Most business schools and many executive education programmes require prospective students to sit the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) before granting them admission to a programme.
The GMAT does not test for any specific understanding or knowledge of business issues - instead it tests for the mental ability and intelligence of candidates when they are under pressure.
The basic goal of the test is to give business schools an idea of the ability of prospective students to see if they are a good fit for the type of programme they are applying for.
The test will analyse verbal, mathematical and analytical writing skills - it will not test for a knowledge of business, previous job skills or an applicant's motivation for wanting to attend a business school.
Wherever in the world an applicant sits for the test it will always be delivered in English and will follow the same standardised format at all test centres. Fees for the test are US$250.
The test is computer adaptive, which means that it is taken on a computer which will draw a series of questions from a database. The answers the candidate gives to each question will be used by the computer to choose the following question - in other words it will raise or lower the levels of difficulty depending on the ability of the candidate.
Anthony Chow Chi-lek, executive director of The Princeton Review in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which offers GMAT preparation courses, explains that early preparation for the test is vital. "How much time you need to prepare for the test will of course differ depending on what your background is," he says. "Students who have good English language skills will probably spend less time preparing for the verbal section than they would for the quantitative section."
The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which administers the GMAT test, recommends that candidates take at least three to six months to prepare for the test, which can be done through self-study or by attending preparatory classes. "Typically, a student in Hong Kong can spend 30 hours in total in a prep course, and about the same again in personal preparation for the test," Chow says.
Once a test has been sat the results are valid for five years, so students have the option of keeping those results or resitting the test as often as they like to improve their score. Candidates should keep in mind, though, that all of their previous scores will appear on their Official Score Report.
The number of test centres administering the test has grown by 25 per cent over the past four years, with more than 500 test centres around the world now. This highlights the importance business schools place on it. "The need for skilled managers in a global economy is fuelling the growth of quality management education programmes around the world," says Peg Jobst, executive vice-president of GMAC. "Increasing access to the GMAT will provide schools with a bigger pool of candidates to choose from."
According to the GMAC, the number of test takers last year reached almost 267,000, the most since the exam was created in 1954. It used to be the case that most takers of the test were from the United States, but last year the number of test sitters from outside the US rose to more than 50 per cent, with India and China showing substantial growth.
The number of GMAT exams taken by Chinese citizens rose 35 per cent last year compared with the figure in 2008, with 23,550 tests taken. In India the numbers for the same period were up by 7 per cent.
In total about 1,900 business schools use the test in order to screen applicants.