MBA Admissions: How to Improve Your GMAT Score

The GMAT isn’t the make-or-break factor for getting into a top-choice business school, but a high score always puts the shine on an application. The test can be grueling, however; here are some pointers and insight for how to get an upper hand on the standardized exam.

When Babak Soltani began studying for the GMAT, he was shocked by how much basic math he’d forgotten.

“It was half-demoralizing and half-encouraging when I saw how much better I was doing on the verbal versus the quantitative,” says Soltani, who studied engineering as an undergraduate and is currently a business development executive at Blackboard Inc. “I think just going back to doing math calculations is very hard, especially for Americans, who learned multiplication and long division in elementary school and then used a calculator for the rest of their lives.”

Soltani is one of hundreds of thousands who will take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) test this year, hoping their scores will augment a tailored application to one of their top choice MBA programs. The GMAT, taken by more than 261,000 people worldwide over the past year, is required by the vast majority of accredited business schools for admission.

But the landscape is getting increasingly competitive. Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of MBA admissions consultancy Expartus, says that average test scores on applications for MBA programs have gone up worldwide in the past years. Incoming MBAs at Stanford, for instance, had a 733 average last year; at Wharton it was 732, and at Harvard it was 725, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council. In general, non-US business schools had lower averages, with 708 for France’s INSEAD, 709 for London Business School, and 680 for IE Business School in Madrid.

“What I’ve found is that there is a much stronger emphasis on test scores today than was the case ten years ago,” Isiadinso says. The GMAT has become more flexible and student-friendly, Isiadinso notes, making it easier for applicants to submit better scores, thus pushing up averages. In 2014, for instance, GMAC instituted a revised policy offering the ability to preview GMAT scores before deciding whether to accept or cancel results.

Tricks of the trade

The GMAT is notoriously tricky; the 3.5-hour exam is divided into quantitative and qualitative sections, and is computer-adaptive, meaning your answer to one question will determine the difficulty of the next. The test is very much designed to assess your analytical and problem-solving skills, rather than how much you know, Soltani says.

“They word things to purposely be very confusing,” he says. “It’s deceiving, and can throw you through a loop because sometimes you don’t understand the question, or it’s not immediately apparent what you need to solve for.”

So how can you up your scores for such a time-pressured challenge?

Brian Galvin, Vice President of Academics at GMAT prep company Veritas Prep, says that one thing he emphasizes to all his students is to think like the test-makers: why are they asking you the question? Very often students look at a problem and try to solve it as pure math, without searching for clues and patterns, he says. More often than not, the multiple-choice answer set will give you hints to what kind of skill you need to use: for instance, if the answer options all include the variable x, you know that you don’t actually have to solve for x.

Another important point is to make sure you land the middle-curve questions. Galvin often sees students preparing themselves only for the hardest questions, but because the test is adaptive, they won’t even get the tough problems if they’ve missed a lot of the medium-difficulty ones. Galvin says he sees a lot of unforced errors at this level—solving for the wrong thing, making assumptions, or leaving work a step short in the rush to save time for the harder questions.

A degree of comfort with the discomfort is key. “You’re never going to have 100% clarity on business decisions,” Galvin says. “Likewise, the test asks you to deal with that level of uncertainty; it’s a limited universe, so if you can’t calculate for the exact answer, recognize the things you can control, and make a decision based on what you’re left with.”

How much does the GMAT really matter anyway?

If you botch your first GMAT, not to worry. There is always the option to cancel scores; you can also retake the test as many times as you want. But Isiadinso cautions students about GMAT strategy, noting that some schools take into consideration how many GMAT scores you rack up. Harvard Business School, for instance, pointedly asks how many times the applicant has taken the test; but other schools may interpret three improved GMAT scores as a sign of persistence.

“You can make the argument from both sides, Isiadinso says. “But in this GMAT-centric climate, you really want to try to have that 700 to convince the admissions committee.”

While many students take some form of prep course—Manhattan Prep and Veritas are a couple of the most popular—there are also GMAT prep books, as well as the free online resource Khan Academy, which offers series of videos walking students through GMAT problems. One rarely noted fact is that it may be possible to apply for an MBA without taking the GMAT; in certain cases, admissions offices will waive the test for those particularly qualified—for instance, professionals who studied engineering or mathematics in their undergraduate degrees. But it’s important to check with the school, as many don’t even mention this option on their websites or application materials.

Soltani says that no matter how smart you are, practice is still essential for a good score. “It’s not a playbook; there’s no list of vocabulary to memorize,” he says. “You really need to sharpen a lot of skills that are super dull.”

Image: Alberto G. / CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

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