Tag Archives: GRE

Don’t Overcook Standardized Tests For MBA Admissions

First published on AMBA’s MBAworld.com: In the frantic scramble for MBA admissions to elite business schools, nothing appears more self-evident than ‘the higher your standardized admissions test score, the better your chances.’

Almost all business school applications require standardized tests, primarily because it gives MBA admissions committees (Adcoms) a level playing field to judge applicants’ cognitive ability.

That is, it gives Adcoms a quantitative and fair way to compare applicants from different backgrounds, different institutions, different undergraduate majors, and different cultures.

So the higher the score, the stronger the case for MBA admission, right? Wrong.

Well, right then wrong. Standardized test scores are crucial to a point. Every +10 gain adds to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of +30 or so fundamentally changes which business schools they can legitimately hope to get into.

But this is true only up to about the 700-740 range on an 800 point scale. Above that, the score has sharply diminishing returns, and can even harm an applicant’s chances.

There are two reasons. First, although the MBA is a university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people into business management positions, not academic positions.

Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the most academic people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or even consultants. Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einstein. Accordingly, MBA Adcoms are not looking for brainiacs.

The second, related, reason is it takes a full spread of talents to get admitted to a competitive School. Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership acumen, work experience, volunteer record, profile diversity, and so on. Smart is definitely an admissions requirement, but so are the others. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

Scoring in the super bracket (750 or above) means the applicant is, by definition, in the 99th percentile of the global population in raw cognitive ability.

Truth is, people who score like this are often better pure scientists or philosophers than managers. It’s a stereotype, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being esoteric in mannerisms, or not a people-person, or a chaotic manager of self and others.

Adcom will thoroughly check and disbelieve the MBA applicant with a super-score, who also claims to be a team player, and claims to be able to do all the practical and sometimes dull things managers need to get done in a business day.

So, at around the 700 level, depending on GPA and other variables, and provided the Math and Verbal sections are not massively unbalanced, a threshold is reached where even elite business school Adcoms put a check mark next to “academically capable” and move on to ask other questions of the applicant.

When an applicant is far below the School’s published average matriculate for a standardized test, nothing else they are, or do, or say will count. But once they hit the threshold, their higher score merely checks an already checked box.

Furthermore, candidates who obsess with improving an already high score are taking time and focus away from improving the rest of their application. A super-score is not going to save the applicant whose recommendations are lukewarm or whose essays are undeveloped.

So MBA candidates should be very concerned with their test score until it is within the guidelines of the target program, then set it aside and work on getting the other facets of their application to the same level.

If all this is a solid argument that fits the admissions facts, not least in explaining why hundreds of relatively ordinary test scorers are admitted to elite MBAs, the question becomes, where do super-score obsessions come from?

It comes from applicant misapprehension of how many crucial elements of admissions, other than academic ability, there are, and how important they are. MBA Admissions Strategy lists 25 distinct dimensions of admissions value, of which ‘smart’ is just one.

Standardized test educators and coaches have an interest in feeding the obsession too: the longer MBA applicants work at trying to garnish a score already in the 700s, the more the cash register rings.

MBA applicants do their best when they call ‘enough’ once their test score is in the right ballpark, and get on with putting the many other pieces of the MBA admissions puzzle in place.

MBA Essays: Your Bud Becomes a Jack, but Nothing Changes

So, July 1 it is, and the 2014 MBA admissions season is definitely now upon us. Having been in this industry for 11 years now, I feel it might be useful to open this season’s posts with a few short thoughts on the fads and fashions in MBA admissions, and how while lots of things change nothing fundamental changes.

Let’s start with what doesn’t change, which is that an MBA from an elite school is, for most, a dramatic career boost both in terms of opportunity and earnings. What also stays exactly the same is that the incremental relative career boost from an elite school (global top-15, more or less) is far greater than merely a good school – and everyone knows this, including recruiters.

Therefore what also doesn’t change is that elite schools are massively oversubscribed by admissions-seekers, and so MBA Adcoms are forced to screen out most of the hopefuls (which is of course exactly what they want. This is how they create “classes of the best,” which attracts recruiters for top jobs, an obvious reinforcing cycle.)

What does change is how Adcoms go about screening. But even this has not changed much over the years. File data, GMAT (or GRE) score, MBA resume, recommendations, extra-murals, and allied personal and professional boxes to check stay effectively the same from year to year (with some test score and general achievement inflation, undeniably).

The application element that is constantly in motion is the way MBA Adcoms ask you, the applicant, to talk about yourself via essays, or what stands in for the essays.

