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Welcome to the Financial Times Ask the Expert Q&A on MBA applications. Are you thinking of applying to study for an MBA? Are you cramming for your GMAT test? Perhaps you are preparing for an interview at one of your dream business schools?

Jonathan Wiley
Jonathan Wylie answered reader’s questions on Friday 2nd August 2013, 15.30-16.00 BST

Jonathan Wylie is assistant director of pre-MBA programmes at Kaplan Test Prep, the educational and career services provider. He is also a veteran Kaplan GMAT instructor who has helped thousands of students reach their full potential on the exam and successfully navigate the business school admissions process to get into their top choice programmes and achieve their career goals. He will answer your questions on studying for the GMAT exam and applying to business school.

To read more about other experts featuring in this series, visit our MBA applications homepage


How should students plan their study schedule for the GMAT?

Give yourself a long enough runway. Everyone underestimates how much time they will need and want to prep for the GMAT. The conventional wisdom used to be 100-120 hours, based on the average preparation time of successful GMAT testers. With the new section on the GMAT, integrated reasoning, that number increases to 120-150 hours - which, for most people, means about three months of dedicated preparation.

Learn both content and strategy. One of the most common misperceptions about the GMAT is that it’s all about “tricks and tips.” Another misperception, on the flip side, is GMAT preparation involves brushing up on math skills and not much more. Winning test takers work on both dimensions of performance—fluency with the content, and problem solving techniques. The GMAT tests critical thinking, above all else, and a practising strategic approaches will yield a top score.

Maintain a positive attitude. The path of GMAT preparation is an arduous one - one that may seem to have many more valleys than peaks. It’s designed to be hard, for all test takers, and studying for it can be just as hard. Winning requires having enough confidence to keep going, but not so much confidence that you back off from practice.

How significant is the undergraduate GPA (grade point average) in the application process? And how important is the essay component of the GMAT?

To ensure that aspiring MBAs receive accurate and up-to-date information on the business school admissions process and other relevant issues, Kaplan Test Prep annually surveys admissions officers from the top business schools.

The survey data collected helps guide the tens of thousands of business school applicants Kaplan works with annually. One of the questions we’re always asked is “Which is the most important factor in the admissions process?” Last year, 31% told us that an applicant’s GPA was the most important admissions factors - definitely a very significant proportion. However, even larger was the 49% who told us that an applicant’s GMAT or GRE score was the most import admissions factor.

What makes your GMAT score so important is that if your GPA is not as strong as it should be, doing well on the exam may make up for it. By the time you apply to business school, your GPA is unchangeable. Doing well on the GMAT is the place to make a big difference.

In terms of your essays, only 1% of admissions officers told us that this was the most important admissions factor. That said, you definitely should NOT give your essays scant attention. Nobody should be under any false illusion that they don’t matter. Most b-schools require 4 - 6 essays on leadership, skills, strengths and weaknesses, career goals, and why you want an MBA.

Admissions officers are interested in getting to know you as individuals - beyond your GPAs, standardised test scores, etc. While some pre-MBAs are not exactly fans of writing (the classic poets vs. quants sort of thing,) you should look at the personal essays as an opportunity, not as an obstacle. What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. These essays are the best tools you have at your disposal to achieve that.

Kaplan has been helping students succeed since we were created 75 years ago, and in particular helping students with the GMAT and business school admissions process for well over 40 years and we’ve always told students is this: you want to put together the strongest application possible, period.

What are the key points you look for in the essay?

Here are some strategies we advise students to utilise when writing their essays:

Avoid the rehashed resume: The personal statement is not the time to recount all your activities and honours in list-like fashion. There are more appropriate places to boast that you have increased profits by 10% in the past year.

Make It personal: This is your opportunity to put a little panache into the application and show the admissions committee why you decided to go into the business world. Was it an experience you had in university? Was there a particular extracurricular activity that changed your way of thinking? Did you find an internship so exhilarating that it created your love for this career path? Use vignettes and anecdotes to weave a story and make the essay a pleasure to read. Be compelling.

Avoid controversial topics: Definitely avoid being dogmatic or preachy. You don’t want to take the risk of alienating a reader who may not share your politics or view on monetary policy or capitalism. That said, it’s probably a good idea to avoid controversy completely. Brainstorm for a less risky idea.

Don’t get too creative: Every school differs in the tone and content that they want to see. However, now is not the time to write a haiku. Keep your creativity focused on how accomplishments and lessons learned impact your larger business goals and vision. Remember, the business world is largely an establishment community (although individual businessmen and women may be passionate artists, poets, writers, musicians, historians, etc). On the other hand, don’t be trite and don’t be boring - avoid writing the “I want to rock the business world because…” essay.

No apologies: For instance, if you received a C in economics, you may feel compelled to justify it somehow. Unless you believe that the circumstances truly do merit some sort of mention, don’t make excuses for relatively minor things – you don’t need to provide admissions officers with a road map to your weaknesses. That being said, you can mention a weakness in your background in order to explain how you have overcome a setback - a classic ju-jitsu move! We all know that overcoming setbacks and successfully implementing turnarounds are skills MBAs need.

