Can you apply to an MBA program without taking the GMAT?

BY Meghan MalasApril 30, 2021, 3:00 AM
Martin Laksman

Prospective MBA students may be excited to learn they can skip taking the GMAT altogether or opt for a different test. More testing options mean more opportunities for applicants, but it might also complicate the question of which test to take and why.  

Business schools largely decided to make admissions processes more flexible during the 2020–21 admissions cycle as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such changes included suspending testing requirements, dropping application fees, waiving deposit fees, extending deadlines, and accepting scores from the shorter Executive Assessment (EA) test.

Among 101 schools offering MBA programs, 36% suspended the testing requirement for all applicants, while 24% did so for some students, according to the results of an October 2020 survey administered by Kaplan. Moreover, 17% of these schools said they have suspended the requirement and may keep the suspension permanent.

A decade ago, if you wanted to get into an MBA program, you most likely had to submit GMAT scores to schools of interest. Now, there are other ways for prospective MBA students to prove they’re likely to succeed in these programs.

Because schools aren’t necessarily eliminating testing requirements altogether, the application processes across MBA programs are even more complex than usual. Here’s what you should know about test leniency policies and what it means as a prospective MBA student. 

Why would business schools keep their test-optional policies? 

Babson College is among the 17% of schools that are considering making their test-optional policy permanent. Why? It may not be necessary. 

“If the students are still doing just as well in the classroom in terms of their GPA and their overall discussions and writing, then that could indicate to us as an institution that there are other ways to assess applications without requiring GMAT or GRE scores,” says Babson’s director of graduate admissions, Colleen Hynes, who oversees enrollment strategy for the school’s full-time and part-time MBA programs

Babson’s school-wide test-optional policy was in play for the entirety of the 2020–21 recruitment cycle as a way to mitigate COVID-19–related complications, but its part-time MBA program has been test-optional since 2019. Before that, the school had a test waiver option that part-time MBA applicants could request if they met certain thresholds. 

“What we saw was that waivers still create a barrier for a lot of really qualified candidates,” Hynes says. “Moving to test-optional really put power in the applicant to be able to take a look at their own strengths and say: ‘Do I think that what I can put forward will make me a competitive candidate?’”

And a test-optional policy can be beneficial because it leads to a more diverse and more successful MBA program. “We’ve seen more applications, and the overall diversity of the applicant pool has really increased,” Hynes notes. 

Additionally, if some schools adopt permanent test-optional policies, there may be a domino effect among competing schools, according to Stacey Koprince, content and curriculum lead for Manhattan Prep, the sister company of Kaplan. “As soon as you have a few schools making some kind of change that makes that application process easier, other schools almost have to follow suit if they want to still keep those applicants interested.”

While Hynes acknowledges that 2020 was an anomaly for numerous reasons, many students saw the suspension of the GMAT or GRE requirement as encouraging. 

“Students have said that the GMAT or GRE was a barrier for them, but because we were test-optional this year, they felt compelled and comfortable to be able to put a really strong application together, despite not having a GMAT or GRE,” Hynes says, adding that the applicant pool was stronger as a result. “That really highlights that students are still opting into graduate school, and GMAT or GRE scores are just one way to showcase your story. But there are other ways to do that in the application as well.” 

Hynes says a lot of students still chose to submit GMAT and GRE scores in 2020, and the scores were higher, on average, than in previous years.  

Koprince says that schools are also becoming more lenient in their acceptance of tests like the Executive Assessment (EA) as an alternative to the GMAT or GRE. Part of the reason the EA has been expanding to non–Executive MBA programs has to do with the impact GMAT and GRE scores have on a business school’s ranking, she adds. 

“When you look at the average scores for schools over the last 10 years, they’ve just skyrocketed,” Koprince says. “Meanwhile, the EA isn’t in that game; they’re not used in the rankings, and schools are just using it as a threshold indicator to tell if someone is ready to succeed in the program.”

Why might business schools continue to require standardized tests?

Standardized testing isn’t going away, and Hynes says the GMAT will always have a place in graduate management education. “It can be a great way for students to indicate aptitude and academic ability beyond the scope of their undergraduate work,” she says. “There will always be students and schools that will want that.”

Many schools will likely reinstate GMAT or GRE requirements as testing obstacles dwindle. But Babson College is still deliberating. 

“It’s still too early to say, but I think it’s important to look internally at how the students did and how they feel about test-optional policies. Then we need to evaluate a lot of external factors like rankings and accreditation for the program,” Hynes says. “GMAT and GRE scores do come into play for rankings, and those are an important part of the review process for a lot of future applicants.”

Koprince says that although some schools may move to test-optional policies, she doesn’t see them becoming a long-term trend.

“I think that most schools are probably anticipating that this is a COVID-related response and that eventually things will get back to normal and they will probably want some sort of test requirement,” she says. “I would expect schools to go back to requiring the GMAT and GRE and expanding acceptance of the EA.”

Should you take the GMAT or GRE if your prospective programs are test-optional? 

There are two main things to consider if the programs you’re applying to are test-optional, according to Koprince: 

  1. Some people who take the test could have an edge, even though a school says it has a test-optional policy. It’s important to understand the nuances of a particular school’s policy by talking to admissions officers and reading between the lines in terms of what they say about the exam.
  2. There are benefits to taking the exam beyond just getting accepted into your program of choice, such as opportunities for financial support and competitive jobs. 

A lot of schools will recruit applicants by offering them some sort of financial aid package, Koprince notes. So when you’re applying to different tiers of schools, you may have to choose between paying full price at a school that’s higher ranked versus a lower ranked school that’s giving you a free ride or a sizable financial package.

“Some of the things that can help you get a better package are test scores and GPA—basically the numbers that go into the school rankings,” Koprince says. “They want you in their program because it makes their class better.”

Additionally, MBA students vying for positions at name-brand banking or consulting firms can expect said firms to ask to see their GMAT or GRE test scores, so it’s best to take the test if you know you’ll be applying for those positions postgrad. 

The terrain might be changing for MBA program applicants, but regardless of test policies, prospective students should make decisions that will give them the best shot at success. For some students that might mean skipping tests altogether or taking the EA. But most will opt for the status quo, hit the books, and prepare for the GMAT or GRE.