Time was you had to write a long description about yourself —something like the INSEAD application remains to this day. But then two things happened. First it became not-so-clear that applicants were doing their own writing, which led to Adcoms shortening the writing obligation.

Second, technology got more sophisticated, allegedly offering multi-media or social-media ways of capturing the quality of an applicant, which also led to lower word counts on average, while the more adventurous admissions committees such as those at Georgetown McDonough or Chicago Booth experimented with offering the opportunity to submit PowerPoint presentations, tweets, audio uploads and the like. NYU has long invited creative expressions of self, but famously had to draw the line when they were faced with two-week-old sushi…

The jury is out on how well this alternative communication works, not least because it judges applicants’ “flashness” with social- or multi-media rather than what Adcom really needs to judge, which is how good a b-school player, and subsequently how great a manager you will turn out to be.

Don’t let the tapering off of overall essay text-length obligation lull you into a false sense of security. As I’ve written in my book, and here on this site in previous posts, the essays play a singular role and this is not usurped or ursurpable. Essays package you for the admissions committee. They bring your file factoids to life. They provide the juice that gets the committee to notice you specifically from among a mass of competitors who present similar file achievements and scores.

So less bulk doesn’t mean less important. In fact, less space makes the essays harder. Now more than ever, every single word matters. Think of it like exchanging a beer for a tot of Jack Daniels. Less space, not less kick.


HBS Adcom is answering applicants’ questions every day until the R1 deadline. Answers so far…

Deidre Leopold, Harvard Business School’s Managing Director of Admissions and Financial Aid is answering applicant questions at the rate of two a day on the HBS ‘From The Director‘ blog, until Harvard’s Round 1 deadline on October 1.

The following are the questions that have been selected so far, and HBS Adcom’s answers:

September 25, 2009

1. Are you reading applications now?
No. We don’t begin until the night of October 1. That’s when we print all applications and begin review. So our process is not “rolling” in a classic sense. That said, I would advise NOT waiting until the final moments before the deadline to submit because the server will probably be backed up and you will be very anxious.

2. When can I visit a class?
The online scheduler for class visits is available now. Class visits begin on Monday, October 19. Whether you have visited a class or not has no bearing on our consideration of your candidacy. However, here’s (yet another) plug for our video filmed in the first year classroom.

September 24, 2009

1. Must applications for the MPP/MBA Program, or other joint degree programs, be submitted separately?
Yes. In order to participate in a Harvard joint program, you must be admitted to each school independently. HBS offers five joint degrees with four Harvard schools.

2. May I scan an unofficial transcript into the application?
Yes. After admission, we require the official transcript to be sent to us.

September 23, 2009

1. Do you expect applicants who are working in consulting to include actual client names in their resumes and essays?
No – even though applications are confidential and not reviewed outside the Admissions Board, please don’t do anything that violates confidentiality policies of your organization. Use general language such as: “For a client in the energy industry, etc. etc. etc.”

2. I know that you need GMAT/GRE results in order to submit an application and that AWA/Analytical Writing scores can be added later…but what about the TOEFL or IELTS?
If you are required to take the IBT TOEFL or IELTS, you must have results to report or else we will consider your application incomplete until scores are reported. If you do not submit an IBT TOEFL or IELTS score by the Round One deadline of October 1, your application will not be considered until the next round.

September 22, 2009

1. Do you accept the GMAT or GRE total score in the application without the AWA or Analytical Writing score?
You must have a GMAT or GRE score in order to submit an application. If you haven’t yet received your AWA or Analytical Writing score, that’s fine. We will add it to your file when it arrives.

2. Is it OK to write about accomplishments that are not recent?
Every year, many successful candidates write about things that happened quite a while ago. It’s probably not a good idea to have everything you write about be from your childhood – we would wonder if you were moving forward or fixed in the past. As always, we encourage you to use your best judgment and remember that this is an application to business school.

September 21, 2009

1. What should I enter on the application for GPA if my university doesn’t use a 4.0 grading system?
Don’t enter anything. Don’t convert your grades to a 4.0 system. We review all transcripts and are familiar with a wide variety of grading systems.

2. Are essays read in consecutive order?
Not always. Each Board member may have his/her own way of approaching the written application. Speaking for myself, I often skip around with no particular pattern. If I start with an essay that seems to be building on a theme in another essay, I just go back and catch up. Not a problem. I can reassure you that all essays are reviewed!

Do You Have Any Questions? Submit your questions via email to admissions@hbs.edu and put “Questions for the director” in the subject line.