The Do's and Don'ts of the GMAT: Demystifying the Exam

An HBS MBA Candidate outlines her top 10 do's and don'ts for the GMAT exam. If you're getting ready to take the GMAT, you do not want to miss out on this valuable, insider advice.

Posted March 13, 2024

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Getting ready for the GMAT represents one of the biggest challenges during the MBA application process. Many applicants spend months preparing for the exam and take it multiple times. Some people even give up on their MBA dreams because of it. Obtaining a good GMAT score is undoubtedly the first step to embarking on the application journey, but how do you make the most out of it?

Here, I share a few do's and don’ts I wish I had known when preparing for the exam!

1. Do – Have a target score in mind

When I have calls with prospective applicants, the most recurring question I’m asked is, “What is an acceptable GMAT score?” Coming from a consulting background, my answer is always: “It depends.” Your school choice, as well as your background, will make the real difference. Getting into M7 business schools with a GMAT score lower than 700 is hard, yet not impossible. For other schools, a score of 650 is totally fine. I would start by evaluating your target schools’ GMAT range and aiming for the upper bound as you start your application prep.

2. Don’t – Consider only the GMAT

Did you know that there are two exams you can take to apply to business schools? In addition to the GMAT, the lesser-known GRE is also considered by the admissions committee. And, business schools don't really have a preference for whether you submit the GMAT or GRE.

So, before spending days and weeks preparing for the GMAT, attentively evaluate both exams. The GRE is not necessarily easier than the GMAT, so really it depends on your personal inclinations. I suggest giving them both a shot. Once you have a base score, get acquainted with the kind of questions and logic behind them. Then, choose the exam that suits you the most... and go for it!

3. Do – Establish a rigorous time plan

Getting the GMAT done is hard. Especially when you work long hours, have multiple commitments, and feel the pressure of the overall application process. My suggestion is–as soon as possible–establish a timeline and study plan, and stick to it.

When I was preparing for the GMAT, I used to block time slots in my calendar before starting to work and after dinner to solely focus on the exam. I used to spend odd days on the quantitative section and even days on the verbal. Having such a rigorous schedule helped me to focus and optimize my study time.

4. Don’t – Procrastinate

Many applicants wait until they get their target score in multiple practice tests before signing up for the official exam. Waiting until you feel confident with your preparation is important. Still, "best" is the enemy of "good." As soon as you have decided which exam you will take and outlined your schedule, set a date for your exam. This will help you remain accountable and prioritize your studying. Moreover, it will save you precious time that you can dedicate to other, equally important parts of the application.

5. Do – Take advantage of online resources

The GMAC website is the first and best resource to start from when preparing for the exam. I recommend buying both the e-book and paper book versions, to avoid distractions and get aligned with the actual exam questions. However, the internet also offers tons of free (and paid) resources you can leverage. I subscribed to online clubs, joined remote studying groups, and watched dozens of videos on YouTube. For example, many graduate schools also offer similar, yet shorter, GMAT practice tests for free!

6. Don’t - Get lost on blogs, clubs, and YouTube channels

The internet can be a wonderful place to study. However, the main disadvantage of accessing hundreds of websites online is getting lost and feeling overwhelmed. I used to browse 10-15 GMAT sites at the same time, before realizing I was just wasting my time and energy. My key suggestion is to identify the 2-3 resources that work best for you and stick to them. Or, find a coach who can help keep you accountable.

7. Do – Assess your strengths and weaknesses across the whole exam

The GMAT exam is made up of four different components: Quantitative section, Qualitative section, Integrated Reasoning, and Analytical Writing Assessment. Your score will be based mainly on the first two. However, I highly recommend assessing your strengths and weaknesses across all four of them and not taking anything for granted. Even if you are an English native speaker, the qualitative (reading) section may pose unexpected challenges.

8. Don’t – Overlook theory and explanations

When people start studying for the GMAT, one of the most common mistakes is jumping directly to test practice and exercises. Practice is important and it makes all the difference. Still, I highly recommend spending time refreshing basic geometry and arithmetic notions and understanding the logic behind different questions. Generally, a GMAT quant question can be resolved in 3-4 steps – if you find yourself making complex calculations… I would suggest a fresh new start.

9. Do – Track your progress

Are you getting closer to your target score? Is your studying method effective? Which areas are the most challenging? Where you do need the most improvement? To be able to answer these questions, you need to track your progress. Take note of the common mistakes you make, the time you need to answer a question, and eventually, your practice test scores. This is the only way to spot areas of improvement and meet your exam date with confidence and comfort.

10. Don’t – Forget about your physical and mental well-being

Despite all the pressure, time constraints, and tight schedules, never forget to prioritize your well-being. The application process is challenging and it is a marathon, not a sprint. No matter what, find time to go out for a jog or spend time with your loved ones. No schedule or exam is more important than your health and you need to take care of yourself. Your body and mind will largely benefit from it… as will your GMAT score!

One final word….the GMAT isn’t everything

Many people believe that their test scores will be the ultimate reason for their admission (or rejection) from business school. And the test does, indeed, play a huge role in screening candidates, as it offers admission committee members a good proxy of your quantitative and logical skills. In particular, you may want to secure a good score if you come from an overrepresented industry, like Consulting or Finance, where Excel modeling, problem-solving, and mental math are used daily. However, the GMAT isn’t everything.

Your story, values, and ambitions are much more important, and they represent what actually distinguishes you. MBA programs look for authentic and purposeful young leaders, eager to make a difference in the world. Common sense and logical reasoning are fundamental for the next-generation change-makers, but guess what? You can and will learn them at school! Therefore, dedicate yourself to preparing and taking the exam, but make time also for self-reflection and personal storytelling.

Valeria T. is a Harvard Business School MBA Candidate, nonprofit founder, and mentor and is passionate about empowering young students and professionals to achieve their ambitious goals. She would love to help you ace your GMAT, get into your dream MBA program, and land a role in consulting. Book a FREE intro call with Valeria today!

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