The Business School Application Process, Step 3: Test Preparation

by on September 28th, 2009

You’ve decided you want to go to business school. You’ve done your research. You’ve created your own system to manage your application process. Next, it’s time to get the biggest hurdle out of the way:

Step 3: Prepare for and take the GMAT.

I could write about test prep all day, but the goal for this entry is to help you setup a study-and-execution plan for tackling the GMAT.

Determine which test(s) you will need to take.

This may sound like a no-brainer, given that the GMAT is the standard exam for business schools, but most schools now accept the GRE as well. Take advantage of this and take the exam that fits your skill set best. Additionally, for students who were educated abroad (in locations other than the U.S.), most graduate programs require a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Research your particular program(s) at your particular school(s) to ensure you’re covering all your bases.

Learn all about the test(s).

Enter the name of the test (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL) into a search engine. Find out the test provider, then go to the testmaker’s website. Read up on the format and scoring of the test, content tested, and time restrictions. Find out where you’ll be taking the test and what you are and are not allowed to bring with you to the test center.

Questions you should be able to answer about the test(s) you need to take:

  • Is this a paper-and-pencil test, a computer-based test, or a computer-adaptive test?
  • What’s the difference between a computer-based test and a computer-adaptive test? (if applicable)
  • Will I be penalized for wrong answers or unanswered questions?
  • What content is tested?
  • What types of questions appear in each section?
  • How many questions of each type in each section?
  • How much time is allotted for each section?

To help you on your way, here’s where you can find information on the GMAT and GRE from the testmakers:

  • GMAT — test administration organization: GMAC; website:
  • GRE — test administration organization: ETS; website:

Devise a well-rounded and layered study plan.

There are countless different preparation methods available to you; the sheer volume of materials and resources available can be overwhelming. Should you take a class? Study alone? Hire a tutor? Which books should you use to study? Should you practice on the computer? Should you study math content? If so, which content? Should you focus solely on testing strategy? If so, what strategies are most effective?

How you prepare–class, solo study, tutor–is up to you. But here’s what you must do:

  • Always start with an actual practice test, preferably a sample test released by the testmaker. That’s your baseline, and it’ll help you figure out your natural strengths and weaknesses in both content and strategy. Both the GRE and GMAT have these available, for free, on their websites.
  • Balance your approach. Your preparation should include a combination of content-based study, test/question/section strategy, and test simulations.
  • Your early preparation should be dominantly content-oriented, with a moderate dose of question-type strategy and very little, if any, test-like practice. Take advantage of the time you have to really shore up your weaker areas, but make sure you don’t neglect your strengths. Taking too many practice tests or sections too early in the game merely reinforces bad habits, making them harder to break later on.
  • Your mid-range preparation should be a balance between content-oriented study and question- and section-strategy practice, with some test simulations.
  • The final stage of your preparation should be primarily test simulations, with detailed post-mortem analysis of each test from all points of view (weak content areas, troublesome question types, and section/test strategy issue management). Make sure you take adequate time in your analysis to learn from your mistakes.

As for the solo study/class/tutor question, you’ll need to do some self-reflection here. If you tend to do well on standardized tests and you have great self-discipline, then solo study might be fine. If you’re slightly less disciplined, then the structure of a class might do you well. And it’s always great to have the advice of an expert available in a class or through a tutor, but cost is a factor to consider (and add to your budget, should you choose one of these options).

Use quality materials.

With the stockpiles of material available to you, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The first and best material to use is the material released by the testmaker. Get your hands on previously released tests and free practice materials, usually available on the testmaker’s website. You may also be able to purchase additional prep materials through the website or at your local or online bookstore.

To supplement the testmaker’s resources, join some online forums and read through the posts of other test takers. Use an internet search engine. (Or play on Grockit!)

Your materials should provide a mix of formats, at least some of which should be very similar to that of the test.

Do test simulations.

Never, and I mean never ever, take a standardized test without doing a healthy amount of test simulation practice. Make sure your test simulations are as test-like as possible: place yourself in a similar environment, observe time constraints strictly, use only the resources you will be permitted at the test site (i.e., don’t use your calculator unless your test permits the use of one), and take only the allotted breaks.

After learning about the test format, always start your preparation with an actual practice test, preferably a sample test released by the testmaker. Take it before you review any content (and likely waste time reviewing stuff you already know or didn’t need to know). That’s your baseline, and it’ll help you figure out your natural strengths and weaknesses in both content and strategy.

Don’t do too many prep tests until you’re comfortable with the knowledge that your test-taking habits are correct and consistent. As you shift into your later phases of preparation, you should ramp up the frequency of your simulations. Once you’ve scored three times at in acceptable score range, you’re ready to take the real thing.

Once that’s done and your scores are finalized, it’s time to get to the paperwork.

Read other articles in this series:

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