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In 2003, Educational Testing Service (ETS) lost the contract to manage the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) to ACT and a division of Pearson. Since then, ETS has been aggressively urging business schools and students to consider using the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) instead of the GMAT.

Since Stanford Graduate School of Business took the step of accepting the GRE in 2005, 450 B-schools have followed suit. ETS will be launching a revised GRE in August, 2011, which should further intensify the competition. For those interested in the Coke-Pepsi rivalries in standardized testing, you can read the flurry of articles in the business press over the past two years: “GRE or GMAT: Test-Takers Dilemma” in BusinessWeek; “G.R.E. vs. the GMAT” in NY Times; “GRE is Fast Becoming a GMAT Alternative for B-School Applicants” in US News & World Report.

But as a college student or recent grad, you simply want to know: “Which test should I take?” Here are some considerations:

1. Differences between the two tests and your own test-taking strengths. Historically, the GMAT has been known to emphasize  logic, while the GRE has measured the test-takers’ ability more in vocabulary. The GMAT has been known to favor students of higher mathematical ability. However, I would warn against studying specific internet comparisons of GMAT vs. GRE right now, because the GRE is about to be changed (8/2011). Check out a comparison of the old vs. new GRE in About.com.

2. Your future goals.The GRE is the entry level test for the broadest set of future goals. If you plan to get a masters or doctorate in just about any field, including economics, the GRE has you covered. You may want to do your graduate school standardized test-taking while you are still in student mode, but you are not ready to commit to saying you will be applying to business school five years hence.

3.Where do you plan to apply? Most of the top ranking B-schools accept both the GRE and GMAT now: Stanford, Harvard, MIT Sloan, Columbia, NYU Stern, Wharton,  U Chicago Booth, U Mich Ross, UVA Darden, UNC Kenan-Flagler, Duke Fuqua, and Dartmouth Tuck. However, there are a few stars missing from the list: Northwestern Kellogg, UCLA Anderson, Cornell Johnson, USC Marshall, Emory Goizueta. So if you intend on applying to any of these schools, you will need to take the GMAT.

I advise researching the schools you are most interested in, to see what their philosophy is about GRE vs. GMAT. According to Wikipedia, Stanford GSB prefers the GRE but accepts both; NYU Stern prefers the GMAT but accepts both; Columbia accepts the GRE only if the applicant has not taken the GMAT in the past five years.

At this point in time, it may actually make sense to take both tests, to maximize flexibility. This is admittedly an expensive approach ($140 GRE, $250 GMAT), but what future brand manager would want to apply to Wharton, Tuck or Duke without applying to Kellogg? After the GRE is revised in 8/2011, there may be more efficiencies in studying for both tests. And hey, someday you may just want to get a PhD.

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Can I Get an MBA if I Wasn’t a College Business Major?

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You majored in medieval history, but you ended up in retail merchandising. You still love history, but management and marketing in the real world is actually quite fascinating. You’re better at it than you thought you would be, and judging from that recent promotion, your managers must have faith in you.

But your lack of business background may eventually hold you back. You would like to have more practical tools in accounting, statistics, operations and business law. If you want to advance within your organization, switch companies or industries, start your own business, or just make more money, you probably will want an MBA.

But you’ve never taken a business course. Doesn’t getting a Masters degree in a subject require some previous study of that discipline?

An MBA, or Masters of Business Administration, is a unique graduate degree. It is designed to give accomplished professionals, no matter what their previous background, a well-rounded exposure to core business disciplines. Such cross-functional exposure will either help them apply their former skill set to a business environment or enable them to supervise multiple business functions as a general manager.

Any major can be a good background for a business career, especially with the training of an MBA. Were you a theater major? Your ability to communicate dynamically with an audience could make you a powerful leader in sales or marketing. An art history major? Your visual orientation makes you a natural for advertising! Psychology? Market research is calling you. English? Every company needs managers who can write. Foreign language? One word: “global.”

