Business Schools

GMAT: Paying for Points


Test-prep services can be a big help as applicants prepare for the B-school admissions exam. Here, a rundown of some well-known players

If you're thinking of applying to B-school, then you're likely also wondering how to conquer the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)—and whether a commercial test-preparation service, which can cost upwards of $1,000, is right for you.

Although admissions committees, even at the best-ranked B-schools, will tell you that your GMAT score is only one of many criteria for getting accepted, you still should plan on earning between 600 and a perfect 800, especially if you're gunning for the A-list. (To find the average and median GMAT scores of accepted students in individual programs, scan the BusinessWeek.com B-school profiles.)

There's no way you should go into the GMAT cold. You must prepare, says Lawrence Rudner, vice-president of research & development at the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the test. The question is how to prepare, and the answer is different for everyone. Take a practice test, see how you do, and then decide how much preparation you need to arrive at your ideal score. For some, picking up a practice book will suffice, while others will need private tutoring.

One popular option is consulting a test-prep company that provides everything from group instruction to online courses. Here's an overview of the most popular GMAT test-preparation services in alphabetical order. For more opinions on the various test-prep services from test takers themselves, visit the BusinessWeek.com B-School forums, where this subject comes up a lot. And you can also check out BusinessWeek.com's newly updated GMAT Prep page.

Kaplan

Services: GMAT classroom course, GMAT advanced classroom course (in select markets, for those who aim to score in the 99th percentile), GMAT private tutoring, complete online course, self-directed online course, condensed online course, quiz builder, books and software, admissions consulting

Cost: $1,449 for classroom courses; $1,299 for complete online course; $599 for self-directed online course; $119 for condensed online course; $199 for quiz builder; $18 to $39 for books

Pros: As the granddaddy of the test-prep industry, which Kaplan founded 70 years ago, the company boasts experience and size. With 4,000 classrooms worldwide, Kaplan seems to be just about everywhere, and competitors admit that it's the default choice for many test takers, simply because its brand is well known and outlets are conveniently located.

Those who take the traditional classroom course with Kaplan get to simulate the test in a realistic setting, says Susan Kaplan, director of the GMAT for the company (and no relation to the company's founders). Even the scratch paper is similar to the kind test takers are permitted to use during the real GMAT. All participants in the classroom course take eight computer-adaptive practice tests and 100 online workshops and quizzes. They also participate in the Ultimate Practice Test, a computer-adaptive test at an actual GMAT facility.

Cons: The sheer size of Kaplan may also be its downfall. Classes are larger than at some of its competitors, and the company prepares people for all sorts of standardized tests, not just the GMAT. It's easy to rest on your laurels when some of your students choose your program over others simply because you have a location near their home. Because the company caters to a range of B-school aspirants, Kaplan courses might not be the best choice for those who want to score in the 700 to 800 range. But Kaplan is trying to change that by offering the advanced classroom course in select markets.

Advice: "Our most successful students are those who understand they need to put in the time, effort, and investment to prepare," says Kaplan.

Manhattan GMAT

Services: Classroom course, online course, private tutoring

Cost: $1,390 for classroom course; $990 for online course

Pros: The brainchild of former Teach for America participant Zeke Vanderhoek, Manhattan GMAT is academically rigorous and targets test takers who want to score a 700 or above. Manhattan GMAT students use the company's strategy guides, which cross-reference actual GMAT questions and help test takers understand what academic skills are tested in each section.

Because of its niche in the marketplace, Manhattan GMAT's standards for instructors are high—and so is their pay. Manhattan GMAT boasts little turnover from instructors who can only be hired if they scored 760 or better on the GMAT, have experience teaching, and are likable people, says CEO Andrew Yang. In return, instructors earn about $100 per hour.

Although clients pay less for the course than they would at a larger outlet, the company says it keeps its own costs down by not spending a lot on marketing efforts, instead relying on word of mouth. "We think the best marketing is students who do well on the test," says Yang, who also sometimes teaches class and often takes calls from students. Goldman Sachs (GS), J.P. Morgan (JPM), and McKinsey have hired Manhattan GMAT to prepare groups of their employees for the test.

