GMAT Alternatives: A Trend Toward the Executive Assessment (EA) & Graduate Record Examination (GRE)


A substantial advantage of applying to online MBA programs is that most applicants to these programs do not need to take admissions tests like the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). And that’s especially true for candidates with enough years of work experience to qualify for waivers, as we discuss in our guides on GMAT waivers and MBA programs without GMAT requirements.

But those candidates applying to the minority of programs that still require admissions tests should know that some business schools now accept as many as three different kinds of tests. What’s more, applicants who assume that they have no other options besides taking the GMAT may damage their chances of admission to some of the best schools.

Why? That’s because they might score relatively higher on one of the alternative tests: the Executive Assessment (EA) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Of course, higher scores can lead to admissions and scholarship offers from better schools.

GMAT Alternative #1: The Executive Assessment

The same folks who administer the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), introduced a shorter, easier test they call the Executive Assessment in 2016. Originally intended for executive MBA programs, the EA is similar to the GMAT in that both exams feature the same kinds of quantitative and verbal questions.

These days, several non-executive MBA programs accept the EA. Columbia University had been the only elite school that quietly accepted the EA instead of the GMAT or GRE from full-time MBA applicants during the past few years. But in August 2019, #12-ranked New York University announced that the school would also accept the EA for all programs, including the school’s flagship full-time, on-campus MBA curriculum. Experts suspect that NYU’s step might be a bellwether move that opens the floodgates for many other universities—and especially elite schools—to admit candidates without either GMAT or GRE scores.

About 70 executive and eight online programs currently accept the new test, including most elite executive MBA programs. For example, the University of California at Berkeley accepts EA scores for its weekend part-time MBA program as well as the school’s executive MBA degree.

Also, in an interesting twist, Poets & Quants points out that the EA provides an incentive for highly ranked business schools to accept candidates with lower scores:

lU.S. News does not count and has no plans to include EA scores into its formula for ranking MBA programs, which means that schools can accept lower-scoring EA applicants and not worry about the impact on their ranking.

What is the Executive Assessment (EA) Test?

Both the EA and the GMAT include the same integrated reasoning section, accounting for 30 minutes and 12 questions. But that’s where the similarities end. Consider the following:

At only 90 minutes, the EA is much shorter than either the GMAT or GRE. The EA is 97 minutes shorter than the 187-minute GMAT and 135 minutes shorter than the 225-minute GRE.

The GMAT includes 80 questions, but the EA only includes 40. The EA’s Verbal and Quantitative sections take 30 minutes and account for only 14 questions each—a marked contrast from the longer, faster-paced GMAT, which includes a 65-minute, 36-question Verbal section and a 62 minute, 31-question Quantitative section.

Also, test-takers report that the GMAT includes more difficult math questions based on permutations, combinations, probability, and economic statistics.

Moreover, both the GMAT and EA feature “adaptive difficulty.” The GMAT’s software adjusts question difficulty on a question-by-question basis, meaning that a test-taker’s answers to the first few questions of each section can determine their score for the section. Unlike the GMAT, the EA adjusts the difficulty of groups of questions.

Furthermore, unlike the EA, the GMAT includes a 30-minute essay question GMAC calls the Analytical Writing Assessment, or AWA. This essay question does not appear in the EA.

GMAT Alternative #2: The Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examination is a general graduate education admission test administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The GRE has won nearly universal acceptance among business schools, with only a relative handful of schools continuing to refuse the GRE in favor of the GMAT. Moreover, the GRE’s market share among potential applicants to business schools has steadily increased, with a greater number of MBA applicants submitting GRE scores recently than at any other time in history.

For example, in 2015, only eight business schools admitted at least a fifth of their MBA applicants with GRE scores. But now, 25 schools have above one-fifth of admits who provided GRE scores, up from 22 in 2017. Some of these are highly-ranked schools, like the Yale School of Management with 25 percent and the University of Michigan with 24 percent.

What’s more, 14 schools admitted over 30 percent of candidates with GRE scores—double the number from last year. And at some business schools, like Boston University, Washington University and Southern Methodist, the proportion of applicants submitting GRE scores appears to be as much as half of all candidates.

Except for only a few cases, business schools appear to have no preference for one test over the other. For example, in a 2017 email, Stanford’s MBA admissions director Luke Peña told U.S. News:

We accept both exams, and have no preference for one over the other. We encourage you to select the exam that best highlights your ability to be successful in a graduate management degree program.

