Savvy millennials reveal GMAT strategies

Trends in the business school entry test — plus tips from our MBA bloggers
© James Ferguson

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Business school students by their nature are overachievers. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the average scores for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), the postgraduate entry exam, which have climbed to record levels in many of the top institutions.

Top dog in the latest intake was Stanford Graduate School of Business, with an average score of 733 among its student intake, closely followed by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, with an average score of 732. However, even lower ranked schools, such as the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Michigan University’s Ross School of Business, recorded higher average GMAT scores last year than Harvard Business School achieved as the best performing school in 1995.

Are students getting smarter? No, but they are getting savvier and more aware of the competition for places, according to observers. Chicago’s Booth School of Business has seen 14 consecutive years of increasing GMAT averages, reaching 726 last year. This is not just due to students performing better, but a reflection of the school’s success in attracting better performing students, says Stacey Kole, Booth’s deputy dean of the full-time MBA programme.

“The whole GMAT exam is really designed to see whether the student can do the work we will set them,” she says.

As average GMAT results approach the maximum test score of 800, schools have given greater emphasis to other criteria, such as work experience and essay results, notes Matt Symonds, director of Fortuna Admissions, an MBA coaching company.

Rising tuition fees has meant that competition for a place at the best schools has intensified, putting further pressure on people to perform well in the GMAT. Millennials have grown up with tutors, technology and tiger mums, Mr Symonds says. “Putting in the time to study for the GMAT will be second nature to them.”

But what is it like to take the test? Our MBA student bloggers share their tips.

Karun Jain — Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

Even before I started the prep for the GMAT, I understood its importance in the business leadership journey.

The test, owned and administrated by the Graduate Management Admission Council, was a route to develop critical business skills: GMAT’s sentence correction section is all about developing brevity and grammatical correctness, for example, while the integrated reasoning section helps develop numerical and data-interpretation abilities. To structure my preparation, the following information helped:

• Statistics from GMAC showed candidates study for more than 120 hours to secure a 700+ score out of 800.

• Using past GMAT score statistics I worked out that a one-point increase in the verbal score had a bigger impact on the overall mark than an equivalent increase in the quantitative score.

• GMAT is a computer adaptive test, so it is impossible to skip “difficult” questions from particular sections. It is critical to develop the ability to solve almost all types of problems.

• Manhattan’s GMAT books and guides were the most popular preparation material.

Over the next three months, I studied the GMAT verbal section on most Sundays and spent significant time analysing my mistakes while practising. This helped hone my problem-solving skills. I took four full-length mock tests before the real GMAT and analysed each result.

Sunny Sheng — Copenhagen Business School

A combination of English being my second language, the fact I left school more than 10 years ago and the need to balance work with studies meant I probably spent more time than the average prospective MBA on preparing for the test. But in the end I managed a good score. Here are my tips:

• Look up your preferred school’s GMAT requirement so you know what you need to aim for. Don’t spend too much time trying to achieve the perfect result. Save some of it for researching schools, writing a great application and impressing the admissions board in the interview. These are as important as a good GMAT score.

• Is it necessary to join GMAT preparation courses? They can help get you ready for an earlier exam date, provide relevant material and reveal some problem-solving shortcuts. However, they do not serve the GMAT on a silver platter; you still need to practise. If you do not join a course, you can further your problem-solving skills through books and online channels. In the end, all roads lead to Rome. It depends on how you prefer to learn.

• Find a person in your network that has done the test, or is preparing for it. Ask them for tips or exchange ideas. Several of my colleagues had passed the GMAT and gave advice and support.

• Being Chinese, it was vital for me to score well in the verbal part, since the quantitative part was comparatively easier. There are no shortcuts for doing well here; you need to practise, practise and practise. Strategic reading is a skill you must grasp not only for the GMAT but also for later in MBA life. For preparation I recommend The Official Guide for GMAT Review and Manhattan Prep, a test preparation company.

• Treat the exam as a game. The questions in the verbal and quantitative sections need to be solved in about a minute and a half each. Remember to focus and keep calm.

Stephen Morse — Saïd Business School, Oxford

I actually took the GRE [an alternative test]. I did it about five years ago and got a good result.

When I applied to Oxford and Cambridge I saw both accepted the GRE. I was happy to have that score in my pocket, but a friend warned me I should take the GMAT if I wanted to ensure my entry into a top school. With application deadlines looming, I registered for the first available spot to take the test — which was about two weeks later. I did the best I could to cram, but I was working pretty hard, too, so I could not go full throttle. I took the exam, and my score was pretty mediocre. When I applied to my MBA programmes, I submitted only my GRE scores and was accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge. My advice: take both the GRE and the GMAT, and submit the best score.

The GMAT is a coveted conversation starter among the pre-business school set. But once you get into school nobody cares about this number anymore.

I have a couple of friends in America who are afraid to take the GMAT or the GRE, which explains why they have not yet applied to business schools. But this is a time in life when they should grin and bear it, study hard and then take the test. What is the worst thing that can happen? As Woody Allen says: “Eighty per cent of success is showing up.”

Apricot Wilson — Ceibs

I actually took my GMAT in 2011. I left university in the middle of the financial crisis. The reactions from my fellow graduates varied from fleeing the country to getting as many qualifications as possible.

After a few months of fruitless job hunting in the UK, I travelled to China for an internship. I was still worried, however, that I would not be able to find work when I returned, so I started applying for masters in management courses, which required a GMAT score.

At the time I was not very well up on the exam and I went into the prep with a certain level of ignorance that served me pretty well.

I bought The Official Guide for GMAT Review. The English and writing sections seemed easy — I decided I would not spend much time on this. The maths section was more challenging. But the content seemed manageable so I booked in for an exam slot about six weeks ahead and brushed up on algebra.

I went into the exam feeling confident. When I arrived, I saw people anxiously flicking through piles of notes and suddenly felt poorly prepared.

Nonetheless, the exam was no different from the expectations the GMAT Review had given me. I scored 710. So going in with a veil of ignorance and limited prep was not a bad approach.

This article has been amended to correct the average GMAT score at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business

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