For MBA applicants, the dreaded GMAT is often the biggest obstacle on the long road to business school. And while most schools now accept the GRE, admissions staff still see the GMAT as a founding pillar of any successful MBA application.
At Chicago Booth, the student average GMAT score is 726 (out of a maximum 800). At Hong Kong’s HKUST, 710. To be admitted by the top tier schools, it helps to get a 700+ GMAT.
We spoke to seven high-achieving MBAs from seven top business schools to find out how.
Charles Sudborough, London Business School, GMAT: 740
To score high in the GMAT requires hard work, focus and honesty with your weak areas. If you don't need to prepare for it, count yourself in the genius category!
Efficiency is key. Work out what you’re bad at in the first week by taking a diagnostic test and then focus on the weak points.
I only used the official textbooks. They offer over 1000 questions so it's hard to run out. If you can get 90% of those right, in the time allowed per question, you'll nail the GMAT.
Michael Stewart, Cass Business School, GMAT: 720
Here are three pieces of advice for future MBA applicants taking the GMAT:
1. Know your preferred learning style, and find a resource that fits.
There is such an abundance of GMAT study resources available that it can be overwhelming. Think about times you have had exam success in your past and mirror those experiences in your GMAT prep. I enjoyed the interactive nature of the Economist GMAT Tutor. The online platform felt very similar to the actual GMAT, which helped calm my nerves and boost my confidence on exam day.
2. Watch the clock.
There’s a fine line between being mindful of the clock in an exam, and letting it stress you out. But whatever you do, don’t ignore it! The GMAT is the most time-sensitive exam I have come across, so make sure you keep this in mind. Be strict with your time-per-question during your prep and simulate exam day conditions during your practice tests.
3. Minimize exam day stress.
Familiarize yourself with the location of the testing center, arrive early, have a solid breakfast; all of those tips we’ve heard hundreds of times but sometimes forget to put into action!
Simran Singh, Wharton, GMAT: 770
I had a very short period of preparation; three to four weeks. I started off with the GMAT 800 book to benchmark my expectations. The truth is, this book is so much harder than the real test.
I then moved to the official GMAT book and, boy, it felt easier. Around a week before the exam itself, I returned to the GMAT 800 and the cycle was complete. I’d built up my confidence. The thinking: if I can tackle these tough questions, the exam itself will be a breeze.
Still, answering questions is not the same as taking an exam; you need to build a rhythm for that. Take all the mock tests in a real test environment; limit the time and remove any distractions.
Chip Burke, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper Business School, GMAT: 760
Simulate the real experience as much as you can. The GMAT has a unique format and increases in difficulty the better you perform; so you need to practice with tests that do the same. Something as simple as knowing where the button to confirm your answer is located will save a few seconds, and in a timed test that can be invaluable.
I recommend taking a prep course for the GMAT that features multiple computer adaptive tests. I took a six-week course and spent three hours a day studying, as well as taking a test once a week.
There is a lot of material to study, and it can be overwhelming. Every essay topic is available to the public. It is tempting to try and memorize them all, but that would take months! Focus your energy on structuring quality essays no matter the topic. Specifically, focus on concepts, such as parallel structure or number laws, instead of memorizing questions.
Jordan Weinberg, George Washington University School of Business, GMAT: 730
Focus not only on your weaknesses but also on improving your strengths. I compensated for a modest score in one section with a very high score in the other one. Start preparing very early and don’t just passively look at the material; do practice questions and time yourself.
On exam day, I recommend scheduling a testing time later in the afternoon and clearing your day of all other responsibilities. This will allow you to get a good night’s sleep and have a relaxing morning before you head to the test center.
It will be a long and grueling test, so gather up the focus and stamina to run through it without getting fatigued. Don't be discouraged if you think you missed a question or if things aren't going your way. And remember, getting particularly hard questions may indicate that you’re doing well.
Peter Sahui, Australian Graduate School of Management, GMAT: 770
Identify and address your weak points. Going into the GMAT, I knew my strength lay in the verbal section while my greatest weakness was the quantitative section. Accordingly, I focused my preparation on quant.
I worked through the Kaplan GMAT Math Workbook to teach myself the theory, then practiced with the official materials; the GMAT guide and the GMAT prep software. Studying after work and on weekends, it took me about a month to prepare.
