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Getting a GMAT score above 700 remains the Holy Grail for most prospective MBA students.Robert Kneschke/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Deciding to apply for an MBA is a bit like deciding you are going on an expedition. A huge amount of work must be done.

For some hopefuls, such as Kate Sherning, an MBA student at Cranfield School of Management in the U.K., choosing her MBA program was the most taxing part of the application process.

"I did a lot of research and applied only to Cranfield," she says, explaining that she was guided by the kind of program on offer, the length of the course and the fact that it was in Britain. She wishes to return to engineering consulting afterward and wanted only a one-year program.

She advises applicants to be be clear about what they want from an MBA, put possible schools on a short list, and talk to current students and alumni to ensure the school can deliver what they want.

After choosing the school or schools with the best fit, the real hard work begins, says Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive officer of Expartus, the New York-based MBA admissions consultancy that she founded 10 years ago. Too many students underestimate how long they should devote to this part of the process, she adds.

Kyle Wu, who is in his second semester of a two-year program at Thunderbird School of Global Management in the United States, would agree.

"I didn't correctly analyze how long it would take me to get the mark I needed for my GMAT [Graduate Management Admissions Test] and I had already left my job by that time. It awakened me to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you'd planned it," he warns.

Gaining a good GMAT score of above 700 remains the Holy Grail for most prospective students, although increasing numbers of business schools say they will accept the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which was designed for general admission to postgraduate education.

However, preparing to do well in either examination is time consuming. Typically, students should be prepared to undertake between 100 and 150 hours of study – a level of commitment that some U.S. and European students find shocking, says Andrew Mitchell, Kaplan Test Prep's director of prebusiness programs.

"Some people think that because they did well in the SAT [a general aptitude test that students sit to gain admission to U.S. universities at the undergraduate level] they will also do well on the GMAT, but that is not necessarily the case," Mr. Mitchell says. He points out that by the time potential students sit the GMAT, they are joining a rather elite group of very capable prospective applicants who are all dedicated to succeeding on the exam and the admissions process.

Both the GMAT and the GRE are computer-adaptive tests that are designed to assess critical thinking abilities. Yet despite the complexity of the actual tests, tuition can have dramatic results. "We've seen test scores improve by over 200 points," Mr. Mitchell says, although he admits this is rare.

For those who cannot afford the time or the money for tuition, just hitting the books can be sufficient.

Students should be prepared to take the exam more than once. "On average, if people take the exam more than once they can increase their point score by 30 points – that includes some that go up by a hundred and some that go up by nothing," says Dave Wilson, president and CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council that runs GMAT.

A Kaplan survey of 265 MBA programs in August-September, 2012, found that nearly 70 per cent of business schools allow applicants to submit scores from the GRE instead of the GMAT, against only 24 per cent of those surveyed only three years earlier.

But doing well in one or the other remains crucial. The score from either test remained the most important factor for nearly half of the schools polled. Undergraduate performance was considered important by 31 per cent, 18 per cent emphasized work experience, 2 per cent looked at letters of recommendation, and 1 per cent emphasized the essay component of the application.

That said, good essays, strong letters of recommendation or a memorable interview could make all the difference. Ms. Isiadinso says she has worked with students who have gained entry to the most selective schools with scores as low as 640-650.

The newest hoop to jump through on the GMAT is the integrated reasoning section. Introduced in June, 2012, it challenges students to assess data from a variety of sources and make decisions. "A lot of students find integrated reasoning intimidating, the reason being that it's heavy with graphical information. It also tests them on material they've likely never been challenged with before," Mr. Mitchell says.

Mr. Wilson says it is too early to know what weight business schools will give to this new section.

For tasks such as the essay or the interview, Ms. Isiadinso says candidates should try to be themselves. She recounts the experience of a recent client from Asia for whom English was a second language. She had failed to get into any of the top schools in the U.S. and asked for help with her next application.

"When I spoke to her on the phone, it became clear that she was a fascinating woman – a leader who had had many interesting experiences, but in her applications she was more concerned with writing perfect prose." Ms. Isiadinso convinced her to make sure that her resubmitted application was written in her own words. Though it contained some grammatical errors, the client's fresh application was successful.

Ms. Isiadinso also emphasizes choosing good referees. Some applicants' letters of recommendation are written by people who do not approve of MBAs. That negativity will shine through, she adds.

Andre de Haes, who is enrolled in a two-year program at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says his best piece of advice would be to try to see the overall picture you are presenting.

"Ensure your application tells a coherent story – your essays, recommendations, interview answers and academic/employment histories should be complementary," he says.

To get all of that right, the most important thing students should bring to the table is time.