GMAT Prep

GMAT Test Prep: A Primer


(Corrects reference to Kaplan’s founding. Kaplan began offering GMAT test prep services more than 40 years ago. Clarifies details of Manhattan Review’s offerings in Asia and online.)

Scoring big on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is usually among the first steps to getting into a top business school. There are almost as many ways to prepare for the GMAT as there are test-takers. Some take a couple of practice tests and ease their way into a 700-plus score with no trouble at all, while others struggle to reach their goal.

Many turn to professional test-prep providers. But how does one decide which, if any, is the right choice? The first step is educating oneself on the books, classes, and practice tests that are available, and how much of an investment they require in both time and money.

What follows is a roundup of some of the most popular GMAT test-prep programs available, with information on prices, offerings, unique features, and the types of students who succeed most with each option. Also listed: each provider’s Beat the GMAT rating (one to five stars), which are based on user reviews at the Beat the GMAT website.

For a more personal evaluation of each provider, visit the Bloomberg Businessweek Business Schools Forum. You’ll find firsthand accounts of how test-takers benefited (or didn’t) from some of the more popular test-prep offerings, as well as the results of an ongoing poll rating each one.

800Score
Cost: $39.95 for this self-study, online program
Beat the GMAT Rating: NA

Basics: Founded in 1999, 800Score provides 600 pages and videos online in an entirely self-study-based program. So far, more than 150,000 students have prepared for the GMAT and GRE with 800Score. The company strives to improve its product every year, says Sean Selinger, chief executive officer and founder of 800Score in New York. His goal, he says, is to create more highly adaptive and interactive software, which he hopes will be ready in fall 2011. Competitors such as Veritas Prep use 800Score’s computer adaptive tests for their courses, says Selinger. Soon the company plans to unveil iPhone and iPad apps for the GMAT that apply what Selinger calls "jaw-dropping" technology.

What makes the company unique, says Selinger, is the convenience factor. "You can take a course without someone looking over your shoulder or having to drive somewhere," he says. The test pacer on the computer adaptive practice tests allows students to get a handle on the timing of the exam and teaches a proper pacing strategy. There are also forum discussions on individual questions, which one can work through with fellow students.

Downside: There are no instructors or experts to guide one through the program or offer advice on GMAT test-taking.

Best Fit: Those who are self-motivated and disciplined will probably do well with the content and computer adaptive practice tests. International students, says Selinger, are drawn to the convenience of having everything online. And few competitors can beat the price. "Our product is a fraction of the price for competitive content," says Selinger. "The trick is you have to be a self-starter."

GMAT Pill
Cost: $347 for complete package
Beat the GMAT Rating: NA

Basics: GMAT Pill takes an entirely different approach to the GMAT. With this test-prep company, students never attend a live course (online or in person), open a book, or even take a course-issued practice exam. Instead, they watch recorded classes online via video. The focus, says Zeke Lee, founder and chief instructor for GMAT Pill in New York, is on thought processes and visualization similar to methods used by pro athletes who want to improve their performance. "It doesn’t matter how many concepts or formulas you have memorized," says Lee. "The GMAT is about how you think."

Launched in 2009, GMAT Pill has students work through videos and the official GMAT guidebook, practice exams, and questions provided by MBA.com, a site run by the General Management Admission Council (GMAC), administrator of the GMAT. Lee says GMAT Pill covers reading comprehension questions, for which the company has done a lot of research. Lee and the other chief instructor answer student questions online. "You get direct access to the creator of GMAT Pill," he says. Although students can purchase individual sections of the course, it is cheaper to invest in the complete package. Purchasing each section on its own would cost $560, whereas the complete package is $347.

Downside: There is no live instruction, nor do you have access to additional practice tests. The MBA.com practice tests are available to everyone for free anyway.

Best Fit: This all-video instruction is best suited for disciplined students who don’t need the benefits of live instruction. This course, says Lee, is also less formal. "The uniqueness is in our casual approach with calming language, no jargon, and simplicity," he says. "We take a guy-next-door approach."

Kaplan
Cost: $1,549 for on-site course; $649 for online course; $449 for GMAT On Demand
Beat the GMAT Rating: 4.46 stars based on 84 reviews

Basics: Among the veteran test-prep companies, Kaplan has experience teaching students how to win points on a variety of exams, not just the GMAT. A virtual test-prep factory, scores of students have passed through Kaplan’s classrooms since the company began offering GMAT test-prep services more than 40 years ago. The company uses its size to get an edge on the competition, says Andrew Mitchell, director of Pre-Business Programs at Kaplan Test Prep in New York. "We combine the experience of experts with the wisdom of crowds," he says. "We have more data on [how students handle] one single question than others can have on the whole GMAT." This information, says Mitchell, helps Kaplan create more realistic practice questions.

