Don't Overcook Standardised Tests for MBA Admissions


 In the frantic scramble for MBA admissions to elite Business Schools, nothing appears more self-evident than ‘the higher your standardised admissions test score, the better your chances.’

Almost all Business School applications require standardised 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. Standardised 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 suitable’ and move on to ask other questions of the applicant.

When an applicant is far below the School's published average matriculate for a standardised 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 standardised test 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 standardised test score until it is within the guidelines of the target programme, 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 standardised test scores 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.

Standardised 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.


Avi Gordon is Director of The MBA Admissions Studio and author of MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing, McGraw Hill Education (3rd Edition, 2017)