Recently, I researched a sample of Class of 2012 profiles for full-time MBA programs at elite institutions, including Harvard (HBS), Stanford (GSB), U Penn (Wharton), Northwestern (Kellogg), NYU (Stern), U Virginia (Darden), and U Michigan (Ross). The results were generally consistent from school to school.

You quanti-phobes out there will be happy to learn that on average, only a quarter of incoming MBA students had been business majors in college. Undergraduate business majors ranged from a low of  17% at Stanford to a high of 31% at Kellogg. Another quarter of the incoming class had majored in engineering, mathematics or the natural sciences.

About half of the incoming class at these premier business schools had majored in the humanities, arts, social sciences and “other.” For those class profiles that broke out the economics major separately, economics majors represented an average of 20% of the incoming MBA class.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The goal of MBA programs is to create rich, eclectic, stimulating dialogue among professionals from diverse backgrounds. Diversity does not just mean ethnic or racial heritage or an international upbringing. It also means the perspectives students bring from their previous education and work. All business majors or engineers would make for a boring conversation!

That said, if you are considering going back to school for an MBA, and you have no prior business training, many schools recommend a few courses to help you hit the ground running. Requirements vary, but most schools suggest a course in economics and statistics (which most college grads have taken anyway). A basic accounting course is always a plus, and will probably help you in your current job as well.

Is it intimidating for a “pure liberal arts type” to go back to business school? At first. As a psychology undergraduate from Penn, I found the introductory accounting course at Wharton to be rather frightening. Of course, I was (and will always be) the recovering child of a CPA.

But there was a familial sense of camaraderie among the case groups and project teams. The engineers helped the psych majors with the math, and the psych majors helped the engineers string a few multi-syllable words together to make sentences (only kidding!).

When it came to the Wharton Follies, our school’s annual musical theater revue and defining tradition now widely  (and hilariously) imitated, even accountants and engineers were known to sing and dance. Thank goodness they had us liberal arts types to teach them how!

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Preparing for Business School: GMAT or GRE?, Time to Apply to B-School?,Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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It depends… on what you ultimately decide to do, either in college or after college. During undergraduate, you may choose to transfer to a more prestigious school, or apply for a cool study abroad program that requires a good GPA. After college, you may aspire to an elite graduate or professional program, or a top tier company entry level position. If whatever goal you end up choosing does not require decent grades, then you’ll be ok if you slack off. But if you slack off, and later decide on a higher aspiration, then you’re screwed. Let’s look at the possible goals after college that could require a strong  GPA.

1. Law School. According to US News & World Report, the 25th-75th percentile GPA scores for all students for the lowest of the top ten law schools is 3.5-3.9. If your GPA is on the low side, that puts more pressure on your LSAT score.

2. Graduate Business School. According to US News & World Report, the average GPA score for the lowest of the top ten graduate B-schools is 3.5. If your GPA is low, that puts more pressure on your GMAT score.

3. Medical School. According to US News & World Report, the  average GPA score for the lowest of the top ten medical schools (primary care)  is 3.7. If you are a serious pre-medicine student, you are probably not reading this post anyway!

4. Graduate Programs. According to About.com, most master’s programs require minimum GPAs of 3.0 or 3.3, and most doctoral programs require GPAs of 3.3 or 3.5. If you are applying for a doctoral degree in a competitive field, seeking a fellowship, and aspiring to attend a top ten graduate school, expect requirements to be higher. Graduate programs would like to see that you were in an undergraduate honors program with a research thesis, and qualifying for that opportunity requires a 3.5 or higher GPA. If you are considering graduate work in your field, you should be doing a thesis anyway, just to get your “feet wet” in the world of research.

5. Entry Level Jobs. 3.0 is the bare minimum. Top tier companies in fiercely competitive fields, such as investment banking, management consulting, and Big Four audit firms, will use GPA to weed out less qualified candidates. Additional opinions about GPA and entry level jobs: “Those Low Grades in College May Haunt Your Job Search” NY Times, “Low GPA in Top Engineering School: What To Do?” College Confidential, “Should I List My College GPA on My Resume?” Quintessential Careers. You may never want to go to graduate school or work at an elite company. Then again, you might. Your best bet is protecting your GPA at all costs: it follows you forever.

