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GMAT Study Tips: Advice From a Test Prep Expert


Posted December 12, 2016 by Lee Davidson - Coordinator, Copywriter/Editor - AACSB International

Applying for MBA programs can be stressful—from selecting the right program to requesting recommendation letters to writing the MBA application essay. Oh, and then there's that minor detail of performing well on the most widely used MBA entrance exam, the GMAT®. To help you understand and study for the GMAT, we asked Scott Shrum, an executive at the college and graduate admissions consulting firm Veritas Prep, to share his expert insights on the GMAT and advice on how to conquer the exam.

  1. How is the GMAT distinct from other graduate school entrance exams?

    The GMAT is not a test of what you learned in school or in the workplace. Rather, it’s a test of how you think. Sure, you need a strong grasp of the kind of math you learn by the 8th or 9th grade, but beyond that, test takers can help themselves much more by improving their higher-order thinking skills than by memorizing number properties or geometric relationships.

  2. Does an undergraduate business degree adequately prepare prospective graduate students for the GMAT?

    For the most part, it doesn’t help or matter. Nothing on the GMAT tests a student’s ability to read a balance sheet or build a marketing plan. Most of what you learn in an undergraduate business program doesn’t directly translate to what is tested on the GMAT. The critical reasoning skills that students learn in high school and college—no matter what subject they major in—will help them far more on test day than any specific business-type learnings.

  3. How far in advance of the exam should first-time test takers begin studying?

    Of course, it depends on what level you start at and what you’re target score is, but most applicants spend a few months preparing for the exam. One advantage of signing up for a prep course is that it puts you on a schedule and makes you stick to it. If you’re not in a prep course, though, if you can devote at least five or six hours to GMAT preparation per week, then after two or three months you should be ready to take the exam.

  4. What can students gain from a test prep service that they can’t from a study guide?

    A study guide is written to work for as many people as possible, but of course it can’t provide much in the way of customized feedback or preparation. An effective test prep service—and that includes not only the book and the instructor, but also the online tests and practice tools that come with the course—diagnoses your needs and adapts to your strengths and weaknesses. It helps students focus on where they need the most work, while a book needs to be “one size fits all.”

  5. What are some of the biggest pitfalls test takers encounter?

    One of the biggest mistakes test takers make is not learning form their mistakes. We often see students take a practice test and get a certain score, and then they dive right in and take another test and are disappointed when their score doesn’t improve. Without careful analysis of their mistakes and then dedicated preparation focused on those weak areas, why would their score improve? For every test you take, you should spend almost as much time analyzing your performance and studying up on your weaknesses as you spend actually taking the test. Taking practice exams is great for test day, but it is only one part of the equation.

  6. How has the test changed in recent years, and what affect has this had on test takers?

    In 2012, the Graduate Management Admissions Council® (GMAC) introduced the Integrated Reasoning (IR) section, replacing one of its two essays with this 12-question, 30-minute section that requires test takers to analyze words, numbers, and charts. This new section is still a test of higher-order thinking—it’s not a test of how well you can read a business-like chart—but a lot of applicants find it to be more challenging than the essay that it replaced. The significance here is that the IR section comes right before the longer Quantitative and Verbal sections, and it’s not easy, so some applicants can find themselves to be somewhat worn out before they even begin the two main sections of the test. The best way to combat fatigue is to model your practice tests on the real test-day experience. Building up this stamina is critical if you want to break 700 on the GMAT.

  7. Should graduate program applicants plan ahead for a second test sitting, in case the first scores are lower than expected?

    We don’t like telling applicants to plan for failure. They should take the GMAT only when they feel they at least have a good shot of achieving their target score. However, the GMAT recently introduced some changes that make retaking the test less of a big deal. As soon as you finish the exam, you can see your unofficial score and decide whether or not to cancel it. If you do cancel it, schools won’t even know that you took the exam, so you don’t need to worry about them seeing the cancellation and assuming you did poorly. And, even better, GMAC will let you reinstate a canceled score for up to four years and 11 months following your exam. So, it’s a very safe environment in which to fail, should it come to that.

    One way in which we do tell our students to plan for failure is this: Don’t cut it too close to your application deadline. You should build in enough time to take the GMAT once, and then study some more and take it again, before your applications are due. Fortunately, GMAC lets you retake the exam within 16 days, although we think should should take at least that long to properly prepare some more, if your first sitting doesn’t go as planned.

  8. Does one section of the test (Quantitative or Verbal) tend to weigh heavier in admissions decisions than the other?

    Not really. They both matter in admissions officers’ eyes because they both measure what schools really care about, which is your reasoning skills. That means that you need to do well—not ace, but do well, like at least in the 70th percentile—on both sections. It also means that a bad score on one section can’t be compensated by a high score on the other. You need to be able to show balance and all-around competitiveness.

  9. What are your three best pieces of advice for test day?

    First, stick to your routine. We’ve heard all sorts of advice in terms of what to eat the night before, meditations to do before you walk into the test center, and other odd things that can only serve to throw you off your game. Be sure to get enough rest and keep your normal habits, and you will be in good shape.

    Second, get comfortable with the fact that you will not get every question right! The GMAT is an adaptive exam, and it’s made to quickly hone in on your ability level and give you questions that should be right at the difficulty level that challenges whether or not you can get each question right. Get used to this, and be ready to cut your losses and move on if you’re facing a question that might take you five minutes to solve. Save those precious minutes for another question you have a good shot of getting right.

    Finally, think about other aspects of the test center environment: You won’t be able to bring your own materials into the test center, and you may be surrounded by people taking other tests. You could be taking the GMAT in between someone taking a nursing exam and someone doing a spoken-language English test. If you’re not used to wearing ear plugs (which the test center will provide if you need them) but think you may need them on test day, then get used to taking practice tests while wearing them. Seemingly small things like this will help keep you comfortable and performing at your best on test day.


Scott Shrum, Chief Operating Officer, Veritas PrepScott Shrum is Chief Operating Officer at Veritas Prep. He holds a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and scored 770 on the GMAT.

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