Is the GMAT getting easier? That’s the question that the Graduate Management Admission’s Council (GMAC), a non-profit organization of leading graduate management schools, set out to answer in their recent market intelligence report: The GMAT Exam Is Not Getting Easier: The Fallacy of Score Increases and the Impact of Score Preview. The 26-page white paper is the first in an annual series that will serve as a sort of quality assurance (QA) report for the GMAT.
Used by 6,500 degree programs worldwide and taken by more than 200,000 candidates each year, the GMAT is one of the most common application requirements for graduate business programs. The test helps schools select qualified applicants by assessing verbal, quantitative, writing and reasoning skills. The question posed by this paper was: “how relevant is the test considering that the average GMAT score of the admitted class at leading graduate business programs has risen?”
To answer this question, the white paper compared historical data from the GMAT against current scoring to assess the integrity of the GMAT and to explore whether and how GMAT scores had changed over time.
Rebecca Loades, GMAC Director of Product Management, explained to Clear Admit in an interview that GMAC wanted to illustrate to schools, degree programs and candidates that the GMAT is “maintaining its standards. While there may be some fluctuation in scores due to demographics, the scoring itself isn’t changing—a 600 last year is the same as a 600 three years ago and a 600 from this year.”
Ultimately, the study found that both the profile of test takers and the score preview feature—rather than the exam itself—account for the average score increase at the leading programs.
Changing GMAT Demographics
GMAC studied the GMAT scores of citizens from eight countries—the United States, Canada, China, United Kingdom, France, Germany, India and South Korea. The researchers found that average exam scores have remained stable, and that the difference in scoring was actually more due to the change in the demographics of test takers.
For example, “women typically have a lower average total score than men (542 vs. 560),” according to the report. So, if more women take the exam average scores can be expected to decrease. On the other hand, younger candidates “typically tend to score higher.” So, an increase in the number of relatively young test-takers would make the average GMAT score appear to increase. Considering these differences, researchers had to recalculate the average 2016 GMAT score using the same demographics as the historical scores to determine if the GMAT had actually gotten easier.
Researchers used historical data gathered between 2011 and 2015 to recalculate the score averages in 2016. They discovered that “across all testing years only minor variances were noted,” explained the report. In fact, “the average difference between actual and projected GMAT scores for the eight countries examined was 2.43,” the report indicated.
It’s important to note that while a ten-point difference may seem large, in reality it is almost inconsequential. The GMAT is scored in 10-point increments, so a ten-point difference is, in actuality, only equivalent to a 1.7 percent score increase. The difference is relatively small and could be easily attributed to such factors as “greater familiarity with the exam format, increased preparedness and the impact of changing examinee demographics,” stated the report
In the end, the researchers concluded that: “GMAT score performance has therefore not changed, but what has changed are the profiles of GMAT examinees. Changes in the underlying candidate demographics have therefore had a small and predictable impact on calculated average scores.”
GMAT Score Preview
Another variable that researchers considered in exploring shifting GMAT scores was the score preview feature. Debuted in 2014, this feature allows candidates to preview their score and decide whether to keep or cancel it.
So, the second research question was: “are top-tier programs simply seeming more high scores—and are therefore able to cherry pick the best—or are they seeing fewer lower scores as candidates take themselves out of the application pipeline by deciding not to send a score to a school?” For Loades, she expected something entirely different from what they found.
“My own hypothesis was that candidates who were sending scores to globally ranked international programs would be more likely to cancel their scores and send something else compared to those applying to a local MBA program,” she shared. “We discovered that that wasn’t the case. Based on our testing year of 2016—from the first of July 2015 to the thirtieth of June 2016—when I looked at the percentage of candidates that canceled, it was bout 15-17 percent irrespective of the kind of program they were targeting. This means that score canceling applied to all of our candidates irrespective of their goals.”
To determine the truth about the score preview feature, GMAC researchers divided MBA programs into three groups:
- Group A: global programs, ranked highly around the world
- Group B: leading regional programs, may be internationally ranked
- Group C: leading domestic programs.
They discovered that in 2014, out of the 52,476 exams taken, the average GMAT score was 613. For Group A the average score was 629, versus 598 for Group B and 558 for Group C. In 2016, out of 50,133 exams taken, the average score across all exams was 628: 636 for reported scores and 593 for canceled ones. For Group A the average score rose to 651 (651 reported; 603 for canceled). In total, about one in five scores (19 percent) was canceled.
GMAC researchers stated: “Analysis indicates that the score preview feature of the GMAT, which enables candidates to select the exam scores they want a school to see and cancel scores they don’t want to share with schools, is contributing to perceptions of score increases. Lower scores are removed from the pool through cancellation and an increased number of higher scores are reported to schools, a phenomenon common across all three groups of programs analyzed.”
However, what was most surprising for Loades was the fact that “some really good scores were being canceled. “I would love to know why someone would cancel a 720 or a 740,” she said. “Because that, to me, makes no sense whatsoever.”
In conclusion, while researchers discovered that the GMAT has not gotten any easier, it remains that schools are seeing higher average GMAT scores, which could have an adverse impact on candidates. As the average scores of enrolled students creep upward, some applicants may be discouraged and either target different programs or continue to retake their GMAT until they reach their desired score.
It’s for that reason that Loades warns students against getting swept away in the high-score hype. “Your GMAT score is only one part of your application packet and what defines you as a business school candidate,” she said. “Before you place all your focus on your GMAT score, talk to the programs where you’re applying and try to understand what they’re looking for. Then, think about how you can demonstrate why you’re the best fit for that school or program. I would hate for a candidate to opt out of applying to a program where they would be a phenomenal match because they didn’t think they fit the GMAT score profile.”
As for schools, they can work to address this by increasing the transparency of their admissions processes. Loades encourages schools to publish the full range of their GMAT scores and not just the average because a single number can be misleading.
“We’ve had conversations with candidates who have taken the GMAT and canceled their scores before reaching out to the school they were considering,” Loades explains. “Then, when they heard back, the school replied by telling them that the score was good enough for them and that they should reinstate it and apply. Thus they became an admitted class member. Candidates are too fixated on a single number when it’s about them as an individual—all the different elements of what they bring to the classroom.”
To read the full methodology and the complete results of the study, download the full report from the GMAC website.