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Business school test-prep: hard on your brain and wallet

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With a GMAT score that put her in the top eight per cent of all test takers in the previous three years, Marina Martin, a marketing consultant in Vancouver, figures she can get into the MBA program of any of the Ivy League schools.

"The GMAT in itself is not the most difficult exam," says Ms. Martin, who took the Graduate Management Admission Test last September. "But as you get older, you lose certain concepts that you learned in school, and that can make the exam somewhat challenging."

Administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council in Reston, Va., the GMAT is a four-hour exam that assesses reading comprehension and logical reasoning, analytical, writing and mathematical skills. GMAT results, which are good for five years, help MBA schools choose which students to accept into their programs.

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While schools base their admission decisions on a body of material that includes undergraduate records, application essays, work experience and letters of recommendation, they do assign significant weight to GMAT scores. In a survey of 288 U.S. MBA schools taken last July and August by Kaplan Test Prep - part of Kaplan Inc., a New York private education provider - 48 per cent of admissions officers said a low GMAT score is the biggest application killer.

"You really can't get away without any kind of preparation," says Brent Hanneson, who runs Leap Education, a Vancouver company that offers private tutoring for MBA candidates. "I see a lot of really smart people who struggle with the test, even engineers who struggle with the math part because they don't know the appropriate test strategies."

In the past, reviewing books that published sample questions was a good enough way to prepare for the GMAT, says Mr. Hanneson, who also works as a program advisor for the University of British Columbia, which offers GMAT preparation studies through its continuing education department.

But as test takers over the years have grown increasingly savvy about GMAT-acing strategies, getting a top score has become more difficult.

"Your mark is essentially a ranking amongst other people, so the bar keeps rising because everybody is learning these strategies," says Mr. Hanneson. "You're at a strong disadvantage if you don't get help preparing for these tests."

What, then, is the best way to get GMAT-ready?

Dr. Ian Rakita, associate professor and director of the Goodman Institute of Investment Management at Concordia University in Montreal, says a GMAT preparatory course is always a good option since it commits test candidates to studying for a designated period of time.

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"It can provide a structured setting for GMAT prep and lead to a support network, wherein potential students can build on one another's strengths as they receive guidance and tips from qualified instructors," he says.

However, a prep course can be quite costly and is not the only option that will lead to successful results, says Dr. Rakita.

"If a candidate is committed, organized and disciplined in their approach to studying, they are just as able to attain a great result," he says.

Indeed GMAT prep courses can range from $545 for 30 hours of in-class instruction with Oxford Seminars in Toronto and Vancouver, to $1,600 for 42 hours in-class with Veritas Prep, the Malibu company with Canadian classrooms in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Online courses don't necessarily come at bargain prices. Kaplan's "on demand" video courses cost about $450, while New York-based Manhattan GMAT's "live" online courses - where students join a live class via the Internet three hours a week for three months - cost $1,090.

There are also private tutorials with GMAT experts such as Mr. Hanneson, who charges $150 an hour for a one-on-one session conducted by Web conference.

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GMAT prep courses typically cover two areas: content - for example, grammar and the more esoteric aspects of math, like factoring and algebra equation solving - and test-taking strategies.

The latter is particularly important, since the GMAT is timed and many of the problem-solving strategies taught in school can add minutes to the time it takes to answer certain questions.

One time-saving strategy, for example, calls for estimating an answer to a math question, instead of doing a precise calculation.

"The way you learn math at school is systematic which, on the GMAT, will work against you," says Mr. Hanneson. "You're better off estimating because chances are, there will only one answer choice on the GMAT that's close to your estimate."

Some GMAT prep schools, such as the one at UBC, offer courses that cover only one area of study.

"We had people asking us to just focus on math, so we started a 21-hour quantitative course and also a basic math refresher for people who have been away from math for a long time," says Deena Boeck, senior program leader at the University of British Columbia's school of continuing studies. "We also recently started a writing course to help people practice the writing portion of the test."

Two years ago, UBC began offering prep courses for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which has long been required for most non-business school graduate programs but is now being accepted by a growing number of MBA schools in Canada and the United States.

"We started with 24 students in 2008 and most recently had 52, so the numbers are definitely increasing," says Ms. Boeck.

So how many hours of studying does it take to get ready for the GMAT?

There's no neat formula for success, say the GMAT experts. Research by the Graduate Management Admission Council found candidates who scored well on the GMAT tended to spend more time studying. But interestingly, those in the top group - with a score of 700 or higher - studied seven hours less than test takers with the second highest scores.

What's more important for GMAT candidates, says Ms. Boeck, is to find the style of prepping that suits them best. For example, if they learn better on their own, then an autonomous online course is probably best for them. If they like face-to-face group interactions, then a class setting would be more suitable.

For Ms. Martin, wanting to be part of a group was one of the reasons why she chose to sign up for UBC's on-campus GMAT prep course.

"I'm very motivated studying in a group and I found that taking the in-class course was the perfect combination of getting knowledge in a condensed version and sharing it with others," she says.

Whether they choose an online or class course, students should try to learn a few things about the course instructor, says Ms. Boeck.

"Everybody looks for instructors who have a good GMAT score, but that's just one part of it," she says. "Find out what type of teaching experience the instructor has had and how good he is with explaining information to adult learners.

"Talk to other students who have taken the course. It's a bit of work upfront, but, after all, this is something that could well have a big impact on your future."

Top 10 GMAT prep tips

Dr. Ian Rakita, associate professor and director of the Goodman Institute of Investment Management at Concordia University in Montreal, shares some tips to help you prepare for exam day.

1. Review the test structure and understand the proportionate weighting of each section.

2. Know your schedule and set aside enough time to prepare for the test.

3. Take practice tests regularly and don't get discouraged. Incorporate GMAT prep into your regular routine.

4. Join a study group. It will create a network of support and ease the stress of preparing for your test.

5. Know your strengths and weaknesses so you can spend more time and effort on building your weak areas.

6. Track your progress. This will quantify your results and encourage you to keep going.

7. Manage your time wisely. Proper pacing on test day will help maintain your stamina and likely lead to better results.

8. Don't be a victim of information overload. Think about the question being asked and only answer what is being asked.

9. Avoid random guesses. Eliminate the obvious wrong choices immediately to increase your odds of choosing the correct answer.

10. Don't give up. Stay focused and aim to finish your test.

Special to The Globe and Mail

For examples of GMAT questions and the chance to test yourself, check out the 'Practise the GMAT Test' link ont our Business Education hub at WWW.TGAM.CA/BUSINESS-EDUCATION

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