I totally get it. For most people, taking the GMAT is about as enjoyable as getting a root canal. Personally, I’m a big fan (of the exam, not dental work), but I’m also a bit biased having spent nine years with GMAC, the entity that administers and develops the GMAT exam. I also admit to taking my first standardized test at 11 years old. Since then I’ve sat for just about every exam under the sun – the SAT, GRE, ACT – even the MCAT and LSAT. So I speak from experience when I say that the GMAT is special. And I think you can learn to love it, too. And if that feels like a stretch, then maybe I can convince you to share an appreciation of its virtues.
For one, the GMAT is distinct among assessments when it comes to the MBA. It’s the only standardized exam created by business schools for MBA admissions. It’s been around for five decades, so there are 50 years of validity studies backing it up. It’s true that no standardized test is a perfect predictor of who will be successful in an MBA program. But what we’ve verified is that that, when combined with undergrad GPA, the GMAT score provides a very strong correlation of success in the first year of business school (0.53 to be exact – anything above 0.3 is considered a strong correlation). Validity coefficients for undergrad GPA and GMAT Total scores are 0.283 and 0.459 respectively (for what it’s worth).
There will always be outliers (like the former NFL player with a 560 GMAT admitted to Harvard Business School), and the GMAT is just one data point in your overall profile. But outliers are not the norm. Your score matters, particularly because the student body at tier-one programs has truly become globally diverse. How do you compare the Bain consultant from Silicon Valley to the entrepreneur in Eritrea? The GMAT helps level the playing field by providing a consistent data point for evaluating candidates against one other.
Because relevance is essential to validity, the test also evolves with the times. The rise of specialized master’s programs and the GRE as a competitor, has prompted GMAC to innovate the exam and business schools to rethink what types of skills they’re seeking in recruiting the most robust cohorts. When GMAC posed this question to faculty at 740 b-schools across six continents, the result was the debut of the integrated reasoning section in 2012. Integrated reasoning asks you to take and analyze data from an array of diverse sources, draw conclusions, and determine what’s truly important to arrive at a desired result or conclusion. The idea is that technology is rapidly changing the way we do business, and the ability to extrapolate the essence of what’s being presented and exercise discernment is an essential skill.
The point is that the GMAT matters, no matter what your feeling is about it, and you’ll want to put in the energy and time to achieve the best possible score.
Onward, then, to the million-dollar question. How long should you plan to spend studying?
It’s no surprise that applicants who scored above 700 report studying at least 80-100 hours for the exam. But the take-away isn’t that 700+ score = 80-100 hours, it’s that you must study. Preparation, frankly, is imperative. It’s not like the SAT, where some students just show up and slam-dunk a killer score. That’s because the GMAT exam looks at the skills you’ve developed over time. Data sufficiency, for example, is a skill set you build with practice, not something that comes intuitively.
Also, GMAT questions aren’t asked in a way or format you normally encounter – data sufficiency, again, being a prime example. When we think about quant or math, we’re hardwired to solve for X, but Data Sufficiency asks about what information you need to solve for X. Not only is it a much harder question to answer, but most students haven’t been tested in this way. And GMAC’s purpose in asking isn’t to torture you, but because it’s something you’re expected to do both in the MBA classroom and a business environment. When you’re bombarded with information, can you quickly separate the wheat from the chaff to make a business decision? Being successful at this is about teasing out the bare minimum of information necessary to make an informed decision.
“Too often, people get caught up in search of a ‘easy, fast, secret recipe’ for achieving a 700+ GMAT score. They become hyper-preoccupied with the efficiency of their preparation process at the expense of deep learning and real mastery of material,” says Scott Woodbury-Stewart, Founder and CEO of Target Test Prep. “The questions have methodical, logical solutions; there are no secret “tricks” to getting correct answers. The biggest mistake people make is underestimating how long it will take them to effectively prepare.”
So how should you prepare to maximize your effort? And what strategies are the most efficient and effective for increasing your score? As an expert coach at Fortuna Admissions and a former GMAC insider with an uncommon affection for standardized tests, I’ve distilled my best advice into the following top tips.
