Why INSEAD Is Welcoming Lower GMAT Scores
Maria |
February 8, 2022

One of the benchmarks that most MBA applicants struggle to meet is the GMAT score. INSEAD, which is known for having one of the most elite business schools in the industry and is notoriously stringent when it comes to GMAT scores, has opened its doors to accept and admit students with GMAT scores lower than they have previously accepted. 

For MBA aspirants, this is definitely a big and head-turning opportunity that Caroline (whose alma mater is INSEAD), Maria, and John tackle in today’s podcast. Listen to hear why they think the decision to accept candidates with lower GMAT scores is a win-win situation for both the school and potential MBA students.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.570] – John

Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host Maria Wich Villa and Caroline Diarte Edwards. You know them well by now. Caroline, of course, is former admissions head at INSEAD and the co founder of Fortuna Admissions. And Maria is the founder of Applicant Lab. And I just have to tell you that in the past day or two, Caroline broke a big story for us. We put it up on the site in less than 24 hours. It achieved over 30,000 page views, which is pretty darn good. And I will tell you why. It’s because Caroline found out that INSEAD is looking at GMAT scores a bit differently these days and in fact, is open the door to receive and admit students with GMAT scores that are lower than they have been in the past. Caroline, why don’t you tell us how you followed this and got onto it?


[00:01:16.090] – Caroline

Yeah, I know visionary Fuji very well. He’s head of admissions at INSEAD, so we worked together for many years. Visually, absolutely wonderful. And we keep in touch regularly. So I was chatting with her recently. A client had mentioned that she had said on a recent admissions webinar when they were discussing a particular case that someone with quite a low quantitative percentile on the GMAT actually didn’t need to reapply. So I was curious about that because traditionally, INSEAD has been incredibly strict on the GMAT. So for many years, the policy has been candidates need to get 70 or 75% on the quant and the verbal, and they really look at that breakdown much more than total score in order to be credible candidates. And that has been the case for many years. And it was sometimes frustrating for me when I was at in Seattle when we would turn away potentially fantastic students who hadn’t quite made that score. Now, sometimes in the past, for sure, there were exceptions to that rule, but it was very much the exception rather than the rule that people below that level would get in. So now, finally, the admissions committee has agreed that candidates who have not achieved that threshold if they have otherwise strong academic credentials.


[00:02:42.950] – Caroline

And it’s important to emphasize this, if they have strong undergrad and clear evidence that they have what it takes academically to succeed on the program, then the school will consider them much more seriously than they might have in the past. And now it’s important to emphasize that you still have to have those strong academic credentials and be able to demonstrate that you’ll do well on the program. And that’s partly because it’s a one year program. So the pace is fast. Right. And that’s why INSEAD has traditionally been much less flexible on the GMAT than some other schools. Even I’ve had clients get into schools like Harvard and Stanford who would not get into Insecure because of their GMAT. Right. And because it’s that one year format. The pace is fast. I sometimes joke, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. You have exams every eight weeks. There’s no time to sort of gradually get up to speed and brush up your core skills. When you start the program, you need to hit the ground running academically. So they do need that reassurance. And they’ll look at not just your undergrad, not just your GMAT, but they will also look at your work experience.


[00:03:57.510] – Caroline

Some people are using a lot of advanced quantitative and analytical skills in their work, and they will give credence to that as well as demonstration of quantitative ability.


[00:04:08.760] – John

Yeah. Now I often wondered if one of the reasons why INSEAD was a bit tougher on the GMAT was because professors are on the admissions committee and have a role in admitting students. And I wondered if professors may think that the GMAT is more important than it probably is. What do you think of that?


[00:04:31.390] – Maria

That’s for sure.


[00:04:32.190] – Caroline

So at INSEAD, the admissions committee is composed of half faculty and half alumni.


[00:04:38.280] – Maria



[00:04:38.600] – Caroline

And so I think it works very well because they bring different perspectives to the decision making process. So whilst all of these people understand the whole picture, the holistic process and the different criteria that INSEAD are looking at, the self interest of the alumni is that they want to recruit students who are going to be incredible professionals, super successful, wonderful ambassadors for the school, and great people to have in their future network. And so are more interested sometimes in the professional track record than the academic side, whereas the faculty wants to have the smarter students in their classroom. Right. So they may give a bit more weight to the academic profile. And overall, it works out very well. They balance each other out. It makes for some very good discussions. Right. Where people are challenging each other, and it’s not this sort of group think where they immediately jump to a conclusion about a candidate, but there is genuine discussion and debate, and it sometimes gets pretty heated. So I think that’s very healthy to have that balance. But it does mean that sometimes the faculty can be very persuasive and sometimes can really lobby against submitting candidate where they don’t feel confident about the academic credentials.


