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Admissions Testing in the Age of COVID-19

Headshot photos of Jay Bryant, GRE® Program, and Erika Olson, Harvard MBA.

The MBA admissions process can be nerve-wracking on a good day. Add in the anxiety about life in general that many are managing this year, and it is a lot to take on. But the business school community — the GRE® Program included — has been hard at work coming up with creative solutions to help prospective students keep their goals in sight.

Recently Jay Bryant, a former business school admissions professional and expert with the GRE® Program team, discussed admissions testing in the age of COVID-19 on an episode of Stacy Blackman Consulting's hit podcast, B-Schooled. Host Erika Olson, a Michigan Ross BBA and Harvard MBA, has years of experience helping MBA candidates navigate the business school admissions process and was eager to hear from Jay how ETS is helping today's applicants pursue their personal and professional dreams.

Listen to the episode here, or read on below for highlights from the conversation. B-Schooled Episode #23 is also available for download on most major podcast apps.

Download Transcript (PDF)

What is the overall state of MBA admissions right now?

ERIKA OLSON: Let's start by talking about the overall state of MBA admissions right now. People are freaked out about how COVID is affecting things. We're now in September and you have been talking to all of the admissions committees — what are some of the things you're hearing and common themes that are coming up this year?

JAY BRYANT: In my position I get to spend my time speaking with admissions professionals from all over the country at a variety of different types of business schools — from the top 10 ranked schools to the more regionally focused business programs. And, they're all trying to figure it out this year. Lots of things have changed.

The first thing I always talk with them about is their recruitment process, which plays a big part in business schools. They want to be sure you get the opportunity to know who they are and what the school is about. When I was in admissions, we were used to always going out and doing info sessions or having you come visit campus. I personally have gotten to travel all over the world to events to meet my future students. That's just not possible right now. So the recruitment process has very much gone to an online situation.

As you are going through and learning about these schools, you'll learn about the different types of events they're having and the different ways to visit campus virtually. That was the first things schools had to figure out — how in the world are they going to be in contact with you, the applicant.

The next thing is obviously the admissions process itself. Most schools do conduct interviews. For students that were really far away, we have done things like Zoom or Skype interviews in years past, but now, no matter where you are located, you can expect to be interviewed online. That's a big change.

Every single admissions director that I have spoken with has said that they really want to maintain admissions standards. They want the quality students in their programs that they were able to attract before. They don't want the COVID era to change that. A big part of that is still the admissions test. You want to perform well on the GRE® General Test if you are applying to a school, because that's going to show them a lot of your current capabilities academically.

One of the great things we were able to do at ETS is roll out the GRE® and TOEFL® at-home tests for the majority of the world within just a few weeks of the start of lockdowns and situations going on around the world, providing the assessments that would help schools continue on with the 2020 admissions cycle.

In speaking with admissions directors, I've seen that the COVID situation has also been an accelerator in business schools. Online education was brand new when I first entered the industry and it's certainly grown over the years. This year, in a matter of days, classes had to go online. And new technologies that may have been more on the fringe in classrooms — maybe used by only the technologically savvy professors — suddenly all of the faculty are having to use. That's been a big change in classrooms.

I have my degree in international business and my position has always been working with global teams, and I've found that what is happening in the classroom right now is actually very reflective of working in a global environment.

Is now the right time to go to business school?

JAY: What I've heard back from almost every single school was that the application volumes have grown and the classes they have sat this fall have also grown. It is really a good time to go to business school.

The world is in a lot of change right now, and these changes are coming fast. Business school is a great place to be learning and experiencing these new technologies and new ways of working together. Business schools are teaching you about all sorts of industries and functions and how they're all changing during this time. We're really seeing the market for MBAs has not gone down during this time.

Just be sure you're getting your information directly from the admissions office — get on their mailing lists. We are all in this together — including the folks in the admissions office. Most schools are setting up regular webinars with admissions committee members, and you can also search for interviews, videos, blog posts and podcasts the admissions directors have done that will really help you get to know who they are and what they're looking for. Make sure you are listening and paying close attention. I highly recommend attending admissions webinars at the schools that you are applying to, in addition to diving deep into their websites, as they will keep you aware of all the changes that have occurred in their programs and in their admissions processes. 

ERIKA: I was actually just talking about this with some friends — talking about how all of the brilliant minds around the world are focused on solving problems specific to COVID-19 — whether it be trying to find a vaccine or treatments, or whether it be creative solutions in education, communication, transportation, entertainment or hospitality services.

And of course, the brilliant minds at business schools across the globe are focused not only on those sorts of problems, but also on how to make things work better at their own institutions, including admissions. If you had told me last year that there would be a way to take business school tests in the comfort of your own home, I would've said you were crazy. Yet here we are.

But, since tests of this sort have been taken in testing centers for so many decades, it's hard for people to wrap their minds around this new option. To me, an at-home test seems like a natural next step that perhaps COVID just accelerated into being a little faster, but as with anything new, there's some apprehension and confusion about it. The question we're getting a lot is, is the at-home test the same thing as the one you'd take in the testing center? I think some people might have anxiety about the at-home tests because they aren't clear on how it all works, so maybe you could shed some light on that.

Is the GRE® General Test at home the same as in the test center?

JAY: Let me start by saying I wish this was around when I was applying for my MBA. I remember driving 45 minutes to the testing center. Everything seemed rushed, I had never been there before, and I wound up getting a very expensive parking ticket the day I took my test! It definitely would have been nice to be able to do it at home.

