Meet GMAC’s New CEO: Joy Jones’ Big Bet On A New GMAT

·14 min read
GMAC CEO Joy Jones
GMAC CEO Joy Jones

Joy Jones, the new CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council, led the development of the new GMAT as the former chief of product development

For the past two years, Joy Jones has been laboring over a top-secret project that is only now coming to fruition. As the chief product officer-turned-CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council, she has a lot riding on the new GMAT exam, the biggest change in business school testing since the GMAT went from a pen-and-pencil exam to a computer-based format in June of 1997.

“I don’t have anything to babysit right now,” she says over lunch near the organization’s offices in Reston, Va. “It is about driving forward with innovation and looking for opportunities. These days the cycle times and expectations are really high. There is a lot to be done, but I am excited about the potential and the challenge.”

The first woman and the first African-American to head GMAC, Jones is no stranger to challenges. She spent years with the Associated Press in New York as the newspaper industry was disrupted by digital innovators. Now, with GMAT test-taking at historic lows and more schools than ever making standardized testing optional, GMAC faces a daunting future. But Jones is optimistic that the new test, more details of which are being released today, will help the non-profit organization win back market share from rival test GRE and convince more schools to add testing requirements for admissions.


The new exam shaves nearly an hour from the time it takes to sit for the GMAT, eliminates entirely the analytical writing section of the test, and significantly reduces the number of questions and time allowed for both the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections. The integrated reasoning section, newly named data insights, is expanded to address the increasing emphasis placed on business analytics in graduate management education.

The changes, says Jones, are meant to boost the GMAT’s relevance and value. “We have been working on this for at least two years,” she says. “We spent a lot of time having conversations with schools and stakeholders to find out what they are looking for from a business school perspective. It is a big move for our organization. It is a chance to be courageous and put it out in the world that GMAC is committed to evolving with the stakeholders we serve.”

In all, admission officials, faculty, program directors and deans at 60 business schools worldwide were interviewed for the project. Nearly 5,400 candidates were either surveyed or participated in focus groups to gain a sense of how test-takers are using the exams and to determine the types of changes that would add the most value. “We used that collective feedback to help shape the test,” adds Jones.


She is careful in noting that standardized testing should only be one factor of many in a school’s decision to admit a candidate. “We see the assessment as part of a holistic admissions process,” she says. “We want to make sure we continue to be the gold standard and the preferred test and we saw an opportunity here.”

For both Jones and GMAC, the stakes are high. The pandemic forced more business schools to go test-optional or to be far more generous in granting test waivers. That change occurred as the Educational Testing Service’s GRE exam continued to gain market share. The proliferation of other graduate management degrees along with online MBA options that do not require applicants to take a standardized test also have deeply cut into the organization’s core product. The result: GMAT test-taking has plunged to historic lows, and the organization she now leads has posted losses of $9.1 million in 2019 and 2020, according to public filings. Program revenue in 2020 fell 33% to $60.4 million, down from $89.8 million in 2019.

At the same time, applications to full-time residential MBA programs in the U.S. are in decline, particularly from domestic candidates. Getting more of them in the pipeline is another objective for the new test. “I would love to see more people coming into the pipeline because they are less daunted by the testing requirements,” adds Jones, who took over CEO duties in October of last year.  “I also hope more people see the test as a way to shine. We want to be that option. I want to reinforce the notion that schools are getting a very good read for student readiness for their programs. I hope we are adding more insight and information on the school side to help them better evaluate their candidates.”


Jones had faced a similar challenge at the Associated Press where she spent 13 and one-half years from 2004 to 2017, a time when the rise of social media wreaked havoc on traditional media outlets that AP long relied upon for business. She rose to become vice president of products before being recruited to GMAC by an executive search firm. Jones, who lived in Montclair, NJ., with her husband and two boys, and commuted to work in New York City, welcomed the change. “I was spending a lot of time on the commute and away from them when I would have liked to be a little closer,” says Jones.