[00:06:01.180] – Caroline

So clearly this has been a policy that they have thought through very carefully, and they will have agreed this with the admissions committee. Right. It’s not just visiony who’s decided this and imposed this on the admissions committee. It would have been very much a sort of strategic decision that’s been taken after a great deal of thought and discussion by the committee.


[00:06:23.170] – John

Yeah. One consequence of this, which is a positive consequence, is that people who otherwise might have been discouraged from applying might more readily apply as a result of this policy change. This has been the difficulty for Stanford for years. The school with the highest average GMAT score for its incoming cohorts always worries that it’s losing a lot of fantastic candidates merely because that number is so high and it turns a lot of people off. You think you don’t even have a chance to get in? Marie, I’m sure you’ve seen this with some of your clients over the years where they look at those scores and they just say, hey, I can’t get that. I can’t get that score. So I don’t have a chance. Even though when a school publishes a median, obviously half of all the people who get admitted are under the median, and roughly the same is true for an average. But people do talk themselves out of the way, right?


[00:07:24.390] – Maria

Yeah, absolutely. And it really is a shame because, as Caroline said, it is a holistic process if one of the things that the school is looking for is ultimately to identify people who will in the future be very successful alumni who will be on the cover of whatever magazine and will make the school proud. Oftentimes those people may not necessarily be the best standardized test takers. And so I do think that sometimes I will say that I have worked with people who did not do very well as well on the GMAT, and I urged them to take the GRE, and then they were accepted with the GRE. So going back to last week’s discussion, I do think that there’s a little more forgiveness and wiggle room if somebody submits with the GRE score. But, yeah, what’s remarkable about what Caroline has uncovered is that every school or most other schools have always said, oh, it’s a range. Just submit. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a strong candidate, but insane. It was rare in that it actually officially published. If you don’t have at least 70, 75%, whatever, you can apply.


[00:08:29.830] – John

That is really unusual.


[00:08:31.280] – Maria

Yeah, they were pretty overt about it. And so I wonder if maybe they started letting in a couple of people where if it is really half professors and half alumni, there may have been some people where the alumni were banging on the table and saying, no, we have to let this person in, and then maybe they got in and they did perfectly well in the classroom, and maybe that got the professors to loosen a little bit. I did have a candidate once from Africa who had a mid 600 GMAT who did get into INSEAD. But again, this was a case of someone whose international experience was out of this world. It was one of those things where I’m glad that they had a letter of recommendation because I would almost think it was embellished or exaggerated. But no, it wasn’t like this person had literally been their company moved them to Brazil and they had to teach themselves Portuguese and negotiate with a village. No, they had to learn Portuguese and negotiate with a village because it was a multinational Corporation that was going to do something in this village. And the villagers were rioting against this company, and they had sent other Brazilian people who weren’t able to quell the villagers.


[00:09:35.890] – Maria

And she was able to go learn Portuguese and negotiate with the villagers for a happy outcome. And I’m like, oh, my God, you are amazing. And so in that one of the amazing things she did. So I was like, okay, in this case, your story is just so good. Let’s just give it a shot with it, Zeyad, because, wow, talk about international diversity of experience. So anyway, maybe I suspect someone like this amazing young woman got into INSEAD with a lower score, probably kicked some pretty serious butt in the classroom. And maybe those little data points start showing the professors that, yeah, you don’t have to be so stringent on the standardized test.


[00:10:18.970] – Caroline

That’s a good point. I think, Maria, that it’s definitely going to be more the case for candidates who bring that sort of diverse perspective. So if you have that type of profile that’s somewhat unusual in the pool, then you’re going to have a higher chance of doing well. Then if you have a very common profile.


[00:10:43.350] – Maria



[00:10:43.660] – Caroline

And you’re up against very stiff competition from a lot of other candidates who have similar profile to you, but they’ve aced the GMAT. So that’s also something to keep in mind that the GMAT I don’t think the average GMAT is going to go down dramatically anytime soon. Right. So they’re still going to be admitting most of the students who have a very strong showing on the GMAT. So it’s going to be more the candidates who bring that additional dimension of diversity and just have those fascinating profiles like you described that are going to get more serious consideration with the lower G match.


