As a military leader or veteran, you know what it means to plan. You start by defining and envisioning your end state and work backward from there. Military leaders rely upon the structured, regimented planning processes taught at formal schools (e.g. the Marine Corps Planning Process, the five-paragraph order format, etc.) to identify available resources, unknowns, and the effects of outside forces.
Despite years of learning how to plan, military veterans often fail to create an effective study plan for the GMAT. As we would say in the Marine Corps, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” so here are some thoughts for service members approaching this first hurdle on their way to business school.
SET A GOAL
You would not cross the Line of Departure planning to “do as well as I can” on a raid – you go into combat to win. Take a similar approach with the GMAT.
The first step in your GMAT preparation must be to set a goal based upon your desired program. Perhaps the most overused and misguided rumor that exists in the veteran MBA applicant pool is that your military experience makes it acceptable to do poorly on the GMAT. This notion is false. Last year, Service to School completed a study indicating that successful military applicants typically have similar GMAT scores to successful civilian applicants. Simply put, your goal should be to score the average score of your top-choice MBA program.
Your goal should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented, and Time-based. Studies have shown that utilizing SMART goals dramatically increases the likelihood of accomplishing those goals. Write your SMART goal on a piece of paper and post it where you plan to study.
MAKE A PLAN
The service member’s life is chaotic, busy, and often unpredictable. It is, therefore, crucial to plan in advance. Take a look at your unit’s training plan for the next year and identify a period of relatively low-impact training. I recommend budgeting between one-hundred and two-hundred hours of consistent (i.e. daily) studying. This studying should be a time that you are intently focused on the task at hand – no background music, TV, or other distractions.
Identifying and blocking off a section of time to complete all GMAT preparations will put you on the right footing because it creates a sense of urgency. When I see service members fail to achieve their target GMAT score, it is typically because they take too long to study and they don’t stick to an effective study routine. Given too much time, it becomes easier to delay studying, make excuses, or arbitrarily work on problems from a book without clear objectives.
TO PAY FOR TEST PREP OR NOT?
The decision to pay for a test preparation service is a personal one. It comes down to knowing how you learn and playing to your individual strengths. I know people who are able to learn from a book at their own pace. Personally, I learn best in an interactive classroom environment, so signing up for a test preparation service was my best bet.
Test preparation services can offer a few benefits for veterans to achieve their maximum score. First, test prep services provide an organized method for studying. I used Veritas Prep, which broke the GMAT into 12 individual modules spanning quantitative, verbal, writing, integrated reasoning, and overall strategy. Each module was further broken into pre-class work, an interactive lecture, and homework. This method provided the depth necessary to master all topics and ensured maximum retention. I also know a number of veterans who have utilized Manhattan GMAT prep services to great success.
Second, paying out of pocket for a service increased my focus. For me, paying hard-earned money was painful, but it increased my sense of urgency and fueled my drive to take full advantage of the test prep services’ resources. Manhattan Prep, Veritas Prep, and Target Test Prep all offer a discount to veterans who sign up for Service to School, and I encourage all veterans to reach out to our organization to take advantage of these discounts!
If you have a specific goal, a timeline, and a plan of action, you are on the right track. To ensure you maintain your focus, pick a test date and pay the fee within the first two weeks of executing your study plan.
When picking a test day and time, consider what time of day you are most productive (many service members are most alert and focused in the morning), and what events are on the training schedule during the week leading up to the test. If you are going to spend a week in the field starving, freezing, and sleep-deprived, the following weekend is probably not your best bet. Once the plan is in motion, execution is equally important. Stick to your study goals and timeline throughout your course.
THE HOME STRETCH
At the conclusion of your course, or during the last month of self-study, begin tracking mistakes closely. I used an error log to see which problems I frequently missed and how much time I spent on each type of question. Just as we isolate individual events on which our units routinely underperform, so we must focus on our weaknesses to improve the overall score. Improving your weaknesses will also have the added benefit of more dramatically improving your overall score.
As the test approaches, conduct tough, realistic rehearsals. (Sound familiar to anything you learned in the military?). I scheduled my test for a Saturday at 8:00 AM. Each Saturday in the month leading up to the test, I took an official GMAC practice test at 8:00 AM in order to best simulate test-day. I highly recommend this method.
VETERAN SPECIFIC NOTES
A Department of Defense organization called the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) exists to support veterans and service members as they pursue educational goals. Through DANTES, the military will reimburse active duty military members and veterans for one iteration of the GMAT or GRE. Be sure to keep your digital receipts when you pay for your exam and send in an official score report after the test in order to take advantage of this resource.
Veterans with learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other disabilities may be eligible for special accommodations during the test. In order to qualify, you must apply before registering for an exam so that the Graduate Management Admissions Council (the organization that administers the GMAT) can ensure you will be accommodated on test day. Moreover, your disability will not be reported on your official score report.
As a service member, you have done harder things than study for a GMAT. What makes the GMAT a unique challenge for military applicants is that we have no frame of reference for how to plan. Hopefully, by adhering to the simple guidance above, you can begin planning to maximize your potential.
Brendan Aronson is a Marine Infantry officer currently residing in Southern California. He deployed once to Japan and once to Iraq. He currently serves as the Co-Director for MBA Operations at Service to School, a non-profit committed to helping veterans gain admission to the nation’s leading undergraduate and graduate universities.