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GMAT Test Prep: A User's Guide


Your GMAT exam score, while only one part of your business school admissions application, can be the difference between getting accepted or rejected at your first-choice school. In fact, 55% of the 250 MBA admissions officers who responded to the 2008 Kaplan Business School Admissions Survey said the GMAT is the most important factor in the business school application. While schools look at the complete package, they will be turned off by a lower-than-average GMAT score, which they use to determine how successful you will be academically. That's why many applicants spend a great deal of time preparing for the GMAT—and doing whatever they can to increase their score. Often, they turn to test-prep companies for help.

In the past few years, these companies have worked to improve their online offerings and create more personalized materials and courses. "We don't believe in one-size-fits-all. We respect the fact that the students who come to our class are not all at the exact same level," says Scott Shrum, director of MBA Admissions Research at Veritas Prep. "It is our job to know the GMAT and arm you with the tools."

Indeed, Shrum's competitors agree that offering personalized attention is a must for today's test-taker—from homework assignments based on your particular weaknesses to computer readouts analyzing your GMAT results, helping you decide where to concentrate your efforts. Whether you haven't looked at a geometry problem since the 10th grade or are an engineer exposed to various quant problems everyday, GMAT test-prep companies are aiming to get your attention. And judging from your comments on BusinessWeek's Business Schools Forum, they have apparently succeeded.

If you're thinking about preparing for the GMAT, you have a wide range of options—from taking the free practice tests offered by GMAC, the creators of the GMAT, and studying on your own, to private tutoring with one of the test-prep programs. The best way to determine what course of study is right for you is to take a practice test first, then determine a reasonable goal, and then decide which, if any, program would help you arrive at it. Here is what you can get out of some of the more popular GMAT test-prep companies:

KAPLAN

While not about to rest on its laurels, Kaplan still believes that experience is its greatest strength. "Our objective is to offer 40-plus years of GMAT teaching experience in a way that is comprehensive but also personalized for every student," says Andrew Mitchell, director of GMAT programs for Kaplan. With 160 centers in the U.S. and others in France and Britain, in addition to online courses, Kaplan also reaches a large audience. The company's Smart Reports offer live feedback on each student's progress based on the results of practice exams. A partnership with Pearson VUE allows students to take one practice exam in the room where they will eventually take the real GMAT, to get a feel for what it will be like on test day.

Kaplan offers traditional classroom courses, advanced classes for those who score a 600 or above on the practice test and want to improve their score even more, and live online courses, where students see their instructor via webcam. If your score doesn't increase, you're eligible for a full refund, and if you're not satisfied with your score or don't feel ready for the test at the end of your course, you can retake the entire course for free.

"The reason we've been in business for so long is because we back up [our promises] with this guarantee," says Mitchell.

Since Kaplan offers test prep for a wide variety of standardized tests, it already has a Graduate Record Examination prep class in place for those who are interested in taking this test, which is now accepted by many business schools as an alternative to the GMAT. The classroom and live online course each cost $1,449. The price for 35 hours of private tutoring is $4,649, and Kaplan books can cost as little as $17.

Matthew McCloskey recently took the advanced course and raised his score from a 680 to a 740. Although he thinks the instructors spent too much time on the verbal portion of the test, he was pleased with the results. "Most folks in the advanced class already had a strong grasp of what the test is about and could correctly answer the easy/medium questions within the time limits," writes McCloskey in an e-mail. "Given that, my instructor was able to drill down on the more challenging/tricky questions and explain alternate routes to the correct answer if the usual approach didn't work."

But there are some people who are critical of Kaplan for being the fast-food chain of test-prep services with a quantity-over-quality mentality because of the sheer size of the company and its offerings. You can study everything from the SAT to the LSAT with Kaplan, and the company has no specialty per se. Some students think that makes for a generic curriculum and instruction. "Although I scored well on the exam, I honestly don't think it was directly attributable to most of the [Kaplan Premium Online course] itself," writes student Andy Johnson in an e-mail. "For the most part, the 'tips and tricks' and course work itself weren't thoroughly original, and most of which I abandoned as being simply too much to think about and plan for during the actual test."

Bottom Line: Kaplan is conveniently located for most people and has more experience with standardized tests in general, and the GMAT in particular, than most of the other test-prep services available. If you don't mind that it does not specialize in the GMAT, then it could be the right place for you.

KNEWTON

The creators of this relatively new program—it's been less than a year since its December 2008 launch—come from Kaplan. Knewton, unlike its competitors, offers only online courses for the GMAT. Saying good riddance to traditional test prep, Knewton says hello to technology-driven coursework. "There's no reason to spend a lot of money to prop up a failing business model," says Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO of Knewton. "The money you spend on our course goes directly to improving your course and learning experience."

