So, you think you can manage?

Graduates face a testing time from business schools. Philip Schofield reports
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An intimidating hurdle for generations of would-be MBA students has been the notorious GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). Three weeks ago it underwent radical change.

GMAT was developed to help US business schools - faced with a fast-growing numbers of applicants - to identify those with the numerical and verbal reasoning skills, and the speed and flexibility of thinking needed for MBA studies. Candidates could sit a standardised and independently administered test at a local centre, the results being available to the candidate and any business schools they chose. GMAT proved highly successful and has been adopted worldwide.

Some schools have developed their own entrance tests. But candidates with a good GMAT score are normally exempt. GMAT remains a US-based test. However, although questions may sometimes use baseball examples, the papers are largely culture free. One difference which can affect Britons is the greater emphasis given in the US (and GMAT) to grammatical precision.

The test takes four hours. Until last month it was held four times a year, and consisted of two 30-minute essays and seven 25-minute papers of multiple choice questions. The test papers were sent to the US for marking and people waited five or six weeks for their results. However, the multiple choice paper-and-pencil questionnaires have been replaced by two 75-minute computerised tests - candidates get their results instantly.

The marking system remains unchanged. The essays, one analysing an issue and the other analysing an argument, are marked on a scale of 0-6. On the multiple-choice questions, separate scores are given to the numerical and the verbal skills. These latter scores are aggregated to give a total between 200 and 800. Candidates still have to wait a month for essay marks.

The changes are not only in how multiple-choice questions are administered. Because reasoning and analytical ability are the main skills being assessed, each question needs careful thought. Because there are considerable time pressures, candidates in the past were advised to tackle the questions they thought they could answer, and then go back to the others when they had done so. This is no longer possible. The computerised questions are in a logical sequence and if one opts to skip a question, there is no going back. Anyone stuck on a question must decide how to long to persevere with it before moving on, or risk running out of time. Although there are now 30 per cent fewer questions than before, harder questions are now given weighted scores. Half of all candidates achieve a total score of 500, the absolute minimum needed to tackle an MBA course. In general, the better the business school, the higher the score needed. For example, the average GMAT score for those on MBA courses at London Business School is 640.

Because so many business schools offer MBAs, and their quality is highly variable, potential employers of MBAs are concerned with where a person studied. As a good GMAT is a prerequisite for entry to most good schools, there are now a number of crammers where candidates seek to improve their skills. Anyone using one should ensure that the tutors are used to the highly specific requirements of the GMAT and are not just used to teaching English or Maths. One also needs to check the number of hours coaching obtained for one's fee.

Candidates need to be wary of any claims made by crammers about the number of points improvement made in the average score. GTAC Associates, a well- established GMAT tutorial firm, which charges pounds 365 for six four-hour sessions, says it is impossible to guarantee specific levels of improvement for every student because the level of improvement also depends on the individual's innate abilities.

Full details of GMAT are listed in the current issue of the GMAT Bulletin of Information, available by sending a self-addressed A4 sized envelope to the Educational Advisory Service, Fulbright Commission, 62 Doughty Street London WC1N 2LS.