An admissions officer from Darden Business School, one of the first MBA programs to go test-flexible, explained how the school's evaluating applicants and who can skip the GMAT

  • The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia is extending a test-flexible option to some applicants through the next year, potentially excusing them from taking the GMAT or GRE — but not everyone will receive that privilege.
  • The dean and admissions officer from the 11th best business school in the country, according to US News and World Report, told Business Insider how to qualify for being exempt from submitting GMAT and GRE scores, and what the school is looking at instead. 
  • Past leadership experience, excellent recommendations, and other grades and test scores will be factors Darden will closely consider in deciding whom to admit.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Applicants to the MBA program at the Darden School of Business can apply to take advantage of the school's test-flexible policy for GMAT and GRE exams.

But exemption isn't guaranteed, according to an admissions officer at the school, and many of the alternative materials applicants will be judged on are also standardized tests. 

The nation's 11th-best business school according to US News and World Report, housed at the University of Virginia, will offer the test-flexible option to students applying within the coming year who are seeking to begin their studies in the fall of 2021.

Here's how it works: Before submitting their complete application package, students who wish to be exempt from having to include a GMAT or GRE score will first need to file a waiver with the school, along with an undergraduate transcript or resume.

But it's not a blanket exception for everyone, as the school's admissions team will review each applicant and determine who is exempt from submitting a GMAT or GRE score. 

"We're not just going test-flexible, 'submit what you want,'" Dawna Clarke, the school's executive director of admissions, told Business Insider. "It's not pre-admission." 

In other words, she said, "if somebody doesn't have enough alternative evidence" other than the tests to indicate that they would perform strongly in Darden's program, "then the test becomes sort-of necessary." In those instances, those students will still be required to submit their scores.

Read more: BUSINESS SCHOOL PREP: The ultimate guides to getting into the top MBA programs in the world

Clarke said her admissions team will closely consider a few factors in deciding whether to grant the test waiver requests. And as it turns out, a majority of the alternatives to submitting a GMAT or GRE score require some type of testing or professional certification

Among them: has the applicant obtained a certified public accountant or chartered financial analyst designation? Both already involve rigorous standardized testing.

Having completed a three-month course like CORe at the Harvard Business School, an online program that helps students prepare for formal MBA education, would also be seen favorably. It involves a final standardized test to complete the course.

Other types of standardized tests could also be accepted: the executive assessment, a 90-minute exam which industry professionals take before applying to Executive MBA programs, would be one.

The law school LSAT, medical school MCAT, and even the SAT and ACT — high school tests usually associated with undergraduate admissions — would also all be considered by Darden in the absence of a GMAT or GRE score.

What other factors Darden will consider

If it sounds like Darden will still look heavily at test scores and grades, it's because it will, administrators said. However, undergraduate or professional leadership roles, strong letters of recommendation, or prior experience in jobs that demand deep quantitative analysis will all come into sharper focus.

If candidates can't demonstrate enough of those factors to justify being excused from the exam, "sometimes we deny them" and require a test score, Clarke said.

See more: Apollo is revamping its recruiting and trying to soften culture amid a big growth push. From kids' story time to a new MBA summer internship, here's a look.

Darden's decision to go test-flexible was prompted, in part, by the coronavirus crisis. None of the students applying for the final round of spots in the fall 2020 class were required to submit GMAT or GRE scores as a result of the virus. The round, which normally closes April 6, was extended to July 15 due to the pandemic.

Interestingly enough, Clarke said the school saw a 364% increase in applications for the final round compared to the same round the previous year. 

And while the school will adopt the test-flexible policy in admissions for the fall 2021 class, Darden may choose to uphold the new policy even after the pandemic subsides. Before making that determination, it will analyze data on students' academic performance this year, first.

"There are many stellar applicants who are perfectly academically prepared for Darden, but can't crack a 700 GMAT," Clarke said.

"It feels antiquated to me to rely exclusively on the GPA and a standardized test when there are other, alternative compelling forms of evidence that one can thrive in the MBA program," she added.

Standardized tests have 'been shown to be skewed to advantage certain groups'

GMAT or GRE exam scores have conventionally held significant sway over who's accepted at the nation's top business schools, and who isn't.

At Darden, the average GMAT score among members of the class of 2021, which will graduate next year, was 713 out of the maximum 800 points — a score that puts those students above the 89th percentile of all test scorers.

At other top schools like Harvard and Wharton, the average GMAT score is above 730 — putting those students above the test's 94th percentile.

Research has shown that tests like the GMAT can be strong predictors of business school students' academic performance in their first years — but they can be problematic for another reason, said Scott Beardsley, dean of the Darden School.

The tests can favor some groups over others, he said.

"Standardized tests have often been shown to be skewed to advantage certain groups that regularly score higher on test scores," he told Business Insider.

"It's pretty obvious that groups that have more resources to go hire a private counselor and study harder over a long period of time can perform better, but we also know that some people don't have those resources."

Darden's decision is one way to try to level the playing field.

In a statement to Business Insider, the Graduate Management Admission Council, the group that administers the GMAT, pointed to efforts to increase diversity among applicants.

"For more than three decades, GMAC has been actively engaged in increasing diversity in graduate business education," the organization said, pointing to $12 million in investments it has made to "increase underrepresented populations in the business school pipeline."

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