New and Improved

The GMAT Gets a Makeover


Two years from now, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), the primary gatekeeper to business school for generations of MBA students, will get its biggest makeover in more than a decade, with the addition of a new section designed to test advanced reasoning skills, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) announced on June 24 at its annual industry conference in San Diego.

The new section will replace one of the two writing sections currently on the exam, GMAC says. It will also be scored separately and have a new audio component for some questions. The test's current verbal and math sections will remain unchanged.

The coming changes to the GMAT were pressed by faculty members at business schools around the world, who told the testing organization that they wanted a section that simulated the skills students use in MBA classrooms, says Dave Wilson, president and chief executive of GMAC. The alteration is the biggest to the test, he says, since the GMAT was switched to its computer-adaptive format in the late 1990s.

"It's a dramatic shift," Wilson stated in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek before the announcement. "These questions are really microcosms of what goes on in the MBA classroom, and it will help schools identify students [who] will thrive in the classroom, not just survive."

Jousting With a Testing Rival

The latest version of the GMAT—the 10th generation of the exam—will be followed closely by admissions officers, students, and test preparation companies in the coming year, as GMAC pilots the exam this year and prepares to launch it on June 4, 2012. The organization has spent more than $10 million in developing the new questions; GMAC will be relying heavily on audio technology designed by its testing administrator, Pearson Vue. The new test, which will be rolled out a year ahead of schedule, will be GMAC's latest weapon in its ongoing battle with the Educational Testing Service. ETS has tried to encroach on GMAC's territory in the past year by persuading a growing number of business schools—including Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, and MIT—to allow students to submit the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission.

"I think the more one uses technology for new types of questions to differentiate the test, the better. It shows the schools that innovation is happening," says Kai Peters, chief executive of the U.K.'s Ashridge Business School and a GMAC board member.

The format of the new GMAT section—which GMAC has dubbed the integrated reasoning section—will be different from anything students have encountered before on the test, GMAC says. Test takers will need to interpret charts, graphs, and spreadsheets, determine the relationships among data points, and answer interactive questions that will test their analytical skills. During portions of the section, students will wear headphones, a new feature that will help schools assess students' auditory learning style. The changes to the exam mirror shifts in the business school classroom in recent years, as schools have changed their curriculums to emphasize problem-solving and critical thinking, says Peg Jobst, senior vice-president for GMAC services. GMAC piloted the new section last spring with current MBA students and plans to pilot it again this fall with 3,000 GMAT test takers. Feedback from students has so far been positive, she says.

"So far, with the students we've tested, they felt like it did simulate what they are expected to do in business school," Jobst says.

Interpreting Tables of Data

In one sample question that GMAC has released, students are asked to look at a table that sorts like a spreadsheet and detail the number of passengers and airline movements at 21 airports around the world. Students are then presented with a list of statements about the information in the table and asked to determine which of the statements are true based on the data in the spreadsheet. Other exercises ask students to use the same table to assess the reason for or likelihood of certain outcomes, or to use the table to determine where other airports rank.

The GMAT's changes come as it faces an increasingly important competitive threat from ETS, which has persuaded hundreds of business schools to accept the GRE for admissions. In August 2011, ETS will unveil its own revised test with new features designed with B-schools in mind. They include new types of questions in the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections, new answer formats, and an on-screen calculator. David Payne, an ETS vice-president and chief operating officer for college and graduate programs, said in a statement that business schools and test takers have given positive feedback, adding that ETS is "completely focused" on the changes.

Business school deans and faculty say they see these types of questions as a step forward for the exam. These types of questions will help schools assess more effectively applicants' analytical thinking skills and their ability to pull information together, says Stacey Kole, deputy dean of the full-time MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (Booth Full-Time MBA Profile).

"I think this new section gives us the capability to use the testing instruments in a much more informative way," says Kole, a GMAC board member who served on a committee that looked at ways to improve the exam. "We are not going to lose anything the old GMAT had. We'll just be gaining more, and for me, that is very exciting."

A Big Help in Admissions

Alex Sevilla, assistant dean and director of the MBA program at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business Administration (Warrington Full-Time MBA Profile), says he has high hopes for the new integrative reasoning section, which he believes will be a "magic bullet" for admissions officers.

"We see lots of candidates with high testing scores, GPAs, and résumés, and sometimes it is very difficult to pick the folks who are the best match for the faculty and the rigor of the program," Sevilla says. "If this can be a tool to help us make better decisions on that front, it will be an enormous victory for business schools."

Admissions officers first learned of the new exam at the GMAC conference on June 24, and many said they expect there to be a bit of a learning curve. Sara Neher, admissions director at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile), says she plans to spend time in the coming year or two learning how the new integrative reasoning section can be an effective tool for her school in the admissions process.

Trying to Avoid Intimidation

"Any kind of change to the test can be very difficult and, in some ways, frightening." Neher says. "Hopefully GMAC will be able to do a lot of training and a lot of information sessions for applicants that will help them understand why the test has changed and what they are testing for now."

GMAC says it plans outreach and education programs for business school faculty and students in the coming year, including information sessions and details on the new test posted on its website, MBA.com. The organization also plans to work closely with GMAT test preparation companies to help them prepare students for the new exam, providing sample questions and other relevant material, Jobst says.

Chad Troutwine, CEO and co-founder of Veritas Prep, a GMAT test preparation company, says he expects to work closely with GMAT to learn more about the exam and the best way he can prepare applicants.

"As the test evolves, we'll just change along with them," says Troutwine. "I think there will be enough advance notice that it shouldn't provide any fear for students. But I think we'll see some students who feel they will perform better under the test's current structure, so there will likely be a race to take the old version of the test before the deadline."

Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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