Many business schools prefer candidates who have taken the American entrance exam. Martin Thompson reports

GMAT stands for Graduate Management Admission Test. GMAT is the great leveller - an American-devised test of verbal, quantitative, reasoning and communicating skills which is used throughout the world as a standardised way to assess MBA candidates. The majority of accredited business schools in this country insist on, or at least prefer, candidates to have achieved a GMAT score in the range of 580 to 650 out of 800 for entry to full-time and some part-time courses.

The test does not pretend to measure business competence or academic knowledge beyond some basic maths and grammar but many would argue that it remains a good forecaster of academic performance in the first year of study. As Peter Calladine of the accrediting body the Association of MBAs explains: "A high GMAT score doesn't mean that you are necessarily going to perform any better than anyone else but a low score means you might find yourself struggling to keep up. However, GMAT is only one part of the package of methods by which schools measure applicants; a strong CV, good references and personality remain key factors."

"GMAT is an excellent filter," says John Mapes, Cranfield School of Management's admissions adviser. "Although we also offer our own test as an alternative, we prefer applicants to have taken GMAT and performed well. But we will reject even the highest scorers if they lack the emotional intelligence needed to be a good manager. Simply because you've a brain the size of a planet, it doesn't automatically mean you can communicate well with your team."

Some UK schools see GMAT as irrelevant to their particular assessment needs. At Henley Management College for example, they rely on a supervised essay and a personal interview. "GMAT was designed for students in their mid-twenties. Most of our applicants are in their thirties with considerable management experience," explains Henley's Professor Ian Turner. Durham is another school to bypass the test.

The highly ranked London Business School however, remains a strong believer in GMAT. "If you are a highly international school like us, it is a useful way of creating some common ground between candidates," says Julia Tyler, director of the full-time MBA course, while stressing that GMAT scores are signals rather than absolutes when it comes to assessing candidates' potential.

Having established that the school to which you are applying requires, or at least prefers, GMAT, what is the best way to prepare for the test? Ensuring you score highly can seem a daunting prospect, particularly if it has been years since you last picked up a text book. There are essentially two ways to go: self-study, which means ring-fencing enough time to practise sample GMAT questions using the many books and CDs available; or taking a formal course of intensive coaching at a GMAT crammer.

"Coaching can be seen as risk management for a candidate who needs to achieve a high GMAT score," says Louise Cook, director of the UK branch of Kaplan, a US-based international tutorial system which offers group learning courses and private coaching in London. "It's not the kind of exam you can just walk in and expect to do well in," Cook adds. "A lot of people haven't done the maths or the grammar for years so the kind of material they are going to be tested on by GMAT is either a dim and distant memory or creates anxiety."

GMAT candidates face two types of mathematical questions, she says, which focus on problem-solving and logical numeracy tests. The verbal questions have to do with reading comprehension, critical reasoning and sentence correction. "Achieving the right balance between numerical and verbal sections is crucial. Nowadays, GMAT is a computer-based test which means that if you fail to answer a question in the allotted time, the computer will move on to the next question which will be pitched according to the ability you have demonstrated."

A course of GMAT coaching can cost over £900. Is it money well spent? There's no doubt that preparing for the GMAT on your own requires intense self-discipline and motivation, especially if you are working full-time in a demanding job. According to Louise Cook: "Business schools look at the GMAT score first. On test day, you will be competing in terms of ranking as well as your overall mark. It is a good investment in your future and relatively inexpensive in the context of the overall cost of a business education." Whether you go down the coaching route or rely on practising on your own, the key is good preparation.

TEST TIPS HOW TO PREPARE

* GMAT's parent organisation, GMAC, can help you on the right road at its MBA website, www.mba.com. It provides sample questions and answers, and free access to PowerPrep test preparation software to run on your own computer.

* Start the process of preparing at least three months before taking the GMAT, which should be booked well ahead of your MBA course application or interview. A list of test centres and booking details is featured on the GMAC website, www.mba.com.

* Get hold of the Official Guide for GMAT Review produced by ETS, and other books and CD-ROMs, and practise sample questions and essay topics against the clock.

* Having identified your weak spots, weigh up the decision as to whether to have structured coaching to improve your score or to continue self-study if you are confident of your ability to improve alone.

* If English is not your first language, make sure that it is up to the standard needed to pass the GMAT.

* Remember that all is not lost if you do not attain a high GMAT score. Schools tend to be flexible on their minimum requirements if candidates are strong in work experience and perform well at interview.

* If you are called for interview, familiarise yourself with your application form as you will be questioned about your statement on why you want to study at that school. Make sure you are clear as to why you feel that particular school stands out from the crowd, having done your homework at an open day and by talking to alumni.

GMAT COACHING IN LONDON

Kaplan020-7930 3130
GTAC Associates020-8993 3983
Test Analysts020-8532 2967
The Studyworks020-7402 9877

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