MBA: Thinking Beyond Test Scores

by mba

GMAT or GRE? Where should I start?

Nafeez Amin has over 13 years of experience as a GMAT, GRE, SAT, and ACT instructor and co-authored Sherpa Prep’s five textbooks, app, and intensive curriculum. He graduated summa cum laude and holds graduate degrees from Wharton (business management), Johns Hopkins (finance), and Georgetown (real estate). He leads Sherpa Prep’s MBA admissions team and has done so for over a decade, counselling thousands of students over the years, many of whom have matriculated to the top programmes in the world.

What is the value of GMAT and GRE test prep beyond the score itself?

The standardised test requirement has long proven to be the biggest, most aggravating hurdle for most MBA applicants. Preparation can be exceptionally stressful and that stress is understandable. However, I think that understanding what the tests are, and what they attempt to assess, can help individuals frame their studies.

The tests are data points that attempt to standardise eclectic applicant pools composed of thousands of people who have diverse skills, academic training, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Standardised tests are imperfect, for sure, but subjective assessments, e.g., valuing one work history more than another, or judging recommendations that are often similar in their positivity, are no more perfect. In my many years of experience, counselling literally thousands of applications, what I have learnt is this: the admissions teams have very difficult jobs, as the information they have to make these potentially life-changing decisions is so, so limited. They are making educated guesses, and to their credit, they do so earnestly.

The GMAT and the GRE are tests that examine skill (and attention to detail!) more than specific bits of knowledge. These skills – especially those related to numeracy, comprehension, and logic – correlate with academic readiness and success in rigorous business school curricula. Make no mistake: they are perhaps predictive but in no way determinative. Emotional intelligence, motivational skills, and courage – the qualities most of us value in leaders – are not assessed by these exams. In truth, the content covered by these exams is too elementary to test serious quantitative abilities. Students should know that admissions teams know this too!

MBA: Thinking Beyond Test Scores

All that said, if a student follows a properly designed curriculum, that student will encounter extraordinary benefits beyond getting better exam scores. I hear routinely from our students that their efforts in sentence correction (a GMAT question type) are allowing them to communicate more effectively at work, that their growth in mental math abilities (tested by both the GMAT and GRE) helps them with financial decisions, and that their improvement in critical reasoning and logic (again, tested by both exams) has made them better decision makers. I am invariably heartened but not surprised in hearing this feedback.

By improving these core skills, students find MBA coursework, case discussions, and post-MBA recruiting (especially for those looking for consulting roles) far, far easier. These skills do translate! Having an easier time at school gives them more time to invest in school clubs and extracurriculars – maybe even their startup! But more interestingly, perhaps, in the long run they can use these skills to read newspapers more keenly, be more persuasive in their arguments, and make better choices with their finances.

Many business schools accept both GMAT and GRE scores. How should applicants choose which test to sit?

Because the tests are more similar than dissimilar, I think that far too much attention is given to test choice. They are not exactly the same in terms of pacing or subject matter, for sure, but ultimately both will probably require a student to improve their skills in numeracy and reading for detail. At the outset, preparing for one is, in fact, preparing for the other. If, later on, a testing “switch” needs to be made (e.g. the student plateaus on one of these exams and cannot overcome its idiosyncrasies), it can be done fairly easily.

If someone is just starting out, I would advise them to start by taking an official practice exam of each. But before doing so, I would control for variables such as fatigue, hunger, and time of day. Students should take some time familiarising themselves with the question types and the pacing required within the respective sections. This is incredibly important, otherwise the data will be difficult to compare. The student should give each exam an equally fair shot.

With practice scores in hand, and both exams experienced, an initial choice of which exam to prepare for can be made. (I say “initial” because, again, switching later on remains a viable option.) Quantitatively: which score is closer to the student’s target schools’ norms? Qualitatively: which exam provides the better opportunity for improvement, given the student’s current skills and dispositions? The latter question is more difficult to answer, but professionals experienced in both exams and in admissions (such as those at Sherpa Prep) can provide informed advice.

How do applicants choose between preparing with a local test prep centre and an international one?

Local versus international would not be a factor in my decision-making. The very best schools are searching for talent from around the world and I would have the same mindset as they do in my diligence for preparatory options. For me, quality of preparation would be the key factor, followed by cost. Convenience and delivery format would be secondary considerations. For what it’s worth, at Sherpa Prep, our mission is to increase access to elite preparation and therefore potentially trajectory-changing graduate school education. We flatly reject the idea that the best preparation costs the most.

Should non-native speakers of English sit a language test first (TOEFL, IELTS) or the GMAT or GRE?

Yes, I believe that they should, if preparation for the TOEFL or the IELTS will improve the student’s language skills. The GMAT and the GRE require fluency with the English language, and some of the reading passages and quantitative word problems can be especially tricky.

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