What is a GMAT Waiver and How Does it Influence the MBA Application Process?

Many business school applicants may be surprised to learn how many MBA programs offer the option to waive admissions tests, such as the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). In fact, a GMAT waiver allows an MBA program applicant to forgo a test score submission, particularly when they have met specific criteria in terms of work experience, degrees or achievements, or other conditions.

It is an unfortunate reality that many talented candidates delay or even opt-out of applying to business school entirely because they assume that all universities require GMAT or GRE scores. Between the months of preparation and the frustration of standardized tests, many applicants dread the ordeal of taking one of these lengthy and challenging entrance exams.

However, according to research by BSchools.org, there is an increasing trend within business schools to offer entrance exam waivers and grant admission to students who do not provide GMAT or GRE scores, even at programs highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

BSchools compared the current waiver policies at 12 online MBA programs across the United States with each school’s admissions statistics to identify the conditions that schools likely grant GMAT and GRE waivers. The schools in this study include a small sample of highly ranked programs across the country, such as the University of North Carolina, currently listed #1 by U.S. News & World Report, and Washington State University ranked #20.

Other schools included Syracuse University, the University of Alabama, Johns Hopkins University, Seton Hall University, George Washington University, the University of Delaware, Pepperdine University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), the University of Dayton, and the University of Denver.

The study analyzed patterns that might indicate specific circumstances where schools would likely grant these exemptions. While there are some inscrutable waiver policies, several themes and conclusions quickly emerged from the data. Read on to explore the top takeaways.

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No GMAT vs GMAT Waiver Business Schools

Are GMAT Scores Important?

In general, most admitted students did not provide GMAT or GRE scores with their applications. Less than 14 percent of admitted students provided scores at five schools studied. These include the University of North Carolina, the University of Delaware, George Washington University, NJIT, and Syracuse University, where only two percent of admitted students provided scores.

According to Poets & Quants, Syracuse focuses on work experience as the prime indicator of program fit, which is why the Whitman School of Management waives GMAT scores for those with at least five years of work experience. The highest portion of entrants who provided GMAT scores was at Pepperdine University, but they still only accounted for one-third of all admitted students.

GMAT Waivers and Covid-19

By now, MBA applicants have likely noticed that the Covid-19 pandemic has fueled the GMAT waiver admissions trend in the United States. In January 2021, Poets & Quants reported that 67 of the top 100 MBA programs were waiving the GMAT and GRE requirement or implementing test waiver policies in favor of a more well-rounded application. To this point, Soojin Kwon, the managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, states:

“We are not waiving the requirement that an applicant has demonstrated analytical and quantitative skills […] We want to see students succeed and thrive in our program. As such, we will continue to look for evidence that an applicant can handle the rigor of our MBA program.”

Other factors that admissions committees consider include coursework from previous degree programs and work experience. In fact, being able to demonstrate a certain number of years in a professional environment can grant an automatic GMAT waiver to an applicant, which is detailed below.

Automatic GMAT Waivers

Schools grant GMAT/GRE exemptions at the discretion of admission officers who evaluate each waiver request. However, at three institutions, waivers are automatically given to those who qualify; they do not have to request a waiver.

Admission committees at UNC, for example, automatically grant waivers to applicants with at least seven years of work experience. Similarly, GW allows waivers to applicants with five years of work experience. And at NJIT, applicants with an advanced degree are automatically exempted from submitting GMAT test scores. This means that candidates who have the above qualifications do not even have to file waiver request petitions with admissions committees.

Syracuse University embodies a particular case because while the school does require waiver applications, they are typically always granted to candidates with five or more years of relevant work experience, according to published statistics in U.S. News and interviews with their admissions officers.

Work Experience

Work experience encompasses the main reason why schools offer test score waivers to applicants. Business schools are aware of the extra work and pressure that entrance exams put on experienced working professionals. As Poets & Quants explains, “a GMAT or GRE turns into extra busywork when the real-world experience they’d bring to a program is likely more valuable than saying they scored over a certain number on a test.”

For this reason, some schools are making the application process less cumbersome by waiving GMAT requirements for online MBA programs. At UNC, for example, more than 80 percent of the school’s online MBA students are granted admission without entrance exams because they have double the work experience of students in the on-campus MBA program, according to Poets & Quants.

“Our research on our admissions and student performance data indicates that the GMAT is a poor predictor of performance for students with significant work experience; thus, we tend to waive the GMAT for those students and evaluate those applications based more heavily on their work experience,” wrote senior associate dean for MBA Programs Sridhar Balasubramanian. “We also found that the need to take the GMAT was holding back many of our highest-potential applicants with many years of work experience from even applying to the MBA@UNC program.”

