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A quick guide to the slow burn needed for strong GMAT results, with hot tips from Cambridge MBAs, admissions, and exam experts.

Smilinng confident successful MBA standing outside while taking with a peer who is facing her. The background shows greenery.

Behind every notable GMAT result is a student who will have had their eyes firmly on the clock well before the exam even started. Understanding how the time sensitive GMAT test works is the first step for any candidate to take. The second is to be generous with preparation time especially if you are new to the GMAT.

“I don’t think you can start too early. The more time you can give yourself to prepare the better. Just how much individual preparation is needed will depend on the different circumstances of each candidate. Around three months might be enough if you have never even seen a practice GMAT or GRE test before. Some students however can spend a year on the GMAT to get the score they want,” says Emily Brierley, Head of MBA Recruitment & Admissions.

The GMAT was designed especially for business schools to assess an applicant’s analytical and quantitative abilities to take on the challenging academic curriculum of MBA programmes. Cambridge MBA candidates commonly sit the GMAT although the GRE is equally acceptable. The strategy needed for success is similar in both.

Monsicha (Mint) Pongrujikorn, and Kristina Chiappetta, took the GMAT to apply for the Cambridge MBA programme of 2016/17. Mint is now Counsel at Chevron in Bangkok while Kristina is a Strategy Director at Landor & Fitch in New York. With the clock already ticking for the next admissions round, here is their advice and top resources for exam success.

Repetitive gains

“Practice, practice, practice, plenty of questions ahead of time,”. That way, Mint and Kristina say, you’ll uncover your weaknesses and get used to the way the questions are phrased. Both downloaded practice GMAT papers from the official GMAC website, and Kristina also used practice questions from the website Magoosh.

“You should practice the whole test before you take the exam but don’t spend all of your time on whole practice papers. Make sure you focus on the parts you find hardest as well,” says Mint.

“You can download free test preparation software from GMAT.com. Many of the question types follow standard patterns so it’s useful to be able to quickly identify what each question is asking you to do. The practice exams can help you to strategise your exam timing and follow the same computer-adaptive format as the real exam, allowing you to gauge your potential exam performance,” adds James Barker, Market Development Manager (Europe) at GMAC.

Targeted exam tuition

What’s most important is finding the right learning support for you to cope with the large and varied amounts of data in different formats and from varying sources that you will need to evaluate during the exam.

The practice questions showed Mint and Kristina which core concepts and techniques they needed to improve. They invested in GMAT prep courses with Kristina opting for the Manhattan Prep, which offers weekly classes with instructors and preparation tests of their own to try out.

“The Manhattan Prep practice tests I was taking were a bit harder than the actual GMAT, so don’t get too frustrated or flustered if these test scores aren’t quite where you want to be,” she says.

Mint decided on classes with Kaplan. She spent the first four weeks looking at quants, and then more generally at the test itself. Mint says she benefitted from exam tips such as eliminating multiple choice answers which stand out as obviously being different to the rest. Economist GMAT Tutor is another website frequently used by MBA candidates.

Adding up applicant apps

MBA community boards are popular sources of information for students who are trying to evaluate the abundant extra resources available online, such as revision apps. Mint, on the move, used ‘Speed Math’ by Pixerian to improve mental arithmetic skills she hadn’t used much since high school. At bus stops, in queues or whenever she had some spare time, Mint was studying maths with this flashcard-style app. There are many other revision strategies on offer to complement official prep plans like ‘GMAT Math Flashcards’ and ‘GMAT Idiom Flashcards’ by Magoosh, as well as Pocket Prep’s ‘GMAT Prep’.

Overcoming the weakest links

As in any rehearsal, a larger proportion of your time will be spent on identifying and correcting any weaknesses to improve your final GMAT performance. When considering applications for the Cambridge MBA, Emily Brierley says the MBA Admissions team are looking for balanced scores across the four main sections of the GMAT exam.

“As well as the overall result, we consider the percentiles closely. If there is a low score it will be flagged up, as our core courses in the first term are heavily quants based.”

When assessing her preparation strategy Kristina adds, “If I could go back in time, I would have started focusing on maths skills which were not my strength, ahead of taking the prep course. Class time is immensely more useful if you have a solid foundation, as they teach you techniques to answer the more advanced questions.”

Playing to your strengths

As well as improving your weaknesses, our graduates recommend dedicating time to strengthening your expertise. It is important says Mint to concentrate on the detail of subjects like verbal reasoning, even if you think you understand them well.

“With verbal reasoning, for example, there are lots of idioms. If you are less familiar with those, spend some time understanding how the questions are phrased and just be aware that even something as seemingly simple as sentence correction can be tricky.”

A room of your own

“I studied and took practice tests for months leading up to the actual GMAT. I would go to my office on weekends to have a quiet, distraction-free space,” says Kristina.

Along with the right environment to study, candidates may also need a well-prepared test-taking space to sit the GMAT at home. With COVID-19 (coronavirus) restrictions continuing, test centres around the world are operating at lower capacity, if they are open. The online GMAT tests that were first offered when the global pandemic took hold last year are probably “here to stay”, our Admissions team say. You can register to take the GMAT online at home with around-the-clock testing.

Watching the exam clock

Managing your time is the key to a better score once the exam starts, our graduates and experts agree.

By now you will already know from mock exams how the instructions are likely to be worded and how much time you will have to complete each section of the exam. After repetitive practice you will also be used to how long each question might take to answer without needing to check the timer all the time. Pace yourself carefully to avoid rushing later answers and allow enough time to complete all sections of the test.

Mint has other final words of advice, “Make sure you get the first 10 questions right; those will put you in the upper percentile and ensure you get the harder questions.”

James agrees, “The computer-adaptive nature of GMAT means that you get harder graded questions after each correct answer you supply. Being exposed to a broad range of questions means you will be equipped to answer these as you successfully proceed through the exam.”

“For the Cambridge MBA, the GMAT is an important admissions requirement. You will want to submit the strongest score you can. If you are well prepared, you’ll be able to do that,” says Emily. “And remember it is just one part of a holistic process.”