How the GMAT Prepares You for Business School

So, does the GMAT really have anything to do with Business School, let alone business? When I took the GMAT over 5 years ago, I thought it was the stupidest, weirdest test in the world.  I’d already taken my fair share of multiple choice tests – from SATs and multiple SAT IIs, to AP exams and college-level final exams – but I’d never seen anything as odd as the GMAT.  From the adaptive nature to the specific range of questions, I really couldn’t understand why the entrance exam for business school included this particular range of questions.

Having taught GMAT for the last four years and having just recently graduated from Harvard Business School, however, I can perhaps start to see where the admissions staff and GMAT test writers are coming from.  There are, in fact, some skills that I employed while taking the GMAT that have come in handy both at school and now, as I start a career in entrepreneurship.  I like to share these skills with my students, in part because I think it helps with the application process in general and part because I think it makes taking the GMAT less painful – at least you can know that while you struggle, you’re working on something useful that will have an impact after the next 6 months of your life.

1. Proper Grammar:  I think this is the most self-explanatory. For better or worse, nothing is more important in business than communication.  As I wrote business school exams, spoke in class, composed cover letters and networking emails for my summer internship hunt, I was grateful for having refreshed my grammar rules.  In my business plans, especially, every period and semi-colon counts, and I am happy to have the confidence to check my own grammar without needing to spend the time to have someone else look over my work.

2. Succinct communication: In business school, especially in case-method classes, you only have a few seconds to come up with a thought and make your point.  The AWA section of the GMAT tests this exact skill – can you set up a coherent point and communicate it?  After the first few words, it’s likely no one’s listening to you.  Can you get your point across quickly and clearly?

3. Reading and skimming: In the first semester at HBS, you take 5 classes with around 30 cases each.  150 cases in just a few months. If you really truly read every word of every case, you wouldn’t sleep, let alone enjoy your business school experience.  The GMAT reading comprehension section is set up to not give you a ton of time, so in order to get a good verbal score, you can’t really read the passages.  You have to skim.  You have to force yourself to not pay attention to every word.  Which, I believe, is almost always a challenge for a potential MBA.  We, as a group, are hard-working, ambitious, over-achieving people – we’ve been trained to get A’s in our classes, get our models and slides right for our bosses, and to master any material put in front of us.  But as future leaders, we also need the ability to ignore irrelevant information when necessary.  The higher up we rise in an organization, the less time we’ll have to absorb all the details of the work our companies do, so we need to be able to grasp the basic concepts without absorbing every word we read.

3. Logic and arguments:  In business school, you have to be able to listen to your classmate’s arguments and understand if their logic makes sense, so you can either agree or disagree. As an entrepreneur, you have to listen to your competitor’s reasoning for why they haven’t seased on an opportunity.  If their logic is sound (and applies equally to a start-up and big company) then that’s probably a bad opportunity to pursue.  If, however, they’ve made an assumption in their thinking, which happens often, perhaps you can make a whole lot of money!

4. Mental Math: I think this is often a strong response to the GMAT – we all have computers with Excel, we have calculators, we have cell phones – why in the world do we have to take the GMAT without one of these tools?  But I think the ability to do a bit of mental math can make a huge difference both in business school and in the workplace.  In business school, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a couple of classmates who could do almost magical mental math.  I remember listening to one of them, who now works at a hedge fund in New York, respond to a question about tax shields in finance class.  As the professor changed the parameters of the question, he was able to adjust his math and change his opinion about the action he would take.  I’m sure this skill helped him acquire his current job.  While not as advanced as he, I too can do a bit of mental math when pressed (I am a GMAT tutor after all!) and have had to employ this skill in front of prospective investors in my entrepreneurial business. I have to remember large numbers like market size, and be able to take a fraction or percentage to come up with an addressable market – sometimes on the spot.  I don’t know if I was able to do this before taking the GMAT, but I do believe studying for the GMAT gave me lots of practice, which was probably needed after so many years working with Excel and calculators to do all my math for me!

So there you have it – a few practical applications of the GMAT.  I hope this helps to motivate you all to study for and do well on the GMAT – I promise it’s worth it!

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Julia Kastner is a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in New York. She runs her own socially responsible, fair trade denim company called Eva & Paul and before starting her business she worked on nonprofit outreach projects of all kinds.