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Standardized admissions tests

By Margaret Adolphus

Undergraduate admissions tests

A standardized test is one where all the elements – administration, questions, scores – are absolutely consistent, so that whether the student sits the tests in Beijing or Chicago the rules are exactly the same, the questions are open to just one interpretation, and are scored in the same manner.

The earliest use of standardized tests is in the Han dynasty, according to Wikipedia, for admission to the Chinese Civil Service; perhaps the best known, at least with actual and would-be business students, is the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). This article looks principally at that test and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) – the two main tests for potential graduate students in English-speaking universities, and also examines briefly undergraduate tests, and English language tests.

Probably the best-known of these is the SAT, which is used in the USA as a key means of deciding whether or not to admit someone into higher education. The reason for its adoption is that because the US is federal, each state has its own education system, so it can be difficult for colleges to compare students. There are two versions of SAT:

  1. SAT 1 which tests verbal and mathematical reasoning skills.
  2. SAT 2 which is subject-based.

For more information on SAT, visit the website of the College Board (which sponsors the testing programme and decides how it will be constructed, administered and used) or the ETS website (which administers the tests).

Graduate Management Aptitude Test

The GMAT is a test of mental and cognitive ability, and is intended to gauge the likely success of a candidate in postgraduate management study (although approximately a fifth of candidates also apply to non-business programmes). It does not require specialist subject knowledge, but does demand some mathematical and verbal aptitude. Along with an undergraduate record and career experience, it is a key requirement of most business schools – and the one over which you have more influence. If you aim for a top school, it is particularly important to do well: the expectation will be for scores in the late 600s.

What the test comprises

There are three main parts to the GMAT, which are taken consecutively with optional ten minute breaks between each, so that the whole test takes nearly four hours. Table I, below, gives a breakdown:

Table I. Elements of the Graduate Management Aptitude Test
Analytical writing assessment (60 minutes) Two 30 minute essays, one analysing an issue, the other an argument Tests ability to think critically and communicate your ideas. No subject knowledge required
Quantitative section (75 minutes) 37 multiple-choice questions, on data sufficiency and problem solving Requires basic mathematical knowledge and tests problem solving skills, the ability to analyse a quantitative problem, and judge relevance and sufficiency of information
Verbal section (75 minutes) 41 multiple-choice questions, on reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction Tests ability to read and comprehend written material, reason and evaluate arguments, express things correctly and effectively, and correct written material so it conforms to standard English. Passages for reading can be taken from the social sciences, sciences or business disciplines

Separate scores are awarded for each section and then cumulated. The two essays are each marked by one human and one computerized system (Intellimatic, a software program that recognizes syntax). The score is based on the number of questions you answer, whether or not the answer is correct, and the level of difficulty of the question.

It is possible to retake the GMAT up to five times in a year, although few people retake it more than a couple of times in that period, and the scores will appear with your score report, along with your demographic details, and a percentile rank according to the number of candidates who scored less than you did. You can also cancel a score, but only immediately after a test before you know the results, so you would need to be pretty sure that things had gone badly.

The score has a reliability rate of 0.92, and with an error of measurement of 29 points, there may not be too much of a difference between scores of 580 and 600. For this reason, schools are recommended not to have a hard and fast cut-off point. However, studies have shown that there is a correlation between GMAT scores and first-year or mid-programme grade average.

Computer adaptive tests

The GMAT is taken sitting at a computer and you are given dry erase books and dry erase markers for rough notes.

Moreover, the software "adapts" itself to your answer, selecting a harder or easier follow-up question according to whether or not you get the answer right. Questions are weighted, so harder correct answers are given a higher score than easier ones.

Because of the adaptive nature of the test, it's best to answer all questions (there is a high penalty to leaving out a question or for not finishing) and to avoid random guessing. If you don't know the answer to a question, make an educated guess and eliminate the wrong answers. Only one question at a time is presented.

Getting help with the GMAT

It's definitely advisable to put in as much practice as you can before you actually take the GMAT. Free practice software is available from, as is the official guide (which isn't free). There are also plenty of books and online tests available from other suppliers (see Part 5. Useful resources).

