Key Takeaways from the 2013 GMAT Summit

This past Friday, key people from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) and representatives from various test prep companies came together in Los Angeles for the biannual GMAT Summit. The summit, which first ran in 2005, was created to improve transparency in the GMAT and to break down some of the most persistent myths around the exam. GMAC deserves a lot of credit for having a rather open-minded approach about test prep companies (We’re not steroids dealers, after all!), and the GMAT Summit is a great example of this approach.

We came away with a lot of great insights, not only about the GMAT, but also about GMAC’s overall work to grow the field of graduate management education. Below are a few key things that we learned at this year’s GMAT Summit:

GMAC wants to become a more student-friendly organization
By some GMAC representatives’ own admission, until now the organization has tended to put its member schools first. This wasn’t deliberately done at the expense of test takers, but GMAC has always thought about its member schools’ needs first when considering changes to the GMAT. The organization is changing, and is much more willing to ask, “How can we make the GMAT test-taking experience friendlier for applicants?” One example is how the organization now offers more official practcie tests for sale on, something it had long resisted doing. GMAC even asked us (all of the test prep companies in the room) what else it could do to help demystify the GMAT and make the experience less stressful for students. We kicked around a lot of ideas that GMAC may never implement, but it was great to see this open-minded attitude on the part of the orgnzanization.

Integrated Reasoning is going well, and it will probably evolve in the next year or two
With more than a year of data in the bank, GMAC reports that Integrated Reasoning (IR) is in fact more highly correlated with academic success in business school than any of the following: total GMAT score, Verbal score, Quant score, AWA score, and undergraduate GPA. When IR scores are added to all of those measures, the resulting combination proves to be an even better predictor than any of those are individually. Sounds like IR is a success, so what’s next? Nothing is set in stone yet (at least not enough that GMAC would share it with us), but it’s possible that more IR-like elements will find their way into Quant and Verbal in the future. Also, Integrated Reasoning itself is NOT adaptive today (partly because GMAC is still trying to build up enough data to satisfy its own requirements), but it’s not out of the question that IR will become adaptive in the near future.

GMAC takes test security very seriously
At every GMAT Summit, one of the highlights is a report on the latest happenings in test security and score validity. GMAC takes CIA-level precautions to ensure that cheating is never rewarded and almost always punished, and that your score is an accurate and valid measure. New developments in GMAT security include:

– Palm scans are now read and analyzed in real time. Whereas previously the security palm scans were collected before your test but analyzed for potential fraud later, now the scans are analyzed while you’re at the test center, so if two identical palm scans are attributed to two different test-takers, GMAC will be able to catch the perpetrator before they finish the first paragraph of their AWA.

– Tests are videotaped. If GMAC has reason to suspect that you cheated, it can review the videotape of your test to analyze further.

What does this mean for you? Hopefully nothing; if you’re an honest test-taker you shouldn’t worry at all about these procedures, which will only serve to make sure that you don’t lose out on admission because someone cheated their way to a score that you earned. But if you’re thinking about cheating, you may want to consider a different test or career path.

GMAC takes question validity very seriously, too
Another element of score validity and fairness pertains to the questions themselves, and GMAC reported on its efforts to remove cultural bias from its test questions. What began as a predominantly-American test is now administered around the world with more than 60% of all tests taken outside North America, so GMAC has stepped up its game even more so to ensure that questions aren’t biased across culture, region, or gender. Using a procedure called “Differential Item Functioning,” GMAC monitors performance on each item among different demographic groups and then compare that performance with items of similar difficulty and content area to ensure that questions are fair and consistent. Don’t be surprised, then, to see more questions citing meters (or metres) instead of feet and yen instead of dollars as the GMAT continues prioritize cultural neutrality.

The GMAT is transparent
While many view the authors and administrators of standardized tests to be secretive variations of Dr. Evil, GMAC’s primary goal is to provide an accurate test representative of the skills and abilities that business schools want. To that end, GMAC makes quite a bit of its data public so that students don’t have to view the test as cloaked in secrecy. Perhaps our favorite tool can be found here. If you’re interested in comparing your score against the scores of others -– based on nationality, split between Quant and Verbal, etc. –- you can access mountains of test-taker data to get a much more complete view of what your score means.

Quant and Verbal scoring scales could one day evolve
Technically, Quant and Verbal each have a scoring scale of 0 to 60, but you will never actually see a score lower than 6 or higher than 51. This unusual scale was a leftover from when the GMAT moved from a paper-based test to a computer-adaptive test in the 1990s. Now, as more and more students (especially those from China and India; see below) absolutely crush the Quant section, a 51 is now only a 97th-percentile score. While nothing is imminent, GMAC hinted at the conference that the test could one day soon start making better use of the whole range. Don’t expect such a change any time soon, but at this conference we noticed that GMAC’s stance has changed from “No way” to “We’re looking at it.”

Students in China and India prepare WAY more than their American and European counterparts
Think global competition will cool down any time soon? The median number of hours that students in India spend preparing for the GMAT is 100, and the median for test takers in China is even a bit greater. Compare that to European students, whose median is 60 hours, and U.S. students, whose median is just 40 hours! (These are all self-reported statistics from test takers.) Looked at another way, half of all test takers in China spend more than 100 hours preparing for the exam, while in the U.S. barely more than 10% of test takers spend this much time on GMAT prep. It’s no wonder that the mean GMAT score for test takers in China was 591 in Testing Year 2013 (the year ending on June 30, 2013), compared to 528 for U.S. students in the same period.

Demand for MBAs is strongest in industries you wouldn’t necessarily expect
By one measure, healthcare and energy are two industries where demand of MBA graduates is strongest. According to GMAC’s 2013 Corporate Recruiters Survey, 89% of healthcare/pharmaceutical companies and 86% of energy/utilities businesses plan on hiring MBAs in the coming year. Demand for MBAs among consulting firms (79% plan to hire MBAs) and finance-related businesses (75%) is still strong, but the growth of healthcare and the energy sector doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

By Scott Shrum