At Kaplan, students can sign up for GMAT Advantage, the traditional classroom course; Classroom Anywhere, a live online course with an instructor and interaction via chat and polls; or the On Demand course, which has students watching videos of recorded material online. Each group has access to nine computer adaptive tests and practice materials. For the more ambitious, and for $50 more than the traditional course, Kaplan also offers an advanced class for anyone who has already scored more than 600 and wants to focus on the most difficult practice questions. One of the highlights of Kaplan’s courses is the ability to take one computer adaptive practice test in an actual GMAT testing center without generating an official GMAT score report.

Downside: Kaplan is somewhat pricey, and it does not serve GMAT test-takers exclusively. For some, the sheer size of the company may be a turn-off.

Best Fit: Students who feel comfortable learning in a larger group and want to capitalize on the company’s test-prep experience will probably appreciate Kaplan. "We view ourselves as the proven leader with a proven track record," says Mitchell. "We’ve been doing this a long time. This is a business we’ve shaped and continue to shape."

Knewton
Cost: $400 for complete online prep course and four months of access to it; $900 for premium online prep course and year-long access
Beat the GMAT Rating: 4.56 stars based on 158 reviews

Basics: Launched three years ago, Knewton is another GMAT test-prep program that is delivered entirely online. Starting this year, the company is offering both a live online course and an on-demand version with recorded video. The adaptive system allows students to practice geometry problems for homework and see how much time they spend on each question. They can also view a video of a concept (say, the area of a circle) and get in-depth instruction on how to handle such problems, says James Boo, academic manager of test prep for Knewton. The technology, he says, allows for personalization because it points students to the areas where they need the most work.

Knewton focuses solely on the GMAT and sees itself as a practical, intelligent course that uses technology to educate students. The complete prep course includes four months of access to all online materials, on-demand video, and six computer adaptive practice tests, whereas the premium course includes a year of access to everything in the complete course, live online classes, Q&A sessions, and workshops.

Downside: There is no in-person element to the courses, which can be a downer for those who prefer face time. Again, online courses require a certain level of discipline.

Best Fit: Boo admits that students who would rather meet in person would probably choose a different GMAT test-prep program. On the other hand, he says, motivated students will appreciate how Knewton’s program can adapt to the individual student’s needs by incorporating technology. "You don’t have to buy a single book," Boo says. "This is relevant because the GMAT is a computer adaptive test."

Manhattan GMAT
Cost: $1,590 for classroom course; $1,090 for online course; $790 for self-study package with class recordings; $590 for self-study package without class recordings
Beat the GMAT Rating: 4.81 stars based on 177 reviews

Basics: Students in 35 different locations, including London and Paris, can take Manhattan GMAT’s various GMAT test-prep courses. The flagship prep class is nine sessions and is offered both in a traditional classroom setting or online. There’s also a self-study option that gives students access to online resources, including computer adaptive practice exams and, if one pays for it, recordings of courses.

Although Kaplan owns Manhattan GMAT, they operate independently of one another. The school’s biggest asset is phenomenal instruction, says Dan Gonzalez, president of Manhattan GMAT in New York. Few people qualify to be instructors, he says. Recently, Manhattan GMAT hired 18 of 915 people who applied for the job. To become an instructor, one must have a GMAT score of 760 or higher, two years of previous teaching experience, and the stamina to get through rigorous teaching auditions, says Gonzalez. Once chosen, instructors go through three months of training and three formal teaching assessments.

Downside: The traditional course is among the priciest. And this program is geared toward a particular type of student aiming to be at the very top of the GMAT score ladder.

Best Fit: Gonzalez says the company caters to high-achieving young professionals. Companies such as Deloitte and Goldman Sachs (GS) hire Manhattan GMAT to prepare employees for the exam. The school demands students learn real skills, says Gonzalez. "Our approach to the material is not based on tricks or gimmicks," he says, "but a focus on learning skills to succeed not only on the GMAT but in business school."

Manhattan Review
Cost: $1,550 for intensive course; $999 to $1,099 for long course; $899 for online course; $675 for self-study program; $850 for weekend crash course
Beat the GMAT Rating: NA

Basics: Manhattan Review offers classroom-based test prep in the U.S., Western Europe, and Asia. Students can take evening or weekend courses or a crash course over one weekend. One-on-one tutoring is also an option. Instructors, many of whom have MBA degrees and experience working in the kinds of jobs students will be seeking post-graduation, teach pattern recognition and analytical reasoning. Students must learn to apply these rules rapidly and accurately, says David Chambers, regional manager of Manhattan Review in London. "The GMAT is more a game than a test," says Chambers. "The questions asked are far more cunning than a teenager would deal with, and the ideal student must learn the ploys which are unique to this test."

