Early on in my career as an MBA admissions consultant, I had a European client we’ll call Andreas. He was applying to a top-10 U.S. school early decision. Having been preparing for the GMAT for some time, Andreas assured me he’d get over 700 based on practice tests he’d taken. We worked on and completed his application, and he was scheduled to take the GMAT the day before the application was due. Late that day I received this show-stopping email from him:
I’m so upset. I scored 550 on my GMAT. What do I do now?
In his case, his score was really low and he had nothing in his profile to mitigate that. It didn’t make sense to apply early decision, and he eventually decided that he didn’t want to go to business school after all.
Waiting this late in the game to take the GMAT or GRE happens more often than you’d think; in fact, I’ve been seeing it on the rise lately.
SET ASIDE AT LEAST FOUR MONTHS TO GET THE GMAT DONE BEFORE YOU WORK ON APPS
Do yourself a favor and give yourself at least four months to get the GMAT or GRE out of the way before you do any work on your applications. If you have that taken care of, you know you’re applying to schools for which you’re actually competitive in terms of test scores. Equally important, you can focus entirely on your applications. I’ve found when people try to study for the standardized test and work on applications, both suffer.
Assume you’ll need to take it more than once. I know I sound like a worrywart, but you really don’t know what things will be like on the big test day, even if you’ve fanatically prepared. What if you get the flu, your car breaks down on the way there, or your upstairs neighbor’s toilet explodes and it floods your apartment the night before (this happened to one client)? Even if you face no disasters, your score may be noticeably below average for your cohort, and you may also sense how you could do better if you were to take it again. You have to wait 31 days between tests, so you want to factor this in as you consider when to start test prep.
Do not assume that your practice test scores guarantee anything. Most of my clients’ practice test scores have been 40 to 80 points higher than how they’ve performed on test day. I don’t know why this is, but it has caused me not to put much trust in this number, especially if it’s used as a reason for putting off the test till the last minute.
SCHOOLS GIVING GMAT SCORES MORE WEIGHT
Get yourself all the help you can to do your best. While I still find it hard to believe that the GMAT and GRE are supposed to be such amazing predictors of success in business school (I can’t believe they predict actual success post-MBA!), the schools think so and they’re giving them increasing amounts of weight as they evaluate candidates. In a world with numerous test-prep options of which many applicants are availing themselves, you really should consider getting some assistance, unless you’re the type who likes to take standardized tests for fun. And if you have a legitimate reason for needing more time for the test (e.g., diagnosable ADD/ADHD or learning disabilities), do seek this accommodation. I’ve had clients do so, score much better, and get into top-15 schools. It takes time to put this process in motion, so if you’re considering it, build in another month or two.
If you happen to be in undergrad, take the test while you’re still in school or shortly thereafter. You’ll be in prime test-taking mode and your score will be good for five years.
I have some clients who have plateaued on one test ask me about switching to the other. This most commonly happens with foreign candidates who score poorly on the verbal part of the GRE and think they may do better on the GMAT. I’m not a big fan of changing horses midstream, but I will advise some candidates to give it a try if I get a sense based on their background that they might be able to improve, and they have the time to get up to speed for an entirely new test.
PLAN FOR TWO MONTHS OF GMAT-FREE WORK FOR FOUR SCHOOL APPLICATIONS
One last thing: give yourself enough time to do the applications themselves. Many candidates think they can just sit down and bang out four schools in a couple of weeks. Well, you can bang out something, but it’s unlikely you’ll produce anything of high quality. Ideally, you want to have time to do multiple drafts of each essay, put them aside for a bit, and revisit them. You may find that after you finish one school’s essays, you have some ideas for modifying a previous school’s essays.
You also want to build in time for preparing your recommenders and keeping them moving along; and filling in the tedious, yet often time-consuming online forms for each school. Planning to have about two months for four schools, for example, is a good idea. (I’m assuming you’ve done school research before all of this.) Add in your test-prep and testing time, and that suggests getting the whole thing going at least six months before your deadlines.
Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.