Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Standardized tests: No time to wait

Why do graduate schools require applicants to take standardized tests?
  1. To torture candidates
  2. To support the firms that design the tests
  3. To fatten applicants' files
  4. None of the above
My challenge today is to explain why SAIS Bologna requires some standardized tests and what purpose they can serve. No matter what answer you chose to the question above, please read on.

SAIS candidates come from a range of backgrounds. Applicants from 72 different countries -- and from many more university systems -- applied to SAIS Bologna last year.

Part of our job is to establish whether an applicant would benefit from the SAIS curriculum. First, there is the question of language: classes and coursework (apart from language classes) are in English. Can the candidate handle hundreds if not thousands of pages of reading in English a week, then participate actively in class and write exams and papers in English?

Second, there is the broad intellectual challenge. Can the candidate shoulder a program that includes quite a bit of quantitative work and requires juggling several demanding courses?

In short, standardized tests can provide a base line to help both SAIS and the candidate determine if it is the right destination. They are not a perfect tool, but they can add line, color and texture to a candidacy.

Now, some nitty gritty.


Applicants need to demonstrate that they can handle the academic challenge in English before they can be considered for admission.

If you are a native English speaker, you do not need to take an English language exam to apply and you can skip to the next section of this post on GREs and GMATs.

How do we define a native English speaker? As someone who satisfies at least two of these criteria:
  • English is the main language of communication between you and one of your caregivers.
  • English is an official language in the community where you grew up (before high school).
  • English is the language of instruction in the high school you attended.
Also, candidates who have completed a full undergraduate degree program in English, in an English-speaking country, do not have to take an English language exam to apply to SAIS Bologna.

All others are required to take one of three tests: the TOEFL, the IELTS or the Cambridge Proficiency Exam. There are minimum thresholds on each exam. If you score below that threshold, the chances are very high that you would struggle at SAIS.

For chapter and verse on the English requirements -- for both entering SAIS Bologna and for graduating -- click here.

NB: A student who is a non-native English speaker but who completed an undergraduate program in an English-speaking country still needs to meet the English language proficiency requirements to graduate from SAIS.


Non-U.S. citizens who apply to SAIS Bologna do not have to take either the GRE or the GMAT. (All U.S. citizens applying to SAIS -- whether to DC or Bologna -- have to take one of those tests. Why? Come by my office and I'll try to explain.)

However, we recommend that candidates take either the GRE or the GMAT. They may be imperfect measures of intellectual capacity or potential. But they do flesh out an application in important ways.

All other things being equal, a strong performance on either the GRE or the GMAT can help a candidate by indicating the person can handle the academic workload at SAIS. These exams do test one's ability to follow directions, to work quickly and efficiently, to avoid mental traps. They do not paint the whole picture, but they can round out an application.

On the other hand, a particularly low score can be a warning sign to the candidate that this might not be the time for an application. There can be a variety of reasons for a low score, including poor testing conditions and unfamiliarity with the types of tests. But if candidates post a low score and are true to themselves, they will ask an obvious question: Am I up to the challenge?

Another obvious question: What are the average GRE and GMAT scores? The following numbers are subject to change because they have not been updated since April, but here are the average scores of candidates who applied through SAIS DC Admissions for 2011-12 and who accepted admission:

  • GRE Quant - 717
  • GRE Verbal - 650
  • GMAT Quant - 46
  • GMAT Verbal - 40

A final recommendation: You should plan well in advance when taking any of these standardized tests. There is a good chance you will want to take them more than once. Given the application deadlines for both U.S. and non-U.S. candidates, it is best to finish taking them before the end of the calendar year.

Tomorrow: The "je ne sais quoi" of this year's SAIS Bologna class

Nelson Graves