Do I Need to Take the GMAT to Get into an Online MBA?

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If you’re asking yourself if you need to take the GMAT ahead of trying to decide whether to pursue an online MBA, you’re not alone. A quick check of Google Trends for the question reveals a noticeable spikes in interest. People want to know whether this is the right move for them.

So what’s the answer? 

First, it depends mostly on which business school(s) to which you will be applying. Some schools require it; others don’t. You can consult your target school’s website to find out whether they do or not.

But sometimes, people ask one thing when they truly mean something else. And so maybe this is obscuring a more fundamental question: “Why would I take the GMAT in the first place?”

Believe it or not, there are more legitimate answers for why a person should take the GMAT beyond the obvious one, “because my school requires it.”

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GMAT Origin Story

The GMAT is the Graduate Management Admission Test, and it’s owned and administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). According to this brief history from The Economist, the GMAC was started back in 1953 when nine grad schools – big names like Harvard, Columbia, Seton Hall, and Northwestern – banded together with the Educational Testing Service to standardize their assessment tools for admission, looking particularly for what attributes would be predictors of success in business. They created the “Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business,” which eventually became what we know as the GMAT. In its initial run, just over 2,500 students took the test, the results of which were disseminated to only 50 schools. 

Almost seven decades later, the test is so widespread that it borders on ubiquitous. It’s either accepted or required at over 6,000 business schools worldwide and taken around 250,000 times annually – a hundredfold increase from where it started.

The Downside of Dominance

However, that hegemony has since created a backlash. Many critics think the GMAT is starting to outlive its usefulness, like Santiago Iniguez de Onzono of the IE Business School located in Madrid, Spain. In this post from 2014, he laments its inability to assess specific skills:

“If we want to attract entrepreneurs, then the GMAT is useless,” said Iniguez de Onzono. “It mostly measures analytical skills, but if you think about the importance of leadership, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, the GMAT doesn’t measure that. The whole system is based on an outdated scheme.”

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This may be one of the reasons why certain schools do not require GMAT scores from prospective students. In its FAQ for prospective MBA students, Colorado State University explains why it doesn’t require it. “We’ve found that standardized tests do not accurately measure prospective students’ ability to complete the complex real-world projects that are addressed in the MBA curriculum.”

On top of its qualitative deficiencies, the GMAT is also somewhat expensive, especially for students coming from lower-income backgrounds and/or emerging markets. Devanath Tirupati of Bangalore was dean of The Indian Institute of Management when he revealed that his school prefers the Common Admission Test, because it costs roughly a tenth of what the GMAT costs – about $15 compared to the GMAT’s $250.

Also, as many personal testimonials attest, the GMAT is really hard. Often, it takes months of rigorous, consistent study to get an impressive score. And don’t be fooled by the boastful claims of test prep services, either. Many of the students with the time, dedication, and money to spend on expensive test-prep programs are already driven to succeed in the first place. Test prep can definitely help you improve your score, but chances are the gains will be more incremental than dramatic. Going through a test prep boot camp might give you an idea of what different kinds of questions to expect and how to go about finding solutions, but it can’t magically change your thinking patterns or make you suddenly way smarter. 

However, just because it’s beginning to fall out of favor doesn’t mean that taking the GMAT won’t help you. 

Improve Your Thinking and Your Odds

As our Spanish dean reminded us earlier, the GMAT does indeed test for analytical thinking. Even though that may not be the only useful predictor of success, it is still very important in the business world, particularly those who want to become executives, bankers, consultants, or analysts. If you posess the time and resources to devote to it, studying for and taking the GMAT will both build and assess your capacity for complex, abstract, multi-dimensional thinking. And achieving the goal of earning your target score – whatever that score is – will give you a baseline layer of knowledge and confidence that will stay with you long after the particulars of the test itself fade away from memory.

Also, if exclusivity matters to you, if you are trying to land a job at one of the top firms in your area, and most of the workforce there have MBAs from those top schools, then the GMAT might be the unavoidable. If you think that getting into one of those prestigious programs is the only reliable way to tilt the playing field in your favor, then you obviously need to take it and do well.

So just level with me…do I need to take the GMAT or not?

The good news is that success is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Everyone defines success differently, and even among those who have a shared definition of success, there are still plenty of paths that can take you there. Similarly, there are obvious reasons why you might want to take the GMAT, and reasons why you might not want to take it.

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You should probably consider the following questions:

  • Can I create regular time in my schedule to study, practice, and prepare for the GMAT for at least two months straight?
  • Will the cost of the GMAT be prohibitive given my current financial situation, especially if I have to take it more than once to reach my target score?

And of course…

  • Does my target school require it, or do they view it as less relevant than my life and career experience?

If the answers to each of those are yes, yes, yes, and no, then guess what? 

You need to take the GMAT for your online MBA.

If not, hooray, you’re off the hook! 

Well, not entirely. There might be a different things you need to focus on, like your resume, your essays, your interview, or picking the right people for letters of recommendation. And you’ll still have to work hard, show up, and build your capacity for abstract thought.

But you don’t have to do it by taking the GMAT.

Action Plans

It is time for research and planning. Your action plans include researching your target online MBA programs and any financial assistance you might need. Then answer the hard questions to see if you need or want to take the GMAT. Then it is time to plan. Do you need to start studying for the GMAT? Do you need to focus on your other admissions criteria? Make those plans and see them through. You got this!