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The GMAT and India

Posted in Higher Education on August 24, 2009 by

I wanted to take some time to dispel a fascinating—but unhealthy—rumor about the GMAT. This rumor is best summarized by a concerned Knewton student who wrote me the following:

I was speaking to someone in India in the test prep industry about the GMAT and that person seemed very confident that the database of questions for the GMAT test in India is different from the database of questions in the US and Canada (the pool of questions in India being harder). Have you heard anything like this?

And here is how I responded:

You’ve touched upon some topics that interest me a great deal, so let me give you a longer answer.

The test-makers have always used multiple question pools at any one time, even within the United States. This is done for security reasons, so questions can’t be pirated—something I know quite a lot about. (I once reverse-engineered the computerized test and proved the question pool at the time was much too small, and hence susceptible to cheating. The test-makers pulled the exam for months and implemented the changes I and others recommended—adding more questions, rotating pools, etc.) Question pools rotate every few months. Pools used internationally either just came from and/or will soon head back to North America. These pools are all (almost) perfectly calibrated with each other so that your score on one continent will be—within the margin of error—your score on another.

My suspicion is that you’ve heard some kind of urban myth that has its roots in:

  • paranoia that U.S. schools are too full of Indians and want to restrict their numbers
  • chauvinism that Indians are smarter/better at math

There is nothing true about the assertion you’ve heard. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth. One of the early consequences of standardized tests in the U.S. is that they led to greater acceptance of candidates who weren’t Anglo-Saxon white males. In the early days, that meant more Jewish Americans. Then it began to mean more minorities of all kinds, including women as schools became co-ed. Standardized tests have been and continue to be the single most important factor in leveling the playing field for qualified minority candidates. Ironically, this is precisely the reason that some U.S. schools are now drifting away from standardized tests—so they can alter their own standards for acceptance. Due to failings in society itself, and not in the tests, U.S. minorities underperform Caucasians. The hard, unforgiving metrics of standardized tests make it difficult for some schools’ admissions departments to accept as high a percentage of minorities as they would like. So, blaming the messenger, these schools have stopped looking at test scores, so as to give themselves “permission,” in a sense, to accept more candidates they otherwise wouldn’t.

Schools are trying to increase their international exposure, not decrease it. Harvard Business School grads occupy one of the top three positions at something like fifty percent of U.S. Fortune 500 companies. With India and China developing rapidly, HBS and other top schools are eager—even desperate—to mirror that dominance in Indian and Chinese companies. Take my word for it—having gone to HBS and seen their admissions practices firsthand (as well as their legendary habit of nickel and diming their students!)—Harvard Business School is as much or more about Business than it is about School. HBS is, at its core, a factory churning out top business leaders. Those leaders then turn around and give generously to the endowment. That’s the model all B-schools operate under, and it only works if they admit whoever they think will be the most successful.

As for the chauvinism argument: No one race has naturally greater math intuition than another. Some societies or microsocieties are practically better, on average, for cultural/parental/educational reasons. But the GMAT doesn’t measure who knows more math. It measures math intuition and aptitude—which is why the questions are based on arithmetic/algebra/geometry, not on advanced math. It helps to know more math—it makes you more familiar with the content and makes you faster, etc. But it’s not a big advantage.

The GMAT has this just right. Math intuition is very useful to business managers, while deep knowledge of math is not. Math intuition helps inform many of the judgments and decisions made by business leaders. Deep knowledge of math, on the other hand, is a commodity that can be bought inexpensively, since it’s continually rolling off the assembly lines of MIT and other top quant programs every year. This is why the GMAT focuses on intuition and speed, and that’s why we work so hard at Knewton to develop your intuition and speed.

In my experience, people who get caught up in this kind of thinking are damaging themselves. Paranoia and chauvinism don’t generally improve one’s odds of success in business. What does improve your odds of success is the ability to work well with all kinds of people, and favoring diversity of opinion and skills rather than uniformity. And that’s exactly what you’ll learn at every major business school today.