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Dec 3, 2021 Alumni Business Administration Faculty Student

Why our MBA Program doesn’t require the GMAT

By Whitney Smith, Director of iDegrees and Learner Relations
Gies College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) almost caused Jackie Price Osafo (MBA, ’19) to stop her MBA journey before it started. The experienced nonprofit executive had researched dozens of schools and shelled out $600 for a prep class, but she was struggling in it. She ultimately set her dream aside when her father died.

About seven months later, she heard that the iMBA at Gies College of Business doesn’t require a GMAT score, and we became the only school she applied to. In her admission interview, she asked us to evaluate her as Jackie 5.0, a 50-year-old woman brave enough to get back into the classroom with much younger classmates, forcing herself to stretch to pursue her career aspirations.

In July, Jackie became the executive director of the Society of American Archivists, charged with transforming the 6,200-member organization and leading its diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives. Armed with her experience and education at Gies, she is now part of a team looking at how to break down structural barriers, like the removal of the GMAT requirement did for her graduate-level education.

Jackie’s journey is one example of how removing barriers to our MBA application process can create cohort after cohort full of diverse thinkers who have a global mindset and are at ease in our collaborative environment. We not only don’t require the GMAT, but we also don’t think it’s necessary or productive toward our mission of democratizing education. Yet as the impact of the pandemic eases, many top business schools will reportedly still rely heavily on the GMAT, while others are hedging their bets.

How important is the GMAT… really?

So what should the GMAT’s role be in 2022 and beyond? First, some background: Standardized tests traditionally have been a convenient way for MBA schools to winnow large pools of applicants. During the pandemic, however, many of the top business schools made the GMAT optional.

Jackie helps put this in perspective: “If you dropped the GMAT during that pandemic you likely didn’t really need it. It may have been your process, but you’ve found out how to be successful without it. Keeping this requirement creates an intentional barrier — and that’s wrong.” Clearly, her MBA classes in process management and innovation have taught her well.

It’s time to move past the old way of thinking about GMATs. The exam’s quantitative measure of “quality” no longer reflects what employers value most in a graduate. The Wall Street Journal reports that top consulting firms are putting less emphasis on standardized tests as part of their recruiting. Instead, employers are looking for versatile, strategic thinkers with strong communication skills who can navigate technological disruption, according to GMAC’s 2021 Annual Corporate Recruiters Survey.

Not only is the GMAT becoming less important to recruiters, we can also quantify that mandatory GMAT scores can work against attracting the type of diverse, high-achieving candidate pool that is well suited to meet today’s business challenges. Part of our mission at Gies is to democratize education, and five years ago, we launched the fully online iMBA program — an affordable MBA ($22.5K all-in) that was accessible from anywhere in the world. With our online MBA, no GMAT is required — and it never has been. It’s clear that both the program, as well as the thousands of students enrolled in it, have benefited from our approach.

An intentional barrier

My colleague Kevin Jackson – who has spent nearly two decades working with graduate students and now serves as associate dean for undergraduate affairs at Gies – recognizes that students in many countries do not have the same easy access to standardized tests required by most US institutions. He acknowledges that broad disparities in access exist in the US as well. Even if students can access a test administration site, those tests come with a cost: the GMAT provides students no financial assistance directly for the $275 (U.S.) fee, and offers schools only 10 waivers for candidates each year.

A strict use of standardized tests for admissions also offers a clear advantage to those who can pay for test preparation. GMAT preparation courses from firms such as Princeton Review and Kaplan promise to raise scores by an average of 92 points for those who can afford $800 to $1,000 or more, according to FairTest. Thousands of college graduates eagerly shell out millions of dollars every year on test prep, an industry expected to grow by $10.7B by 2024. Business school admissions offices have no way to tell which applicants have been coached and which have not. It’s no coincidence that average GMAT scores promptly plummeted when there was suddenly limited access to prep programs during the pandemic. Beyond the financial costs, those who have full-time work or family responsibilities face similar challenges finding the time to prepare for the standardized test.

Perhaps most troubling, the GMAT also reflects racial disparity and perpetuates inequity. Considering the many barriers to access, it is unfortunately not surprising that GMAT mandates have a sizable and imbalanced negative effect on Black and Hispanic students. A disproportionately low number of them take the test, and, for those who do, access to test prep programs and opportunities to take the test multiple times may be limited. The results are staggering. Sixty-two percent of African American and 48 percent of Hispanic American exam takers scored below 500. This might negatively affect their admission into one of the 122 ranked MBA programs, which boast average GMAT scores of 609. However, Black and Hispanic students in our online programs have comparable graduation rates as their white peers, showing that they are qualified for rigorous MBA work and ready to succeed. Removing unnecessary barriers helps facilitate that success. Just ask Jackie Price Osafo. She and many others prove it every day here at Gies.

This philosophy extends into our residential graduate programs as well. Our Master of Science in Management, Master of Science in Technology Management, and Master of Science in Business Analytics are GMAT- and GRE-optional for all applicants. As a result, we are serving an increasingly global student body that is diverse in age, experience, and background.

It’s more work for us, but it’s worth it

We’re committed to democratizing higher education, and we want to break down barriers instead of building them. We’ve found that shifting the heavy lift of graduate school applications from the student to the institution levels the playing field considerably. Yes, it’s more work for us, but it’s worth it.

Instead of forcing our applicants to complete the GMAT, we take a much more holistic approach to finding out if someone is a great fit for our program. This past year, we personally interviewed 2,961 MBA candidates (and a total of 4,124 across all three of our online graduate programs), focusing our search on learners who will contribute to their peers’ experience. We ask about their ability to lead a team and the challenges they expect to face. Their work experience, which averages 11 years, and letters of recommendation round out our 360-degree view of the candidate. And yes, we give applicants the option to submit a GMAT score if they choose; only 3 percent do.

We also use metrics like undergraduate GPA as supporting information, but it’s not a deal-breaker. If someone struggled in their undergraduate work, we don’t let a decade-old GPA predetermine the type of student they are today. We offer a performance-based admission track (PAT) so people can earn their way into the program on their own merit. A PAT learner takes three of our MBA courses and, if they complete those courses and earn at least a 3.0 GPA, they’re granted formal admission into the program.

The results speak for themselves

The iMBA program — and the students within it — have thrived without a GMAT mandate. Our students saw an average pay increase of 21 percent and more than half (54 percent) received a promotion, job offer, or accepted a new job during the program. Ninety-seven percent of our MBA students say they’re highly satisfied with the program — and in 2020, our retention rate was 95.3 percent, higher than the 86.7% average of other top online MBA programs.

Our mission in the online programs at Gies College of Business is to deliver life-changing access to business education to all who desire it and are committed to pursuing it — regardless of race, gender, location, financial means, or socioeconomic background. Forcing applicants to take this standardized test runs directly counter to that mission.

We encourage all schools keep a proper perspective on the GMAT’s role in the candidate review process. We’ve been doing it successfully for years as we strive to build the most complete, diverse, and excellent MBA cohort anywhere in the world.