How to Prepare For the GMAT

We hear from five MBA application consultants about how to best prepare for the GMAT.

Books, classes, one-on-one tutors, or putting your head in the sand: all approaches to the GMAT thoroughly tried and tested by the MBA applicants who came before you.

So what works best? Probably not pretending the GMAT doesn’t exist. 

The GMAT measures both your quantitative and verbal skills – both essential to good management. But the test is tough and winging it on the day is unlikely to get you into the best school for your needs.

Some applicants require a personal tutor to help bring them up to speed, while for others, some independent study might be enough to get them the results they’re hoping for. MBA application consultants can also help you find the right path for you.

Here we speak to five MBA application consultants about how to best prepare for the GMAT.

Why is the GMAT so important?

MBA application consultant Duncan Chapple says “the main reason why the GMAT is so important is because it is the best predictor of whether or not people can be successful in the MBA program”.

“There are very few MBA programs that require only verbal skills, where you can talk your way through to an MBA by being a quantitative person. But then the other thing is true as well. You can't simply calculate your way to an MBA,” he explains.

Browse discussions about the GMAT

“Managers have to be able to lead and challenge and debate and think critically. And to be able to engage in a mature and thoughtful way with the data.”

In this way, the GMAT measures the skills that will be come very important in your future career.

What’s more, an even slightly better GMAT score that your next competitor could make the difference between you getting the last spot in your first choice school or not. 

“Admissions committees have to make very difficult decisions,” says Angela Guido, consultant at mbaMission. “Ultimately the vast majority of their candidates are great and they can only admit a small percentage of them. So that gives them a little bit of a lever to make tough calls sometimes.”

Guido says that GMAT scores also make a difference to schools’ rankings, which is their bread and butter.

“I think, unfortunately, the GMAT has become relatively more important in recent years due to the rankings and schools’ need to preserve and I think advance their reputations. One thing which is put into the rankings are students' GMAT scores.”

“Where schools might prefer to be a little more generous with their judgment,” explains Guido, “I think some of them probably feel that their hands are tied, with respect to the rankings, and so for better or worse the GMAT matters quite a bit in the process.”

All the more reason for you to make the GMAT a priority as soon as you know you’d like to apply for an MBA.

Where to start?

Michelle Miller is CEO for the Americas at MBA Admissions Consulting firm Aringo, where they focus on the process of matching up candidates with the right schools for their future careers, and working on their application narratives to show how they would be a good fit for the school.

When it comes to GMAT, Miller says candidates come to her at all stages of the GMAT process.

“Yesterday I spoke to a candidate who just graduated with a bachelor's degree two months ago, so he hasn't even bought a GMAT book yet,” she says.

“He just wants some tips for ‘how should I be preparing myself over the next few years?’" 

The first thing she tells him? 

“I tell him that it's a bear. Don't take it lightly.”

Miller also tells him “that it's never too early to start. So even though he and I might not speak for another three years, when he's ready to apply, I let him know it's never too early to buy a book to start looking at so you're not in the case that unfortunately so many candidates are in right now. They want to get their applications in in less than three months and they're still banging their head against the wall.”

Angela Guido at mbaMission says if she catches applicants before they’ve even started studying for the GMAT, she recommends doing a practice test cold, without any preparation, to get a clear idea of where they need to improve.

“If you're targeting a school and you know that you need to have an above 700 score to be competitive and your practice test is a 580, then you know you have a lot of work to do and you're probably going to want to invest in a class,” she explains.

“On the other hand, if you're close – let’s say you want to get a 720 and your first test is 670 – well a 50-point jump is not that hard if you're starting cold. Then you might buy a set of books and study on your own first.”

A GMAT textbook.

It’s also about finding out where your weaknesses are and honing in on those.

“Most people haven't done geometry for trigonometry or complex algebra since they were 18 or 19,” says Guido, “and so really refreshing those concepts will be an important part of gaining over 100 points on the test.”

Pitfalls to be avoided

With so many aspects of the MBA application to consider, it can be hard to keep on top of everything.

We asked MBA application consultants to each share a share common mistake or two they have seen applicants make – and how to make sure you don’t repeat them.

Angela Guido, mbaMission: Practice your test under the right conditions

“The number one mistake I saw was people underestimating the importance of doing real times in practice. You really need to practice for the test itself,” says Guido.

“Practice the problem under tight conditions – you can do this yourself with a stopwatch. It’s really important because being able to solve the problem is worthless if you can't do it in roughly two minutes time.” 

Duncan Chapple, MBA application consultant: Not requiring a GMAT doesn’t make it a good school 

Chapple says the hype and stress around the GMAT can put applicants off applying to schools that require it. Don’t fall into this trap, he says.

“The GMAT shows whether you've got quantitative skills and verbal reasoning skills – those are very desirable for employers. If you limit yourself to schools that don't require the GMAT that then you are going to be harming yourself. You’re not looking at putting yourself in the most competitive situation.”

A balanced score is better than the highest score

“If I had to pick one aspect of GMAT then I would really stress getting a balanced score rather than a high score,” says Chapple.

“One of the things that schools are worried about is the idea of imbalance.”

A balanced score shows your have both the quantitative and verbal skills required to make a good manager.

There are some schools that are engaging in a kind of GMAT subterfuge, that they are really aiming for candidates with extremely high GMAT scores in order to raise up their average,” explains Chapple. “So, for example, you might see schools that are offering very advantageous scholarships to students with extremely high GMAT scores.”

This is more about them climbing the school rankings than it is about you getting the most out of your MBA studies.

“So be a little bit careful about schools that are pushing you for maximum scores rather than the balance.”

Stacy Blackman, MBA application consultant: Find alternative ways to solve the same problem

Independent MBA consultant Stacy Blackman says reviewing practice problems again to seek out new solutions is better than rapidly trying to get through as many problems as possible.

“People tend to forget to review previous examples and to think of alternative ways to solve each problem,” says Blackman.

“They cycle through difficult problems, believing that if they know one way of solving the problem, they'll be okay for the test. Unfortunately, on test day, you will not see the exact same problem, so your score really depends on how well you can liken a completely new problem to a problem you have solved in the past.”

“Without consistently reviewing different methods to solve familiar problems and interpret certain fact patterns, it's harder for you mind to draw the connections you need on test day.”

Seth Gilmore, Managing Consultant at The MBA Exchange: Find a tutor or study plan that’s tailored to your needs

“Don’t choose a test tutor based solely on low price or aggressive marketing,” advises Seth Gilmore, Managing Consultant at The MBA Exchange.

“The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach promoted by most of the large prep firms usually falls short, leaving applicants frustrated and discouraged. Rather, applicants should choose a prep resource that provides and supports a customized study plan tailored to their individual needs.”


  • GRE and GMAT textbooks by United States Marine Corps CC BY 2.0 (cropped)
  • GMAT Study by Ian Lamont CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

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