Do You Know GMAT History?

Written by Kelly Granson. Posted in About the GMAT

0514 gmat_630x420We'll admit it; we're more than just a little obsessed with all things about the GMAT, which is why we make it our business to know everything about the Graduate Management Admissions Test and preparing for it. Once in a while, though, it's nice to put business aside and take a look back at where it all began and how the GMAT first got its start. Who were the minds behind the making of this feared test, and what did they set out to accomplish? How has the GMAT changed over the years and why? It's a fascinating ride that might help you understand what this whole GMAT craze is really all about.

How it all began

The GMAT had its humble beginnings in the early 1950's. The deans of eight or so of the top business schools in the county got together and formed an association that later became known as the Graduate Management Admissions Council or GMAC. The primary task of this new council: To create a standardized test that could accurately assess the skills necessary for succeeding in Business School.

The first incarnation of the test they commissioned – known as the Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business (ATGSB)—was administered to just over 4000 people in 1954. By contrast, today's GMAT is administered to about a quarter of a million people each year.

Pleased as they were with the early tests, members of the GMAC did not rest on their coattails. To their credit, the test for Business school continued to change and evolve, most significantly in 1955 when the test was permanently divided into two, separately-scored Quantitative and Verbal sections, and then again in 1976, when it received its new name: the Graduate Management Admissions Test.

But the changes didn't stop there.

Throughout the history of the GMAT sections have been added and cut, question styles have been modified and, with the advent of computers, there has been a complete overhaul in how the test is administered.

You might ask, If the GMAT was and is just a series of skills-testing questions, then why all the fuss?

The Motivations behind GMAT change

Traditionally, most of the people who sat on the GMAC – the non-profit council that administers the GMAT- were deans of MBA programs. The same holds true for today.

For business schools, finding strong, capable students is pretty much a mechanism of survival, not to mention a way to bolster prestige (and the cushier survival that comes along with it).

Compelled by the basic need to recruit quality MBA students, the GMAC has always had one overwhelming interest at heart - to find and use the best possible methods of picking out elite business school candidates.

Their search for these methods has been relentless.

As new research came out about more efficient testing methods, the GMAC adapted their test. As discoveries about which skills were most critical to business school success were made, the GMAT was modified yet again. This pattern has been going on for nearly six decades.

For example, studies from the 1970's indicated that the top MBA students were not just walking calculators and business savants but also possessed strong communication skills. In response, a new section, the Analytical Writing Analysis, was added to the GMAT. More questions that directly tested writing skills in the Verbal section followed until the GMAT became as much a test of your deftness with the English language as with mathematics and logic.

Another impetus to change was the constant feedback from the deans of business schools themselves. Their interaction with the GMAC, through sitting on the council and generally making their presence felt, greatly influenced the makeup of the standardized test.

The GMAC, ever weary of preserving the relevancy of their exam, listened closely to suggestions made by deans and admissions councils and strove to build the ultimate admissions test.

Such were the drivers of change for the GMAT but not every section of the test was subject to the same degree of modification.

Consistently Quantitative

The Quantitative section of the GMAT has been preserved almost entirely in its original format. It was always understood by the powers that being good at crunching numbers and solving problems were naturally important to becoming a top business manager.

There have been calls at different times to add elements of difficulty to Quant. For example, some wanted differential equations added to the exam. For the most part these movements have been resisted. Long ago, deans of business schools decided that people who can think on their feet make better business mangers than those who know how to create and solve complex algorithms.

Consequently, the stable bedrock of the GMAT has always been its Quantitative section.

Testing Reasoning and Reading Comprehension

GMAT's ways of testing people's ability to think, on the other hand, has been changing like the weather.

The names of the previous reasoning sections evoke bygone GMAT memories:

Best Argument, Organization of Ideas and Practical Business Judgment all had their turn at some time or another until finally the current Critical Reasoning section was introduced in the late 1980's.

Reading Comprehension underwent similar fluctuation.

In 1954, it was called Quantitative Reading and had no bearing on the final score. Then Reading Recall came around in the 1960's. Test-takers had to read a passage and then answer comprehension questions without being able to look back at the actual passage.

Eventually, test administrators grew tired of the logistical difficulties that arose from this blind testing method. At the same time, the GMAC was getting some dubious feedback on the usefulness of Reading Recall in the first place. Change was once again in the air in 1977 when the simpler Reading Comprehension was inaugurated. It also proved to be a mainstay.


In the fall of 1997 the GMAT changed permanently from a paper-based to a computer administrated examination. No longer would the test be administered only four times a year due to the limitations of a hard-copy test. With the CAT format, MBA wannabes could register to take the exam whenever it suited their busy schedules.

While there was much speculation surrounding the reasons behind the switch to CAT (more statistically accurate, greater difficulty etc), prominent members of the GMAC insisted that plain-old customer service was what sealed the fate of paper exams and made way for the ascension of the computerized GMAT.

The Future: Why Integrated Reasoning?

True to tradition, just this month, the GMAT has undergone another major change, introducing the new Integrated Reasoning section.

Once again, this change was both an adaptation to the times and a move to meet the demands of admissions councils and this time – future employers, too.

Integrated Reasoning tests your ability to draw information from a large variety sources (graphs, tables and written passages) at once, process it and come out with logical inferences on the other side. These kinds of questions are meant to reflect real-world scenarios in today's complex, fast-paced and global markets.

Schools demanded the update, businesses were consulted and the GMAC made it happen.

However, the GMAC took a light approach and eased the modification in rather than slam students over the head with it. The score for Integrated Reasoning doesn't figure into the primary score out of 800 but rather is put alongside it. This takes a lot of the pressure off for people scrambling to prepare for this relatively mysterious series of questions.

Knowing What Counts

By all accounts, the GMAT is an impressive test. Up-to-date and well-crafted, the GMAT also has an impressive history behind it, a history that speaks to long-standing advancements in the business world, educational research and the hard earned skills of the best MBA students.

What does this mean for you?

First of all, one could see from the general trajectory of GMAT history that, aside from being able to think and solve problems, B schools truly also want you to know how to write in English and be very comfortable with all facets of the English Language.

Secondly, admissions boards aren't looking for mechanical dinosaurs who know how to cram-in information and then ace a test, no matter how relevant that information might be.

What do we mean?

Just as pains are taken to keep the GMAT current with global developments and demands of school administrators and employers alike, it's also meant to identify the candidates who can best meet those demands.

This will be people like you. People who don't just have the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom, but are also hip to world trends, who have meaningful visions of themselves as leaders in today's businesses and corporations, and who can take information, apply it effectively to solve pesky problems and come out with novel solutions.

This is what MBA programs are looking for first, and these are the qualities that will earn you a spot at the top.

Ask any serious history buff and she'll tell you: Very often, we need to take a good look at where we've come from to know exactly where we're going.

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