Adapting MBA Admissions to the Next Normal: Online MBA Without the GMAT

SMU Cox was one of the first universities to respond to this crisis by alleviating the burden of securing a GMAT test date during the pandemic.

Southern Methodist University campus

This blog post was originally published in July 2021, and was revised April 2023.

In 2020, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world in unprecedented ways, and the higher education system wasn’t immune to its effects. Now, as the United States moves forward, it’s important to apply what we learned from a challenging and disruptive time to prepare for the brighter future. For almost all of 2020, standardized testing centers were completely shut down, creating barriers for students trying to make the fall application deadline for MBA programs. Consequently, business schools like SMU Cox adjusted the admissions process to accommodate students and lift those barriers. SMU Cox was one of the first universities to respond to this crisis by alleviating the burden of securing a GMAT test date during the pandemic.

What is the GMAT?

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is an entrance exam for business and management graduate programs. Its purpose is to assess prospective students’ analytical, writing, quantitative, reading, and verbal skills. The GMAT is considered a set standard to predict individuals’ academic performance in a traditional MBA program or other graduate programs with an MBA concentration.

The GMAT exam is now offered both online and at testing centers, allowing test takers to select an option that suits their needs. The exam also offers flexibility by allowing test takers to choose which order they take the four separately-timed sections. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the GMAT covers the following topics:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment—measures an individual’s ability to think critically and to communicate your ideas.
  • Integrated Reasoning—measures an individual’s ability to analyze data and evaluate information presented in multiple formats.
  • Quantitative Reasoning—measures an individual’s ability to analyze data and draw conclusions using reasoning skills.
  • Verbal Reasoning – measures an individual’s ability to read and understand written material, evaluate arguments, and correct written material to conform to standard written English.

The duration of the exam is a little over three hours. The cost varies at each test center, but the online exam has a flat rate of $300. While the online version only allows one retest, test takers can attempt the exam at test centers five times within 12 months.

The GMAT’s quantitative and verbal reasoning sections are computer-adaptive, meaning it accommodates the test taker’s ability and automatically adjusts its difficulty level. It starts by asking a standard question. If the test taker answers the questions correctly, the next question will be more difficult. However, If the answer was incorrect, the next question will be more straightforward. The test continues to adapt this way throughout the quantitative and verbal reasoning exam sections and allows the GMAT test to assess participants’ ability more precisely. The GMAT score ranges from 200 to 800, and the average GMAT score is 565. The percentile ranking is a tool MBA admission committees use to determine the percent of test-takers you outperformed.

The GMAT is historically one of the most important factors for admission to a graduate program, so GMAT preparation is essential if required. The GMAC offers a baseline GMAT prep at no cost to anyone preparing to take the exam and offers additional preparation resources at an additional cost. The following steps are helpful when preparing for the GMAT exam:

  1. Create a study timeline. Once you schedule the exam, divide your time evenly and develop a study calendar.
  2. Take practice exams. Identify your strong points and areas of improvement before studying, so you don’t waste time on items you’ve already mastered.
  3. Use study materials. Take advantage of the many resources available online and continue to take practice exams to identify where you can improve. Since the GMAT is a timed exam, be sure to monitor your exam time.

What to know about applying to Online MBA programs that do not require a GMAT

The admissions process is an essential factor in deciding whether a university is the right fit for a candidate. While universities use your application to determine whether you’d be a successful MBA candidate, the admissions process is often a reflection of how they will value you as a student if they admit you into the online program. There are various reasons why someone would choose an affordable online MBA program that doesn’t require a GMAT.

A prospective student may seek out an optional GMAT online program if they prefer to be evaluated based on factors other than a standardized test. Universities with GMAT-optional MBA programs judge applicants by assessing their quantitative and verbal abilities via other parts of their application. Remember, some schools offer a GMAT waiver if the applicant has adequate work experience. This evidence is sufficient to understand how that person will function as an MBA student. Some allow a GMAT waiver if the applicant’s GPA is within a higher threshold. The benefits of waiving this test are clear:

  • It lessens the probability of racial and gender bias.
  • Admissions committee members evaluate candidates based solely on their past academic and professional experience rather than results from one exam.
  • It gives a unique opportunity for candidates that have test anxiety or experience other difficulties with exams.

The disadvantage of waiving the GMAT requirement is that you won’t have the opportunity to use it to benefit your MBA candidacy if you have a good score. Waiving the GMAT also means admissions committees wouldn’t be able to use it as a quick tool to evaluate thousands of applications that come under their review at scale.

A More Holistic Way to Evaluate the GMAT

This generation of MBA students seeks authenticity and transparency. More now than ever, students desire real-world applications from a master’s program. They consider having the skills to solve real problems more valuable than the mere prestige of an MBA certificate. Students want more direct access to the job market once they’ve finished a graduate program, desiring a clear return on their higher education investment. Recent trends also show that students favor specialized master’s programs and online degrees over traditional MBA degree programs. One of the biggest reasons for this is that working students can take advantage of online learning and continue to foster a career while attending classes rather than take a two-year break from a thriving career to go back to university.