Using adaptive learning software and live video, Knewton delivers a full-length online course to students. There are several instructors, including one on camera and others to answer questions. For $690, students participate in 40 hours of live classes and can repeat the course by viewing the recordings online as much as they would like for up to a year. Knewton also offers some workshops in particular areas if you'd like extra help improving specific skills. The full course comes with a guarantee: increase your score by fewer than 50 points and the course is free.

Anyone can take the Knewton course from anywhere, and about 20% of students are international. One student, says Ferreira, took the class from a beach in the Cayman Islands. An on-demand course that will cost less than the full course offered now is in the pipeline, as is a "get ready for business school" course that will include basics such as an introduction to financial modeling, Excel, and a sample case study taught by a Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) professor.

Some members of the traditional test prep community say Knewton is the wave of the future. A big differentiator: Knewton's adaptive learning software, which customizes content to reflect each student's progress, delivering what the company calls a "supercharged" test-prep experience. "I hate to say it, but Knewton has rendered every other test prep company totally obsolete," writes Greg Rorke, former CEO of Kaplan, in a statement issued by Knewton. "By going online, Knewton can deliver the industry's very best teachers anywhere, anytime. And Knewton's adaptive learning engine personalizes your experience in a way that old-school test prep can't."

Student Daniel Young's score improved 100 points after taking the Knewton course. He writes in an e-mail that the top-notch staff and the study materials were helpful, but students have to do their part as well. "As helpful as the classes and Web site material are, if I didn't put in the time of two-plus hours of studying each night, my score probably wouldn't have improved as dramatically," writes Young.

Modern technology is nice and all, but Young admits that sometimes it's nice to be in a classroom, face-to-face with an instructor. Knewton is still a baby in the test prep world, so it's hard to tell how successful its program is at helping students improve their GMAT scores.

Bottom Line: Knewton, with its all-online format, is convenient for just about anyone and might be a particularly good solution for those who travel often or like to spend many hours online. By eliminating costs, such as rent and supplies for classrooms, and the travel costs you'd have to spend to get to the class, Knewton is also one of the most affordable options available.

MANHATTAN GMAT

Known for its intensive vetting of instructors, Manhattan GMAT was founded by Zeke Vanderhoek, a former Teach for America participant. The company rejects four out of five instructors but has very little turnover. There are 82 instructors in total, and they go through more than 100 hours of training before teaching a class. They are paid the highest salary in the industry, says Andrew Yang, CEO of Manhattan GMAT.

The organization prides itself on being an authority with a singular mission compared with its competitors, many of whom offer test prep for a variety of standardized tests. "We're experts at the GMAT, and it's the focus of the entire organization," says Yang. Students who choose Manhattan GMAT can sign up for a traditional nine-week course that is now available in 15 different locations, a live online course with two lecturers, private tutoring, Manhattan GMAT books, or a guided self-study course. Prices range from $200 for the books and materials to $1,490 for the traditional course.

Manhattan GMAT recently responded to GMAC's update of the official guide to the GMAT by including several hundred new problems and material to reflect the changes in its study guides. In addition, many companies—including McKinsey, Goldman Sachs (GS), Google (GOOG), and Bank of America (BAC)—turn to Manhattan GMAT to provide test-prep services for employees who are applying to B-schools. As more business schools begin accepting the GRE, Manhattan GMAT is working on a curriculum to address this other test.

Some students are satisfied with the program, even before completing it. "The Manhattan GMAT books are great: very clear, well written, and have a series of practice questions at the end of each section to test your knowledge," writes Emma Roberts, a student in Scotland who is taking the online Manhattan GMAT course, in an e-mail. "The teachers (there are two—both American) are excellent. I felt immediately more confident after the first lessons. They give you so many resources in addition to the classes and the books."

Still, Manhattan GMAT has its weaknesses. At about $1,490, it's pricier than most of its competitors. Unlike its competitors, Manhattan GMAT offers no guarantee. "Our course is very rigorous, and students will get out of it what they put into it," writes Yang in an e-mail. "If a student works hard with us, we're very confident they'll improve their skills, but it's really up to the student at the end of the day."

Bottom Line: Manhattan GMAT is not for dabblers or those looking to get into just any business school. People aiming for top-tier schools, who are willing to shell out big bucks for top-notch instructors and a rigorous curriculum, are a match for Manhattan GMAT.

MANHATTAN REVIEW

Tracy Yun, CEO of Manhattan Review, puts a premium on time. "Time is the greatest constraint on preparation," she says. "We want to teach students the fastest approaches. We want to give them the essentials in the shortest time." Her company offers an intensive one-week course, a weekend course, four- and eight-week classes, six weekend sessions, nine live online sessions, and a self-study option. The fee for all these courses includes unlimited access to 100-plus hours of online course material. Prices range from $675 for the self-study package to $1,650 without the early-bird special for the one-week course. With testing locations in 60 cities and 10 countries Manhattan Review is available for students in New York, London, Zurich, and Hong Kong, to name a few places.

