GMAT Prep Guide for MBA Graduate School


The decision to go to business schools for a graduate level education is more and more common these days. If your goal is to get to the top in any professional career, a master's degree will almost surely be required. If you are in the business world, you may require an MBA to even get into management. There are many reasons for pursuing an MBA, but the main reason is that today's business environment is increasingly complex and competitive. Globalization, international business, and the rapid expanse of technology have created a business landscape that is vastly different experience from what the average undergraduate found as late as the mid 1990's.

When you decide that an MBA degree is the next achievement you plan to earn, you'll have to do a few things. Once you search for and find the business school you want to attend, you'll need to put your application materials together including your resume, undergrad transcripts, a statement of purpose, a complete application, professional references, and a GMAT score. You can start doing most of these things before you even apply to a program. You should already have an updated resume on hand, but you'll probably want to contact your undergraduate college or university and request copies of your unofficial transcripts.

While you wait on your transcripts, you can begin working on your application essay and studying for your GMAT. The essay will help the admissions counselors get to know you and learn what you will bring to their program. Since each program will likely have a different set of essay questions, you can prepare by free writing on topics such as your strengths, weaknesses, goals, past success as a student or professional, and why you are a unique candidate.

To prepare for the GMAT, you won't have to demonstrate specific knowledge. Rather, you'll need to have sharp analytical, problem-solving skills that you can apply to real-world situations. The test recognizes that the business world is constantly evolving, that today's dynamite theory is tomorrow's sorrowful regret. The test is thus engineered to determine that you have the ability to adapt to whatever the next wave of technology or policy has to offer. To score high on the GMAT exam, you'll need to have expert-level skills to read, write, and be able to synthesize various types of information from varied sources in a comprehensive evaluation process. The test is comprised of the following four parts:

  • Analytical Writing – In this section, you will have 30 minutes to answer one question in which you will analyze an argument.
  • Integrated Reasoning – This portion is allotted 30 minutes in which you will answer 12 questions wherein you interpret graphics, tables, exhibit multi-source reasoning, and two-part analysis.
  • Quantitative Reasoning – This part of the test is allotted 62 minutes and tests your problem-solving abilities.
  • Verbal Reasoning – This is the longest portion of the exam and will take 65 minutes. It covers reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction.

While every online MBA program gives different weight to your official GMAT score, it is important to do your very best. Even if your program does not require a GMAT score, you could always provide your scores as a way to flesh it out and support your application. At the very least, your admissions counselors will recognize that you have put in extra effort. Further, you might knock their socks off with stellar scores.

Prepare for the GMAT

Before you schedule a time to take the GMAT you will want to prepare for the exam. Remember that the test does not cover specific content, so it won't help to cram your mind full of all the business terms you were busy learning for your bachelor's degree. The test is more interested in how you approach problems, analyze data, and express your ideas to an audience. Your future customers won't be as impressed with the jargon you use to describe their inventory systems as they will be with your no-nonsense approach to maximizing supply-chain efficiencies.

There are many test-preparation centers around the country. You can sign up to take a preparation course at any of these as a means to focusing yourself on the GMAT. If you have less time, but still need to prepare, there are loads of books and even a website or two that cover the core concepts in the GMAT. These often include special practice exams to help you get used to the format, language, and organization of the test. You can also find online GMAT test-preparation courses, often from the same companies that provide classroom preparation. However, be aware that most of these are not free; there will be some cost associated with gaining access to this service.

If you feel you need a more hands-on approach, one-on-one tutoring services are available from test-preparation companies, too. You might also find that adjunct professors from your local business school are able to meet with you for individual tutoring when they aren't in class.

Another method could involve you working with like-minded professionals. This is a more entrepreneurial model wherein you find a small team of prospective online MBA students and review test-prep materials on your own. If you ask around at your workplace or email your superiors to see if they know of anyone else taking the test, you might find a group that are interested in meeting to discuss and co-teach test-prep materials. It will naturally follow that, if you study with those who work near you, you may be able to meet at more convenient times, exchange info more easily, delve into any specific problem you have issues with, and you could spend months studying with the same group, united by your plans to ace this test.

Such a group can be very helpful when practicing the written portion of the exam. You can adopt a workshop model from creative writing programs to help. That is, each participant can write an essay and provide copies to the group. The group then reads and critiques the essays. The critical element will help everyone sharpen their skills for the verbal reasoning portion of the GMAT. Remember to be constructive in your criticism and to look for ways that other people’s mistakes mirror your own. Frequently, the problems writers find in other's work are the same difficulties found in their own.

The most important things you can do while preparing are to first set a baseline score and then create a schedule for your studies so that you can center your focus on what's most important. You can set a baseline by taking any one of a number of online practice tests and comparing it to the rankings or scores of the average applicant to your school of choice. This score is your kicking off point. If that score doesn't impress you, then set a target score. When you stick to your scheduled study sessions, you'll find that your practice test scores increase significantly.

As you prepare, keep in mind that the test is timed. While you might want to take a few practice rounds without a timer, the closer your scheduled test comes, the more you will need to watch the clock. A study group can be very helpful in enforcing the time limits on each part of the test. You could even pitch in and pay someone to act as a proctor for the exam. While the actual test won't be proctored in such a traditional way, you might benefit from the time-enforcement.

