Business schools have reported a significant rise in GMAT averages over the last 15 years.
Last fall, the average GMAT score was 732 for the incoming classes of Stanford GSB, Wharton and Kellogg, and for HBS it was 730. And while your GMAT score is just one component in your broader narrative, it’s clear why the exam has taken on obsessive importance for so many applicants: It captures a comparable data point that schools use both to predict your academic success for the MBA and measure you against other candidates.
Sure, there will be outliers – not everyone admitted to a top 10 school posts 700+ on the GMAT – but by publishing scores achieved by the mid 80% range of incoming students, top schools are giving you a sense of where they’re setting the bar.
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 seven top tips:
1. Quality over quantity time. Surveys show that applicants who scored over 700 report studying at least 80-100 hours for the exam – but don’t be misled by the numbers. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 lament, ‘why isn’t my score improving?’ When I ask what his prep sessions look like, I see that he’s cramming 45-minute study sessions on the metro while answering work emails and using an app on his iPad to order dinner for the family. 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 focused effort 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.
4. Create specific, targeted 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
Fortuna Admissions coach Joanna Graham is 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.