8 Essential Prep Tips for Acing the GMAT:
- Self-study or hire a coach? Know thyself. It might be encouraging to know that roughly two-thirds of candidates say they self-study, according to self-reported data from GMAT’s annual survey, and that statistically there’s no difference between the GMAT score of a candidate who self-preps and one who shells out money for a coach or test prep course. To set yourself up for success, what’s essential is knowing whether you have the self-discipline to self-prep diligently. The very type A among us will set up a study schedule (imperative) and put ourselves through the paces without fail. Others thrive with the extra accountability of having to show up to class.
- Plan ahead. Ideally, you’d give yourself a runway of six- to seven-months, which gives you time to take and potentially retake the exam. But the best time to prepare is when you can block out two-to-three solid months of study when you have the least number of other distractions. If you’re an accountant, for example, you don’t want to plan your GMAT prep between February and May. Of course, work is always busy, but is there a window on the calendar when you might anticipate the least amount of predictable stress? It’s also not the best time to prep if you’re trying to buy a house, plan a wedding or pack for a move.
- Create targeted, specific goals. There should be a learning objective every time you sit down to study. Such as, decreasing the amount of time from 2 minutes to 1.45 for answering easy data sufficiently questions, refreshing sentence structure or reviewing exponent rules you can apply to problem solving. Having a very clear learning objective will go a long way in terms of helping to create structure and focus as well as opportunities to measure your progress. It’s also gratifying to look back at the end of the week and see how many things you checked off the list. Having those small, measurable successes will fuel your endurance. And if you’re not about to focus or you miss a session, you can go back and hold yourself accountable.
- Quality over quantity time. I know those 80-100 hours are in your head now, but don’t let the numbers mislead you. Imagine it this way: You can’t credibly train for the marathon by only running 20 miles on Saturdays. Just like it’s unwise to slot data sufficiency into one marathon cram-session on the weekend and expect to gain mastery. Instead, create a study schedule and chunk your time into bite-size sessions to build the mental muscle that’s needed to go the distance at exam time.
- Minimize distracted prep. Many of us are hardwired to multitask – especially if you’re a millennial – and do so with pride. But multitasking is deathly for your GMAT prep. “But I’ve studied 16 hours this week!” a frustrated client will tell me. “Why isn’t my score moving?” When I ask what his prep sessions look like, I see that he’s cramming 45-minute study sessions on the metro, using an app on his iPad while ordering dinner for the family and answering work emails. But sitting down and giving the GMAT your undivided attention is the key to making meaningful gains. So silencing your phone for 30 minutes of undivided attention is the kind of productive prep in which you’re more apt to absorb the material and move the needle on your score, as opposed to two “study” hours when all your devices are firing.
- Connect with other candidates. Not only does misery love company, but finding others suffering through data sufficiency creates accountability and community. There’s no shortage of Facebook groups or forums which can also help you stay on task and commiserate with others. I wouldn’t call it a good time, but you’re more apt to persist when the going gets tough – and even find some humor in it all – if you’re alongside others who are suffering through the same.
- Have a “break strategy.” You’ll get an optional break between sessions, but know that it’s not terribly long. Practice by setting a timer, getting up, getting a drink, using the bathroom – really go through the motions. The time will pass quicker than you think. Once you begin your exam, it’s on a test driver, so if you’re late you’re losing precious minutes.
- Recreate the test-center environment. It can be shockingly difficult to sit down in a quiet room and take a test for four hours. This is especially true if you’re accustomed to snacking, listening to music, padding around barefoot, putting your feet up on the chair – all of this being taboo at the test center, of course. Try to create an environment as close to the test center as possible: Get rid of your music, water bottle and snacks. Practice waiting a few minutes before getting up to use the bathroom on a whim. Think of ways to make yourself a little less comfortable.
Finally, it’s important to keep some perspective. True, your GMAT score is incredibly important, but again, it’s also one data point in your overall narrative. You also want to submit exceptional essays and glowing recommendations, among other application details, so don’t let test preparation co-opt your time to the point of disrupting these other elements. Make a plan and stick to it, and you may be pleasantly surprised. While this may not ignite your love of standardized testing, there’s no need to let the GMAT be your worst enemy.
Joanna Graham is an expert coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of the Graduate Management Admission Council. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 MBA programs.