American business schools dominate most MBA rankings. However, in the ranking of countries according to the GMAT mean total score of their candidates, one has to go deep down the list to find the position achieved by the United States. The US has only secured rank 43 in the 2016 testing year (July 2015-June 2016). That is, as many as 42 countries have beaten the world’s foremost higher-education superpower in an internationally respected standardized test.
The US mean score of 547 out of a total score of 800 was 11 points below the global mean score of 558. Not only were China and India, with mean scores of 581 and 577, respectively, ahead of the US, but smaller countries such as Slovenia (583), the Czech Republic (581), and Slovakia (576) outdid “America” (see the Investopedia link at Resource 1, “Top 20 countries with the highest GMAT scores”).
But given the sheer number of GMAT tests taken in the US, it may not be fair to compare its mean score with that of other countries with much smaller number of test takers. In the US, 83,410 GMAT tests were taken in the 2016 testing year (the GMAC provides the number of tests taken, not the number of test-takers), but only 57 tests were taken in Slovenia, 109 in the Czech Republic, and 96 in Slovakia. However, the US mean score can certainly be compared with the mean scores achieved by China and India, where 70,744 and 33,123 tests were taken, respectively.
Why Americans score low on the GMAT
There has been much deliberation over the question, why do American students fall behind in GMAT, particularly compared with Chinese and Indian students. One answer is that Chinese and Indian students are much better adapted to, and much better prepared for, taking standardized tests.
Trained for years
In China and India, admissions to prestigious undergraduate and graduate programs are made on the basis of nationally conducted standardized tests, such as the “gaokao” in China, and JEE (Joint Entrance Examination for engineering undergraduate admissions) and CAT (Common Admission tests for graduate management admissions) in India. Many students are prepped right from high school for these tests.
Another reason why Americans lag behind is simply that they don’t prepare as hard as Chinese and Indians do for the GMAT and the GRE. A study reportedly found that while Chinese and Indian students study for more than 100 hours for the test on average, American students wind up their preparation in 40 hours. A WSJ article refers to a study by the GMAC (Global Management Admission Council) that found that Asian students study for 150 hours and US students only 64 hours. In fact, the GMAC has reported in the past that only 10 percent US applicants study as many hours as Asian students do for the test.
Obviously, a high GMAT score cannot be due to sheer good luck: there’s a direct link between study hours and GMAT score, according to a P&Q article. It appears that a candidate targeting a score of 600 or higher needs to study 100 hours for the test. Quoting a GMAC study, the article says that the average number of study hours for test-takers who score over 700 is 99 hours. If a GMAT applicant only studies for 64 hours, he or she should expect a score of just around 400. By this yardstick, American GMAT test-takers are doing very well.
Go-getters from the East
There is also a difference in the level of motivation between US and non-US candidates. Clearly, the stakes are higher for Chinese and Indian students — they plan to go to the US or Europe for a postgrad management degree incurring high tuition and living expenses, only so that they can jumpstart their careers. In contrast, many US GMAT candidates might be only taking the test to explore their academic and career options, and may not be as committed to doing well on the test as their Chinese and Indian counterparts. It’s quite not a make or break situation for them.
Many test-takers in the US consider part-time MBA programs more suitable to them in contrast to test-takers outside the country, most of whom prefer full-time programs. Schools demand only lower GMAT scores from applicants for their part-time programs compared with applicants for their full-time programs. So, again, these US applicants don’t really aim for very high scores. Moreover, they might also not target the most selective US b-schools that ask for high GMAT scores but schools lower down in the rankings that accept lower GMAT scores, according to an article in P&Q.
A higher education expert feels that a higher percentage of non-US test-takers than US candidates apply for one-year programs that do not require prior work experience. These non-US applicants are typically younger, and younger applicants tend to score higher in tests such as the GMAT, perhaps because the lessons they learned while training for earlier standardized tests are still fresh in their minds. The average GMAT score of candidates aged about 20-21 is 575, and it is 536 for those about 22-23. US candidates are a little older: the mean age of GMAT test-takers in the US is 26.5 compared with 24 in East and South-East Asia and a worldwide figure of 25.6, according to GMAC data.
Ahead in numbers
American students’ quant skills are often described as inferior to those of their Chinese and Indian counterparts and so they don’t do as well as Asians in the GMAT quantitative section, though they may have the edge in the verbal section. Quant comes easier to Asian test-takers, many of whom have backgrounds in engineering and STEM subjects, and those who also work hard on their verbals outshine Americans (see How Chinese get high GMAT scores).
Although American candidates’ median scores have remained the same over recent years, their percentiles have kept falling because of the improved performance of non-US candidates in the GMAT’s quant section. This decline has given cause for worry to both US students and b-schools, according to a WSJ article. So much so that schools have told the GMAC that the global ranking system is “becoming more difficult to interpret” and even asked for a system to assess US students and non-US students separately. The GMAC has since devised a tool to consider cohorts by their world region, country, gender, and college grade point average separately.
US students who feel their MBA dreams have been sunk by Asian students with higher GMAT scores wonder why b-schools set such great store by the GMAT’s quant section. They ask whether a high score in the verbal section, which many American students often achieve, isn’t an indicator that the test-taker is a potentially good communicator and an equally important criterion.
They also ask whether a good performance only in the quant section an adequate indication that the candidate will be able to make the most of the b-school experience. B-schools aim to turn out the best business leaders, and for this, are quant skills alone enough? Don’t b-school students and graduates need language and communication skills? Can a student who has scored low in the verbal section be expected to gain adequate communication skills over the MBA course to be able to inspire his colleagues at his or her future workplace?
But Asian students may also be tempted to ask whether an MBA applicant who has scored low in the quantitative section complete the quant-heavy MBA curriculum and later succeed as a leader in the business world where number-crunching is imperative?
GMAT only one factor
Schools take pains to explain that the GMAT score is only one factor among many that they look at when considering an applicant’s merits. An MBA site quotes an admissions official at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management as saying that a high GMAT score may or may not be an accurate predictor of an applicant’s success in the business world after graduation, but it tells the school officials whether the applicant will be able to overcome the challenges of the first year of the MBA curriculum, which is important both for the school and for the student.
At NYU’s Stern, an official points out that there appears to be a clear link between a high GMAT score and academic performance during the MBA program. An applicant with an excellent test score is likely to do very well in the program. Candidate with low scores are encouraged to take the test again for higher scores. Stern is one of the schools that don’t look down on candidates who have made repeated attempts. It only takes the highest score of a candidate into consideration, the Stern official told TopMBA.com.
MBA applicants who see the GMAT as an insurmountable hurdler have an alternative: the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is accepted at 85 percent of business schools, according to Kaplan Test Prep. Read GRE vs GMAT: Which is better?
‘Teach them math’
An admissions official who spoke to WSJ tried to see the problem clearly. According to him, what American students require is better math instruction right from elementary school. Asian students have sounder grounding in math at school and work harder for the test, and that’s why they score big.
Taking the discussion further, someone says on an online forum that poor teaching is the result of low teacher salaries. The math standard will only improve if teacher positions are made attractive for talented teachers. Salary should be based on teaching skills and outcome, not just credentials.
Younger teachers, who are often the best motivated, should be brought in. But the education system in the US only enables teachers with tenure/seniority thrive, with no responsibility to show results, says a former teacher on an online forum.