How to prepare for the GMAT, GRE, and EA exams

BY Joe NiehausJuly 21, 2021, 02:00 am
Getty Images

If you’re serious about pursuing an MBA, there are months of preparation involved in getting that application ready to submit. And early on in that process, you’ll need to decide which test you’re taking, create a strategy for success, and devote enough time to prepare. Some schools have waived testing requirements, but more students are applying to MBA programs, and while a high test score alone won’t get you accepted, a low score will almost certainly hurt you. 

With the pandemic and resulting job loss, business schools have seen tremendous growth in applicants. In fact, 70% of U.S. MBA programs reported an increase in applications in the 2019–20 year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s most recent survey data. And some individual programs saw tremendous surges, like Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, which saw a 63% jump in applications. Now, it looks as if that upward trend is here to stay for another application season. 

Test scores matter, and there are three entrance options for an MBA: the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), and the Executive Assessment (EA). Until recently, the GMAT was considered the premier test for getting into an MBA program while the GRE was reserved for other graduate programs. Now, most schools will accept either exam, and others have started to accept the EA, which was previously reserved mostly for executive MBA programs.

That means many prospective MBA students can now choose which exam they would prefer to take.

“Whichever method an applicant chooses, it’s important to be consistent and disciplined,” says Melody Jones, president of Vantage Point MBA Admissions Consulting.“[Studying] is not one of those things where a one size fits all approach applies.”

Choose your test

While the tests are generally similar in terms of difficulty, they have differing numbers of questions in subjects like math, grammar, and reasoning. The GMAT consists of quantitative and verbal sections, along with an analytical writing portion and integrated reasoning section that are graded individually. Meanwhile, the GRE is similar in structure, but broken up into three sections rather than four. And the shorter EA exam is best described as a mini GMAT because it uses some of the same questions, but lasts just an hour and a half compared with over three hours each for the GMAT and GRE.

Because there isn’t necessarily one exam that’s better than another, it’s important for prospective applicants to choose the option they are most comfortable with. 

“First, take a free practice test of [all three exams] online to familiarize yourself with the format and to assess strengths and weaknesses,” recommends Esther Magna, principal MBA admissions consultant with Stacy Blackman Consulting. Once you’ve found out which one will help you excel the most, commit to it and focus all of your energy on that test.

Set a plan of attack for the test

There’s no shortage of resources, both online and in-person, to prepare for your test. Options include a do-it-yourself route, with a traditional book, like the GMAT Official Guide, or enrolling in a test prep course from a company like Kaplan. One thing to keep in mind when deciding on a test is that because the EA is newer, there are fewer study materials, while the GMAT is the traditional test, so there’s more information as well as past participants offering advice on forums or who may be in your network. 

Deciding which test to take is done on a case-by-case basis, says Jones. 

“I always advise my clients to pursue a study program or method that matches how they learn best,” Jones says. “Some folks prefer the structure and accountability of a test prep course while others prefer the flexibility of a self-study program.”

It’s important to give yourself enough time to study and be disciplined in sticking to your schedule. “Leaving sufficient time on the back end to practice and refine, under timing pressure, what you have learned is the No. 1 thing we often see candidates forget to do,” adds Magna.

The tests typically require 100 to 120 hours of practice—with the top scorers spending over 120 hours reviewing the material, according to Kaplan. Experts recommend that you start your test prep six months before schools require scores to be submitted. That said, some candidates who were previously familiar with the test material may be able to get test-ready with as little as an eight-week timeline. While it’s best to err on the side of caution, three to four months of studying is a reasonable goal for most applicants. Applicants who studied for 60 hours or more yielded scores of 500 or higher, according to a Graduate Management Admission Council prospective student survey from 2016.

Of course, it’s best to pace yourself and not try to pack an unreasonable amount of studying in a short period of time. Jones adds that finding a pace for your study schedule is essential: “Don’t forget that for most people, it’s a marathon not a sprint.” Setting aside one to three hours per day will allow you to practice subjects multiple times and truly understand the questions being asked.

Double down on your strengths, fix your weaknesses

One of the key components to achieving a high score is being able to identify the sections that come more naturally versus the ones where you need to spend more time. “Although all tests measure a person’s quantitative and verbal aptitude, they each go about doing so differently,” Jones notes. “Each test innately plays to people’s different strengths.”

Jones advises that retaking the test after practicing the sections that contributed to a lower score can dramatically increase your success. “I worked with a client a couple of years ago who got a 640 on her first GMAT,” she recalls. “After three retakes and several months of intense prep with a tutor, she got her score up to 750.”

Be strategic, be consistent, and draw a road map

Increased competition, especially for some of the top MBA programs, can put more pressure on that entrance exam score. While the test score is just one piece of a bigger admissions puzzle, a good score can increase the number of options you’ll have when choosing a business school. And more students are seeking out prep help, according to both Vantage Point and Stacy Blackman. In fact, Vantage Point reported an increase of more than 50% in its test prep business from 2019 to 2020. 

Even with this road map for success and hours of studying, you still may not be satisfied with your first score. But don’t worry, because you can retake the exam, and you’re definitely not alone. “The test isn’t supposed to be easy,” Jones explains. “It’s normal to have to work really hard and retake the test several times if you have to.”

There was an uptick in test retakes last year, according to Magna, and that might happen again this year. So don’t get discouraged if you fall into that field. Just be sure you have a plan going into what could be another fierce year for MBA applications