Yes, the GRE® General Test at home is the same test. We have not added anything. We have not removed anything. It's identical in content, length, format and on-screen experience as in a test center. Nothing has changed with the scoring criteria, scoring process and score scale, so scores are accepted and used in the same way. And the at-home tests are offered at the same price as testing in a test center. 

I have talked to lots of admissions professionals since the GRE® at home was released — none have questioned the at-home process or the test. They know ETS is known for having a high commitment to both test quality and security and therefore felt comfortable shifting over to an at-home version.

What has been the test-taker reaction to the at-home experience?

ERIKA: Are people weirded out by having someone monitor them while they take the test?

JAY: It is true that there is a proctor who watches via camera as you take the test and that makes some people nervous. But, remember that the testing center is the same — there are cameras and staff that are monitoring test takers at all time. This is for test security and fairness to all test takers.

From the reports we have gotten back, most test takers appreciate the ability to test in a comfortable and familiar place. You don't have the added stress of traveling to a testing center. And you can take the test at any time of day. Some of you work best late at night, some early in the morning — you can sign up for the test at whatever time works for you.

Some things you will want to figure out to ensure you are ready for test day:

  • Have a quiet and private location to take the test.
  • Be in front of your computer well before your testing time to make sure everything is working properly.
  • Family, friends, pets, parents all need to stay out of your testing room.
  • Familiarize yourself with the computer, testing environment and ETS requirements.

ERIKA: You're talking to someone who has worked from home since 2007, so you are speaking my language right now about creating that space. I feel like this is a great option even if a pandemic weren't raging around us right now, right?

JAY: As an admissions director I heard thousands of stories of the challenges individuals had on testing day. Traffic, difficulty finding the location, temperature in the test center, being in an unfamiliar location, etc. Some applicants had to travel so far, they made an overnight trip out of testing day.

You can take the GRE® General Test at home any time of the day, any day of the week. And many other admissions tests are limited on how many times you can retake the test. The GRE® at-home test follows the same retake policy as in test centers — you can take the test once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous 12-month period. I always recommend building an option to retest into your admissions schedule, just in case.

ERIKA: Yes, that is something that my colleague Caryn and I were talking about in Episode 6 when we were sharing with people various strategies for improving their quantitative profile. Admissions committees like to see self-awareness and effort, and I think it's getting to be rarer and rarer that people are just “one and done” with their admissions tests.

Should anyone consider putting their plans on hold?

ERIKA: Another question causing people some stress — and that is whether or not people should wait to take their test. Meaning, should people wait to take the test until they can take it the usual way at a test center instead of at home? Is there any situation where you would advise someone to wait so that they could take it in a testing center?

JAY: Honestly, I can't think of a good reason to wait for the testing center option. It is the same test, the same types of questions. So, why not take the opportunity to take it in a location that you know, in your own comfortable chair and at the time of day that works best for your maximum performance.

Also, we don't know what the situation will be in a few months. I certainly hope the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end soon, but there is no guarantee. You are on a timeline set forth by the schools that you are applying to, and you need to stay in step with that schedule. The last thing you want to happen is to have to take the GRE® test at the last minute because you waited for the testing centers. Last-minute test taking is definitely not a good way to reduce the stress of test day!

GRE® scores are valid for five years. If you have been preparing or have the extra time to prepare now, take it now. You have time to decide where and when to use your scores.

Any advice for keeping test-day jitters at bay?

ERIKA: When I think about my business-school application experience a full 20 years ago, my anxiety got the better of me and my first attempt did not go as smoothly as I would have liked. Thankfully, I was able to regroup, continue studying and preparing, and then I took my test again and got a solid score. What do you think applicants can do to help minimize test-day jitters?

JAY: More than anything, be prepared. This includes practicing for the test content, preparing your equipment and environment if you are testing at home, and planning ahead to have plenty of time to meet admissions deadlines.

You can prepare with official prep from the makers of the test. The POWERPREP® Online practice tests, in particular, simulate the actual test and include the same test-taker friendly design features you'll encounter on test day.

Don't put unnecessary stress on yourself by planning on just taking the test once, because then mentally you've got the weight of everything hinging upon this one test and this one day. One of the things I have seen happen far too often is that applicants wait until the very last moment to take their GRE® test. Plan your application process well in advance and take your GRE® test with plenty of time to spare to reduce your stress. You always want to build in the time for a second chance to take the test, just in case. So do yourself a favor and take it early, and tell yourself that you can always take it again if need be.

And with flexible score-reporting options offered by only the GRE® General Test, you can send schools only the set of scores you want them to see. So that's another benefit.

ERIKA: That's all great advice. And of course, if people want to look into meditation or breathing techniques or other ways that are helpful to keep anxiety at bay in everyday life, much less on test day, that’s something they can check out too.

But I agree strongly with you that preparation is the best way someone can keep themselves centered and go into their test with confidence.

How would you advise MBA applicants to think about their futures right now?

ERIKA: My last question circles back to something we touched upon at the beginning when you talked about how MBA admissions committees have been pivoting and adapting the admissions process as needed in response to these uncertain times. How would you advise MBA applicants to think about their futures when it seems like every day there’s something else in the headlines that makes you just want to crawl under a rock and give up trying to plan anything?  

JAY: Life may look a little different right now, but it has not stopped. The business schools are still there — with many types of programs and formats — and they are looking for you. Get ahead of the curve. As the economy begins to come back, business school will give you the tools and training to be ready to succeed.

And finally, most of us have more free time than ever these days. Use that time to research schools and to prepare for your GRE® test. It’s a great, productive way to keep moving forward while the world seems to be standing still around us.
 

The B-Schooled Podcast by Stacy Blackman Consulting is available on most major podcast apps, including:

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