Young men and women taking a test
Testing times: Schools may see an admissions test as a sign of commitment © Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

To test or not to test: that is the question for many prospective students as they consider whether to apply, and how best to prepare, for masters in management courses.

Burdened by the stresses and distractions of undergraduate studies, many may feel unenthusiastic about yet more exams. But the extra effort can pay off with a significant number of business schools.

Admissions officers say it is one of the first in a series of decisions that can smooth the way to a successful application, from scrutiny of different courses and reflection around CVs and motivations, to careful interview planning.

Some tests are country-specific, such as India’s Common Admission Test or France’s Tage Mage. Others have international reach, including the US Graduate Record Examinations. One of the most widespread is the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), which assesses aptitude rather than knowledge by probing quantitative skills, and verbal, critical and integrated reasoning.

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GMAT is often not compulsory for pre-experience masters courses, and requires extra preparation time and costs — ranging from registration fees to, in some cases, tutoring. Yet the results help provide schools with a standardised benchmark — especially for international students from systems with which admissions staff may be less familiar. Michelle Sisto, associate dean of graduate studies at Edhec Business School in France, says: “We look at GMAT as a sign of commitment.”

Sangeet Chowfla, outgoing head of GMAC, which runs the GMAT, says one benefit of the exam is for students to probe their own abilities. “It’s a proven predictor of classroom performance so it’s useful for them to measure their own readiness. It’s a significant investment going to business school, so your score can tell you something about your experience, and how comfortable you will be.”

Deciding whether to take a test is one of a number of steps for applicants. Sisto stresses the importance of research, to explore the characteristics of different business schools and degrees by reading and talking to alumni. She cautions that some institutions, or individual courses, are not accredited by national educational authorities, limiting the ability of foreign applicants to obtain a work visa and remain in the host country after graduating, for example.

Like her peers at other schools, she says that in application letters and interviews, candidates should be clear about their motivations for studying and their career plans, and be ready to back up statements with ideas and examples. “A really common error is trying to say things that you believe the interviewer wants to hear rather than what you really think,” she warns.

Ciara Sutton, programme director for the Master of International Business at the Stockholm School of Economics, cautions that too perfect an application or one that is too generic can “result in the applicant not revealing enough of their own individual personality. We need to see how a candidate differs from their peers and what they will bring to the cohort”.

“Having a strong desire to join our specific programme needs to be demonstrated by revealing that the applicant has read up on what we offer, spoken to current students or graduates and actively chosen our programme,” she adds.

Filipa Luz, head of marketing at Lisbon’s Nova School of Business and Economics, says: “We want applicants who have different insights and mindsets for their future life: we’re looking for those students who want to change the world, make a difference, be future leaders.”

While Covid-19 accelerated a trend to cut back on in-person interviews, especially for applicants from far-flung locations, some schools still use them. Many more have switched to online variants.

If Zoom has reduced the risk of the weak handshake leaving a bad impression, online discussions bring other pitfalls. Sisto advises candidates to carry out practice interviews. “You need to be able to transmit your enthusiasm online so you can connect: really look at the camera rather than the screen, sit up straight and make sure the foreground is more eye catching than the background where you are,” she says.

Andrew Keating is an associate professor who oversees the MSc in International Management at Dublin’s UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. “We’re looking for critical reflection,” he says. “Give an example of how and why you succeeded with something; and what you learnt when something failed and how you would approach it again. If you said you want to work in tech, explain what you will do specifically; or cite a company and explain why it’s been successful, to show you are able to analyse.”

Appearance also matters, even online. “Don’t show up in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts,” says Keating. “You don’t have to be suited and booted but at least be smart. You should look into the eyes of the person asking you the question, while also being mindful of others in the room.”

Eye contact does not simply demonstrate confidence. It can also help focus on what interviewers are seeking. “Often candidates don’t listen to the question, get nervous and start reeling off something from the top of their head,” he says. “Listen to what’s being asked.” 

Secrets of successful applications

  • Do your research: identify the specific characteristics of each school and course

  • Talk to alumni to gather more information.

  • Internships and work experience demonstrate commitment

  • Voluntary work, sports or activities in other student activities show engagement

  • GMAT is not always obligatory but demonstrates commitment and tests aptitude. The test costs £225; practice test £41; official guide £40

  • Be authentic and not generic in your application

  • Reflect on your achievements and challenges overcome

  • Be professional in interviews: look smart, maintain eye contact, answer the question

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