Universities use a variety of standardized tests to help determine the readiness of applicants. Candidates for MBA programs will be familiar with these types of tests because they will have taken the SAT and/or ACT before applying to undergraduate programs. Standardized tests are an effort to take subjectivity out of student assessment. While they remain controversial, the logic behind them is not. Grades given by different institutions with different standards may reflect different levels of ability. In other words, an “A” from one institution might be easier to achieve than an “A” from another school. A nationally administered standardized test ostensibly creates a baseline of achievement for all students.
Most tests target reasoning ability over specific knowledge. Language skills and math ability are the focus of the general exams. Many tests feature analogy questions in multiple-choice form. Such a question would look like “foot : shoe : : hand : ?” where the correct choice is “glove.” Reading comprehension is another aspect of such tests. More and more tests also feature a writing portion, so that schools can judge an applicant’s ability to express himself or herself in an academic setting. Math sections target ability in algebra, geometry, arithmetic, and logic.
Most of the agencies that create the tests, like ETS (Educational Testing Service) and the College Board, publish samples of the tests in print and online. Test preparation courses and books have proven effective in increasing student scores. It would be worthwhile for MBA candidates to check out the particular tests their target schools require beforehand. It might even behoove MBA applicants to enroll in a preparation course to ensure success on the test.
Preparing for Tests
A student must pass a variety of standardized tests before moving on to the next level of his or her education. Candidates for MBA schools must pass many of these tests, which tend to focus on skills rather than background knowledge. Reading questions focus on a test-taker’s ability to analyze concepts and read between the lines for an author’s opinion. Analogies focus on a test-taker’s ability to understand logical and categorical relationships. These skills can be honed and improved.
Test preparation courses are one way to help improve test scores. Some companies offering these courses have claimed that they can improve scores by hundreds of points. These claims have come under scrutiny lately and may be overstated. What the courses do offer, however, is a familiarity with the test that is invaluable. Knowing what to expect on test day can be a big boost to a student’s confidence and sense of well-being. Furthermore, having specific strategies to attack difficult portions of the test can give students an alternative to guessing.
The cost of test preparation courses can make them unattractive to some candidates. It behooves these students to get access to the materials and prepare for the tests on their own. Sample tests and preparation materials for the tests are available from the institutions that create and administer them. Both the College Board and ETS, the makers of most of the standardized tests accepted by American universities, offer sample tests and study materials on their websites or through the mail. Libraries are another good resource for finding test preparation materials from private publishers. Practice tests might be the most valuable of the resources available because they indicate the range into which a candidate’s score is likely to fall.
Students must be conscious of several variables when preparing for a test. They must know how often a test is given and how many times they can take it if they are dissatisfied with their original score. They must be aware of the reporting time; that is, how long between the taking of a test and the reporting of scores to relevant institutions. The timing of these reports to coincide with other application materials is important.
The SAT is an assessment test for high school students applying to college. Students who eventually attend an MBA school will have taken this test, which measures a student’s reasoning ability and is meant to complement the high school transcript. The test is uniform in all 50 states and is accepted by institutes of higher education in all 50 states and beyond. It is administered by the College Board, a non-profit association composed of universities and other educational institutions, at sites nationwide.
Some colleges require students to attach an SAT score to their application; others allow students the option of submitting an SAT score. A few schools do not consider SAT scores at all, while more and more schools are accepting the ACT in lieu of the SAT. In the past, the ACT was a regional Midwest test, but it now is given nationally. College websites contain a wealth of information for students who are considering applying, including SAT requirements. Many students take the SAT twice: once as a high school junior and once as a senior.
There are several different types of SATs. The standard SAT reasoning test covers three categories: critical reading, writing, and math. In the critical reading section, students read academic passages from a range of disciplines. Questions test their ability to read for specific details, main ideas, and the author’s stance. The writing portion asks students to identify stylistic and grammatical errors and also to write a short essay to demonstrate their authorial competence. The math section covers concepts ranging from arithmetic to algebra. Subject tests are available in many high school disciplines like literature, history, physics, and foreign languages. These tests allow students to demonstrate skill in an area of strength and also to matriculate out of certain elementary courses when they enter college.
A good SAT score is a requirement of the top colleges in the United States. Each section of the SAT is scored on a range from 200 to 800 points, with 800 reflecting a perfect score on a section of the exam. Each of the three sections– critical reading, writing, and math are worth 800 points, so a total score of 2,400 is possible but extremely rare. An average score, as one might expect, falls right in the middle of the range at 500 on each section. Many schools require more than the average 1,500 total for acceptance. Many seek a score of 1,800 or above, with the toughest schools demanding a score well over 2,000. Moreover, many schools have minimum requirements for each section of the test, requiring a 600 on math, a 600 on critical reading, and a 600 on the writing portion. Although a score lower than that sought by a particular school does not automatically disqualify an applicant, it nonetheless is an important guideline. The application process is arduous and requires substantial paperwork and fees. If a candidate’s score is significantly below the school standard, it is a sign that the candidate might not be right for that school.
