It took Eric Bahn 80 days to prepare for the Graduate Management Admission Test, otherwise known as GMAT, the dreaded, computerised test of qualitative and quantitative analysis and verbal ability used as a benchmark by most good business schools.
Bahn's progress is recorded on his cult blog beatthegmat.blogspot.com. He scored 720. The average score this July was 537.
"Eighty days?" says Judy Phair, vice-president, communications, of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the test. "We say seven weeks is about right, but it depends on ability. The knack is to work on your weaknesses, not your strengths. And try to answer all the questions. It's a myth that the first few questions will determine your grade."
Phair was in London in September as part of a mission by GMAC to make the test better known and liked outside the US. A first move has been to poach the respected administrator Julia Tyler from London Business School to run GMAC's first subsidiary. She will have responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
A non-profit making organisation, GMAC sees its role as collecting and disseminating information for students and the 160 accredited schools with which it works. The results can be seen on www.mba.com. But its money comes from the test, which is tailored to business schools, and despite its nightmarish reputation, GMAT is booming. Almost 200,000 people have registered this year, an 11.6 per cent increase over 2006, perhaps reflecting the recent switch from paper to a CAT (computer-adaptive test) format, which gives quicker results.
Most of the growth has been outside the US. About 3,000 graduate programmes around the world use GMAT.
The test has itself become a business opportunity, and on the back of it has grown a mini-industry offering online or face-to-face advice. GMAC itself offers free "prep" software but sells an "official guide" to the test.
"GMAT is important," says David Simpson, who runs admissions for London Business School, "because it helps us to benchmark applicants from all over the world. It's often hard to make comparisons between people from different educational backgrounds. It's also a good indicator of how well people can cope with the quantitative aspects of the first year of an MBA. People who have to work really hard at finance courses in the first year nearly always have a lower GMAT score.
"But if you had no other qualifications than GMAT we would use it very carefully. Our GMAT range is 600 to 790 a year. Some people might not hit the 600 on the first attempt and we might encourage them to try again."
Behind GMAT's success story lies some dissatisfaction with the low proportion of women and ethnic minorities doing MBA courses. It is also said that the test is American-centric, though Phair insists that much work has been done to internationalise the questions. She is out to persuade more women and minorities to take the test, which she says is not, of itself, biased against them.
This term, however, Stanford in California, one of the world's top five schools, has allowed MBA candidates to present an alternative test, the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). The school's Barbara Buell explains: "The GRE is an exam for entrance to all sorts of non-business graduate programs but like the GMAT, it includes math, analytical, and verbal sections."
The move, Buell, says, is aimed at attracting a broad diversity of applicants, including those from the humanities and social sciences and those who are still in college. Stanford is consciously trying to get undergraduate students, and early career non-business majors who are already working, to think about business school and management education as an alternative while they are undergraduates. This is especially important for women applicants who often think earlier about balancing career and family goals.
Among top schools, only MIT Sloan has also taken this path so far but employers looking to broaden their staff profiles might persuade others to follow. Some say the GRE "quants" are easier than the GMAT's. Against that, students without English as their first language may find the vocabulary of the GRE more demanding.
Another advantage is its cost– $140 (£70) against the GMT's $250 (£125)– reflecting its online delivery. GMAT is test-centre based and monitored centrally, and will occasionally waive its fee. GMAC is looking at setting up criteria for this.
Many schools do not insist on a GMAT score. Durham Business School says: "Where we are not satisfied that the candidate has what we need, we will ask that they do a GMAT." Perhaps to address this market, GMAC is developing a new assessment test that will show candidates where their weaknesses lie in finance, accountancy and statistics – once they have been accepted for an MBA.
How to get your admission right
Dr Simon Learmount, MBA admissions and marketing director of Cambridge's Judge Business School, offers his advice:
First, you have to demonstrate that you tick all the "typical MBA" boxes. Invariably this means a good GMAT, good academic record, strong work experience and excellent references. But second, you have to show that you are sufficiently different from the vast majority of candidates, and that you are going to make a unique contribution to the class, which often means taking a bit of a risk in your application.
Most top schools will not really look at the headline GMAT score but the score breakdown instead. So aim for a good balanced score, but bear in mind that it's just a shorthand way of telling us how good certain skills are. If there is other evidence of your quantitative skills (we have the winner of the Chinese maths Olympiad joining our programme this year) please tell us.
Spend time on application essays, and be ruthlessly honest. Although they may seem similar, b-schools have vastly different cultures. Getting someone else to write the essays or writing what you think we want to hear is one of the best ways of being rejected.
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