Our five experts are giving us test-taking tips from a year or two before you apply to the business school of your choice to the months and weeks before the test day. Brian Galvin from Veritas Prep: if applicants have a year or two before they apply to a business school, what would you suggest in terms of the timing of studying for the GMAT? "Take it before you need it. If you're thinking a few years out, take it when you have the time, kind of block off a little bit of time where you think, 'This season I don't have extracurricular activities or I have a little bit more flexibility,' or prepare before then and take it maybe over a two- to three-month period."
Chris Ryan, what do you think a student should do? "The sooner a student starts on the GMAT process, the better. If the student has some time before actually getting into the thick of applying, that's great because the score is good for five years and it's extremely lowers the stress on the applicant if he or she can get the GMAT out of the way."
Jon from PowerScore: what are your thoughts if students have a year or two before they have to apply to an MBA school? "The best place to start always is to take a practice test. To go online, you can actually go to the GMAT website and download two copies of free online just like the actual GMAT, copies of practice tests and you can take those. I would suggest taking one and just looking at the score, taking it under those timed conditions and trying as much as possible to replicate what the actual test would be like. That will give you a starting point, a baseline so to speak." Can you give an example? "Somebody takes a practice test, scores a 500, and they are looking at a business school that is going to require a 550 on average for someone with their GPA to get in. They don't have all that far to go from improvement standpoint, which means, number one, that they probably don't need a year or two to try to prepare. And number two, the method by which they are going to prepare and the means that they are going to undergo to prepare is probably going to be very different than someone who starts with that 500 and needs say a 750 for Wharton. So it obviously shapes and colors the entire prospective of how you're going to go about preparing."
Chris with ManhattanGMAT, how do you prep for the GMAT? "There is no preparation for the GMAT like the GMAT. Part of the reason is that it is a computer adaptive test and people just haven't prepared for computer adapted tests before in their life generally because they are not part of everyone's schooling up to that point. A computer adaptive test is vastly different from a paper-based test because you can't go backwards. The next question is harder if you get this question right and so that makes a much more stressful experience and that requires practice."
Jon, is there any danger implicit in studying for the GMAT for two years? "I've seen people try to take two years or even 12 to 18 months to prepare for this thing and there's a real danger in that. The danger in this is burn out. People exhaust themselves trying to do something every day on the GMAT for a year and a half. By the time they go to take the test, they are just mentally and physically drained and they're wiped. They are not as sharp on test day as they would have been if they had paced themselves a little bit better and even if they had condensed that amount of preparation into a shorter time. They just wouldn't have quite exhausted themselves so much."
You need planned daily, weekly goals and know when you are going to take practice tests. So, Chris, what is involved in taking those practice tests? "A lot of people avoid taking their first practice tests because they are worried that it is going to dictate the level their going to score at. They ask us, you know, what kinds of increases off of practice tests do you see? And the fact of the matter is the very first practice test is not very predictive of what someone will do overall, but you have to feel what it's like to take a computer adapted exam and you have to see very broadly where do you need to focus on math or verbal. Then, after doing that practice test, you have to come up with the really focused preparation plan."
Brian Galvin, what about practice tests? "Take a practice test if you want to twice a week. Go back and analyze your results. Spend as much as that last few weeks as possible when you feel a little bit of crunch time. Working on minimizing the mistakes you make. Being really conscious of those." What are some of the trick questions? "Usually, assume that numbers are integers unless told otherwise, or assume that they are positive unless told otherwise. So for me, just writing those two words down on my note board was integer and positive, making myself look at it. The conscious mistake that I knew I was prone to be making. I actually caught myself in the first 10 questions about to make that mistake, caught it, and then my confidence just soared from there. I realized I wasn't giving back any points that were rightfully mine. That was one major one, the other one you tend to go through your calculations and your process of determining what the right answer is and then never really look back at the question before you answer and in a lot of cases you just answered the wrong question. I think the most common wrong answer to any question on the GMAT is the right answer to the wrong question. Where if you solve for x, they could be asking you for y or 10-x. Again, for me, the one way I combated that, I just wrote a question mark in the upper right-hand corner of my note board and just made myself glance at that before I submitted any answers. If you have two or three reminders to yourself on each section on whatever you do … as long as you catch yourself about to make the [mistake], realize, OK, I saved myself this question … I'm on top of my game and confidently able to attack the next question ..."
Jose with Knewton, what would you suggest in terms of time to study for the GMAT? What's the preferred lead time? "The best way to get the score gain is to do a little bit less work over a longer period of time. Lots and lots of practice … A lot of these concepts are quite alien to students, so having more time with them and more time to practice them more gradually is how they really sink in best. I really recommend most students spend at least three months and spend as much as six months."
What if you only have two months to study for the GMAT? Liza with Kaplan? "It's a bit like trying to learn the entire French language [in] two weeks before heading to Paris for a trip. It's just not possible. What is possible, however, is focusing on the area of the GMAT that will bring you the most success. In the same way that focusing on conversation[al] French that will be relevant to your trip will be the most beneficial." Can you illustrate that point? "To use the France analogy again, say you're going for a business trip. You're going to want to focus on how to say things like profit and loss statement … If you're going for a vacation, you might want to learn how to say, 'Where can I find the Cesan Museum?' It's the same for the GMAT; different people will benefit focusing on different areas."
Jon, how daunting is it if you have to take the GMAT within two months in order to hit application deadlines? "Two months is more than enough time for the vast majority of people out there who are trying to get prepared for this thing to reach their potential or at least sort of achieve a level that will be satisfactory for them. We see people come in, in literally four to five weeks at times and improve drastic amounts, 200 points even. So you can make some significant jumps in two months. Again, you have to have that self knowledge to start that comes from taking a practice test, and you really have to stop and take a hard look at yourself and what your ultimate goals are, and then begin to think about how to do that in two months. You can buy a book and study that for two months, or it may be one of these things where a course or even tutoring would better suit you; but it depends on your needs and, certainly, with two months you're going to have to think about amping up."
Jose, how many hours does an average applicant need to spend to prepare for a GMAT and what is the best schedule to study? "If you're going a more gradual approach, I'd recommend taking a course, doing one class per week and doing one test, full-length test every other week or so. Once that course is over, you're going to want to go and repeat the class if it gave you any trouble. You'll go through it again, you'll focus on your weaknesses and you'll keep taking this practice test and doing lots of practice homework and that's the way to structure an approach if you've got four months or more. If you only go two months or more, you're probably taking two classes per week and you probably need to take one practice test per week, so every Saturday."
What kind of study patterns do students choose, Chris? "The two-week, all-day cram session doesn't work so well. In two weeks of heavy cramming, you just about get through all of the content but it is very hard to master the process within just two weeks. It's like trying to train for a marathon or something in just two weeks. It's much better to take eight hours of preparation time and split it up into eight one-hour sessions or four two-hour sessions rather than try to sit there and do eight hours. It would be like being in the gym for eight hours. You simply can't do eight hours worth of physical work, so to speak. So hundreds of hours spread out over a few months is the way to go."
Jon, do you have any hints about the test-taking prep? "[Study] the underlying concepts of this test--the consistent things that we find on it and that have to be kept on it to keep the test self-consistent from one time to the next. If you can understand those things, then it doesn't necessarily take you a very long time to get ready for this test." So we don't have to study everything? "I don't have to teach someone math for them to ultimately do well on this test. I simply have to teach them GMAT math. No matter what they throw at you, you're all set."
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