The Cambridge MBA uses GMAT as one criteria for selection, the MFin does not. Why?

GMAT is a standardised test aimed at management students. It is supposed to test a range of skills or aptitudes suitable for the varied course content of an MBA or similar management course. The GRE is a similar test used for more academic graduate school admission and is needed in the US where students commonly do a broad ranging first degree and may not be able to show a high level of prior attainment in the subject of specialisation at masters level.

The MFin is a Cambridge degree that is highly analytical and frankly very hard work (at least that’s what every year of students tells me). It requires first of all a good analytical mind. This is also what the finance industry wants above all. The best guide to success on a degree like this is prior academic attainment. An MBA or similar degree is not such a good guide to success, though we would obviously take the result into account.

The GMAT is of very limited value, in my view, in selection for the MFin. In my personal and obviously somewhat limited experience, the GMAT score is a very noisy signal. I have met MBA students with high GMAT scores who were not analytically at all impressive. And I have met students with quite poor GMAT scores but who were obviously very smart. In the latter case the explanation was usually that they were working in a very hard finance job and took very little time off to prepare so they got a mediocre result.

But we know that some GMAT applicants take months off work and go to schools to prepare them. The GMAT creators are aware of this and take great steps to try to avoid such efforts being rewarded but there is no such thing as an unbiased and uncorruptible standardised test. Arguably a very high GMAT score cannot be faked so must contain some useful information about a candidate’s intelligence and we do take this into account if it’s offered.

Our guidance is that students should have the equivalent of a UK first class degree or high upper second. This roughly translates into a GPA of 3.6 or better and most of our successful applicants are at 3.7 or above. There are school-specific differences arising from the problem of grade inflation, especially at Ivy League universities. We therefore use the University of Cambridge Board of Graduate Studies guidance on how to translate to a UK first. They have very detailed and expert knowledge on this, based on thousands of applications every year to the University of Cambridge, so we think we’re using the fairest and most accurate method.

A former boss of mine (a US head of research at Salomon Brothers) used to say that he was a “self confessed academic snob”. He only hired people with excellent academic scores from well known schools. Inevitably he must have turned down some good people as a result of this policy but he made very few bad hires and the team were extremely impressive. It’s tempting to follow his lead but I want to make sure we are open to a much wider range of universities than this would imply.

And at interview, all the GPA in the world will not compensate for someone’s inability to show that they can think and argue well. Ultimately that test protects us and them from a very costly mistake.

6 Responses to GMAT, GRE and GPA

  1. Dear Simon, Was interested to read your comments about GMAT having just moved to Cambridge from Middle East where the very term fills people with dread – candidates seem to get referred around town endlessly for sound advice. It’s such a hot potato because even with a Mid East Bachelors people probably need to pump up their GMAT score. Many actually need Foundation gap-filling first rather than worrying about Test Technique … a few go for the steroid-like special coaching but still may be lacking the study skills. At Kuwait Maastricht Business School we were losing so many potential MBA candidates who didn’t have the time or patience to get up to speed on super tricky geometry Data Sufficiency or grammar rules that native speakers don’t know. We devised our One-Stop Shop equivalent to IELTS and GMAT. Sighs of relief all over the Gulf and lots more enquiries. As you say, is GMAT actually necessary or sufficient ? Kind regards John O’Neill

  2. Dear Mr. Taylor,

    Based on what I have read on your blog, someone with GPA of 3.3 will be rejected outright despite over 4 years of experience with good career progression, strong GMAT and overall strong profile?

    Thank you.

    • Not necessarily. The key question for invitation to interview is, does the candidate have the potential to successfully complete the degree. The best evidence of this potential is previous academic achievement. Clearly a GPA of 3.3 would suggest serious doubts on this point (career progression is irrelevant to this question). But we review the whole application and consider any unusual circumstances, and especially comments in the academic reference which might provide useful context. So it is indeed unlikely that we’d offer an interview to somebody with this GPA but we don’t just reject it outright. In general, all Cambridge masters degrees (except the MBA and EMBA, which use GMAT) require a minimum GPA of 3.6 and the majority ask for 3.7.

  3. I have a cgpa of 3.58 in Accounting from the University of Toronto I also have my CA and CFA. I also have a GMAT of 730. My question is, is that 3.6 a strict cut off?

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