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.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Commercial Property Surveyor

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading firms of Cha...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Central London, Bank

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A keen Graduate Structural Engineer with...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Data & Delivery Guru

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Data & Delivery Guru is required to...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin