business Foundations, MBAMath, or other relevant non-degree coursework completed
  • Certifications earned such as the CPA, ACCA, or CFA
  • Undergraduate exam scores such as the ACT or SAT (suggested by UVA Darden)

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.

A Dash of Risk Added to a Difficult Challenge

"We are responding to the frustration and panic of students who wanted to apply in this cycle and are facing barriers to do so. With the test waiver, we are being agile and responsive in enabling us to build the most diverse class of Kellogg students we possibly can and to mitigate the factors that are out of control of the applicant. We want to be on the cutting edge to build the best possible class."
— Kate Smith, Assistant Dean of Admissions at the Kellogg School of Management, in a 2020 interview with Poets & Quants

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...

  • After having removed test requirements and extended its Round 3 deadline, Kellogg reported a 56% increase in applications.
  • Also dropping test requirements and extending its Round 3 deadline, MIT Sloan had a 22.1% increase.  
  • Wharton dropped test requirements for Round 3 and had a 21% application increase.

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.

Want a Job? Go for Your GMAT

Admissions teams repeatedly warn that consulting firms and investment banks are still asking for GMAT scores as part of their hiring processes.

Thump – Ow! That’s the Sound of Reality Hitting Hard

"If you are still able to take an exam, we strongly encourage you to do so. ... Does your undergraduate or graduate transcript accurately reflect your academic ability? If your GPA is low, and you do not submit a GMAT or GRE score, the admissions committee may have concerns about your ability to succeed in the rigorous MBA curriculum.""
— Texas McCombs Admissions Team blog post

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:

  • good reasons for not being able to take the GMAT;
  • solid GPA in a business major;
  • business career with promotion and advancement;
  • track record of showing initiative;
  • study abroad experience; and
  • strong community involvement.

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.

Background: From a Pandemic Arises Hope and Motivation

COVID-19 started forcing university classes to go online around March 2020, but this did not deter people from applying. In the time period prior to September 14, 2020 (roughly corresponding to Round 1 deadlines for 2021 admission), 75% of U.S. full-time two-year MBA programs reported that they were receiving more MBA applications than they had the previous year.* (To compare, in 2019, 73% said that applications were in decline.)

I had predicted a surge for Round 2, but I thought Round 1 might be slow – potential applicants might hesitate to leave their jobs in a turbulent pandemic year. I was wrong. As U.S. layoffs reached a historic high of 8.8% that March and continued on at 6.9% in April, some of my newest clients had just become unemployed.** I had more clients applying to reach Round 3 deadlines than ever before, especially as schools wisely extended their deadlines into the summer, and other clients submitted their applications well before Round 1 deadlines.

It wasn’t just top-ranked schools reporting more applications coming in: lower ranked and unranked schools also experienced a surge, as did one-year MBA programs, weekend and flex programs, executive MBA programs, online MBAs, and other business masters’ programs. It seemed that lots of people had decided to ride out the storm at school. Something else was going on as well. Most of my clients, employed and unemployed alike, told me that they were stuck at home and using the time to finally get their MBA ambitions moving.

When the doors of test centers abruptly closed, the makers of the standardized tests, GMAC (GMAT) and ETS (GRE) moved quickly to offerthe exams online but ran into issues involving technology, live proctoring, and test-taking policies (e.g., was scratch paper to be allowed). Even after these issues were semi-satisfactorily resolved, certain test-takers remained at a disadvantage due to faulty or limited Internet connections, old computer equipment, and lack of the required private space for test-taking. In countries like India, COVID-19 remains a constant, omnipresent threat, keeping test centers closed.

For disadvantaged applicants, test-optional business schools are the only option … but many other applicants are strongly tempted by the thought of not having to attempt the difficult grad school exams. These applicants are able to take a test online, or here in Austin they can even schedule a test center date, but they kind of don’t want to.

If you are thinking of skipping the GMAT to apply to test-optional business schools, this article is for you.

*2020 Application Trends Survey by GMAC: 325 schools offering 525 MBA programs participated in the survey – 204 schools were based in the United States, representing 372 MBA programs.

**U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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