How the GMAT is Scored

The GMAT is considered a computer-adaptive test, CAT. This means that your performance on the test changes the test itself as you take it. That is, when you first sit down, the computer will serve up items considered of medium difficulty. As you get these correct, or incorrect, the computer adapts to your input and provides more questions specifically for you. That is, the more correct answers you provide the harder the test will become.

One thing this means for those of us who have taken standardized tests in the pre-computer era is that you cannot skip questions. If you hit a very hard question, you must respond to it before moving on. Otherwise the algorithm won't know what question to serve next. A correct guess might result in an even more difficult question, but if you get that one wrong the test will cancel the two out and provide an easier item for the third question. When you have completed a section, the test not only calculates how many right and wrong responses you provided, but it weighs the difficulty of the questions.

While you cannot skip around in a given section, you can now select the order of the test sections. You will have several options:

  • Analytical Writing, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, Verbal
  • Verbal, Quantitative, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing
  • Quantitative, Verbal, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing

When choosing your preferred order, take into account that the test is approximately three and a half hours long, including two optional break periods. You'll need to discern your strengths and weaknesses relative to the time involved. If, for instance, the verbal reasoning portion is a weak point, you might not want to start with that as it might set a bad precedent. On the other hand, you might be a person who wants to get the harder stuff out of the way.

Re-taking the GMAT

You might not perform as well as you would have liked the first time you take the GMAT. That's okay. You didn't waste any paper and your local Prometric site will be more than happy to reschedule you for another session. However, you might be worried about how this will reflect on your application.

When you take the test, your results are sent to your chosen programs automatically. If they see that you are retaking the test, this could reflect very well. That is because re-taking the GMAT will demonstrate that you are determined to succeed. They will be particularly interested when they see your scores rising. That indicates that you are bolstering your determination with additional preparation.

Note that you will have to wait at least a month between test-taking sessions. During this time, you can review your scores and determine where you need to focus your energy to improve your scores.

Enhanced Score Report

One handy tool the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) now offers is an Enhanced Score Report. This tool will allow you to pinpoint your test-taking strengths and weaknesses. It breaks down the types of questions that gave you trouble and those that you breezed through. In particular it analyzes the question types, areas of focus, and the pacing.

In fact, you can generate such a report from a practice examination. This will be invaluable in that you can analyze your performance and then adjust your preparation accordingly. In the past, test takers had to rely on intuition to discern where their test-taking went awry. Now, they can use a detailed report to tell them specifically where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

When you sit for the actual test, the computer will allow you to preview your scores prior to sending them to admissions counselors. If you have been working with the practice tests, you can determine whether those scores accurately reflect your abilities. Sometimes you might suffer from a bit of test anxiety that impinges your abilities or maybe your sleep was interrupted the previous evening. Regardless, if you have under-performed, you can elect to withhold your scores from outside eyes.

However, if you know that you can do better, you might go ahead and have the scores sent to your target schools. This might seem foolish, but when these scores are followed-up with results that more accurately reflect your abilities, counselors might be impressed with your dogged determination to excel. As in your business life, you must weigh the best strategies for yourself and make the best choice for your long-term professional career.

If you decide that you want to earn your MBA through an online program, you might not have to worry about the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). That will be a relief as you won't have to worry with brushing up on skills you barely use, or with scheduling time for the test. However, that doesn't mean that admission will be easy.


While the GMAT has been the traditional choice for MBA applicants, the GRE is a good and growing choice. Where it was once derided in business school circles, it's use in admissions decisions has as much as tripled in some cases. For example, in 2013 Duke University's Fuqua School of Business admitted 4% of incoming MBA candidates with GRE scores. Within two years, Fuqua admitted 12% of students based on GRE scores. In fact, the impact of the GRE is extending beyond business school, as illustrated in the fact that the lauded Harvard Law School now admits students with GRE scores and not LSATs.

One great advantage of taking the GRE is that it is so versatile. It can be used in an application to nearly any sort of graduate school. You can likely take your GRE scores and apply them to an MBA, MFA, MHA, or JD/MBA program. However, since you are headed towards an MBA, here is a brief list of schools currently accepting GRE scores for admission:

  • Auburn University
  • Alaska Pacific
  • Stanford University
  • UCLA
  • University of California Berkeley
  • Yale University
  • Emory University
  • Hawaii Pacific University
  • University of Chicago
  • Valparaiso University
  • MIT
  • University of Michigan Ann Arbor
  • Rutgers University
  • Fordham University
  • Oregon State University
  • Oregon Health & Science University – Healthcare MBA
  • Vanderbilt University

GMAT for Online MBAs

If you have decided that you want to continue working, or you simply don't want to move, for your MBA, you may not have to take an entrance exam such as the GMAT or GRE. Since standards are different for every individual program, you will need to research their admission standards prior to applying.

Since you may or may not need GMAT scores, you will likely be best served by going ahead and preparing for the test. Even if it turns out that you won't need to submit GMAT scores for your online MBA, all of your practice will not be for naught. Since the GMAT is skills-based and doesn't ask you to master a lot of content, you will be able to apply what you learn directly to your schoolwork, and your present job, as well.