Guide to GMAT Test Prep Courses

Of all the different pieces of the MBA application process, none is more time intensive or fear inspiring than the Graduate Management Admissions Test. Over the years, the GMAT hurdle for getting into an elite school has only gotten higher and higher. Back in 1990, the average GMAT score for an admitted student to Dartmouth College’s prestigious Tuck School of Business was just 648. Today, it’s 712, and Tuck Dean Paul Danos believes it will be close to 720 when the school processes the final numbers for its Class of 2012. At Harvard Business School, the average GMAT score for the entire applicant pool is now over 700, while the number for admits is 719. At Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, the average for the complete applicant pool is 700, exactly.

How can GMAT scores at the top schools go higher and higher? Admission officials largely attribute increased scores not to grade inflation but rather preparation. Pretty much everyone who takes the GMAT now prepares for it, and roughly half of them do so with the help of an in-person or online prep course. This is a cottage industry, with quite a few major players in the game. And in recent years, the competition among them has been fierce, leading to major discounts and lots of price cutting. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the best of the bunch, organized alphabetically starting with Bell Curves and ending with Veritas Prep. The two giants of the field–Kaplan and Princeton Review–are here as well, as are some highly notable newcomers, such as Knewton, with new approaches to help you improve your score.

No matter which GMAT prep company you choose, plan to work hard on your own. Kaplan Director of Graduate Programs Andrew Mitchell says students who score above a 600 study more than 120 hours, including in-class time. Ian Galbraith, who scored in the mid-600s, will second that. “What was hard was that it was such a long process. It’s very clear how important GMATs are for schools.” Galbraith, of Dallas, Texas, is headed to Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in the fall of 2011 where he’ll focus on management before returning to  Foxworth-Galbraith, a Southwestern lumber company.

Whether you’re seeking an MBA to better run the family business or to gain an understanding of international markets, the journey starts with the GMAT. An average score is 540, but for top schools, it’s 680. Want to go to Wharton? Bump up your score to around 714. Competition is hot. Prospective B-school students took a record 267,000 GMATs last year according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). With this drastic increase – since 2005, there’s been 181 percent growth in Chinese students alone – of international contention for B-School spots, the GMAT is simply more important than ever.

Darran Bahl, a project manager at California aeronautics firm Scaled Composites, earned a 700 the first time around but wasn’t satisfied. “700 used to be a magical barrier, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that that’s below average at all the top schools.” On his second try, Bahl (your competition) reached 770.

The good news is that the Internet is revolutionizing test prep just as it’s revolutionizing business. Students now have more options, greater accessibility and comprehensive self-study options. “Books are kind of a cold medium,” says Knewton Senior Editor Josh Anish. Kaplan and Princeton Review both re-engineered their companies last year to provide customized online student centers, and Knewton is strictly online.

These GMAT prep companies will help you get a better score than you ever could on your own by going beyond the books to bring you personalized lessons, diagnostic homework, as well as deadlines and feedback. From hours of traditional in-class coursework to interactive online courses, phone and email support, you can customize the learning experience to best prepare you for the essential business school test.


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After teaching at Princeton Review for more than a decade, Akil Bello founded Bell Curves in 2003 with his father and brother, also a prep instructor. Bello says he’s looking to impact a broader market that typically wouldn’t consider applying to a top-tier business school. “My focus was working with underserved groups, which started out with predominantly black and Hispanic students. There’s no benefit to me to help another Wall Street financier go from school No. 23 to school No. 3.”


  • Mark P.,

    You’re right. We’ll correct that assertion. In fact, I was having coffee just yesterday with the co-founder of Veritas who estimates that roughly half of all GMAT test takers do a prep course.


  • Mark P.

    Hello John,

    Nice article, thanks.
    However, I don’t think the following assertion is correct:
    “and almost all of them do so with the help of an in-person or online prep course.”
    In my opinion, many people prefer to save money and to use online communities such as GMATClub and Beat The GMAT (English), or (Spanish), or others, where there is a lot of information about GMAT preparation.

  • Thanks Rich for sharing your valuable insights with our readers. I hope you signed up for your Knewton course through their ads on the site. But if you didn’t, perhaps others will. It helps pay for the free content at PoetsandQuants.

  • Rich

    John, first I think this site is an excellent idea. Thank you for executing and making it free!

    I recently finished a Manhattan GMAT course. The instructors are top notch (I don’t think you can get better) but I felt the course was, as the review noted, taught to firm up the basics. This left me in a tricky situation as I needed that but am shooting for a 700+. My first practice test was a 540 and I got a 650 on the official test, two weeks out of the course.

    I gave it a few weeks and just I recently enrolled in the Knewton course. I was going to shoot for Round 1, but the advice I got was to get into the 700 handle and apply in Round 2. Can’t beat the Knewton price/guarantee combo… 50% off for taking a second prep class in 12 months and 50-point guarantee. So, I land a 700 or more and it only costs me $345, or not and I pay nothing – maybe a Wall Street type can tell us if there is a better investment out there?

    I’ve only been through one Knewton session but my first glance opinion is that it is a good platform. The data and instruction seems to be more plentiful and better organized than MGMAT. However, the online class client (Adobe) is not anywhere near MGMAT. It’s okay but a human has to approve of every chat you put through the system. So it’s not instant. Unlike, MGMAT you also don’t know who is in the class with you and you can’t communicate with them. The instructors seem very competent but it’s hard to reach what MGMAT offers in that area.

    Overall, I’m excited about Knewton, regardless of the differences, I think this course will allow for a more concentrated attack on my strategy to raise my score. I’m excited to learn different methods. And the homework seems to take a different approach with different styles of questions. I have positive hopes for the class. I’ll try to get back at the end of October when I’ve taken the GMAT a second time.

  • John, good question. Based on my discussion with many of the GMAT students, ManhattanGMAT has the most thorough workbooks. Some of the students even took the Kaplan course but supplemented lessons with ManhattanGMAT texts. For prospectives looking to save some money, I recommend Knewton, the all-digital course that tailors every lesson and drill to each student’s progress.

  • Frankly, I just want to know which course I should take. You’ve done the reporting. Give me your opinion!