Grad School Admissions Testing – An Accurate Measure of Intelligence?

Today’s guest post is co-authored by Pauline Jennett, a Doctoral Candidate in the Educational Leadership Field. A former associate director of admissions from Harvard Business School, Ms. Jennett evaluated and interviewed domestic and international applicants. Prior to joining The MBA Exchange as an Admissions Consultant, she served as director of recruitment and admissions for non-profit career development organization Management Leadership for Tomorrow, an alumni officer for Boston University, and in sales and marketing management roles with Coca-Cola, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, and IBM. Ms. Jennett earned her MBA from The Wharton School, where she was a member of the Dean’s Graduate Student Advisory group and studied at Instituto de Estudies Superiores de la Empresa (IE). She has a master of divinity degree cum laude from Boston University, and bachelor of business administration degree from Baruch College where she was a Baruch Scholar. She has traveled to 36 countries on 5 continents and is conversant in Spanish.


In my educational leadership doctoral program, I am taking a fascinating class on Psychological Testing. In the textbook “Assessment Procedures for Counselors and Helping Professionals” (Drummond, 2010), the authors note that “despite the lack of a clear definition of intelligence, assessing intelligence typically encompasses measuring one’s ability to understand

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complex ideas, adapt effectively to the environment, think abstractly, learn from experience, learn quickly, and engage in various forms of reasoning.” Any student who has ever taken the SAT, GMAT, GRE, or LSAT, among other school admissions exams, can see remnants of these factors in the testing sections and question paradigms.

It is equally important to examine the history of standardized testing as the sobering realization of the sustained critical importance of the “admissions entrance exam” remains a core part of the domestic and international higher education system.

It may surprise casual observers to the admissions process to realize that collegiate testing was not created or designed to allow certain individuals in, but was designed to keep certain groups of individuals out of elite colleges. Institutions, such as the College Board, were created with very specific goals in mind. Soares (2007) notes that “northeastern colleges, with Harvard and Yale in the lead, imitated the universities of Oxford and Cambridge by requiring their own entry examinations. To pool their efforts, those colleges established the College Board (CB) in 1900 as a private association for the design and administration of admission tests”(Soares, 2007, p.17).

Several researchers note the College Board was initially established to keep out one specific group of collegiate students; individuals that were not Black, Hispanic, or Native American, but those that were Jewish. There was a general alarm among the Ivy League when Columbia’s Jewish student population virtually doubled in a short period of time. This stark acceleration of qualified Jewish applicants in the Ivy League was deemed a significant problem for the elite admissions boards.

In 1926, as a response to these changing student demographics, the board of admissions at Yale adopted the last of Corwin’s (their Dean of Admissions at the time) “Jewish problem” recommendations, and voted to require that applicants sit for the new “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” This test was expected to weigh more heavily against Jewish examinees” (Soares, 2007, p.25). Beverly Tatum, a President of Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college, affirms that “affirmative action and quotas used interchangeably add to confusion – quotas have a history of discrimination and exclusion. In the twentieth century they were used to limit how many Jews were admitted to prestigious institutions of higher learning” (Tatum, 1997, p.116). The implied meritocracy of the new SAT, or the new “intelligence test,” had initially created a new barrier for the Jewish higher education applicant population. A quick review of the history of the Kaplan testing service reveals that its founder, Stanley Kaplan, began his testing service in 1938 as a way to counter this new testing

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Many parents and prospective students in the admissions process believe that intellect was always the great equalizer in this landscape, yet historically “prep school and family connections were the keys to the Ivies. As noted, in the 1920s, Jewish quotas were enforced at the Ivies to keep the ‘character’ of their universities preserved” (Mitchell, 2001, p.30). It is disheartening to read that elaborate testing was implemented to keep one group of students outside of elite universities. Nevertheless, additional selective schools began to require the SAT. For instance, “Dartmouth started requiring SATs in 1958” (Lehman, 2010, p. xvi). As the test became more popular among selective schools, the SAT was deemed “a measure of developed verbal and mathematic reasoning and ability” (Moll, 1979, p.139). The SAT is now a key component and requirement that aims to measure intellectual aptitude in most college applications today.

Despite its nefarious beginnings, standardized tests have changed with the times. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but when taken in consideration with other factors (GPA, recommendations, accomplishments) it does provide another data point for schools, be they high school, college, or graduate programs, to make an informed admissions decision.

So what does the GMAT have to do with the SAT? Many argue that the GMAT is the current testing instrument that limits the percentage of minorities in top business schools. The Graduate Management Admissions Council, administrator of the GMAT, reports lower average scores for African Americans and Latinos than the average population. (2012: Mean GMAT Total Score: 548, Mean African American: 433, Mexican American: 471, Puerto Rican: 478, Other Hispanic: 487) [1] Yet, in my time in graduate admissions with Harvard and MLT (Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a non-profit preparation program with the goal of increasing diversity in graduate management education and corporate America), I was confronted with many, many students of color who consistently performed in the 700 plus GMAT range. Clearly, students across the board can and do achieve high scores on this test. In many ways, part of the key to unlocking achievement is to not be weighed down with facts and figures of how a group performs as a whole, and instead approach this test from an individualized perspective. An individual must understand the concepts tested, but also the mechanics of the test itself. That does not involve doing a problem here or there, but a thoughtful action plan of preparation that incorporates consistent practice. Overwhelmingly, I’ve found that students of all races, colors, creeds, and genders can do well on the test with the right time and effort. If you are thinking of applying to b-school, you should not fear the GMAT or let a low starting score deter you. Regardless of the initial intention of those who created the SAT, and by extension the GMAT, the test can be mastered since it ultimately tests things that are learnable.

Akil Bello, Founder of Bell Curves, has spent his career educating prospective students and their families on the ins and outs of standardized tests, focusing most of his work on underserved populations. Here are some of his standard “discussion points” about the GMAT that he uses when coaching minority prospective testing students:

1. Great test-taking is a habit developed over time. By the time they get to the GMAT, most great test-takers have taken and prepped for 5 different national admission tests.

2. The GMAT’s biases are universal, not racial or personal. The GMAT hates the ill-prepared.

3. Test-taking is a learnable skill. Much like playing the piano or playing basketball, you can do it on your own, but most people are better and more effective if they do it with the guidance of a professional coach.

As a prior admissions associate director and admissions coach, who has also taken YEARS of piano lessons as a child, I wholeheartedly endorse his test-taking suggestions!




Drummond, R. J., & Jones, K. D. (2006). Assessment procedures for counselors and helping professionals. Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

Lehman, J. S., & Lewis, E. (2010). Defending diversity affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor. University of Michigan.

Mitchell, 2001, p., J. S. (2001). Winning the heart of the college admissions dean: An expert’s advice for getting into college. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Moll, R. (1979). Playing the private college admissions game. New York: Times Books.

Soares, 2007, J. A. (2007). The power of privilege: Yale and America’s elite colleges. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.

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