The ACT, like the SAT, is a test for those applying to four-year colleges in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Although fewer students nationally take this test than the SAT, colleges and universities universally accept ACT scores as proof of competence. Because the test originated in the Midwest, it is more popular in those states, but its popularity is growing throughout the country.
The ACT is divided into four subject headings: English, math, reading, and science. The ACT has a total of 215 questions: 75 English questions, 60 math questions, and 40 questions each in reading and science.
The English section of the ACT assesses knowledge of grammar and usage by having students read passages with certain parts underlined, many containing mistakes. Students are asked to choose a better phrasing or leave the underlined part as it is. The math questions test a student’s knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra using standard multiple-choice questions. In the reading section, passages are followed by multiple-choice questions that test a student’s ability to analyze an author’s point of view, the theme of a story, and inferences that can be made from the passage. The science section also has reading passages and charts followed by multiple-choice questions. These questions are not knowledge-based per se but test the student’s ability to understand essays on science as well as the student’s understanding of common terms and symbols used in high school science curricula.
The ACT also has an optional writing test that adds a student’s writing sample and its score to the student’s English score. Students taking the writing portion are given half an hour to write an essay based on a written prompt.
Students receive a score report several weeks after the test date. The ACT score, which ranges from 1 to 36, is a composite of the scores on all four sections. The report also indicates the score on each section of the test as well as sub-scores on different kinds of questions answered correctly. Only a fraction of a percent of students who take the ACT achieve the top composite score of 36. The national average, compiled from more than a million student scores, is 21. Many students take the test multiple times to improve their scores. Familiarity with the test does seem to help, as more than 50% of students improve their score on a second try. Although students may take the test a maximum of 12 times, most students do so only twice. The common test trajectory is to take it once in the junior year of high school and once as a senior. Students must be aware that the test is given only a few times a year on a national test day. Needless to say, most educators recommend practicing with sample tests, test preparation books, or in a test preparation class. The time spent preparing for the ACT might one day help a student enter an MBA school.
The GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) is a nationally administered test required by a majority of MBA schools. The test can be taken internationally but is offered only in English. Business schools use the test as a predictor of success in MBA or other graduate management programs. Regardless of whether an applicant’s target school requires the test, the school will consider GMAT scores as well as other information on the application. The test is designed to measure a candidate’s knowledge of business as well as the ability to understand business-related material.
The GMAT is divided into three parts. The analytical writing assessment, which comes first, consists of two essays in which an issue and an argument must be analyzed. The test-taker is given half an hour to complete each essay. This is followed by the quantitative section, which is composed of 37 multiple-choice questions. Typical math problems as well as data sufficiency problems–questions that ask if an equation gives enough information to be solved; must be answered within 75 minutes. The GMAT uses a computer adaptive model, meaning the response to a question determines whether the next question is easier or more difficult. The verbal section also takes 75 minutes, but there are 41 questions that involve correcting grammar problems, reading comprehension, and some critical reasoning. This multiple-choice section also uses the computer adaptive model.
The scoring of the GMAT is similar to other tests of its ilk. The range of the cumulative final score is between 200 and 800. Very few people score an 800, but applicants to top business schools should score 700 or above. Schools do not post a lower threshold score for the GMAT, but they do post a composite record of the scores of their student body. Applicants should score at or above the composite score to have a decent chance of being accepted to the MBA school of their choice. Four scores are given on a GMAT score report: verbal, quantitative (math), total, and the analytical writing assessment. The test-taker also receives a percentile ranking comparing his or her score with other test-takers in each category. Test scores are valid for five years, meaning that someone taking the GMAT need not apply to an MBA school immediately. It also means if an application is rejected, a candidate can apply to another school in the next cycle.
Students can take the test once every month, up to five times a year. Because familiarity with the test usually leads to improved scores, many students take the test multiple times. They often do so long before their application deadlines because the test is valid for five years. Test prep courses and books are valuable resources, because understanding the test boosts confidence if not actual scores.
Applicants to graduate schools generally take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) to demonstrate their competence and ability to succeed in a master’s degree program. The test is administered by ETS (Educational Testing Service) and comes in several forms: the general test and a variety of subject tests. Students should take the test during the time they are applying to graduate school.
The GRE general test is the most commonly taken test and is accepted by most graduate programs, although there are exceptions for certain advanced degrees that have their own tests, like the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), and the GMAT. The GRE general test does not cover specific subject matter but rather tests a student’s ability to analyze and interpret academic material. The three sections are analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. The two writing tasks are essays, taking 45 and 30 minutes respectively. One is an issue task in which the student must write an essay describing the sides in an issue. The other is an argumentative essay in which the student must defend one side of an argument.
