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


Video duration: 24:42


NARRATOR: Welcome to B-Schooled, a podcast by Stacy Blackman Consulting bringing you tips, advice, and insight into all aspects of the MBA admissions process and business school experience. And now, here's your host — writer, author, and Harvard MBA who's been an MBA admissions consultant for over a decade — Erika Olson.

ERIKA OLSON: Hi there, everyone. For the past few weeks, you've been sending us in your questions about admissions tests, and I'm pleased to welcome back Jay Bryant to the podcast. As a refresher, Jay spent a combined 16 years overseeing business school admissions, recruiting, financial aid, international students, and student affairs at both the Thunderbird School of Global Management as well as the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego.

Jay now works as a liaison between business schools and ETS — which is the education-focused nonprofit that develops and administers the GRE® General Test, one of the two main business school admissions tests. So first off, welcome back, Jay. Thanks for joining me.

JAY BRYANT: Hi, Erika. Thanks for having me back. I've been looking forward to the opportunity to tackle some of these questions your listeners have sent in. I know there are a lot of questions and a few misconceptions about the b-school admissions process, and I'm happy to provide some information from both my experiences and my current work with a wide variety of business schools and their admissions offices.

ERIKA OLSON: So Jay, one thing I want to say to you up front is that we received a lot of questions that were kind of asking the same thing, but we're just different enough that I still want to ask each of them in order to let you give nuanced answers and truly be able to respond to exactly what our listeners wanted to know.

So for that reason, we're going to run this Q&A with me shooting questions at you, Jay, in pretty quick succession so that we can cover everything. I'm going to start out with an overarching question that 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 naive 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 that you go in well-prepared and give it your all. Ultimately, the admissions test is a way for the schools to ensure that you know the skills that you need to know for their programs. One of the worst things to happen is for the candidate to be admitted to a program, but 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, so 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 a candidate's abilities across a wide spectrum of skills.

Finally, from the perspective of an admissions director, what I always appreciated about the admissions test 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 OLSON: 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 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 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 BRYANT: Sure, well, more than 1,300 business schools around the world accept the GRE® scores for admissions to their MBA programs, including most top-ranked programs. GRE scores are also 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 accept 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 that 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 OLSON: 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, quote unquote, "essay portion" of the test and why it's included in the at home test. What insight do you have there?

JAY BRYANT: Good question. I've had applicants think that the analytical writing section wasn't important at all. However, in my experience, I noticed that 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 use  — 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 on the test overall  — is on the test overall, and it's included in the GRE General Test no matter where it's administered.

ERIKA OLSON: 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?" And Jay, I'm personally not familiar enough with the different tests required for various master's degrees, so I'm not sure what this person means by two tests. But I'm assuming you have some words of advice here.

JAY BRYANT: Yeah, sure, 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 are 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, or — well, 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 OLSON: 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 BRYANT: 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 that's why I suggest taking it while your brain is at the top of its game.

ERIKA OLSON: Yes, I strongly agree with you in 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. And so here we go. The question is, "What are the differences between the GRE and the GMAT?"

JAY BRYANT: Yep, I've heard this question about a million times as well. So let's see. I'll give it my best shot here. Really, when it comes down to it, the two tests are assessing the same sorts of things — your verbal, quant, and writing skills. I found over time that most applicants are worried more about the quant section, so you know 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 Two class on the quant section. It's how the questions are asked that makes 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 type of questions and exactly how to answer the question and exactly 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 that 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, I know I didn't catch this for a long time personally, but 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 of the very next question is based upon the immediately preceding question, while 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 you after you've gone through the rest of that section. I personally know that I'm the type that, when taking a test, things will often pop in my head, literally out of nowhere, 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. GRE 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 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 tests. It's just reality. So, Erika, that was a really long answer, but I could go on all day about this stuff. The information's out there. Find the test that you are most comfortable with and go for it.

ERIKA OLSON: Well, thank you for that. Now I feel armed with a much better response the next time I'm asked that same question, which will probably be tomorrow, so, though 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 that 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 a try. What's funny is that before I even met you, Jay, my colleague, Caryn, and I talked about this, about why we sometimes encourage the applicants we work with to take the GRE.

We talked about this back in June on episode six of this podcast that we did about how somebody can strengthen their quantitative profile. But we actually do have a few more questions along these same lines, so I'm going to keep moving. The next one is, "Does it make a difference which test I take, and are there benefits to taking the GRE test?"

JAY BRYANT: All right, 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, in a way, the test structure, which is how questions are presented. Whichever test you take, you're going to have to prove your verbal, quant, and 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. And my applicants that took it over the years did equally well in our programs, no matter which test it was.

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

JAY BRYANT: All right, sure. For business schools accepting the GRE General Test is widen the applicant pool beyond the traditional MBA background, such as finance and consulting, which I think that's 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 that is 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 admissions. I speak with admissions directors at b-schools literally every day, and literally every day I confirm through our discussions that admissions committees are really indifferent to the tests you take as long as you perform well and have a solid application overall.

ERIKA OLSON: 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 b-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 about admissions test anxiety. And you also already spoke a little bit to it today. But just to be sure we're 100% on all 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 BRYANT: Sure, the GRE General Test at home was launched at the end of March 2020 in immediate response to 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 on-screen experience.

It's monitored virtually by a real-life proctor, just as a proctor watches during exams at a testing center. So, 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 OLSON: Yes, those night owls, did you hear that? So great. Now that everyone should be clear about the at-home version, I'm actually going to bunch together two questions that, for the first time  — these were pretty similar, and I think you can cover everything for both of them in the same response.

So, 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 admissions 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 BRYANT: 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 on-screen experience as in a testing center.

And 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 bring your own, and all test 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 OLSON: Great advice there. And Jay, we did receive one last question, which was, "I'm planning on taking my admissions test online in December, and I'm a bit nervous about taking the exam online. Honestly, I don't know what to make of it, but it seems in-person options are still very limited where I am. My question is, how does it compare to in-person and how does one stay cool, calm, and collected when preparing for taking the exam — when preparing and taking the exam?"

And as we mentioned today, the GRE test is the same in-person and online. And actually, in our prior podcast, Jay and I focused on ways to calm admissions tests anxiety and nervousness so I would actually kindly refer the person that asked us that question and listeners today back to that episode, number 23, where we covered a lot of that information there.

So 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 test might be right for them. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me again and to listen to our — and to answer our listeners' questions.

JAY BRYANT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's really great to speak you today  — 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 OLSON: 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." Thanks so much for listening to this episode of B-Schooled from Stacy Blackman Consulting.

If there's ever something you'd like us to cover, please email us at podcast@stacyblackman.com We'd love to hear from you. We'd also encourage you to subscribe to this podcast so you don't miss an episode. And finally, if you're planning to apply to business school at some point, make sure you've signed up for our weekly Stacy Batman Consulting newsletter and download our free personal branding guide. Both can be found on stacyblackman.com under the Hot Topics menu. Thanks, and until next time, be well.