Because it's the most important element of your MBA application, the GMAT has to be your top priority.

You're not getting into a top-tier business school without an acceptable GMAT score. It's that simple. I know this because I've taught the exam for years; I've written a super-comprehensive GMAT curriculum; I've trained the instructors for a national test-prep company, and I score 800s on the silly test. In other words, the GMAT is my bitch and I know it well.

Having coached hundreds of test-takers through the exam and into the world's most elite business schools, I'm in a unique position to know how admissions officers actually use your test results. Lets start by addressing the most persistent rumor in MBA admissions; you'll hear it often from admissions officers:

"The GMAT exam is only one of many criteria that we consider when making the admissions decision; and it isn't weighted more heavily than any of the other criteria."

This is bullshit. It's actually laughable. It's not just false, it's demonstrably false. The numbers published on the websites of top-tier programs prove it every year. If you don't get an acceptable score, you aren't getting in. It's that simple.

What's an Acceptable Score?

Mid-600s or better. There are a few exceptions (my lowest Harvard admit was a 600, but she was amazing and, frankly, I wrote her essays), but not many. To be admitted to a top-tier MBA program with a score in the low 600s is difficult, and to be admitted with a score below 600 is almost impossible. (I've had one, but she worked at the school that admitted her.)

So you need to be realistic about the test. If you want to attend a top-tier school, you should shoot for a number that's within about 70 points of that program's reported median score. People within 4o points are easily acceptable, but once you start to slip below that level things get tough (though not impossible).

If you're determined to attend a top-tier school (and you should be), retake the test if you need to. Frankly I'm amazed by how little effort the average test taker puts into prepping for the exam. It's crazy. This test will have an enormous impact on the rest of an applicant's life, and yet most people invest very little time and appallingly little effort in it. They apparently believe the "innate ability" fable that haunts most standardized tests and feel they can improve only so much. My students don't fall for that fable, but only because we outwork other test takers 10 to 1 and reap the fruits of our labor. Many of my students study with me for a full year, and some stay longer. So we earn our place at the top of the curve.

How to Beat Other People on the GMAT

Outwork them.

This isn't brain surgery. Train harder than your opponent and you'll beat him. How is that hard to understand?

Unfortunately, commercial test-prep companies leave test-takers with the impression that their 20-hour courses are sufficient to prepare for the exam and that students should accept whatever score they get after taking the course. That's completely false, though.

My course is three times as long as a commercial class and I freely admit to my students that it isn't long enough to maximize their scores. That's why so many of them sit through the entire course two or three times. It took me a year of teaching the exam before I thought I understood it, and I was fairly good at standardized tests to begin with. If you can master it faster than me, then congratulations, but most people take as long as I did.

How to Score 800 on the GMAT

I didn't get perfect scores when I began teaching the course. I was good, but I got extremely good by doing three things:

  1. Setting a performance standard that I didn't believe I could achieve. (Perfection.)
  2. Doing practice problems every day for months without timing myself.
  3. Repeating the same problem sets many times every few days.
Of the three practices, the one that seems to perplex my students most is the third — repetition. They don't seem to understand the importance of doing problems over and over until they've memorized not just that specific problem, but the general concept behind it that is repeated in other problems. It's the concepts that matter, not the specific details. Once you've memorized the concepts and become capable of spotting them on the exam, it's hard to get questions wrong.

The GMAT's Biggest Secret

The curriculum is finite. I know this because I inadvertently memorized the whole thing. That's when the test became easy.

Even more surprising is the fact that the curriculum is very limited. I had expected there to be many more concepts being tested. If you want to get really good at the test, do practice problems until you start to see the same concepts being repeated. When you begin to recognize the concepts, you'll know that you've internalized the curriculum.