UNC’s website goes into further detail about this change in the process. “We compared the academic performance of MBA@UNC students who had received a GMAT/GRE waiver with the performance of similar students who had submitted test scores over 18 months. We found no meaningful differences in the academic performance of the two groups,” reads the school’s waiver policy. “Therefore, when evaluating applicants with a significant amount of professional experience, we rely instead on what we believe are more reliable indicators of ability—career trajectory and success, previous academic performance and quantitative experience.”

How Schools Define Work Experience

In general, work experience which qualifies an applicant for a waiver needs to be of a specific caliber that is relevant to the applicant’s career goals. Beyond that generality, each school defines “relevant work experience” in their own way. For example, this language from the University of Alabama provides insight into the school’s preferences:

“Our admissions committee evaluates an individual’s accomplishments, roles, and responsibilities to determine the total number of years of professional experience. UAB considers the individual’s managerial responsibilities, role in setting direction and strategy, and his or her role in allocating resources. Normally, professional experience begins at the point of graduation; however, we may consider prior work experience based on type of experience.”

In other words, the University of Alabama ideally looks for management responsibilities with budget authority, along with demonstrated roles in determining strategic direction in their GMAT/GRE waiver candidates.

In contrast, Syracuse provides a more broad definition of work experience:

“Work experience is preferred, but not required for admission. We do accept qualified candidates without work experience who possess, among other criteria, exceptionally strong academic backgrounds, demonstrated leadership and a strong potential for success in business. Historically, one of our Syracuse MBA program’s greatest strengths has been the diversity of our student body. We continue to seek candidates with diverse racial, ethnic, social, academic, and professional backgrounds and career goals.”

However, Syracuse is the only school to specifically consider more qualitative skills, such as leadership ability and potential in their waiver decisions. The better business schools may devote substantial emphasis to developing skills like these during their programs.

How Many Years of Experience Do MBA Applicants Need?

In general, most GRE or GMAT waivers require candidates to have been working for several years. According to BSchools research, the average number of years of work experience required to win a GMAT or GRE waiver is more than five years. Moreover, the two highest-ranked schools in the sample, the University of Washington and Washington State, exhibited two of the most extensive work experience requirements, both at seven years.

Academic History

Another determinant in assessing applicants for GMAT waivers is education. Academic history requirements and preferences range from undergraduate academic performance (i.e., GPA) to additional coursework and certifications, and even advanced degrees.

Eight schools consider outstanding undergraduate academic performance at accredited universities when granting waiver requests, and four of them impose minimum GPA thresholds, which range from 2.8 to 3.4. Two schools also consider the “rigor” of undergraduate programs.

Applicants with GPA scores below the requirements may be required to submit GMAT or GRE scores. Many schools use GMAT or GRE scores as a proxy for validating a candidate’s quantitative ability, which is why five schools of the 12 studied consider or specifically require evidence of prior quantitative coursework before they grant waivers. Those schools include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Delaware, UNC, and GW.

Pepperdine and Johns Hopkins both require specific quantitative coursework such as statistics, finance, or quantitative microeconomics before granting waivers. Pepperdine University even requires that students have degrees in quantitative economics or science, engineering, technology or mathematics (STEM) disciplines, or a B or above in quantitative university coursework like calculus or statistics. Additionally, many schools consider advanced degrees when evaluating waiver requests.

Professional Certifications

Professional certifications are important to some schools. Four schools consider Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) and similar licenses when awarding waivers. Curiously, in the sample, three of those four were also private institutions.

GMAT Waivers as Incentives

Although many do not think about the marketing component to the application process, it is true that many schools use GMAT waivers to entice candidates towards applying, as is shown on many MBA program web pages where “No GMAT” prominently displayed.

Schools are all competing for the same limited pool of highly qualified students, so they want to make the application process as seamless as possible. There are some instances where schools do not disclose details about their waiver policies or publish information about their policies in such vague terms that applicants would need to opt-in to a “sales” pipeline—i.e., submitting name, email, and phone number—just to receive basic information that other schools freely reveal on their websites.

As a final note, four online MBA schools that were not part of the original sample—American University, Northeastern University, and Ohio University—have no entrance exam requirements. In these cases, the schools dispense with the need for applicants to request waivers, focusing strictly on evaluations based on several years of quality work experience and prior academic performance.

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.