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What’s On Your Mind: An Admissions Test Q&A

Jay Bryant, a b-school admissions expert with the GRE® Program, tackled your questions with MBA consultant Erika Olson on an episode of Stacy Blackman Consulting’s hit podcast, B-Schooled.

From the role of the admissions test to tips on testing in the age of COVID-19, what these experts had to say will shed light on some hot topics.

Listen to the episode here or read on below for all the questions and answers. B-Schooled Episode #27 also is available for download on most major podcast apps.

View Transcript

ERIKA OLSON: I’m going to start out with an overarching question we received that did make me smile, because I think all of us who work across various aspects of MBA admissions, understand how admissions testing can be frustrating to some applicants. So, this listener wrote in, “Why do I have to take an admissions test?”

JAY BRYANT: The big question. Well, admissions tests such as the GRE® test contain questions that closely reflect the kind of thinking you’ll do in a graduate-level program. They show you’ve mastered certain skills and are ready to succeed.

I’m certainly not naïve and know that taking an admissions test is not something most of us get excited about. In fact, when I took my test back many years ago, I remember being anxious about it, but I tell you what, the most important thing is you go in well-prepared and give it your all. Ultimately, the admissions test is a way for the schools to ensure you know the skills you need to know for their programs. One of the worst things to happen is for the candidate to be admitted to a program when they haven’t mastered concepts that are baseline for business schoolwork.

Obviously, schools have different admissions requirements, so you want to pay attention to that information. And, before you register and pay for your test, make sure you have taken the time to learn about those requirements. They most likely accept GRE scores and scores from other admissions tests as well.

My advice has always been to decide which you think is going to suit your personal situation. I think applicants need to look at the accepted tests, see which is more aligned with their prior testing experience and could help minimize their stress. The tests measure the same skills, it’s more about the question formats and test structure at the end of the day. Also, what’s really cool to me, and perhaps intimidating to test takers, is that one assessment can measure such a wide array of skills — critical thinking, verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing skills are all assessed. This gives schools the tools to see candidates’ abilities across a wide spectrum of skills.

Finally, from the perspective of an admissions director, what I always appreciated about the admissions tests is that it measures all candidates by the same standard. We all attended different universities, had different professors, followed different curriculum, had different work experience, all that stuff. The only thing that was really comparing apples-to-apples from one applicant to another was the admissions test. Again, I realize it’s not the most fun part of your graduate school journey, but it is something hundreds of thousands of us have made it through. And quite frankly, you will too.

ERIKA: Ha! Yeah, that’s a great point. And I would add two things that I try to remind our listeners of often: the first is that you’re competing against the best of the best from across the world and admissions tests give the admissions committees one more data point to go from. But, the second thing is that your admissions test score is not the sole thing they’re going from. It is cliché, but you know, it really is just one piece of the puzzle. But since all of the puzzle pieces are important in this really competitive process, you want to position yourself in the best way possible, and I believe that the admissions test you take is a critical part of that positioning. So next question for you Jay is, “I thought the GRE® General Test was just for graduate schools — like arts and sciences programs?” Jay, can you clear up the confusion there?

JAY: Sure. Well, more than 1,300 business schools around the world accept GRE scores for admission to their MBA programs, including most top-ranked programs. GRE scores also are accepted by many specialized master’s and other graduate business programs, if you’re looking at those as well. The truth is that many business schools started accepting GRE scores more than a decade ago and each year more and more join that list. Nowadays, almost all business schools accepted it on par with the GMAT®.

I’ve heard the misconception that the GRE test is mostly used for liberal arts, fine arts, history and the like — areas where the verbal and writing skills are perhaps more important. But whenever I hear this, I remind them this is the same test that astrophysicists and nuclear engineers take. As you can imagine, the admissions committees are looking for different scores, depending on the nature of their programs.

Business schools have an interesting position in that students need to be strong both on the quantitative and the verbal reasoning scores, because you’ll be using all of these skills in their programs. Like for example, the quant section is going to come into play with classes like finance, marketing, accounting and business analytics. The verbal score is going to come into play through the vast amounts of analytical reading and research that students will do in classes like economic strategy and leadership. And finally, the analytical writing section reflects the candidate’s written communication skills, which are, of course, very important and used across every single subject.

ERIKA: And, if you don’t mind me cutting in here for a second, Jay, we did actually receive a question about what a listener called the “essay portion” of the test and why it’s included in the at home test. What insight do you have there?

JAY: Good question. I’ve had applicants think the analytical writing section wasn’t important at all. However, in my experience, I noticed there’s a wide gap in applicants when it comes to writing skills, and that is something admissions committees want to assess. Not only are you going to wind up writing a lot for your assignments and projects and presentations, but when you start applying for jobs, writing to alumni and employers over email and whatnot, those writing skills need to be impeccable. So that’s why the essay portion is on the test overall, and it’s included in the GRE General Test, no matter where it’s administered.

