First, let’s talk goals. I often hear people with H/S/W/C aspirations, applying with scores 40 points below the school’s median score. Don’t fall into that trap. The GMAT is one of the only parts of your application that you have complete control of. “BUT, the range for HBS is 510-790,” you say. Don’t be stupid, you know what range means. We both know that only one person with a 510 was accepted. That person had a 3.9+ GPA at a top 50 undergrad institution, spent the last three years killing it at a top consulting, banking, or PE firm, was from an under-represented minority, and wrote an incredibly convincing essay about why they struggle with standardize tests and why tests are a poor predictor of their abilities. That person is not you; you are probably more like me.
You need to determine two scores. First, you should set your goal at or 10 points above the median GMAT score of your demographic at your target schools. If you have a low undergrad GPA, set your goal high. You can do some research on the schools website, but most of the information there will for the entire class. It is better to go to BeatTheGMAT.com and review the GMAT scores for accepted prior year applicants of your gender and nationality. This is especially important for over-represented groups. Second, you need to determine your lowest acceptable score. This is the lowest score that will not cause you to retake the test. You should give some thought to this score; ultimately it will depend on how firm you are on attending a particular school. If you are dead-set on H/S, you should be thinking 730 or 740 as a goal and 700 or 710 as a lowest acceptable score. I was not sure where I wanted to go and was exploring schools with a wide-range of median scores. For this reason, I set my goal at 720 and my minimally acceptable score at 700. I ultimately landed at 710 for the composite (Quant and Verbal) and perfect scores on both AWA and IR (you should try for perfect also because it isn’t difficult).
Practice testing is the best predictor of how you will perform on test day. Some practice tests are better predictors than others. GMAC does not release their scoring algorithm, so test prep companies have to “guess” what your score would be and some are better at this than others. The best predictors are the two practice tests you get from GMAC when you register for the GMAT. These are the only practice tests with the actual GMAT scoring algorithm. They also have real (but retired) GMAT questions. On the actual GMAT, some questions (likely in the middle-not the first or last 7-10 questions in both verbal and quant) are not scored. GMAC uses these unscored questions on actual GMAT test takers to try out new questions. I believe this is the only difference between the actual test and the GMAC practice tests, where all questions are scored. GMAC recommends taking one of their practice exams when you begin your studies, then again before the exam. I disagree, save both of these valuable tests until the end of your studies. There are plenty of other less valuable practice exams you can take in the beginning. You should be testing 20-30 points above your minimally acceptable GMAT score prior to taking the test. This will maximize your chance of hitting your minimal score, while accounting for test day stress (which could lower your performance) and possibly getting unlucky on which questions are scored (you could waste time on unscored questions and miss scored questions at the end of the section).
Preparation for the GMAT was really important for me. I am very impatient and have a short attention span. Simply said, sitting in a dark room and taking a 4 hour long test is my nightmare. I have always performed better in the classroom than on standardized test. I scored a 490 on my first GMAT practice test. I was so over the exam that I started guessing on every question just to get to the next break. My biggest battle for the GMAT was not learning the material, but training my body and mind to endure a 4 hour test. In addition, the GMAT is a total pain in the @$$. The test is adaptive, meaning that every question you receive will challenge you regardless of your intelligence level.
I had been out of college for 5 years prior to beginning my studies. For this reason, I thought I would be better served by an instructor led course. I ended up really regretting this. I signed up for the Princeton Review and the instructor never showed up. Once I got my money back, I signed up for Kaplan. There are three problems with these courses. First, the quality of the course is highly dependent on the quality of the instructor you get. My Princeton Review instructor didn’t show up and my Kaplan instructor quit half-way through the course (her replacement was terrible). Second, these courses (at least the ones offered here in Indianapolis) are not geared towards students with 700+ aspirations. If you are thinking H/S/W/C, chances are you will be the smartest person in the room and will spend 3 hours per week learning concepts you could teach yourself in 30 minutes. Third, these courses are unnecessarily expensive. Online live or on-demand courses are much less expensive and will likely have much better instructors. In fact, Kaplan hosts a couple live classes online for their instructor lead course. I found the online instructors to be much better and the format to be more convenient (their AWA session was priceless, for example). I did really appreciate being able to take the Kaplan practice exams in the actual testing center. This is a very unique opportunity.
Eventually, I gave up on Kaplan and purchased the Economist GMAT Tutor. This was fantastic. The adaptive learning style mirrors the GMAT testing format better than instructor led courses or books, it is mobile ready, I found the one-on-one tutoring to be very useful and a great value, and they have the best guarantee (+70 points on the premium course).