How to Study for the GMAT
The GMAT is a crucial component of the business school application. While often feared by prospective MBA applicants as a daunting hurdle to admission at programs, understanding the key characteristics of the exam and selecting effective GMAT prep books or courses can position any applicant to excel on the exam and bolster their candidacy.
The first step in preparing for the GMAT is to understand why the GMAT is critical to the MBA admissions process. The GMAT is a crucial component of an MBA application in large part because the applicant pool is so diverse, and the GMAT is the only element that all applicants will have in common. How can an admissions officer weigh GPAs between a literature major from Dartmouth and an engineering major from the Indian Institute of Technology? Or, how can an admissions officer evaluate work experience between an assistant brand manager in the consumer goods industry and a Peace Corps volunteer? Business school admissions offers very few apples-to-apples comparisons outside of an applicant’s GMAT score, making the test an important measuring tool.
The second step in preparing for the GMAT is to understand what exactly the GMAT is testing. The GMAT seeks to determine which applicants have the types of skills that are indicative of success beyond—not just in—business school, including logical decision making, efficient use of resources and problem solving skills. Sure, the GMAT tests the ability to perform calculations without a calculator and to make grammatical corrections to sentences; although once admitted to school, MBA candidates have a calculators, Microsoft Excel and spell-check, so pure academic skills are only part of what the exam evaluates. More importantly, the GMAT tests one’s ability to think, reason and problem-solve when facing time constraints, high-stakes pressure, fatigue and distraction. Those are the skills that business schools need to see from applicants to make admissions decisions, and the GMAT tests those capabilities quite effectively.
The third step in preparing for the GMAT is to find a preparation program that values thought processes over “knowledge.” The GMAT’s primary aim—confirmed time and time again by the leaders of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which owns and administers the GMAT—is to assess applicants’ higher-order thinking skills. The GMAT is not a content-based test that someone can simply “study for,” although students often try to memorize as many concepts and do as many practice problems as possible. Rather, effective GMAT prep programs take a step above the content and ask the question “why.” The authors of the GMAT are incredibly well-versed in cognitive psychology—they know the common mistakes test-takers tend to make well before they make them, and they set traps accordingly. That said, courses and self-study GMAT prep books should offer three things:
Content review; Strategies to deconstruct the GMAT question types and the ways in which they are asked; and Proven methodologies for identifying and correcting mistakes.
While baseline knowledge, format preferences and budget may vary from test-taker to test-taker, the one thing that all MBA applicants preparing for the GMAT have in common is the aspiration to achieve the scores that will bolster their candidacies at the world’s leading business schools. An effective approach to GMAT mastery—whether through courses and GMAT prep books—helps students attain high scores not by spoon-feeding content-based memorization, tricks and flashcards, but rather by training them to examine thought processes and to be conscious of how they think to really succeed on the GMAT.