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As the GMAT Turns 60, Experts Discuss How to Prepare for the Test

Practicing under timed conditions can help students achieve a competitive score.

Prospective business school students should make sure they're strong in algebra before taking the GMAT, experts say.

Prospective business school students should make sure they're strong in algebra before taking the GMAT, experts say.

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Sixty years ago, prospective business students did for the first time what's almost become a rite of passage for MBA candidates: They took an admissions test for business school.

On Feb. 6, 1954, 1,291 people took the exam that would later be renamed – and revamped â€“ to become the Graduate Management Admission Test. Now about 250,000 exams are administered per year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the test. The GMAT has evolved many times over the years, such as the 2012 addition of the Integrated Reasoning section, and so have the ways in which students prepare for it.

"I took the test 20 years ago. My prep was a couple of hours on an airplane ride," says Lawrence Rudner, vice president of research and development and chief psychometrician of the GMAC. Today people spend an average of 100 hours preparing, he says.

[Find out which MBA programs have the highest average GMAT scores.]

Knowing how to study for the GMAT and what to expect from the exam can help students get a competitive score. Exam experts offer the following advice on how to excel at the widely used business school admissions test. 

1. Choose study materials wisely: Potential GMAT takers often make the mistake of buying every preparation book available, says Jeff Sackmann, an author of multiple GMAT preparation books. This approach could lead to an overwhelming amount of resources.

"They would take two years just to get through all of the material," he says. 

And because so much free material is available and shared through online forums, he says, it's easy for test-takers to end up with material that isn't GMAT-specific. 

He encourages students to go with study materials from trusted brand name companies such as Princeton Review. One or two good books will give you the preparation you need, Sackmann says.

[Try these fixes for a low GMAT score.]

2. Create a study plan: Learning how to answer the various questions asked on the GMAT takes time, experts say. Test-takers should be mindful of how long they'll need to study.

Prospective students may need anywhere from six weeks to three months, Sackmann says. If you choose to do the former, “You need to be practicing pretty much every day, and you have to have a decent familiarity with the math," he says. People starting from square one with math preparation, which includes brushing up on algebra and geometry, should plan to spend two-and-a-half to three months preparing, he says.


Test-takers should also be aware of how much time they should set aside during each study session, says Dan Gonzalez, president of the test preparation company Manhattan Prep. A session should last about 45 minutes to an hour and a half, he says. "Studying for the GMAT is kind of like practicing an instrument or learning how to play a sport," Gonzales says. "You have to give it frequent attention,” he says.

[Transition from employee to MBA student.]

3. Watch your pace:
 Much of studying includes taking practice tests, and it's important to know how to allot your time while taking them. 

"Never do a practice exam without a stop watch," says Gonzalez. "Timed practice is one of the most critical parts of the test."

Points are deducted accordingly for incomplete exams, says Rudner of GMAC. Test-takers should spend about two minutes on each math question and just under two minutes on each verbal question, Gonzalez says. 

4. Understand the format: In 1997, the GMAT switched from a paper format to being computer adaptive. As someone takes the test, the test's software gauges how well a test-taker is doing. Future questions are then chosen based on how a potential b-school student answered past questions.

Everyone gets the same content mix, Rudner says, but test-takers sometimes spend too much time trying to figure out the exam's algorithm. They may assume they wrongly answered a previous question if their current question seems easy. This line of thinking may lead to unnecessary stress.

"Don't get tempted to spend five or 10 minutes on one question," he says.

Like most standardized tests, experts agree that studying for the GMAT is a must. The more familiar students are with the exam, the more confident they'll be when taking it, Gonzalez says. And confidence, he says, is one thing they'll need to do well. 

"This is a test where you can learn to be better at it," he says. "You can improve."

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