Graduate Management News

Behind the Scores: Understanding Underrepresented Minority GMAT Test Takers

Akil Bello, a test prep industry veteran and co-founder of Bell Curves LLP, presented a session on how test-taking strategies vary among underrepresented minority groups at the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Annual Industry Conference in San Diego. Bello noted that nearly 70 percent of African American prospective students in GMAC's Registrants survey are women, and approximately 40 percent are 31 or older. "How many of you want to take a math test?" he asked.

Bello, whose clientele in Manhattan, NY, is almost all African American, explained that compared with white and Asian American GMAT test takers, African American and Hispanic test takers are generally older and more likely to have families, and they are more likely to be female. These factors, coupled with data showing that men have higher average scores than women in almost every sub group, do a lot to explain why underrepresented minorities have lower average scores on the GMAT exam, he said.

GMAC's Registrants Survey, which asks potential students where they learn about business school, shows that African Americans are less likely than whites and Asian Americans to get information from friends and family, co-workers, and employers, and they are more likely to get information from school websites, publications, or admissions professionals, he said. "They find out more from objective sources, not from a mentoring perspective."

Based on socioeconomic status, GMAT data, and anecdotal evidence based on his 20 years in the test prep industry, Bello offered up four test taker archetypes:

  • Dora the Explorer takes the GMAT without any preparation "just to see how she’ll do,” and gets discouraged by her 390 score. Because her friends say she needs a 700 to get into business school, she may apply to a public policy program instead.
  • Jason the Qualifier has his sights on a program requiring a 500 score. After taking the test "just to see" and earning a 440, he buys the books or signs up for a prep course but doesn't really follow through. He retakes the GMAT and gets a 450, so he applies to a different program with a lower score requirement.
  • Patsy the Prepper took a course paid for by her company but didn’t finish it because she had too many other things going on. She scores 480. After studying on her own using the Official Guide to GMAT Review, she earns a 510.
  • John the Striver learns about the GMAT from a friend who went to a top b-school. He started preparing two years in advance by downloading free GMAT Prep software and scoring 520 on the practice test. He signs up for a major test-prep course and hires a tutor for extra help in the quant. His initial GMAT score is a 620, but he plans to retake the test to get a 650 or higher.

Although cost may represent a perceived barrier to applying to business school, many underrepresented minorities will take the GMAT without any preparation just to see how they'll do rather than use the free GMAT Prep practice tests, he noted. But he added that those who do the least well, such as Dora, are far less likely to invest in studying than test takers like John, who sees his score improving and is more motivated to keep preparing.

Meanwhile, schools should a better job of explaining what the GMAT is and how they use the scores, Bello said. When underrepresented minorities─who are more likely to go online for information anyway─don't find satisfactory information on school websites, "they are likely to go to forums on the web, where they tell you you have get a 700" to get into business school, without any other context, he said. "If you Google 'good GMAT score,' none of your websites come up."

Bello had several suggestions for schools:

  • To motivate potential applicants, connect them to alumni who can share their stories of preparing for the test. Have alumni emphasize how they prepared, not how they scored.
  • Show the full range of GMAT scores of your accepted students on your website. Having the full range will probably increase the number of underrepresented minority applicants you receive, he said.
  • Don't include suggested minimum scores: "When you have minimums, people aim for them."
  • Explain clearly on your website how you use GMAT scores. Underrepresented minorities get more of their information about business school online than white or Asian American test takers, he said. "They're online, so you have to be online."
  • Go where underrepresented minorities are: professional organizations, diversity events, online─and reach them early.
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