How I got over a 700 GMAT score

BY Meghan MalasJune 10, 2022, 4:43 PM
Agnes College student graduate cap reads “Time To Excel” during the 2022 Agnes College Commencement at Agnes Scott College, as seen in May 2022 in Decatur, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2021, Antoine Lee Keels found out he scored a 770 on the GMAT—he called the testing center to make sure a mistake had not been made. There was no mistake; rather, his months of preparation and determination had paid off, and his score helped him get accepted into Wharton’s full-time MBA program

A 770 on the GMAT means Keels scored higher than 99% of the other test-takers. The highest possible score is 800. Less than one in eight people who take the test score higher than 700, according to the Graduate Management Assessment Council (GMAC)

To get into a top MBA program, obtaining a high GMAT score is usually a top priority for competitive applicants. Among the students in the Wharton MBA class of 2023, the average GMAT score is 733. But how can you ensure your success on a standardized test? Does every prospective test taker have a lot of room to grow? What type of prep is most effective? 

When Keels first took a GMAT practice test he scored in the 400s. He knew he had to improve his score considerable to get into a top-ranked business school, but he also knew he had the determination and work ethic to get there. Fortune spoke with Keels and two test preparation experts to find out how students can break the 700-barrier on the GMAT. 

Preparing for the GMAT requires taking adequate time and effort

One of the biggest mistakes prospective students make when preparing for the GMAT is waiting too long to start, says Mike Diamond, director of curriculum development at Apex GMAT, the tutoring company that Keels used. 

Keels began to prepare for the GMAT in 2019 and took it in April 2021. However, he started seeing significant improvement in the last few months after adjusting his strategy from merely practicing questions to looking at data from his practice tests and working on changing his mindset. When he took six practice exams and had four scores over 700, he knew he was ready.

A key point that Keels learned when getting ready for the GMAT is success on the test replies on how you prepare as much as how much you prepare.

“Most people preparing for the GMAT do the same thing over and over without significant improvement, but never change their tactics because they’re so deeply ingrained from their time in school,” Diamond says. “Many people spend way too much time preparing in a low yield way—doing tons of problems and then reviewing the ones they get wrong—they should instead be focused on what they’ve done correctly on problems they’ve gotten correct, and on how to extrapolate that to more challenging problems.”

Another high-yield preparation method is focusing on developing problem-solving skills as opposed to rehashing fundamentals. 

After a few sessions with Apex GMAT, Keels began a regimented approach to his test preparation. He made flashcards of GMAT questions and would comb over the questions he answered incorrectly every day. After he got those questions correct, he would continue to review them to gain a full understanding of why he missed them initially.

Sometimes, Keels created his own GMAT-like questions that were similar to the ones he missed to ensure he was adapting the right skills to answer a similar question on the test.

Some students can boost their scores to beyond 700 in two to three months, says Keith Blume, a GMAT instructor for Manhattan Prep. But more often, it typically takes about six months to develop the skills and habits to score that high. Most students Blume helps come in with scores in the mid-500s. 

“We’re talking about changing behavior, so it depends how good someone is at changing their behavior and their routine,” Blume says. “If you think about changing a behavior in three months, that requires almost daily discipline—you have to build new habits.

The GMAT is not a typical standardized test, so strategize accordingly

Keels selected Apex GMAT in part because Diamond’s approach to preparing for the exam was different from what he had been doing. Diamond told him that he needed to think like a CEO when he was taking the GMAT by considering what every question was asking and not falling into a presumptive thought pattern.

“That really stuck with me, I realized that I’m in control of how I approach every question,” Keels says. 

We process things with expectation —our brain recognizes patterns, according to Blume. When our brain starts to see a certain group of words, it finishes the story, and the GMAT writers know this. “So if we’re not careful when we’re reading questions, oftentimes we don’t answer the right question,” Blume adds. 

The GMAT is also different from most undergraduate-level tests because it is an adaptive test: once a question is answered, test-takers can not go back to it. 

“You’ve entirely disengaged from the previous question and now your attention is solely on the new question,” Blume says. ”An important skill for students is being able to slow down while you’re taking the test so that you put yourself in the best position to perform at your ability level. “

The quantitative section of the GMAT is what most prospective U.S. students seek help for, and a key aspect of this strategy is learning to read questions without anticipation.

“I’ve had students come in with engineering backgrounds and expect that they will mainly need help on the verbal section, but when they get to the test, they do not perform nearly as well as they thought they would on the quantitative section,” Blume explains. “That’s because the GMAT is more of a thinking test, rather than a math test.”

Additionally, it is important that prospective students don’t misuse or hyper-fixate on their practice exam scores.

“Practice tests are much better used to try out newly learned techniques, calibrate timing decisions, and address stamina, anxiety, and other performance issues, ” Diamond explains. “A focus on technique leads to a great score, a focus on score leads to disappointment.”

To succeed on the GMAT, you need to know yourself

Keels started studying for the GMAT in 2019 and he realized early on that the more he could mitigate stress, the better he performed. “I learned to not let some of the words trip you up, because they may use words that you may have never seen before,” he says. “That can be distracting, but getting hung up on it will just waste time and really raise your anxiety—and every time my anxiety rises, I make more mistakes.”

Whenever Keels took a practice test, he organized his day to mimic the day he planned to take the test officially. He took his practice tests at the same time in the morning and would go hiking beforehand to clear his mind.

In addition to stress, fatigue can also be a test-taker’s worst enemy. 

“In my experience on the test, around the 30-minute mark is where I see students start to struggle with their attention,” Blume says. “I can see it in their results where they’ll miss a group of questions in a row, and when they go back and review them, they don’t know why they missed them.”

When the mind starts to wander, students fall back into a routine of anticipation and expectation—leading them to make more errors. Keels found that when he was able to stay intentional and present during the test, he had more success.

“Antoine’s success is all his own and is a testament to his hard work and dedication to self-improvement,” Diamond says. “Not to diminish his extraordinary accomplishment, but most people have the ability to achieve a great GMAT score.”

Meaningfully changing deep-seated cognitive habits takes time, but it is the key for most students to dramatically improve their GMAT scores. 

“I see myself as a strategic guide,” says Blume. “It’s not valuable for me to teach somebody exponent rules—it is understanding the framework of the test and understanding oneself that makes the difference in getting a 700 or higher.”

Keels had a clear goal in mind from the beginning of his GMAT journey to now: he knew that getting the score he needed to get into a top business school would take significant time and effort, but his hard work paid off. During his undergraduate, Keels was a double-sport athlete—track and field and football at SUNY Brockport—and he did not have the time to focus on academia as much as athletics.

“I’m excited to be back in school,” Keels says. “I’m just ready to compete and become a better leader.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.