Why Choose the GRE Instead of the GMAT?

So why might an applicant do better on the GRE than the GMAT? Experts report the following generalizations:

  • Candidates who are better with verbal skills and have strong vocabularies tend to do better on the GRE. Verbal reasoning questions are tougher on the GRE than the GMAT, and the GRE can be an especially challenging experience for international applicants who are non-native English speakers.
  • By contrast, applicants who are better at math do better on the GMAT. Experts agree that although the GMAT doesn’t test geometry, its quantitative questions are more challenging than those on the GRE. The GRE also permits the use of a calculator; the GMAT doesn’t.
  • The GRE allows more flexibility because test takers can skip difficult questions and return to them later in the section. That’s not the case with the GMAT, which requires test-takers to answer all the questions in a rigid sequence. For that reason, more anxious applicants tend to perform better on the GRE.

Moreover, candidates can submit GRE scores not only to MBA programs and specialized business masters degrees, but also to a broad range of master’s and PhD programs in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Candidates who aren’t yet certain about their future plans can “keep their options open” without the need to invest months preparing for different admission tests.

Why Can Candidates Choose Among the EA, the GRE, and the GMAT?

The current state of affairs that affords candidates a choice among three different admission tests in applying to some schools is a relatively new development in graduate management education.

When Educational Testing Service proposed creating a graduate admission test to nine business school deans in 1953, they created a monopoly that lasted for the next 50 years with the test that they created: the GMAT.

But in 2003—during an embarrassing cheating scandal and Educational Testing Service’s general reluctance to upgrade the exam’s next-generation technology, customer service, international markets, and security—the Graduate Management Admission Council fired ETS. In their place, GMAC temporarily hired the American College Testing (ACT) organization to develop the test and Pearson VUE to administer it. Meanwhile, GMAC had decided to “backward integrate” these vendor relationships by bringing all these operations in-house. Free of expensive subcontractors, the result was that the GMAT ended up with higher profit margins than Apple’s iPhone.

Eight years later, the ETS testing empire struck back. In 2011, while the GMAT controlled 98 percent of the graduate management admission testing market, ETS retaliated with an aggressive strategy to recapture market share and revenue lost to GMAC by promoting the GRE as a GMAT alternative. That effort continues to this day and is largely responsible for ETS’s positioning of the GRE as a viable alternative to the GMAT.

However, ETS’s competitive retaliation during the past eight years wasn’t the only factor that led to all these admission testing choices in graduate management education. The continuing crisis in business school admissions made business schools more accommodating to potential applicants who didn’t want to spend months preparing for the GMAT, or preparing for a series of different admission tests.

But perhaps more substantially, in recent years the concept of admissions testing within graduate management education has drawn fierce criticism. As a result, many potential applicants as well as authorities no longer have confidence in such tests. Throughout most of the 1990s, the Harvard Business School dropped their GMAT requirement after HBS couldn’t correlate the test to graduates’ outcomes in statistically significant ways. Similarly, in 2015 the University of Toronto released results of a study demonstrating that the GMAT was irrelevant at predicting employability upon graduation. Kevin Frey, the managing director for the full-time MBA program at Toronto’s Rotman Business School, told Poets & Quants:

The most shocking surprise for us was how close to irrelevant the GMAT was. The one proviso is that GMAC has never claimed the GMAT exam is predictive of employability. It’s predictive of your ability to perform in the program.

But schools that are just trying to measure how their applicants will perform in the classroom are measuring the wrong stuff. We have a moral obligation to these students. They are going to invest a quarter of a million dollars into this degree. When we accept them, we need to feel very confident they are going to get the career outcomes they want. But the GMAT cannot be used as a proxy for employability.

As we mentioned above, U.S. News and World Report factors the GMAT scores of classes into their business school rankings. And it’s well known that elite schools offer scholarships to potential admits with high GMAT scores in attempts to improve the school’s position in the U.S. News rankings. Here’s what Frey had to say about these practices:

They buy all these high GMATs and we know it’s not predictive of employability. U.S. News has changed incentives so perversely that the market is blindly chasing GMATs without even knowing why it is doing so. It’s unfortunate. But if schools want to spend all their scholarships and effort recruiting a high GMAT class, we are going to cheer them on because based on our hard numbers, the GMAT does not predict the team that wins the employment game down the road.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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