Since I wrote my first post on my MSc studies some months ago I received a few emails from prospective students applying to universities. After all, it's that time of the year again. Two questions that came up most often are:
1) What GMAT score should I get in order to be accepted into the MBA/MSc program of my choice?
2) How to prepare for the GMAT?
As you will probably be aware of, most universities require you to take the GMAT (General Management Admissions Test) and it is an important part of applications at business schools around the world. Of course, no student clearly knows how much weight is allocated to GMAT scores relative to other parts of the application. My guess is that most universities have a "soft" rule in place: A good GMAT score will only look good if the rest of the application is up to par, too. If the overall application is bad, the GMAT won't rescue you. Similarly, if your GMAT score is not in a top quantile, that does not automatically debase your entire application.
This brings us to the first question: The GMAT score required to get into the leading business schools varies. Universities don't officially state the scores they'd like to see, but some of them post stats of the current class on their websites. These stats will often give the minimum and/or the average GMAT score of that particular class of students. This will give you a good idea of the competition you're up against. At top schools, you can expect to find average GMAT scores just above 700 for MBA programs and average scores above 750 for PhD programs. Therefore, my advice is: Shoot for that perfect score of 800 (which you won't get) and make sure that the minimum you will get on a bad day is 700. In fact, you don't have to be ultra-clever to get 700+. Just spend a lot of time on practicing the different problem types. There is a positive correlation between the time you invest and the GMAT score you end up with. Also keep in mind that the average GMAT scores quoted on universities' websites are just that. They're averages and hence there are many students in those programs with scores below that average. Keep calm and stay focused on your goal: A score above 700. But how do you actually get there? On to question two!
Personally, I did the GMAT twice and in the process found out what worked for me and what didn't. The GMAT is not complicated. Once you understand how it works, it becomes easy to score at least 650 even if you think your math is terrible. Most students perform well in the quantitative part and not quite as good in the verbal section. This may be due to the verbal questions being in English, which is not the first language of many GMAT test takers, but it also shows that a solid preparation will get you many points in the quant section of the GMAT.
When you first start learning for the GMAT, I can recommend The Official Guide for GMAT Review published by the test organizer, GMAC. While the book is not perfect, it is still the best GMAT preparation book I have found. It contains lots of official retired GMAT questions, so the practice questions you will find in the book will resemble those you're likely to encounter on the actual test. The book is organized in such a way that you first get some tips on how to solve certain question types, followed by practice questions in order of difficulty. Try to work through these parts of the book as quickly as possible, because they should only be the first step on your journey to your GMAT target score. The book provides some sound advice, but its true value lies in the practice questions at the end of each chapter. Make sure to answer all of them and to practice on a daily basis. When you get a question wrong, it is very important to understand what it is you did wrong. Just looking at the correct answer and then quickly moving on won't cut it if you're shooting for scores above 700. Personally, I got a great benefit out of writing difficult questions down on individual index cards, with a detailed, self-formulated answer on the back of the card. I ended up with a stack of maybe twenty hard questions that I had either gotten wrong more than once or which had taken me too long to solve. I went through those questions maybe twice a week until I was absolutely certain that I would get similar questions right in the future.
If you find that you have weaknesses in either the quant or the verbal section, I would recommend that you also look into the GMAT Quantitative Review and the GMAT Verbal Review. They contain lots of additional questions, so they're well worth the investment. One quick tip regarding the verbal section of the GMAT: Make sure not to neglect it! As I said before, many students find it harder to get a high score in the verbal section. This represents a great chance for you, because if you spend lots of time on practicing not just the quant questions but the verbal questions, too, you will find it easier to get into a high percentile in that particular part of the GMAT. The sentence correction questions, for instance, are easy to prepare for and great for improving your GMAT score!
Aside from the official books by GMAC I would not buy any other books, because they won't offer anything new. Instead, I have an invaluable free resource for you: GMATClub.com. It is a forum that is free to join and its members, many of whom have successfully cracked the GMAT, are extremely helpful. The best part is that the forum offers a never-ending supply of questions ranging from easy to very difficult. The closer I got to my test appointment, the more often I found myself checking out the forum. Also, if you need ideas for how to get to the correct answer more quickly, the forum members will certainly have some creative solutions for you that you might not have thought of.
In addition, I want to recommend ManhattanGMAT.com. This is the website of a test preparation company. I am not going to tell you to sign up for one of their online courses or to buy their books, which I have not tried myself, because I don't think you really have to. I would rather like to tell you about their online practice tests. The tests are structured like the real GMAT, so they will take roughly four hours to complete. Believe me, it is well worth putting in the time and effort. Advantages of the Manhattan GMAT tests are that they are similar to the real thing, they are good value for the money and the math questions are slightly more difficult than the actual GMAT questions. At least that is what most GMAT Club users and I have experienced. By the way, I'm not affiliated with or getting any money from Manhattan GMAT for recommending their online practice tests, so rest assured that I'm only telling you about them, because I found them very useful.
Finally, GMAC offers a free test preparation software, too. You can download two practice tests from the official GMAT website after registering for the test. I think it makes sense to do the first of the two tests early on. This way you will know what your strengths and weaknesses are, how good your time management is and you will get a first GMAT score. The great benefits of the official practice tests are that the questions are real questions from old tests and the score is likely to be more accurate than the scores calculated by third-party test providers, because only GMAC knows the magic GMAT test score formula. If you purchase the Manhattan GMAT tests and download the official practice tests, you will have a total of eight practice tests. This should be more than enough, but if you still need more, go through the GMATClub.com forum. There you will find additional links to test providers as well as download links to old versions of official GMAT practice tests. However, keep in mind that the actual GMAT scoring system and the question types have changed, so the scores you get on the old practice tests might not be a reliable indicator of what to expect from the actual test.