[00:11:28.340] – John

I wonder if some of this is related to the school’s goals to increase gender equality, to increase diversity overall in its program. INSEAD had 33% women in its MBA program in 2018, was 37% in 2021. It has a goal of reaching 40% in the 24 25 academic year. This is according to the Dean. We also happened to have an interview with them online. He stopped by the office in San Francisco, and our managing editor interviewed him. And they’re getting a lot of applications from Africa now. In fact, in the last cycle, he said applications from Africa doubled. And what we know and this is another thing on the test as far as I’m concerned, women tend to score less than men, even though their GPAs tend to be higher and they do better in the classroom than men. Africans score less. In fact, when you look at GMAT scores by country, the African countries have among some of the lower GMAT scores. So when you get applicants from Africa and you want greater representation from Africa, the standout candidates don’t have as high GMAT’s as they might in India, China, or some parts of Europe.


[00:12:54.920] – John

And then the problem is that in Europe there are very few female applicants, according to the Dean Dentiate. So if you want to reach these diversity goals, you’re going to have to be a little more flexible on a standardized test. That is, after all, only one element of many in the assessment of a person’s ability to come and do well in an MBA program. Do you think there’s some of this in the background?


[00:13:20.890] – Caroline

Yes, absolutely. And that’s what they’re targeting. As Visually said, they’re concerned that candidates who would be fabulous students at INSEAD might be self selecting out of the pool and not applying because they haven’t got that 70 75th percentile. And they see that and they’re put off and they go to other great schools. And so this is specifically designed to broaden the pool and make it easier for some candidates to apply who might otherwise have gone elsewhere. And it doesn’t mean also I mean, as she said, it doesn’t mean necessarily going to get in straight away, right?


[00:14:01.650] – John

Definitely not.


[00:14:02.540] – Caroline

So they’ll take them forward to interview. If they like the profile, it may be that they will ask the candidates to retake the test. If there are still doubts about the academic ability of the candidate, then they may go back to them. And they regularly do this. They regularly ask candidates to retake the test if they love their profile, but they’re just concerned that they haven’t yet demonstrated that ability to cope with a very, very intensive and demanding program. They may ask them to retake the test.


[00:14:34.580] – John

And last week we pretty thoroughly covered the decline in GMAT test taking volume, which is now at historic lows. And we talked about how many programs are now test optional or are more generously waiving the need for a standardized test. I wonder if some other schools, in addition to INSEAD, are doing this without making any sort of announcement or it’s just a little more quietly being done. Maria, do you think that’s true?


[00:15:06.320] – Maria

I think it would sort of have to be. Again, the proof is in the pudding, right? If they have been slowly but surely letting in more and more candidates with perhaps less than stellar test scores and those candidates are kicking lots of butt when they get to campus, then that also speaks to the limitations of the test. And so why should I take the test as seriously if it may be an indicator, but clearly it’s not the only indicator of someone’s academic potential. I did want to very quickly point out one quick thing about the score discrepancies between, say, Africa versus China and India, because sometimes people get upset about it and they’re like, I’m from India and it’s BS that I get discriminated against. And people from Africa get this sort of affirmative action treatment. I’m pretty sure that GMAC themselves. I don’t want to put, like, words in their mouth, but I remember once watching a presentation where someone somewhere had done research into they asked people, how much time did you spend studying for this test? And people in countries like India and Africa, which have very heavy testing, those are test taking cultures, right.


[00:16:10.980] – Maria

Your entire life is determined by one or two exams that you take as a teenager. And so those are very test heavy. People will reach out to me. I quit my job last year to study for the GMAT, and I’m like, oh, my God, what are you thinking? Right. It’s like, oh, that’s a terrible idea. Oh, well, in India, we do it all the time for the civil service exam. And I’m like, what’s not like that in other places. But I think the average is like the average person in India or China studied something like 200 hours. These numbers are not accurate, but it was something like hundreds of hours. And the average person in Africa studied like 5 hours. Right. So it’s also a culture. It’s not just like, oh, well, these people are less qualified than I am, and yet they’re getting in. It’s also like, hold up. Maybe if you had only studied for 5 hours too, maybe you wouldn’t have gotten that 760 just because it’s just not, of course, thanks to the Internet, etc. And word is getting out like, hey, you should probably study for like several weeks or months.


