The path to business school starts well before you look at the application requirements for a program. Your path began back in high school. It began with your first job, your first volunteer experience, when you became the chair of student body council; it continued when you organized a non-profit for student outreach at your college, and on it went as you interned at companies and worked with mentors in your industry.
You are in the final stretch now. Pulling all of this together, filling out your application with all of these experiences, writing and rewriting to make them interesting and exciting, and taking the GMAT—all part of your final stretch. Let’s take a look at this final stage in your journey, see what to expect, and how to plan for your GMAT test.
If you haven’t done it already, time to do it now. Find out what the average GMAT scores for your programs are. You need to know what you are aiming for with your scores. Also, having a sense of the average will let you know where to focus your time. Maybe you are already above average, so you won’t need to invest a lot of time in GMAT prep and you can focus on other parts of your application. Or maybe you have a strong essay and strong recommendations, but a lower GPA, so you need to spend time preparing for the GMAT to score above average for your MBA programs. Whatever the case is, find out what you’ll need to score on the GMAT to get into the programs you plan to apply to.
Once you find out the average scores at your schools, time to find out where you stand. I recommend taking a practice test at the very beginning of your studies, to get a sense of what you are up against, to diagnosis trouble spots, and of course, to get an estimated score. You won’t really be able to craft a useful study plan without knowing if you need to increase your Verbal score or your Quantitative score. GMAC (the people who make the GMAT) offer free practice tests you can download here. Some people worry that they will do really bad the first time on a practice test since they haven’t studied, and that’s fine. You need to take an honest look at your present level with zero preparation.
With an idea of your level, time to start your studies. Make sure that you use resources that not only help you build on your strengths, but also give you plenty of practice with concepts that you struggle with. Besides thinking about your specific needs, you also have to think about the quality of the resources that you purchase. Not all GMAT prep material was created equally. And the best material is not always the most expensive. So find out what the best software is, what the best GMAT books of 2014 are, and where the best classes are.
Now that you have your materials, you can start to think about a timeline and a study plan. Most students need at least a month preparing for the GMAT. Others will spend 6 months to a year getting ready. It depends on how much time students have before they apply as well as their current level and the score they are aiming for. For example, a student starting with a score of 500 who wants to score in the 700 range will need to spend at least three to six months preparing. But a student at 680 who wants to break the 700 mark may only need a month or so. Map out your own study plan so that you can focus on actually studying for the next months instead of figuring out when or how to study.
Take and Retake
Not a part of every journey, but common enough to mention here—be prepared to retake the GMAT. Many students cannot reach their intended score on test day. Whether it is stress, distractions, or unpreparedness, students take the GMAT two, three, even four times to reach a good score. At the beginning of your journey, you shouldn’t be planning to retake the GMAT, but know that you might have to, and should plan accordingly. Leave enough time between taking the test and application deadlines so that you can retake the exam if you need to.
Just like a decathlon, your journey to business school is made up of different events. The GMAT is one of the many events that you are competing in, and at some point you have to stop thinking about the GMAT, and move on to other aspects of your application. So once you’ve taken the test, it’s time to make your essays compelling and forceful. Detail your work experience concisely. Write with passion and vigor. Be personal. Move on to the next event and leave the GMAT behind you.