How long will it take me to prepare for the GMAT?

Let’s forget for a moment that the answer to this question depends on so many factors that there’s no point in asking it without providing a significant amount of further information. There are people who prepare in days and others who prepare over a number of years. I’ll come back to those factors below, but…

If you’re an average student at, say, 400 level, and you have a low-to-average target score, say 650, and you’re working 9-5 Monday-Friday, all things being equal you’ll need a minimum of 100 hours over 3 months to prepare.

* * *

Some factors influencing preparation time

*Current level ~ what score do you have, and is it balanced?
*Target score ~ you probably know all about the law of diminishing returns, which applies after 650 if not before
*Work-life balance ~ amount and quality of freetime
*Home life responsibilities ~ partners, kids, parents, community groups etc.
*Time available ~ “I’m taking the exam in three weeks and I need 700+” doesn’t put the odds in your favour
*Personal best ~ were you once good at this stuff, or have you never properly learnt it?
*Exam technique ~ some people do better in exams, some do worse; that can change, but it’s a factor

and the list goes on..

What about the Integrated Reasoning section?

Don’t worry about it too much. To my knowledge, several schools have said that they won’t be able to take the scores on this section (it’s scored separately) very seriously for some time as they won’t have enough data. The important things for you to do are a) know what to expect, so that you don’t get a nasty surprise and b) don’t expend too much mental or emotional energy on Integrated Reasoning ~ stay calm and fresh for Quant and Verbal.

How does the scoring system work?

The scoring system is mysterious. You get a scaled score on both Quant and Verbal, notionally out of 60, although no one seems to get more than 51 and 47. (These scores don’t mean much to me: the only thing they’re good for is comparing with scaled scores on other tests. For that reason, however, some students like them.) You also get a percentile on each section, and an overall percentile which is almost always better than the average of the Quant and Verbal percentiles. Finally, you get a score between 200 and 800.

What score do I need?

450-550 may be enough for some schools. 600 is usually enough to access an EMBA and may allow you to do an MBA at many schools. 650 gives you a shot at most schools. 680 should give you a chance anywhere. A score beginning with a 7 gives a better chance anywhere, and if you get 730 you’ve hit the highest average, which was Stanford last time I checked. I’ve seen research that shows that 750 is significantly better than 720; I don’t think a score over 750 will greatly improve your chances of getting into business school, although it may win you a scholarship.

A balanced score is always preferable. It’s possible your chosen school will say that your score is good enough, but that you need to retake the GMAT and achieve a minimum percentile (70th or 75th, for example) in one of the disciplines (usually Quant). Conversely, I’ve heard that with many high Quant scores, especially in Asia, a high Verbal score can be a big advantage.

Ask your target schools. It’s a good excuse to begin a dialogue with them.