The verbal and quantitative reasoning tests are multiple-choice tests. The verbal test, which consists of 30 questions takes 30 minutes, and the quantitative test, with 28 questions, takes 45. The verbal test consists of analogy questions, stylistic and grammar questions, and critical reading. The quantitative reasoning covers algebra, geometry, probability, and logic, among other topics.
The GRE sections are scored separately. The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections each are scored from 200 to 800 points. The analytical writing essays each are given a score between 0 and 6. Any candidate who feels he or she has performed poorly on the test can cancel the scores immediately after taking the test. If a candidate does not cancel the scores, he or she will learn the results at the same time as the institutions they are applying to. Familiarity with the test is one of the best indicators of test success, so students should consider buying test preparation materials or taking a class.
Students may opt to take a GRE subject test instead of the GRE general test. The subject tests contain knowledge-based sections and are given in eight categories: biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, literature, mathematics, physics, and psychology. Students should take these only if they are applying to graduate school in these or related subjects.
Because the GMAT is a much more commonly accepted test, MBA candidates should check with the schools where they are applying to determine which test they should take.
Students take standardized tests throughout their educational career, often beginning as early as kindergarten. Testing begins in earnest with the PSAT (Preliminary SAT), also known as the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), which highlights its purpose. These tests are created by the College Board and have a dual purpose. One is to prepare students for the SAT, a critical test used to determine one’s fitness for college. The other is to determine which students qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. Students take the test before taking the SAT, which usually starts during a candidate’s junior year of high school.
The PSAT is structured much like the SAT test, only shorter. It consists of five sections: two 25-minute critical reading sections; two 25-minute math sections, and one 30-minute writing skills section. The two critical reading sections are made up of 48 multiple-choice questions. Some are sentence completions, challenging the student to finish a sentence in a way that is both grammatically and stylistically correct; the rest are passages followed by comprehension questions. Students are given 50 minutes to complete these two sections. The two math sections follow, comprising a total of 28 multiple-choice questions as well as 10 problems the students must solve. The total 50-minute math test covers topics in measurement, geometry, algebra, statistics, numbers, and operations. Calculators are allowed, but computers are not. Finally, there is a writing skills section, which also consists of multiple-choice questions, asking students to identify errors at the sentence and paragraph levels. The writing skills section takes 30 minutes. Thus, the total time for the test is two hours and ten minutes.
Scores on the PSAT/NMSQT range from 60 to 240. Students receive a score as well as a percentile that compares them with their grade peers nationally. High scores are especially valuable and determine which students are recognized as National Merit Scholars, which often results in local publicity and the potential for scholarship money.
The National Merit Scholarship may be used to fund a student’s post-secondary education, such as an MBA school. The most common award is $2,500 and, as the title suggests, is based solely on merit; in this case, a high score on the PSAT. In addition, other scholarships are available to merit scholars. For instance, the NHRP (National Hispanic Recognition Program) offers scholarship money to Latino students who score very high on the PSAT. Students take this test to familiarize themselves with the SAT, compare their achievement with their peers nationally, and become eligible for scholarship money.
Another test considered by universities is the CLEP (College Level Examination Program). Published by the College Board, the CLEP actually is a variety of subject-matter tests administered nationwide. The tests are designed to demonstrate a candidate’s proficiency in a particular subject. College admissions officers consider these tests when candidates apply to their schools. Candidates may be able to opt out of required coursework or even receive credit for courses taken if they can demonstrate sufficient ability in a subject. According to the College Board, the test is accepted by more than 2,900 colleges and universities.
The CLEP offers 33 different subject tests that fall under five broad categories: composition and literature, foreign languages, history and social sciences, science and math, and business. These tests, as opposed to the typical standardized test, are primarily knowledge-based. Whereas tests like the SAT, the GRE, and the GMAT tend to test a candidate’s ability to analyze a given piece of information, the CLEP tests the candidate’s knowledge of a particular subject. For example, in the History of the United States I test, which covers the years from colonization to 1877, students are responsible for knowing dates, trends, and important historical figures and events from this period. By scoring sufficiently well on this test, students can receive college credit for a similar course at their university. Students can use the tests to graduate early or to finish unmet requirements. The tests also are extremely useful for those studying remotely or in need of particular coursework to move on to graduate school.
Many MBA schools have course requirements that must be completed before a student may begin the MBA program. Students who fail to take these courses in their undergraduate careers may be able to use a CLEP as a substitute. This will save them money as well as time; each CLEP test requires a mere $77 fee whereas college tuition for even one course can be exorbitant. The CLEP business tests are in financial accounting, introductory business law, information systems and computer applications, principles of management, and principles of marketing.
Before investing the time, effort, and money required to take and pass a CLEP test, candidates should make themselves familiar with their institution’s CLEP policy. Universities post CLEP information on their websites, including minimum required scores, amount and kind of credit given, and any additional requirements or exceptions. There are restrictions on how often an exam may be taken, usually once every six months.