In the spirit of transparency, it’s become more common for a graduate admissions committee to overlook the GMAT requirement, especially if a student can waive the exam altogether with professional experience. When considering the GMAT exam’s purpose, it becomes irrelevant if a graduate candidate can prove that they can commit to and succeed in a traditional MBA program through their work history and portfolio. While SMU Cox historically weighed the GMAT or the GRE as part of the overall application, we understood that accessibility was paramount during some of the most difficult years in recent history.

An MBA admission committee uses GMAT scores, among a variety of other factors, to determine whether a candidate is a good fit for a graduate business program. Other components of an MBA student application that admissions consider include:

  • Completed application. One of the first things an admissions committee looks for is whether you’ve submitted a completed application package. Check to make sure you’ve included all required items.
  • Undergraduate GPA. A university will judge your intellectual aptitude by your undergraduate grades. GPA is one of the ways they will determine what kind of student you will be. While GPA is an important factor, business schools take a more comprehensive look at your candidacy.
  • Essays. Essays are critical in a university application because the admissions committee gets a chance to see who you are as a person. A personal essay is where you can shine and discuss your goals and dreams, as well as how a business administration master’s degree would shape your future.
  • Resume. Resumes are another vital aspect of an MBA application because work experience is typically required, especially for an executive MBA program. Just as if you were applying for a job, you should tailor your resume to fit your desired business school’s mission.
  • Letters of recommendation. Many schools ask for a letter of recommendation, though SMU Cox does not. Much has been written about the LOI over the past few years, and we remain committed to building an applicant pool that recruits the highest caliber students regardless of their previous connections.
  • Interview. Not all applicants will make it to the interview stage, but it’s arguably the most crucial step in the process. Members of the admissions team invite competitive candidates to meet for coffee or a full interview. Familiarize yourself with the university and its mission and provide a clear set of goals in being part of the program.

Many have criticized the use of GMAT scores as a factor in MBA candidacy. High test scores do not always correlate with success. It’s time-consuming and disruptive for professionals who haven’t been to a university in over a decade to prepare for such a rigorous exam. Some even claim the test is inconsistent and that it displays racial and gender bias. We believe that the GMAT is merely one part of an applicant’s admission story, and that a strong evaluation criteria needs a holistic approach beyond standardized testing.

The Best Online MBA program that doesn’t require a GMAT

Most recently, schools waived the GMAT and made other adjustments due to testing restrictions brought on by the pandemic. As COVID-19 spread, testing centers completely shut down all standardized testing, so many schools didn’t have a choice. However, some saw this as a step in the right direction, as they were already offering GMAT waivers for students with extensive professional experience or a high GPA.

SMU Cox was one of the first business schools to evaluate the test and streamline their MBA application process. Maintaining a holistic approach to enrollment, SMU Cox evaluates their students’ experience more deeply than a test score. SMU Cox admissions wanted to give students as much flexibility as possible and to dig deeper into the application experience. In 2020, the admissions team waived the GMAT and GRE requirements across the board and reviewed each potential scholarship opportunity. Now, we’ve made the GMAT and GRE “test optional” for our applicants to provide another opportunity to customize the application to the individual student.

In terms of distance learning, SMU Cox was already geared up and ready to go. SMU Cox announced the launch of its Online MBA degree program in 2018, which SMU specifically tailored to meet the needs of working professionals who need the flexibility to further their career and meet other life obligations while earning an MBA.

The SMU Cox Advantage is rooted and grounded in three Foundational Pillars: Leadership, Analytics, and Experiential Learning. SMU Cox knows what it takes to be a well-rounded business leader, so the Online MBA allows students to hone their business leadership skills for an ever-changing professional landscape. Data analytics is essential in a digital world, as data has a more significant impact on business than it ever has before. Each Online MBA student at SMU Cox gains data analytics skills and learns to communicate data findings clearly and effectively to executive management. The experiential learning aspect is one that MBA graduates value the most. Through practice and role-playing exercises where students examine the challenges of actual companies, students leave the program feeling confident that they will make a difference at any company.

With an eye on market needs and in collaboration with corporate partners, SMU designed an Online MBA that makes its top-rated business graduate school, dynamic learning environment, renowned faculty, and world-class alumni network accessible to anyone, regardless of location.

Even in a global crisis, SMU Cox puts students first

The Online MBA at SMU Cox is designed to transform students into business leaders. This promise is met with paralleled action, which is why SMU Cox acted as a leader in transforming the MBA admissions process during a global crisis. Putting students first, SMU Cox took the initiative and found a path forward to ensure students would still learn and grow academically and professionally.

As an Online MBA student, you do not have to leave your current job or relocate to access SMU Cox faculty and extensive corporate partnerships with some of the world’s leading companies. If you’re an early career professional with less than three years of work experience, you can also pursue an MBA Direct and advance your career and leadership expertise earlier than most programs allow.

At SMU Cox, connectivity is at the forefront of our MBA programs. Whether it’s connecting ideas and applying them to the real world, forging bonds with your dynamic classmates, or forming professional relationships amongst the SMU Cox network of more than 40,000 devoted alumni, the ties you make at SMU Cox will last a lifetime. Make your first SMU Cox connection by contacting our admissions team to discover how our MBA can help you achieve your professional goals.