Acing the Test

What you need to know before applying to business school

With the economic recovery stalled and seismic shifts in major industries keeping the unemployment rate at uncomfortably high levels, many consider this the ideal time to return to school. Having an M.B.A. remains one of the most viable inroads to boosting your résumé, enhancing existing skills, and sharpening your competitive edge. Applying to business school is the first step, and it can be a daunting task for those who haven’t seen a math question in more than 15 years.

The application process for business school is notoriously rigorous and competitive, requiring a substantial amount of time, money, and preparation. The standard application package includes GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) scores, a major component in the selection process that’s used to assess an applicant’s ability to succeed academically through verbal, mathematical, and analytical writing skills. Also weighed are transcripts, letters of recommendation, in-person interviews, and personal essays.

David Ingber, faculty manager at Knewton, an online learning company that offers preparation courses for the GMAT and other standardized tests, says, “Business school admissions counselors want to know what your weaknesses are, and how you were able to overcome them.”
Ingber suggests the following strategies to make your best showing during the application process:

Strengthen your online status. One of the most dramatic differences Ingber notes is the attention given to a candidate’s online presence. Admissions boards no longer focus solely on the paper version of the application package. Now your online history is a factor. This includes Facebook, LinkedIn, online forums, and other social networking structures. Ingber stresses, “Your entire public-facing self should be a strong representation of who you are.”

Create a well-rounded story. Prepare a personal narrative that explains your unique career trajectory. Speak expansively about goals and challenges—how you’ve achieved them, what you’ve learned, and how you’ve managed successfully through obstacles. “If you started in one area then branched off into another, Ingber explains, “combine skill sets and bridge the gaps to make yourself a stronger candidate.”

Be prepared for the new GMAT format. Effective in June 2012, GMAT will add an integrated reasoning section that focuses heavily on data interpretation. Another important factor will be the GMAT’s math questions around data sufficiency. Ingber explains, “Test takers don’t have to actually solve the question; instead they have to determine if there is sufficient data to solve the question and how to break it down into its logical elements.” These questions evaluate how an applicant thinks. “CEOs have to determine which problems need to be solved. This is what business schools are looking for.” That’s why, Ingber cautions, “it’s critically important to look through questions and see what’s being asked of you.”

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