GMAC could not have found a better successor to CEO Sangeet Chowfla who stepped down after a nine-year run. A Stanford MBA who scored over 700 on the GMAT when she was in her early twenties, Jones is not merely a believer in an MBA education. She is a unabashed advocate of the test, having sat for the GMAT on her 21st birthday. “I have been a little early on everything,” she observes.

Jones was admitted to Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1993 without full-time work experience. She enrolled at the age of 22 immediately after graduating magna cum laude from UCLA where she had earned her undergraduate degree in math and applied science. “It was extraordinarily unusual,” acknowledges Jones. “I think there was only one other person in my class who came direct from undergrad and that person had health issues that were degenerative. I was the baby in my class by far which was an interesting experience.”

Her early decision to get an MBA was informed by a chance meeting with MBA interns at Procter & Gamble where she was doing a field internship in marketing as an undergraduate student. “They were doing really interesting work with some interesting tools like Excel and Powerpoint,” she laughs. “I didn’t have access to them but thought that was really interesting.”

Joy Jones
Joy Jones

GMAC CEO Joe Jones ran track and played basketball and volleyball in high school in Chico, CA, competing in the long jump, and the triple jump and was the anchor for her school’s 400-meter relay team–all while maintaining a 4.0 average and being named a national merit scholar


Her lack of work experience was more than made up by her stellar grades at UCLA and her extras. She was a Division 1 athlete, a founding member of a sorority chapter devoted to community service and her P&G internship. In high school, she ran track and played basketball and volleyball. While a senior in high school, she competed in the long jump, and the triple jump and was the anchor for her school’s 400-meter relay team–all while maintaining a 4.0 average and being named a national merit scholar. Jones was named the female Scholar-Athlete of the Year in California, an accolade that led UCLA’s track coach to invite her onto the university’s team. “I had a story with an experience I could tell that was relevant to be admitted. And it didn’t hurt that I had a really great GPA in a STEM major and a great GMAT score at the time,” she remembers.

No less importantly, she came of age in a place and a home where higher education was embraced. Jones lived in a college town–Chico, CA, attending high school just a walk down the street from Chico State where she finished calculus as a high school sophomore. Both her parents were graduates of Chico State University. Her father taught literature at the local community college before becoming an administrator there. Her mother started her career in early childhood education and then moved into student services at the university.

“My mother was a surrogate mother to a lot of students at Chico State and she very much taught me about building community and the value of family. We have a tight-knit family. She had a huge affinity for the university and for youth. My father helped me understand human nature He gave me one of my best pieces of advice: understand people’s strengths but always accept that they are human which implies that there are always going to be developmental things behind that. Work with the whole person and you will both be successful. My father was full of advice. He is intellectual and intellectually curious and wants to share his life experiences.”

Armed with her MBA, Jones launched a career in strategic consulting, first joining Gemini Consulting and then leaving for Ernst & Young when the accounting firm started a strategic advisory service. She ended up back at Gemini, then Cap Gemini, when the firm acquired E&Y’s consulting business. Her clients were largely top-tier telecom and media companies including the Associated Press. Among other things, she worked with Yahoo to provide AP content on its site by introducing APIs. “That was one of my prouder digital innovations,” she recalls. “It was not an easy time for the industry and maybe that is perennial in business. I started there in 2004 which was still a time when everyone was starting on their digital transformation journey.”


“At both AP and GMAC, I worked with really smart people,” she notes. “They were energized and curious people at both organizations. The psychometric people at GMAC are crazy, mad scientists. We are able to attract really talented people on that side. They are impressive and fortunately, they accepted me with my bachelor’s degree in math. It is a tightly run and controlled process run on a need-to-know process.”