Kymberley Greenwood, UWA Business School, GMAT: 730
In Perth, Western Australia, GMAT test dates are limited. As a result, I only had a few weeks to prepare. I chose to use my limited amount of time to focus on areas that I felt I could easily improve; brushing up on math that I’d studied previously, but hadn’t used for a while.
It did help to have a school and university background in math. It also definitely helps to be familiar with the mathematical shortcuts as questions need to be answered quickly.
My biggest tip would actually be to get plenty of sleep and try to reduce stress. As the test is time-based, it’s really important to have a clear head.
NEW GMAT TIPS—ADDED JUNE 2018
Eva Hoffmann, Oxford Saïd Business School, GMAT: 760
I found that once I had reviewed the fundamental concepts, the key challenge with such a fast-paced test like the GMAT was staying calm and collected. The majority of my revision work was taking practice tests under exam conditions. There are some small things—like booking a test date with enough time to re-take the exam if needed—that can remove a lot of unnecessary stress.
Finally, because it’s an adaptive test (the difficulty adjusts based on your performance), you might start reading into it too much. For example, when I hit a string of questions that felt easy, I would assume that I was doing poorly. If you start over-thinking things, take a breath and recognize that each person finds different types of questions easy. You might just be on a streak! Reviewing with others and seeing what they struggled with really helped clarify this for me.
Alexander Robertson, EDHEC Business School, GMAT: 720
Preparing for the GMAT is different for everyone. There are so many resources out there, but only some will be useful for you particularly. I spent a few hours every day studying the Kaplan GMAT book during the month leading up to my exam. By coupling that studying with Kaplan’s practice tests and the official GMAT practice tests, I saw a drastic improvement in both my confidence and score.
After each test, I’d suggest to focus on improving areas of maximum impact. That might be as wide-ranging as the entire quantitative or verbal section, or as focused as a particular type of question, word-use case, or formula. After targeting these, your following score should reflect your hard work and show you the next area for improvement.
Bob Brennan & Ian Rafferty, UCD Smurfit Business School, GMAT: 730 & 720
Bob: Never mistake activity for achievement. Scoring 700+ on the GMAT requires more than 100 hours of productive study. I’d recommend using only one broad preparation course, such as Veritas Prep, in addition to the questions in the Official Guide. Limit your study period to six intense weeks—any longer and your preparation will become stale.
As for the exam itself, the GMAT is all about time management. This is a crucial skill, and one you should refine by taking practice tests beforehand. With that in mind, be sure to make use of the two official GMAT tests that you get when registering for the exam. These will best reflect your actual experience on the day. Finally, don’t be afraid to question your intuitions. With the GMAT, logic is king!
Ian: The GMAT is an endurance test under time pressure. It's like having to run 100 sprints of 20 meters with different obstacles on each one. To be able to perform well, you need lots of training.
Your preparation should reflect the nature of the test. The more time for training that you have, the better. Practice doing blocks of 10 questions in 20 minutes under exam conditions—using just a white board for your workings, on a computer, and with no calculator.
Then, spend lots of time reviewing the answers and solutions. During the review process, you will start to really understand the concepts and most efficient working methods to get to your answer quickly. And then keep doing it, over and over again.
The Official GMAT Guide gives you access to all the questions in the book in online format, and is well worth the investment. The specific Verbal and Quantitative Reviews give access to additional questions—if you have one area of weakness, it is probably wise to get these too.
Siddharth Bansal, MBA Applicant, GMAT: 720
Siddharth is a software developer with four years’ work experience. He’s applying for MBA programs at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, Kelley School of Business, UCLA Anderson, and USC Marshall.
When it comes to preparing for the GMAT, there is no set mantra. Everyone needs to find a strategy that works best for them. My first tip would be to do a diagnostic test and identify areas for improvement. This will also give you an idea of what the actual exam will look like early on in your preparation cycle.
Plan your study sessions for a minimum duration of the time allowed to do a section in the exam. This helps maintain focus and concentration on the day. Most importantly, learn to manage your time very effectively. You can do this by timing yourself whenever you practice.
The GMAT not only tests your verbal and quantitative skills, but also your ability to solve problems under stress. Bring out your inner manager, and strategize for achieving your dream score.
This article was updated on June 19th 2018.