[00:17:08.190] – Maria

But for a while, people were just like, well, it’s a test. And so I’ll study a little bit and I’ll just take it and see what happens. Anyway, I just wanted to point that out. I don’t remember the exact figures, but it was a pretty dramatic delivery.


[00:17:21.970] – John

I think we recall that research as well. Yeah. I mean, look, in South Africa, the mean GMAT score of a test taker is 505, and that tends to be on the high side for most African Nations. And so the other question here is, when an admissions official looks at a GMAT score, do they actually look at what the overall score is in a given country so that they actually are seeing? Okay, well, this person has performed well beyond the typical candidate from their country. Is that even taken into account?


[00:17:58.520] – Caroline

It is to a certain extent, not necessarily such a granular level of country by country and what is the average? And so on. But certainly admissions staff are aware of the regional differences that you mentioned.


[00:18:14.510] – John

Egypt is the average score. Ethiopia 447, Cameroon 427. Botswana 409. These are the average scores in these countries. Clearly, if you want to recruit and basically place a bet over the next quarter century, what’s going to be the most important economies emerging in the world? You’re going to place big bets on Africa, and you’re not going to be able to get massive big GMAT scores. Kenya 463 is the average. Some of these countries, it’s just like all in the 400s. It’s remarkable. So if you score a 600 from a country where the average is 450. Man, you’re really doing well.


[00:19:03.350] – Caroline

Yeah, right.


[00:19:08.070] – Maria

I was just going to say the country of China clearly thinks that Africa is going to be the next hotbed of growth. They’re investing so much money into that region that I know in the US, we may not be quite as it may not be quite on our radar, but other countries are taking note, other superpowers are taking note. And so, yeah, I mean, if you want talent, they need to start grooming that talent now to be ready for the opportunities later.


[00:19:31.430] – Caroline



[00:19:31.700] – John

And this goes back to how standardized test scores kind of are discouraged diversity, because we know based on the fact that if you’re an underrepresented minority and you grew up without the benefit of College educated parents speaking about professional things in public policy in the economy around the dinner table, you’re not going to score as well as someone who had those advantages. And so if you want to increase the diversity by recruiting more under represented minorities, you’re going to have to look at other aspects of their application to more fully evaluate them than a standardized test score because it’s just not going to work. And we’ve said this before about the test is in English, and students who are taking this test who didn’t grow up with English are also at a natural disadvantage. So you have all of these other factors that have long plagued standardized testing in general and are increasingly being acknowledged by University admission officials, whether at the graduate level or the undergraduate level, because they contradict goals for diversity. And I think that on some level, this move by INSEAD needs to be looked at in the context of these newer trends where schools want and have put great emphasis on diversity and inclusion and equity and gender balance and greater representation from countries around the world that are more diverse in the typical industrialized economies.


[00:21:20.070] – John

And if that’s going to happen, there’s going to have to be more flexibility in interpreting a standardized test score.


[00:21:26.740] – Caroline

John, I’m glad that you raised your children talking about public policy and the economy at the dinner table. I’m afraid that conversation at my dinner table is more about please don’t throw food at each other and stop arguing. Maybe my kids are going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to taking the GMA, but just to be able to the advocate and argue in favor of the team in terms of diversity, it’s very difficult. Right. For schools evaluating candidates from all across the world. And so it’s actually in some ways a benefit for candidates coming from different backgrounds to have a data point that enables them to be compared to the Wall Street investment banker and the McKinsey, London management consultant. Right. Because although they may not do, they may not get a 730 like those other candidates. It enables them to demonstrate academic ability and potential for the program in a way that may not be quite so obvious from their background, which may largely be because the school just is not familiar with where they went for their undergrad and they don’t know the company that the candidate is working out. And so that unfamiliarity with their background can also be a barrier.


[00:22:47.030] – Caroline

And so there’s also a benefit in taking the GMAT from the GRE in that it’s a common data point across the pool and it means that it gives you credibility and it reassures the school of your ability, which is especially valuable for candidates where they’re concerned. The school may not know that my undergraduate program was incredibly demanding and I did brilliantly and they may not know my company. They wouldn’t have heard of this, and they don’t know how difficult it was to get this job and how well I’m doing right. So there is a benefit in having that common data points.