In addition to trying to hire instructors from elite business schools who have high GMAT test scores, Manhattan Review insists they must be good teachers, says Chambers. The school, he says, also prides itself on having no more than 12 to 15 students per class to give a more personalized touch. If students continue to struggle with concepts or want a refresher after the course, they can consult online offerings and retake classes. Online they’ll find a video library of taped instruction.

Downside: Compared with online offerings of rivals, Manhattan Review’s may seem old-fashioned. Failing to make better use of technology when teaching a computer adaptive test to students living in the digital age could be a big mistake.

Best fit: Students who excel in the classroom and require a real, live, in-person teacher to help them learn concepts will probably have success with Manhattan Review. This traditional school demands traditional students. "The ideal student will start preparing for the GMAT well in advance of the deadline," Chambers says. "He will dedicate a few hours every week to homework."

Princeton Review
Cost: $1,249 for flagship course in classroom; $699 for GMAT LiveOnline; $1,599 for small group instruction (no more than three other students); $449 for self-paced online program
Beat the GMAT Rating: 3.2 stars based on 15 reviews

Basics: Much like Kaplan, Princeton Review offers test prep in numerous standardized exams. The GMAT is just one of many. In addition to the flagship, seven-session course that is offered in a classroom or online and usually serves eight to 10 students at a time, students also have the option of small group instruction with no more than four students participating at a time. In addition, Princeton Review began offering math workshops for those who want to achieve only the highest GMAT scores; it features six strategy lessons for approaching GMAT math problems, 300 additional drill questions, and access to mini lessons covering infrequently asked math questions.

Learning in smaller groups, where one can get personalized attention, is the benefit of this test-prep program, says John Fulmer, the national content director for the GMAT at Princeton Review in Philadelphia. "Instructors have a vested interest in seeing students succeed," he says. Another highlight, says Fulmer, is the school’s dedication to constantly evaluating instructors to ensure high-quality teaching.

Downside: Princeton Review earned the lowest marks (and the fewest reviews) on the Beat the GMAT site, which means either fewer people who go to the site take its courses or the ones who do aren’t completely satisfied. In addition, as a test-prep factory, the company does not specialize solely in the GMAT.

Best Fit: Students who do well at Princeton Review are motivated, looking to improve their score, and willing to do the work necessary to get the results they desire, says Fulmer. They also thrive on being strategic, he says. "We have a unique blend of content and strategy," Fulmer says. "The content only gets you so far. You need strategy to apply the content to the test."

Veritas Prep
Cost: $1,650 for 42-hour classroom course; $1,800 for 42-hour immersion course (over one week); $950 full course live online; $1,110 for 15-hour fast-track classroom course; $850 for 15-hour fast-track live online course
Beat the GMAT Rating: 4.7 stars based on 217 reviews

Basics: Veritas Prep has a longer flagship course than most (42 hours, or 14 lessons). The company offers instruction on everything from brushing up on the basics to perfecting advanced concepts, says Brian Galvin, director of academic programs at Veritas Prep in Malibu, Calif. Students can opt to take the standard class two times per week, online, or as an immersion course (in person for one week). Since October 2010, students have also had the option of taking a fast-track course, which is 15 hours and meets over one weekend or two consecutive Saturdays. In this class, says Galvin, instructors focus on analyzing patterns and the more strategic aspects of taking the test for those who can gloss over the basics.

The company’s approach to the test is what makes it stand out among competitors, says Galvin. "The GMAT is not testing what you learned in high school and college," he says. "It’s a test of how you think and not what you know. We teach students why that’s the answer and not what the answer is." In addition, Veritas Prep responds to feedback from students to make improvements, such as adding a fast-track class, says Galvin.

Downside: Even though there are more hours of instruction, Veritas Prep is pricier than some of the competition. And students who know the basics might be bored in the early stages of the traditional course.

Best Fit: Those who want in-depth instruction and some hand-holding will likely prosper at Veritas Prep. The company is among the highest scorers with Beat the GMAT reviewers. And it seems as though those who want to take an analytical approach to the exam, while learning the necessary skills, flourish, says Galvin. "It’s a chess match between you and the test," he says. "We give students the strategy."

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

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