Flexibility—offering packages that combine face-to-face classes with online and tutoring in many cities—is one of Manhattan's Review's biggest strengths, says Yun. Typically, scores increase 60 to 120 points after taking the course, according to self-reported data from students, says Yun. Students who fail to reach their target score or improve their scores get free access to unlimited class hours, Manhattan Review's online library, and expert advice. Manhattan Review offers TOEFL and GRE courses and tutoring, too.

This GMAT program of study requires more self discipline because you have less face time with instructors but access to lots of other materials online. It's also smaller and less well known, at least with Americans, than some other test prep services.

Bottom Line: Manhattan Review is a great fit for procrastinators, those who can't fit the GMAT into their busy schedule, and anyone who prefers cramming for tests. It's also on the pricey side, so you have to be willing to make an investment.

PRINCETON REVIEW

The staff at Princeton Review would like GMAT test-prep students to see the big picture. "It's not just the knowledge being tested," says John Fulmer, national content director for GMAT at Princeton Review. "It's the approach to the problem." Indeed, the company's approach to teaching the GMAT and its dynamic, interactive instruction are its biggest strengths, says Fulmer. Students can choose from a line of books, an online course, online tutoring, a seven-week classroom program with 21 hours of instruction, and in-person one-on-one and small group tutoring. Course prices range from $132 for the GMAT Express Online course to up to $6,750 for private tutoring. But the traditional seven-week course costs $1,249 in most markets.

Students may retake courses if they don't feel they're ready to take the test. Students who do not improve their scores are entitled to a full refund, and those who are dissatisfied with their improvement get up to a year's instruction free.

Although GMAT instruction at Princeton Review hasn't changed much in the past few years, Fulmer says the organization is constantly evaluating its courses. Students now receive homework assignments based on the areas in which they need the most improvement as determined by the results of their diagnostic test. Princeton Review is also starting to think about the changes coming to the GMAT in 2013. "Princeton Review is always abreast of changes," says Fulmer. "Whatever comes down the road, we'll be ready with the best possible test prep out there."

Much like Kaplan, Princeton Review receives criticism for being a one-size-fits-all test-prep factory without any clear specializations. Fulmer, however, says that having a hand in all the standardized tests is an advantage because the exams often have similarities. Princeton Review has a separate team, he adds, that works on teaching only the GMAT. And it already offers GRE courses.

Bottom Line: Although Princeton Review seems to have changed the least of all the test-prep services in the past few years, it still offers convenience and experience. It's also among the more affordable options, which is not a bad thing when you're about to fork over thousands in tuition and possibly give up a full-time job for school.

VERITAS PREP

Veritas Prep is best known for the length of its flagship, face-to-face course, which at 42 hours of classroom time is the longest in GMAT test-prep circles. Its strength lies in the amount of instruction it offers students and the 101 hours of training it provides teachers. Because there is so much time, says Shrum, instructors start students with the fundamentals and work their way up to more advanced-level work at a pace that is comfortable for everyone in the class. With 15 practice tests, students have the chance to diagnose their weaknesses and work to improve them, says Shrum.

In January 2009 the company released an overhaul of the books students use for studying. The new version of the study materials offers different approaches to solving certain problems. "We've taught more than 20,000 students, and along the way we've gotten better at teaching some of the materials," says Shrum. In the new books, you'll find improved tips and tricks.

Besides the full course, students can sign up for a 36-hour course that is held over two weekends, an intensive course that will have you in class six hours per day for seven days straight, an online course, and Veritas on Demand, which is a self-guided, online course. The price ranges from $1,600 in some markets for the full course to $850 for the online options. If you are not satisfied with the improvement of your score at the end of the course, you are welcome to take the course again for free. Veritas Prep is not planning to offer GRE courses at this time. "Part of the reason we've stayed focused on the GMAT is that it's still the single best predictor of how well someone will do academically in business school," writes Shrum in an e-mail sent by spokesperson Lisa Weiner. "The jury's still out on the GRE in some circles."

Some of the people on the BusinessWeek Business Schools Forum didn't think the Veritas Prep materials were right for them. "After taking the first course with Veritas Prep, I was disappointed in the strategies and materials it offered, even to the point where I passed up the opportunity to retake their course for free, which is part of their guarantee," says Timothy Chen, who ended up also taking a course with a competitor. "I felt it would not have been a good use of my time." Others say the fact that the instructors are willing to work at a snail's pace because some students in the class are behind the others is actually a disadvantage, because those who have more advanced skills don't get as much out of the instruction.

Bottom Line: Veritas Prep is right for someone who is willing to invest time and money—it's the longest program and among the priciest options out there—particularly less advanced students who would benefit from the extensive classroom time.

Francesca_dimeglio
Di Meglio is a reporter for Businessweek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.

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