studying and taking notes

Guest post by Joanna Graham, Fortuna Admissions

Most students look forward to taking a standardized exam about as much as getting a root canal, so I get that my love of them is uncommon (standardized tests, not dental work). I was 11 years old when I took my first standardized test, and since then I’ve sat for just about every exam under the sun – the ACT, SAT, GRE – even the LSAT and MCAT. So I speak from experience when I say that the GMAT, which is the beefy exam favored by business schools worldwide, is special. (Disclaimer: I spent nine years working at GMAC, the entity that administers and develops the GMAT exam.) Coupled with your academic credentials, your GMAT is also an integral component of your MBA application.

Positioning yourself as a credible candidate for a top MBA program means proving can you handle the quant-heavy coursework. Along with your academic track record, the GMAT offers a comparable data point that schools use to both measure you against other applicants and predict your academic success for the MBA.

For those of you with undergrad coursework that’s strong in quantitative analysis, the GMAT may be a necessary hurdle more than a point of differentiation. But know this: This exam is not like the SAT, where some students can just show up and net 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 math or quant, we’re hardwired to solve for X, but data sufficiency asks you to think about what information is needed to solve for X. Not only is it a much harder question to answer, but most students haven’t been tested (or taught to think) this way. But this kind of thinking is something that will be asked of you both in the MBA classroom and a business environment. When you’re overloaded with information, how quickly can you separate the wheat from the chaff to make an informed decision? Being successful at this is about sleuthing out the bare minimum of information necessary to make a business decision.

One of my biggest pieces of advice about GMAT prep for prospective MBA candidates is to plan ahead. Surveys show that applicants who scored over 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 mission critical.

If you’re a current student aspiring to be a future MBA and weighing the merits of knocking out the GMAT sooner rather than later, you’re already ahead of the game. Given that your GMAT score is valid for five years, it may be advantageous to take it during your senior year of undergrad because you’re still in study mode. (This also gives you more lead time to retake it if necessary.) You may be overwhelmed and busy in your final year at college, but reorienting yourself to weekly study sessions on top of a demanding job will be even harder. Plus, you can cancel your score without a penalty, meaning no reference to canceled scores will appear on reports sent to business schools – a change from a few years ago. (The only caution here is that the percentiles will shift slightly as scores are recalibrated annually. But not to fear, the percentiles just give you a snapshot of how you performed on the GMAT compared to everyone else who’s tested in the last three years.)

So, how decisive is your GMAT score? It depends – on you, but also on your target program. Many programs like Harvard Business School, Wharton, Chicago Booth, Columbia and MIT Sloan are unapologetically quant driven. Other top schools like Kellogg, Dartmouth Tuck and Duke Fuqua can be more flexible in considering applicants with GMAT scores that don’t start with a 7. Depending on the type of program and its academic culture, your personal and professional achievements along with other unique differentiators will receive greater emphasis.

It’s true that your GMAT score is incredibly important. But keep some perspective: it’s also just one data point in your overall profile being evaluated by MBA admissions officers. Your exceptional essays, glowing recommendations, stellar resume, and other application details will also distinguish your application from others. Sure, you’ll need to convey you can thrive in a numbers-driven management curriculum. But thankfully, there’s much more that goes into positioning a standout application.

For specific GMAT prep advice to optimize your score, view my related blog, 7 Essential Tips to Prep for the GMAT.

About the Author

Joanna Graham is an expert coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of the Graduate Management Admission Council. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.


Written by College Coach
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