ERIKA: That makes sense to me. Next question for you is, “I’m still deciding between business school and law school. Do I need to take two tests just in case?”

JAY: The GRE General Test is accepted at thousands of graduate schools, including business and law, as well as departments and divisions within these schools. What this means — you can take one test that is accepted by the various programs you’re interested in, instead of sitting for one admissions exam specific to law and another for business.

Also, keep in mind you could do a JD/MBA at many schools. I remember when I started in admissions, such a student had to take both a GMAT and an LSAT®. Now you find that business schools and law schools accept the GRE test. So, that’s nice because you can now take just one test. And by the way, this is also true for those of you that are looking for dual degrees like engineering and MBA, or perhaps international studies and an MBA — there’s a lot of combinations that are out there, so do your research and find out what the school, or schools, you’re looking at require.

ERIKA: That is very interesting. I learned something today. Ok, so this next question we actually talked about a little bit in our first episode together, but here it is, “I may put off my plans to apply to an MBA program. Should I wait to take an admissions test?”

JAY: Absolutely not. GRE scores are valid for five years. So, even if you’re still exploring your options, you can take the test now or whenever you are ready and then have time to decide on that.

I’ve seen far too often that some applicants wait until the very last minute to take their GRE test — bad idea, folks. The test is already hard enough, why would you want to add the extra pressure of taking it under stress? Personally, I took my test a year before applying anywhere so that way if I needed to retake it for a higher score, I could. And it also gave me knowledge of where I fared against the class averages at the schools I was looking at and what my potential was for being admitted.

I really think that the best time to take your GRE test is as you’re finishing your undergraduate studies. At that point, your mind is most in shape for taking the test. A few years out of college, are you really going to remember all the things you learned once in the routine of a job and life after college? Most of us are not regularly flexing the brain the way we did during our university studies and course testing. So, it just becomes harder. The things you learn start to fade into the recesses of your mind and thus why I suggest taking it while your brain is at the top of its game.

ERIKA: Yes, I strongly agree with you — just getting the test off your checklist as soon as you feel ready so that you can focus on the rest of your materials when the time comes. This next question is one we get all the time at Stacy Blackman Consulting, and so I can’t wait to hear what you have to say because I find myself attempting to answer it so often. So here we go, the question is, “What are the differences between the GRE test and the GMAT?”

JAY: Yep, I’ve heard this question about a million times as well. Really, when it comes down to it, the two tests are assessing the same sorts of things — your verbal, quant and writing skills. I’ve found over time that most applicants are worried more about the quant section, but neither test is going to ask you about calculus or differential equations or anything like that. In fact, both tests measure up through your typical “Algebra 2” class on the quant section.

It’s how the questions are asked that make the test more challenging, and that’s where you will find some difference. For example, there’s a section on the GMAT called “Data Sufficiency.” These are some challenging questions because most of us do not have exposure to these types of questions, and exactly how to answer the question and what the question is asking, is something you have to get familiar with while prepping for the test. The GRE test doesn’t have the questions in that format, for example.

Another big one is the format of the test — with the GMAT being question-level adaptive and the GRE test being section-level adaptive. So, what exactly does that mean? It’s a big deal. It’s probably easiest for me to give an example here, and keep in mind this is a simplification of how it works, but on the GMAT, if you answer question one and get it right, the computer will make question two a little harder. If you get it wrong, question two will be a little easier, so on throughout the test. This also means the test is linear, requiring you to answer each question in the order it’s shown to you. In contrast, the GRE test is section-level adaptive, meaning you get 20 questions in a section and depending how you do on those 20, the next section of 20 questions is correspondingly easier or harder.

So, what this means is on the GMAT, once you answer a question, you can’t go back. You can’t skip a question because the level of difficulty at the very next question is based upon the immediately preceding question. Yet the advanced adaptive design of the GRE test allows you to freely move around, forward and backward, throughout an entire section. You can skip or come back to questions within a section.

So, let’s say you don’t quite remember how to solve question number four. Move on, finish those that you can do, and number four will be waiting for you to come back to after you’ve gone through the rest of that section. I know that I’m the type that when taking a test, things will often pop in my head a few minutes after I’m attempting a question. I personally like the ability to go back and change my answer, if that great insight pops into my head. The GRE test gives you that option.

Also, as you know, both tests have been offered in an at home format during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you need to, you can take the GMAT test up to two times while the GRE test allows you to take it up to five times. Now, truth be told, I’m hoping that everyone listening does amazing on their first attempt, but let’s be realistic. Things happen, and you should always build in the chance to retake. Life happens, and many applicants will have multiple attempts on the test. It’s just reality. I could go on all day about this stuff, but the information is out there, so find the test that you are most comfortable with and go for it.