Tips for taking the GMAT

  • When preparing for the GMAT, analyse your areas of weakness and brush up as much as you can for that topic.
  • Try and familiarize yourself with the structure of questions and the paper's format ahead of time, which will save precious time in the exam.
  • Manage your time well for each question –- don't spend too long answering one question.
  • The questions early on in the test are worth more than later questions, so it's worth getting them right.
  • Read the questions carefully, check you understand them. If you are not sure of the answer, make an educated guess by eliminating answers you know to be wrong.
  • Take care that you mark the answer you mean to in the correct way – you can't go back.
  • You can achieve a higher score with the computerized marking of the essay by making sure that your essay looks good and is legible.
  • If you are not a native English speaker, English idioms can be particularly awkward. See's list of most commonly tested idioms on
  • For essays, it's quality not quantity that counts –- concentrate on producing something short and succinct.
  • Unlike more conventional exams, the GMAT is entirely done on computer, which means you will have to sit at a computer for nearly four hours. Make sure that you are thoroughly happy with reading from the screen, using a mouse and with word processing. Make sure you stay comfortable.
  • You will need to do a lot of reading for this test, so try and improve your reading speed.
  • Take a practice test at a test centre or use practice software. Check the software as soon as you get it, and make sure it works.



You need to register in advance (which you can do online or by phone, e-mail or fax). If you are disabled, you can apply for special provisions.

Pick the test dates by looking at the deadlines for the schools you wish to apply for, and work back from the earliest, allowing plenty of extra time for your score reports to reach the colleges of your choice. Your registration fee will cover you for sending score reports to up to five schools.

On the day, make sure that you arrive with proper identification, and that you know what you can't take to the test centre with you (conditions are remarkably stringent – for example pens and rough paper are not allowed).

For more information on the GMAT, visit the website (which is administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council).

Graduate Record Examination

The GRE is a standardized test which is used to measure both subject aptitude and critical thinking ability for graduate school, throughout the English-speaking world.

There are two parts to the GRE: specific subject tests (biochemistry, cell and molecular biology; biology; chemistry; physics; mathematics; computer science; English literature; and psychology), and the GRE general test. The latter has many similarities with the GMAT:

  • it is a computerized test,
  • it has the same structure, with verbal and quantitative sections based on multiple-choice questions, and an essay-based analytical writing assessment,
  • it has the same scoring structure.

However, unlike the GMAT which is firmly established as part of the MBA application process, there has been widespread speculation as to how valuable the GRE is as a way of assessing ability. The subject tests are disdained by some (for example, the questions on English literature do not take sufficient account of minority or women authors), while the general test is also not considered relevant. For example, its mathematical element may not be required in some social science and liberal arts courses, while being too elementary for postgraduate maths and science courses.

The format of the GRE is outlined below:


  • Linear – no adaptive component, and all exams held on that day are the same.
  • Lasts just over four hours.
  • Takes place on 30 fixed days.
  • Verbal and quantitative scores 130 to 170 points, with an expected mean of 150.


  • Two essays each lasting 30 minutes named "critical thinking and analytical writing". The essays are designed to be a "Measure of ability to articulate complex ideas clearly and effectively, examine claims and accompanying evidence, support ideas with relevant reasons and examples, sustain a focused, coherent discussion, and control the elements of standard written English".
  • Two 40 minute quantitative sections which are meant to test reasoning, and include "real life" and data interpretation questions.
  • Two 40 minute verbal sections, with an emphasis on cognitive skills.


There are test sites in major US cities, and outside the US in most industrialized countries. Currently, fees for the general test vary depending on your location and reductions are available for the unemployed. Free practice software (Powerprep) is available from ETS.

For more information on the GRE, visit the ETS website which also provides practice materials – both paper and software – and follow the links to GRE.

English language tests

For non-native speakers who have not studied before in an English language country, it is necessary to prove sufficient mastery of the language. The tests involved generally measure the four key communication skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

The main ones are:

  • IELTS – International English Language Testing System: Covers "international English" –- is accepted by most British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, South African and increasingly American institutions. It has six modules: listening, academic reading, general training reading, academic writing, general training writing, and speaking. Candidates have to have interviews and write essays, etc.
  • TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language: Covers North American English, and is delivered via the Internet. The test is offered in different formats depending on your location.
  • TOEIC – Test of English for International Communication: Covers North American English, and is a two-hour test using multiple choice with pictures, audio cassettes and written material.

For more information on English language tests, visit: or

Useful resources

There is a lot of information on the Web about all the main standardized admissions tests, and the best pages are listed in the previous sections.

Most of the administering bodies provide their own resources, some of which are free (e.g. practice software for the GMAT and GRE) but the following organizations also provide textbooks, classroom courses, online tutorials, and even private tutoring.