Cons: Launched in 2001, the company is still young. Serving a niche market, it's also small. In 2007, the company expects to attract 4,000 to 5,000 students. Unless you live in New York, Boston, Chicago, or certain parts of California, you won't be able to sign up for the face-to-face Manhattan GMAT course. (A D.C. location is planned for this summer.) Your only option, for now, will be the online class. The rigor might be too much for someone looking to go to a second- or third-tier B-school, where students have lower average GMAT scores.

Advice: Yang says to remember to brush up on the skills you learned in eighth- and ninth-grade math class because you'll need them for the quant part of the GMAT.

Princeton Review

Services: Classroom courses, private tutoring, small group tutoring, live online instruction, self-directed online instruction, express online (for those who have only two to three weeks to prepare for the GMAT), private online tutoring

Cost (as specified for northern New Jersey): $1,249 for traditional class; $1,500 for small group tutoring; $899 for live online course; $599 for self-directed online course; $99 for express online; private-tutoring options range from $2,000 to $5,600

Pros: Like Kaplan, Princeton Review is a larger corporation that offers test prep for many standardized exams in many locations. Still, the company limits the number of students per GMAT class to eight, so students can get lots of personal attention. Princeton Review also offers a range of private-tutoring options, including one-on-one instruction online and tutoring for groups of up to three.

The idea is making test prep convenient for B-school wannabes, who tend to be occupied with work and family. "We teach them everything they need to know about the GMAT and nothing more, which is important when you're a very busy person," says Liz Wands, executive director of field sales and marketing for Princeton Review.

Students can choose the format that works best for them and take advantage of the deep pool of questions and materials available to them, Wands says. Princeton Review students scored 92 points higher, on average, after completing the coursework, she adds.

Cons: Again, size matters. Although Princeton Review keeps the class size limited, the company itself is big, and it might be harder to keep track of the goings-on at every location for every kind of test. The company might not specialize enough in the GMAT. And as a company that's catering to a wide range of students from different parts of the country with different needs, the curriculum might not be challenging enough for those who want to dramatically improve their scores or reach the 99th percentile.

Advice: Take as many practice tests as you can, suggests Wands, to get used to the computer-adaptive format, which is new to many test takers. "A high GMAT score can be the difference between going to your top business school and the one on your B-list," she adds.

Veritas

Services: GMAT classes, private tutoring, admissions consulting, elite packages (which bundle GMAT and admissions consulting services)

Cost: $1,500 for full 42-hour course; $2,400 for 15 hours of private tutoring; starting from $4,400 for elite packages

Pros: Similar to Manhattan GMAT, Veritas offer services to those who want to score big. But for now, it serves a larger audience, with classes in more than 60 cities in 17 countries. It, too, requires instructors to score in the 99th percentile on the GMAT, and offers a salary to match.

With a 42-hour course, Veritas offers more class time than its competitors. This allows the instructors to start with the basics and move up toward more advanced strategies and test questions, says Chad Troutwine, co-founder and co-owner of Veritas.

Veritas aims to give students strategies to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, says Troutwine. Students take 15 computer-adaptive practice tests, and 30% of those who go through the program receive a 700 or better. Students can also take advantage of live phone support for questions about lessons and practice tests; it's available four to five hours per day, seven days per week.

Cons: This course takes up a lot of time, and is plenty challenging. Therefore, it's most useful to those who want to be among the highest scorers. You might be getting additional course hours at Veritas, but you will pay a heftier price. Only you can decide if such an investment is worth it. Even though it's larger than Manhattan GMAT, it still has fewer locations than Kaplan or Princeton Review.

Advice: "Success favors the prepared," says Troutwine, who adds there are no tricks or shortcuts. "If you really put in the time and take preparation seriously, the likelihood of success increases."

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