Relevant reading: How To Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real Students Use to Score High While Studying Less by Cal Newport, The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets: The Essential Guide from Harvard’s Former Admissions Dean by Charles H. Whitebread, The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Secrets for Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso.

Related posts: Best Websites for Careers in Finance, Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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Lynn O’Shaughnessy, higher education journalist, author of The College Solution, and expert on all things college and financial at the College Solution Blog and CBS Money Watch, recently wrote a thought-provoking piece called “8 Reasons Not to Get A Business Degree.” I highly recommend Lynn’s post for college students wrestling with the daunting task of choosing a  major. I was intrigued to find that employers favor liberal arts majors because of their critical thinking, communications and teamwork skills.

That said, how can a liberal arts major prepare for a job in the real world?

1. Prepare for a career in the same content area as your major. This is the most direct, purist approach, not requiring that you think outside the box. It also requires great passion, superior talent to your peers, and perhaps a graduate degree in the field, since many content areas are highly competitive with few available positions.

Examples include: a music conservatory performance major seeking a job in a major symphony; an English major aspiring to earn a PhD and become a professor at an elite college; an archaeology major aiming to become the next Indiana Jones; an astrophysics major seeking to become an astronaut.

2. Translate your major into a more broadly saleable version of your content area. This approach keeps you  involved with the content area you love, with less risk about the prospects of making a living. There are more positions, so you don’t have to be a freak-of-nature prodigy with perfect luck to succeed. It requires thinking ahead and taking additional courses, choosing a specific concentration in the major, or a graduate degree.

Examples include: a music major who takes the music education track and gains teaching certification; a chemistry major who concentrates in food science to work in R&D for a food manufactuer; a criminal justice major who earns a law degree aspiring to become a district attorney.

3. Transfer the core skills required in your major to a more broadly salesable content area drawing upon the same fundamental competencies. Sometimes two content areas that appear very different on the surface actually have deep underlying similarities, in terms of the fundamental skills required and the thought patterns involved. This kind of transfer is really thinking outside the box!

This approach almost always requires additional undergraduate coursework, or a certificate or graduate degree that adds a brand new layer of content skills that is integrated with the original content area based on their inherent compatibility. This is the classic idea of the liberal arts college grad who gets an MBA, with a natural link between the undergraduate major and area of concentration chosen in graduate business school.

Examples include: a psychology major who transfers his capacity to understand human behavior and decision-making into a career in marketing; a mathematics major who transfers her analytical ability into a career in financial analysis, economic forecasting or intelligence cryptology; a theater major who transfers his ability to captivate an audience into a career in sales or public relations; an art history major who transfers her visual, conceptual orientation into a career in advertising.

A New Educational Fusion. In his thoughtful response to Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog, Daniel L. Everett, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Bentley University, a business-oriented school, discussed how undergraduate institutions are combining liberal arts foundations with business training. In my view, this is an encouraging direction. There are even schools where you don’t begin a BBA program until junior year, such as Emory University (Goizueta Business School). In the first two years, students satisfy liberal arts requirements, trying prerequisites like accounting to see if they possess a business skillset.

Educational fusion does not only apply to business. Many liberal arts colleges have 3-2 programs with engineering schools, to train engineers with a Renaissance educational foundation (imagine that!). In a recent US News & World Report article, Lynn O’Shaughnessy also reports on that educational development. I believe there are opportunities to combine liberal arts with many types of  “practical” training programs at the undergraduate level. The possibilities are endless…

What about a 3-2 culinary program, so an intellectual undergraduate could enjoy a world-class liberal arts foundation, and then gain professional training for another passion that is more directly related to employment? And become a true “Renaissance chef?” Brown University has teamed up with Rhode Island School of Design with a dual degree program for the truly sophisticated artist. Just to keep it all in Providence RI, how about Brown teaming up with Johnson & Wales’ College of Culinary Arts?

