My Top Piece of Advice for Every MBA Applicant

What every aspiring MBA candidate needs to know before starting business school applications, from a Stanford MBA and expert Leland coach.

By Orly Michaeli

August 24, 2022

After a harrowing year of applying to seven MBA programs–during which I was told that I shouldn’t even apply and then proceeded to get into six top schools–I had one piece of advice I began doling out to anyone who would listen.

You should at least try taking the GRE.

I joked that I would get this tattooed on my forehead. If someone had told me this at the beginning of my b-school journey, it would have saved me so much strife, money, and time.

Let’s rewind to the beginning of 2019. On January 2, fresh off of the high of all those New Year’s resolutions, I signed up for a GMAT prep class. I hadn’t taken a standardized test in the last decade, but I wasn’t too worried. In high school, I’d done well on the SAT and my AP tests, and I figured a group class would get me into ship shape in order to get my applications in by Round 1 (early fall) that same year.

But after five months of weekly classes, hours of studying deep into the night and early in the morning, additional private tutoring, and three tear-filled tries, I could not break a 620.

As a self-described nerd, this was heartbreaking to me. I enjoyed studying and learning, and I wouldn’t have described myself as someone with testing anxiety. But the GMAT was the one foe I could not vanquish, no matter how many hours I threw at it. I somehow did worse each time I tried. My confidence was completely shaken, and I wondered if I belonged at business school.

I watched the Round 1 application deadlines roll by, beating myself up that there was no one to blame but myself for not applying in the round that had the most available seats. I watched my fiancé ace his GMAT and send in applications to the schools we dreamed of going to together.

After consulting with my coach, the only thing left to do was to switch to the GRE — after having invested more than half a year learning a different test.

I took my first practice test to see where I stood and exhaled for what felt like the first time in months. I was so much better suited for this test. I could skip around between questions. I had unlimited scratch paper (and a calculator!) to work things out. My background in humanities made me actually excited to do the vocabulary sections.

With a month of tutoring and studying, I took the GRE and got my target score on my first try. My MBA coach encouraged me to apply to one school that had a later deadline for Round 1, and I got in!

I had been so stubborn for months. I took the GMAT because I wanted to prove I was like all those other MBA applicants. I felt I had to take the “business school” test to prove I belonged there, despite the fact that any info session at any school will tell you that the GRE is wholly accepted and not looked down upon. I was making things harder for myself instead of leaning into my strengths–the things that made me different–and letting those help me shine in my application. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve taken both tests at the very beginning of my journey, to see which one I could do the best on.

I wish I would’ve entered the application process with a more open mind: not fighting against the current toward what I thought a business school applicant should be, but instead swimming in the streams that felt more natural and took me to the same place.

So, to put it bluntly, here is my advice to you:

  1. If you’re thinking about going to business school, take a practice GMAT and GRE test at least six months before your target application deadlines. The tests are long, so spread them out over two weekends. You can find free practice tests online.
  2. Note which one caters to your strengths and feels more comfortable for you. Think about not only the content covered, but the format, the length, etc. Leland has two great articles on the differences between both tests that can help you decide: A Nuts and Bolts Guide to the GRE and GMAT and the GMAT vs. GRE for Business School-Which to Take and How to Ace Both.
  3. If you need help studying from there, there are plenty of online resources. Work with a Leland GMAT/GRE expert for personalized coaching.
  4. If you need to change course and think the other test might be right for you, don’t freak out! There’s plenty of overlap so a lot of your studying will be applicable to both tests with only a few exceptions.

I wish you smooth sailing on what can be an arduous journey, and openness to charting a course that embraces who you are. Applying to school can be an overwhelming process, but you don’t have to do it alone. For guidance on any part of the application process, from choosing which school is right for you, to getting recommendation letters, and prepping for interviews, work with me on Leland. Book a free intro call on my profile to get started.

Final Note

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