[00:23:27.340] – John

True. I’m going to go back to what Maria said last week, her strategic advice to the Graduate Management Admission Council. Promote the executive assessment. It’s a shorter test. It’s an easier test. People could still get confidence. That is, the admissions officials can still get confidence in the person’s ability to do the meager quantity in the core curriculum in an MBA program. And everyone will be happy because they don’t have to study for three months to get a 700 plus score. Maria, I still think that’s the best advice ever for them.


[00:24:07.000] – Maria

I know they should call me.


[00:24:13.330] – John

Totally true. The other thing that’s happened this week and this is something that we’ve talked about in the past as well, is Harvard announced its round two decisions, meaning that the school released thousands of applicants in round two, released as their euphemism or rejected, and invited several hundreds of people to interview. And so this week there are a lot of very disappointed people out there who were turned down by Harvard Business School. And I know in the past, in fact, you could look this up because I thought we had great advice for you. If you were feeling down and disappointed after being rejected by Harvard Business School, you are not a loser. You are in very good company. The types of people who get rejected are really superb, and in many cases, there’s very little that separates them from the people who were chosen to be interviewed. But I wonder if you two might console many of the people who were turned down this week. Maria, what do you say to them?


[00:25:27.670] – Maria

And this is going to sound flippant, but I don’t really mean it that way. It’s Harvard. It’s not Hogwarts. I say that frequently. It’s not like, oh my gosh, I either get into Harvard Business School or my life is over and I’m going to be a troll that lives under a bridge. No, there aren’t these sort of binary outcomes in life. So not only is it like, look, I think we’ve spoken in the past about where people reach out and they’re like, what went wrong? And it’s like sometimes something went really wrong. Sometimes if you write a terrible essay or if you’re completely unqualified, sure. But most of the time it’s not that anything went wrong. It’s just that there was somebody else who maybe edged you out on ways that you will never know and you could have done nothing about it. And it’s not a reflection on you, but it’s also not a reflection on your future potential and where you’re going to go in life. I don’t say this to be sort of consoling in an artificial way. There are so many amazing MBA programs out there. As long as you go to a school that has a decent core curriculum, you’re going to get 80% of the education that is important from business school anyway.


[00:26:37.150] – Maria

And what you end up doing with that education is up to you. If you look at the Fortune 500 CEOs, yes, some of them have MBAs from fancy school, but a lot of them don’t. So it’s not like, oh, you have to get this MBA that has to be from Harvard otherwise. So sad, sad, trauma. And I also think, by the way, there are people who graduate from Harvard Business School who don’t necessarily achieve career success, who struggle professionally. They might have been the admissions mistakes a little. I know they like to say that they don’t make admissions mistakes, but I think sometimes they do. And so it’s also not like, oh, well, if I get in that’s it my life is rainbows and Sunshine for the rest of my life. So, I mean, you tried. God bless you. You wouldn’t have gotten in if you wouldn’t have tried. But please don’t hype yourself into thinking, thinking that like, oh, it’s over. And now, I don’t know, I should just cry for the rest of my life.


[00:27:44.250] – John

There was one comment on Reddit from someone who was rejected. He said he had to just go into a business meeting and he was doing everything he could to hold himself together.


[00:27:57.550] – Maria

It is tough for some people.


[00:28:00.650] – Caroline

It’s like the first time they’ve ever been rejected from it. They really want it right.


[00:28:05.270] – Maria

It’s a good point. That’s a good point, Caroline, especially the people who went to Yale undergrad Goldman Sachs or McKinsey gotten everything they’ve ever applied for. And this might be right. That’s a great point. It might be the first time someone told them no.


[00:28:19.990] – John

So let me remind all of you out there who were disappointed this week that there are plenty of other great schools and fantastic MBA programs that will very much invite you in and welcome you and will help you achieve your dreams. You don’t have to go to a Harvard or a Stanford or an INSEAD London Business School to get a great MBA education, to have a great career and a meaningful and influential one. So I think it’s always important to keep that into perspective. Meantime, I hope you enjoyed our podcast this week. Thank you, Caroline. Thank you, Maria. And good sleuthing, Caroline on that big breakthrough story on INSEAD accepting and welcoming lower GMAT scores. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants you’ve been listening to Business Casual.


Why INSEAD Is Welcoming Lower GMAT Scores
Maria |
February 8, 2022


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