Write multiple drafts: Have your pre-MBA advisor and perhaps an English professor read and edit it. Proofread, proofread, and proofread some more. Also, try reading it aloud – this is always a good test of clarity and flow. Finally, run it by a family member or friend who knows you well to make sure that it captures your personality.

Think ahead to interviews: Interviewers often use personal essays as fodder for questions. Of course, if you’ve included experiences and ideas that are dear to you, that you feel strongly about, you will have no problem speaking with passion and confidence. Nothing is more appealing to admissions decision makers than a vibrant, intelligent, and articulate candidate. If you wrote extensively about a project that took place several years ago, you’d better brush up before the interviews. Don’t engage in hyperbole or you’ll risk running up against an interviewer who will see through these exaggerations. Be genuine.

Do you think it is worth re-sitting the GMAT test if you don’t get a high enough score the first time? Do you think the GRE is an acceptable alternative?

What we tell students is this: always go into your GMAT preparation with the idea that you are going to study effectively, with dedication, and only take the exam once with the intent of reaching your goal score. Don’t take the real GMAT without preparation thinking that it’s just a practice run. Take practice tests for the practice run! But if you do take the exam and your score is significantly lower than the score needed to get into your top programme, then by all means, retake the exam. And figure out why you didn’t do well. Were you putting in enough hours? Or did you have a brain freeze on test day? It happens. You may have to change your strategy.

As for the GRE issue…important topic. Luckily we have proprietary data for you. Kaplan has been tracking GRE acceptance for business school admissions as part of our annual admissions officers survey every year since 2009. And what we can say is that it’s definitely on the rise. Kaplan Test Prep’s 2012 survey of business school admissions officers found that 69% of business schools now give applicants the option of submitting scores from the GRE rather than the GMAT, the traditional exam required for MBA admissions. Thanks in large part to campaigning by the GRE test administrator, this percentage has steadily increased year-over-year. When we first asked this question in 2009, only 24% of business schools said they accepted the GRE.

Important caveat: But while more MBA programmes are offering the GRE alternative to prospective students, few applicants are taking the option. Roughly half of the business schools surveyed (46%) said fewer than 1 in 10 applicants submitted a GRE score in the past admissions cycle. Data supports applicants’ wariness - while the majority of business schools (69%) told us that scores from both tests are viewed equally, 29% said that applicants who submit a GMAT score have an advantage over applicants who submit a GRE score.

However, increasing acceptance of the GRE may have hit a plateau. Of the 31% of business schools that remain GMAT-only, only 17% told us that they are likely to begin accepting the GRE for the next admissions cycle.

Integrated reasoning, the new GMAT section added in June 2012, may be a possible roadblock for its competitor: 24% of GMAT-only schools said the change, designed to make the GMAT more reflective of the MBA experience, makes it less likely they’ll begin accepting the GRE.

The bottom line: As long as business schools signal the slightest advantage in taking the GMAT, it’s hard to see more applicants taking the GRE route. Our advice to students is this: take the GMAT if you plan to apply only to business school, but if you’re unsure whether your path will take you to graduate school or business school, consider taking the GRE.

Kaplan Test Prep is currently conducting our 2013 survey of business school admissions officers, so we’ll have updated statistics on the GMAT vs GRE issue later this year. Stay tuned!

Are there any user-friendly online guides to help me understand how the GMAT score is calculated?

Look no further than Kaplan Test Prep’s GMAT blog at http://gmat.kaptest.com to learn more about how the GMAT score is calculated. It’s also host to many other free resources for students. Another good resource is the test maker itself, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).

I am planning to take the GMAT before the of end 2013, meanwhile I am doing an off-cycle internship in an investment bank until 2014. I would like to ask how I could prepare the test in the best way. Are there any particularly effective books, other than the Kaplan or GMAC ones? What do you think could be a good preparation schedule?

First of all, congratulations on your internship! Relevant work experience and good performance there should help you get into business school. It makes you a stronger applicant.

Since I work for Kaplan and believe strongly in our approach to preparing students for the GMAT, you’ll understand if I recomend one of our own books! It’s called Kaplan GMAT Premier 2014. It was just released. It includes six Practice Tests (1 in the book, 5 computer adaptive tests online); detailed answer explanations, Integrated Reasoning strategies and practice questions; a digital copy of this book to read online on your computer, tablet or smartphone; a DVD with bite-sized video lessons with top Kaplan GMAT faculty.

In terms of preparing for the exam, we recommend that future GMAT takers reserve 120-150 hours for preparation - which, for most people, means about three months of dedicated preparation. If you are independent studier, the book may be enough for you, however if you need a regimented, comprehensive plan, consider taking a course. Nothing beats an engaging, interactive experience.