ERIKA: I would add one thing that the team here at Stacy Blackman Consulting has found, is that those from non-traditional backgrounds — meaning applicants who are coming from industries other than banking or consulting — tend to prefer the GRE test and do better at it. And just in general, we find if an applicant is not really jibing with the GMAT, they may do significantly better on the GRE test. So, we always encourage them to make the switch and give the GRE test to try.

What’s funny is that before I even met you, Jay, my colleague Caryn and I talked about this on Episode Six of this podcast that we did about how somebody can strengthen their quantitative profile.

Along those lines, “Does it make a difference which test I take, and are there benefits to taking the GRE test?”

JAY: Well, I’m going to refer back to the last question you asked for this one. It’s really about the format of the two tests and the way the test is structured, which is how questions are presented. Whichever test you take, you’re going to have to prove your verbal, quant analytical writing skills. I’ve heard the rumor that the GRE test is easier, and sometimes that it is harder, and I’m here to tell you it’s neither. My applicants that took it over the years did equally well in our programs, no matter which test it was.

ERIKA: Yep, I agree with you there. So, you just covered if there’s advantages for the test taker of taking the GRE test over the GMAT, but we did have a question from a listener who asked, “Do the schools prefer one test over another?”

JAY: For business schools, accepting the GRE General Test has widened the applicant pool beyond the traditional MBA background, such as finance and consulting, which I think is exciting. Admissions committees accept both tests equally.

So, here’s the truth — you need to check the admissions requirements of whatever school you are looking at. I don’t know the policy of every school out there, so doing your homework is incredibly important.

At the end of the day, the schools are looking for the best candidates for their programs. Admissions test scores are one of many things that they’re going to consider when they’re making a decision on your admission. I speak with admissions directors at b-schools literally every day, and I confirmed through our discussions that admissions committees are really indifferent to the test you take, as long as you perform well and have a solid application overall.

ERIKA: Yeah, I mean, if the school you’re interested in says they accept GRE scores, then they accept them. I think we all know by now that these schools are not in the business of allowing applicants to upload scores or transcripts or extra letters or other materials that they did not ask for and do not accept. So, everyone interested in taking the GRE test is definitely in the clear on this one, if the school says they accept it.

Now I tried to chunk in together some other questions that dealt specifically with the at home version of the GRE test, which we covered pretty extensively already in Episode 23, but just to be sure we’re 100% all on the same page first, can you just give a quick recap of what the at home version of the test is, why it was created and some of the most important things people should know about it?

JAY: Sure, the GRE General Test at Home was launched at the end of March 2020 in immediate response to the COVID-19 shutdowns worldwide. It’s exactly the same test that’s offered in test centers, just taken in the comfort of your own home. It has the same content, same length, and same onscreen experience. It’s monitored virtually by a real-life proctor, just as a proctor watches during exams at a testing center.

At home test sessions are actually offered 24/7, so you have the added convenience of testing whenever works best for you, day or night, any day of the week. So, Erika, if there’s someone out there that prefers to take the GRE test in the middle of the night, by all means, go for it.

ERIKA: Yes, those night owls, did you hear that? Great. Now the first question we got specifically about the at home version was, “I know we have the option to test at home due to COVID, but does the at home version really still carry the same weight with admission committees? Don’t they consider in-person tests more credible?”

And then the second question we got about the at home version was, “I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to take the test at home or at a test center. Can you tell me what to expect from both experiences, specifically safety protocol in-person and credibility at home?”

JAY: All right, for sure. Schools have been very comfortable with the shift to the at home testing. The GRE General Test at Home is as secure and reliable as the test in our test center. Admission timelines are still moving forward and taking the test at home is a great opportunity to stay on the schedule and keep your goals in sight. The GRE General Test at home is exactly the same format, length and onscreen experience as in a testing center.

As test centers worldwide reopen, you can now choose to test where you’re most comfortable — at a test center or at home. If you choose a test center, I want you to know they’re following the prevention steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. You should check with your local test center for a complete list of health and safety procedures they’re following, but I do know that masks are required, and you should [must] bring your own. And all tests centers have regular schedules for frequent cleaning of high-touch surface areas and provide disposable wipes so that you can wipe down your own testing area.

ERIKA: Thank you, Jay, it was great to have you back. You provided some wonderful, in-depth information on admissions tests and how MBA applicants can think about which tests might be right for them. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me again and to answer our listeners’ questions.

JAY: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s really great to speak to you today. I hope this has been helpful for your listeners and I wish them all great success in their pursuit of their MBAs. It really is something that is life-changing and prepares students for some amazing career opportunities.

ERIKA: Indeed. And today we’ll end with a quote that I think is relevant for those of you listening who are currently studying for your admissions test. It’s from American author Robert Collier, who said, “Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.”

The B-Schooled Podcast by Stacy Blackman Consulting is available on most major podcast apps, including:

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