Don’t hold your breath on too many wild, creative partnerships like this between undergraduate institutions. It may be up to the student to create one’s own education through an undergraduate degree, certificate programs and graduate degrees. But it can be much more interesting than just majoring in business!

Relevant reading: Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career by Sheila J. Curran, From College to Career: Entry-Level Resumes for Any Major from Accounting to Zoology by Donald Asher, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career by Katharine Brooks, Now What? The Young Person’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Career by Nicholas Lore.

Related posts: Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA, Your College’s Career Center, So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship… What To Do?, What Is Informational Interviewing? and College Internship and Entry Level Resumes. From my other blog: Why Study Liberal Arts in College?

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You’re a junior in college, beginning to sweat about getting a job after graduation, listening to all the horrifying urban legends about recent grads from elite colleges who are still unemployed. But there’s not much you can do yet about your future, except nailing a good GPA, posting your profile on LinkedIn, and checking in with your college’s career services office about summer internships.

Ok, so here’s a thought: take the GMAT (or the LSAT, or the GRE–or even all three, what Grad.spot calls the “unholy trinity of graduate school testing) while you’re “still smart.” Within the first three years out of college, you will probably want to apply to graduate school. Especially if the job you are able to get out of college is not what you want to be doing the rest of your life.

But once you get out in the young professional world, it will not be so easy to prepare for grad school. You’ll be getting up early, commuting, working long hours, perhaps with travel. At the end of the day, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is attending a prep class, doing a course online, or even practicing from a book.

Your test-taking chops will not be as sharp after a few years in the professional world. It’s hard to imagine now, because you take exams all the time. But remember doing a varsity sport in high school? In-season you were in great shape. Off-season, if you didn’t work out at the gym or go out for a daily run, you got rusty. If you didn’t continue to play the sport in college, you wouldn’t even think of walking in cold to a competition.

Testing is that way too. The farther you move away from an academic environment, the more rusty you become. So take the tests now. And if your’re not sure what kind of grad school you may be interested down the road, you might want to…take them all.

Related posts: Your College’s Career Center, Can I Get an MBA if I Wasn’t a Business Major in College? Preparing for Business School: GRE or GMAT?, Time to Apply to B-School?, So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship…What To Do?

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A recent post from Businessweek‘s daily “Getting In” blog asked, “MBA Applications: Is the Party Over?” Based on the Graduate Management Admissions Council‘s GMAT registration numbers from first four months of 2009, the volume of B-school applications may be leveling off after an all-time high in 2007-08.

Reporter Ann Vander Mey points out the precedent for a boom, then bust in B-school applications during recessions: “During the 2001 dot-com bust, there was a spike in applications as people fled the job market. The spike was followed by falling GMAT test volume for the next three years.” Mey makes a persuasive argument for a similar pattern occuring today: “The financial industry, once B-schools grads’ bread and butter, is in crisis ; many news outlets, including this one, have published articles about MBAs graduating without jobs; and the MBA brand itself has taken a beating.”

Leveling out of MBA applications may be a paradoxical bright spot in the dismal 2009 economy. This past cycle was “not a pretty picture” for many applicants! My clientele fared well, but geographic flexibility was essential: a willingness to consider elite graduate business programs beyond the Northeast Corridor.

According to US News & World Report‘s 2009 rankings of the top 15 B-schools, acceptance rates for Northeast Corridor MBA programs were: HBS 11.5%, MIT Sloan 15.0%, Yale 14.4%, Columbia 15.1%, NYU Stern 13.6% (11th rank but ground zero for financial services!) and Wharton 16.3%. With the exception of Stanford and Berkeley, top schools outside the Corridor had higher acceptance rates: Third-ranked Northwestern Kellogg 19.4%, U.of Chicago 21.9%, Dartmouth Tuck 16.0%, U.of Michigan 20.1%, UCLA 19.5%, UVA Darden 24.6%, Carnegie-Mellon 28.3%, and Duke Fuqua 30.4%.

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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