I am a 21 year old Italian businessman and I graduated in July with a degree in economics and management - a course taught completely in English. Even though I am quite young, I have considerable working experience in London, New York and Venice in the luxury fashion business. I have been offered a sales executive role at a well-known Italian luxury fashion house in Switzerland.

In order to undertake this incredible opportunity, I rejected my master degree offers from some universities, as I think this is not worth the investment in monetary terms. That is why I am thinking about preparing for the GMAT and apply in two years time for a full-time MBA at a business school in London. I will prepare the GMAT by following a 35 hour course in Italy during the weekend, since I will be working on the other days.

1. Do you think this could be a good path for someone with a profile like mine?

2. Since I am not so good at undertaking these kind of tests, such as GMAT, do you recommend any other tool that could help me to reach at least 650 as GMAT result in order to be accepted at my preferred school?

To begin with: your English skills are excellent. We definitely recommend that people prepare for the GMAT on a timeline that best meets their own personal abilities. The good news is that GMAT scores are good for five years, so if you take it in 2013, you’ll have up until 2018 to decide what to do with them. While taking a course is good, please remember that 35 hours in itself inside a classroom is not enough. You’ll have to study outside the classroom as well. Taking practice tests, studying, doing your homework, etc.

Not being a “good” test taker is something we hear a lot from students who first come to Kaplan. For some people, the GMAT will be the longest test they’ve ever had to take and the first test on a computer that they have to take. The answer to this is to practise. Familiarity brings confidence. Look at the GMAT as an opportunity to shine, not as an obstacle. (Easier said than done, right?) As a GMAT teacher and a student at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, I can tell you from first hand experience that this approach is enormously helpful. I’ve worked with many students over the years and have seen their confidence exponentially rise because of a positive attitude and the right preparation.

What is the importance of the new GMAT section, integrated reasoning (IR)?

It’s a question that both aspiring MBA students and MBA programmes themselves are still working through.

A new crop of business school applicants has submitted the first set of applications with GMAT scores that include the newly launched GMAT integrated reasoning section. Meanwhile, results from Kaplan Test Prep’s 2012 survey of business school admissions officers suggests that the opinion of business schools of the new section may have slipped since we surveyed them about this topic in 2011. It’s too early to pass final judgment on the new section, but here are our most recent major findings:

- 41% of admissions officers said IR would make the GMAT more reflective of the business school experience, a big drop from the 59% who answered that way in Kaplan’s 2011 survey. Those who weren’t sure if IR would make the exam more reflective rose from 37% in 2011 to 49% in 2012. Admissions officers who said IR would not make the exam more reflective increased from 5% in 2011 to 10% in 2012.

- Somewhat similarly, 54% of admissions officers “do not know” if integrated reasoning makes the GMAT more reflective of work in business and management after business school; 36% say it does; and 10% say it doesn’t.

- There is still dominant uncertainty, however. More than half of MBA programmes are unsure of how important IR scores will be in the evaluation process, with 54% responding “undecided” to the question, “How important will a student’s integrated reasoning score be in your evaluation of their overall performance on the GMAT?” A total of 22% say IR scores will be important, while 24% say IR scores will not be important.

Our key takeaway: Schools generally prefer to gather performance data on a new test or test section before fully incorporating it into their evaluation process. Since GMAT scores are good for five years, not all applicants will submit GMAT scores with an IR component right away. We can expect that as more data is available, schools will determine clear policies, in which IR may play a key role. In the meantime, we are telling GMAT test takers to not take IR any less seriously than the quantitative or verbal sections.

Students cannot afford to ignore IR, however. Because test takers receive a separate score for the IR section, poor performance can’t be masked by stronger performance on other sections of the test. And students who take the test now may end up applying later, when IR may play a more pivotal role. Some schools have already openly stated they are not looking at IR scores at the moment, but it’s a fluid situation.

The four question types found in GMAT integrated reasoning – table analysis, graphics interpretation, multi-source reasoning and two-party analysis – feature scatter plots, sortable tables, and multi-tabbed data. Such question types, introduced in the new section in June 2012, are novel compared to the formats traditionally seen on graduate school-level admissions exams such as the GRE, LSAT and MCAT. Stay tuned for more information about what MBA programmes are saying – we are tracking this issue closely and it’s part of our 2013 survey of business school admissions officers. We’ll share the results with everyone in a few months.

Has there been any GMAT cheating going on recently? If yes, what measures are there to tackle cheating?

First of all, beyond the obvious ethical considerations, there is no need to cheat on this test. The GMAT is an exam you can prepare for and do well on. There are isolated cases of cheating of course, and the test maker takes cheating very seriously. You will likely get caught and that will kill any chances you have of getting into business school. It has far-ranging consequences. As far as wide-spread cheating, that’s not something we’ve heard of recently. This was particularly an issue the test maker was tackling a few years ago, in China.

To read more about other experts featuring in this series, visit our MBA applications homepage.

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