Can a prep class prepare you for the terrifying entrance test?

I'm sitting at the back of a small classroom in the London centre for Kaplan, hoping my incipient flu will be an excuse for lacklustre participation. The US exam prep company is a little piece of America nestled alongside the National Portrait Galley. It's all bustling fresh-faced women and computer terminals. I'm here to sit the introductory class with a small group of eager beavers who want to improve their lives by going to business school and are resigned to taking the Graduate Management Admission Test.

If the GMAT is not terrifying enough, Amanda Russo is. She's a bright, energetic woman from Boston, and the class tutor. Her you-can-be-a-winner enthusiasm makes me avoid eye contact so I am not picked on to answer questions. The small group of students, who include a civil engineer, a biochemist and an Australian stockbroker, are made of sterner stuff. Friendly, in an earnest way, they square up to challenge the mighty GMAT computer.

They know that many, though not all, schools require you to take the GMAT. It is almost impossible to get in to the most prestigious US and European institutions without a very good score. But the test is hardly everyone's idea of fun: its impersonal, distinctly American in its style, and hard, consisting of analytical writing, maths (quantitative) and problem solving.

Unlike most European exams, it does not test what you know or how you work out the answer. Still less does it test what kind of person you are, which is perhaps odd when so many business schools place such great emphasis on leadership and the importance of "interpersonal skills".

The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test, which in plain English means that the better you do, the harder the questions become. It is also relentless. The quantitative section throws up 37 questions in 75 minutes. You have to be fast as well as accurate. "Someone coming from a bank background may be able to solve a complex maths problem, but if they can't do it in under two minutes they won't do well on the GMAT," says Heather Mancini, Kaplan's marketing manager for business programmes in London.

The maximum score is 800. That is intergalactic genius level. The average score is about 540, but you are unlikely to become a captain of industry with so measly a result. It is sobering to realise that you need about 680 to win a place at one of the best schools and that the average GMAT score for entrants to Stanford, which, according to Kaplan has the highest results, is 726. I quail at the thought and resolve not to suffer the humiliation of taking the test experimentally to reveal my "baseline score".

My classmates have no choice. They have paid £1,045 for a four-week Kaplan course that promises them their money back or a repeat if they do not improve their baseline scores when the big test day comes. For their money, they get hefty course books, online support, test exams, and the exhortatory Russo for nine sessions of two-and-a-half hours each, put on twice a week. But what they really get is plenty of practice and handy tricks.

"GMAT is not a test you can cram for. You need practice, practice, practice. Most students have never taken a computer-adaptive test," says Steven Helgeson, director of the London centre of Kaplan.

I am impressed by the tricks. After a couple of baffling algebra questions, I admire the simple dodge: pick a number. If you substitute sensible looking numbers for letters or symbols, the task is instantly a lot easier. For the English language part of the test, Kaplan has a whole set of techniques it calls "strategic reading", whose tips include how to spot keywords in a passage.

Daunting as it is, there are plenty of willing victims for the GMAT. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the test, the worldwide number of people taking the GMAT has risen by a third over five years to a record 265,613 in the test year.

The number of non-US citizens taking the test last year was more than half the total for the first time. European candidates increased by 30 per cent over the five years to 23,224, and significantly more of them are sending their score reports to European, rather than US, business schools. In the UK, 4,900 people took the GMAT in 2008-9, which is almost a quarter of all the candidates in Europe and enough to place the country in the top six worldwide. All of which is good business for the GMAT testing industry.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Sport
Moeen Ali wearing the 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' wristbands on his left arm
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Extras
indybest
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Project Manager,Conduct Risk,London,£5-600pd

£500 - £600 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

C# Developer (LINQ, HTML5, CSS3, JS, SQL) London - Finance

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Graduate Content Marketing Executive / Social Media Executive

Internship / Travel & Expenses Paid: Guru Careers: An ambitious and adaptable ...

Email Campaign Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£20 - 24k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a passionate and motivated Email Campa...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on