It was during this time that she oversaw the development of the new GMAT. But her biggest challenge was rushing to market an online version of the GMAT during the pandemic when test centers closed down. “It was a learning experience that was mind-boggling but we persevered and at this point, we are proud of where we were able to take that channel. If you asked me before COVID, I would have said it would probably take five to eight years before moving high-stakes testing online. With any product introduction, you are always trying to balance the needs of the market with the perfection of the product. We had bumps in the road.”

Today, she adds, 70% of GMAT test-takers are taking the exam back in test centers. “There probably is some normalization and we are not there yet because COVID is not entirely done,” says Jones. “Many schools moved away from testing and the pandemic accederated that. Our circumstances are unique compared to undergrad (where many universities have gone test optional). The ability for people to transcend their GPA and have another piece of data to prove their academic readiness is valuable. And we are not resting on it.”


Despite the dramatic decline in test-taking, Jones is convinced that there is a place for standardized tests like the GMAT. “I see standardized testing staying as a part of the equation for people going to business school,” she says. “A lot of the conversation about moving away from testing happens in the U.S. but not globally and we have a global footprint. I don’t have a clue about whether the pendulum will move back to where it was in testing. The GMAT and the Executive Assessment still have their place, absolutely. But I think there will be other opportunities to evolve the way testing is utilized.

“Testing is a data business. You get very high-fidelity data and if you continue to abstract as I often like to do you see a world of possibilities. We are committed to insuring that we have a really high-quality test for people who choose to use it. Schools value high-quality data in their decision process. We believe it’s a critical part of holistic admissions. Testing will find its rightful place in admission decisions and candidates will choose to use it because it gives them their best chance for preparation to be successful in a program.”

Jones does believe that marketing will be essential to promote the test’s value. “When GMAT was the only game in town, we didn’t need to focus on marketing,” she says. “When you are in that position, marketing is not your strongest suit. When you are in a competitive offering dynamic as we are, I would conclude that we have to speak directly to the customer about the value the test provides. We do see it adds value over whether you look at GPA alone. Older students tend to be helped more and even students coming from non-Americas markets see that the test is helpful.”

She rejects criticism that the test is biased against under-represented minorities and women. “We do a lot of work to make sure we are doing fairness evaluations during the test development process and we have rigor around that from the front end all the way through. The test is accurately predictive. A GPA plus a GMAT score is better for assessment. By having both, students have a better chance of demonstrating their academic readiness for a program. We actively work to make sure there is no bias in performance.”


Asked what business GMAC is now in, Jones provides a broad view of the organization’s mission. “We are at a place where evaluation is our expertise,” she says. “But also we are in the business of helping candidates connect. At the end of the day, we are in the business of connecting and matching.”

She is referring to the organization’s outreach efforts on behalf of schools seeking students. GMAC has long sold the data it gathers from test-takers who register for the test as a recruitment tool for graduate management programs. Under her predecessor, the organization acquired both The MBA Tour, an admissions fair business, and Business Because, a content website in the United Kingdom.

During her early listening tour as the newly elected CEO, Jones met with deans and admission directors all over the world. “I did not appreciate the level to which schools are bringing together their degree and non-degree portfolios,” she says. “What I do see and hear is excitement about how those life-long learning systems can enhance the value proposition.”

Meantime, she will be overseeing the launch of the new GMAT exam which Jones believes is more in line with the increased emphasis schools are placing on data analytics. “It’s really interesting because while it has quant and verbal and charts which are more visual it actually works well with people form different academic backgrounds,” she says. “For people who are verbally oriented, it makes quant accessible in different ways in data insights. It brings together the quant, the verbal and visual in a really accessible way for people who have had different experiences with quantitative content.”

The big question remains: Can the new test reverse GMAC’s core business, regain market share from GRE, and help to increase appllications to business schools? Jones certainly hopes so.

DON’T MISS: 3 Deans & GMAC’s CEO: How B-School Trends Are Directly Affected By The Market or The New GMAT: 10 Quant & 13 Verbal Questions Removed From Test

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