GMAT On A (Tight) Budget

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Coming from the nonprofit sector, costs were a really (REALLY) big deal for me going into the GMAT prep and MBA Application process. I was working for an amazing organization, but we didn’t have a Gates Foundation sized budget, if you catch my drift. I could only afford to take the test once and based on my work and academic background I needed to join the 700 club. So I started researching cost effective strategies for the Big Day, asked some friends for advice, and then got a little creative.

Initially I looked in to books, and I settled on the Kaplan prep book. They have a great track record as a prep company, the book came with 5 practice CAT tests, one written practice test and some other perks that made it the best value purchase in my price range. I purchased my test date to give myself the kick I needed to study diligently, and got to work. I cracked open the book and took the written practice test. Scored in the mid 500 range. I was devastated! Mainly because I remember friends telling me that you can’t really improve more than about 140 pts (in restrospect, I took this out of context, but clearly I didn’t know enough about the test) and I assumed I was never going to reach my goal.

So the studying got a little aggressive. I went to the library or local coffee shop every weekend with my Kaplan book as my date and spent hours going through the material. I started doing practice problems during the week, and started to worry that my book wasn’t enough so I researched how to get free test prep materials. I signed up for GMAT Club, and Magoosh, The Economist’s prep app trial, and any other free trials or resources that I could link together. A friend told me about Manhattan Prep’s Thursday’s With Ron and I attended those webinars.

After I exhausted my Kaplan book of prep questions and began focusing on taking the CAT practice exams my scores did start to go up. But I still wasn’t satisfied. So I went to Barnes & Noble with a stack of flashcards and some pens, roamed around for five minutes so it looked like I would buy something and then sat down in the aisles with other top prep books to take notes on different methods and do more practice questions. Looking a little strange in a public bookstore was completely worth having the best GMAT score possible, for me.

Then I attended the DMAC two weeks before I was scheduled to take my exam and I ran into a friend from USC (the best university in Los Angeles). He had scored well into the 700's and told me about his method for improving his score through targeting weaknesses and maintaining current strengths. He graciously passed along the spreadsheet that helped track answers to practice tests, which I then used to identify specific subjects in quant and verbal that I could improve on. When I flew back to work I pushed my GMAT date back by one month and decided to keep working to improve.

I used my friend’s method, kept going to B&N, discovered the free topic and practice question sections on Manhattan Prep’s website (it was not as well organized as it is now), and received a very generous gift from my parents of The Economist’s MBA Prep, which I used on the bus to work, at home, at the gym, everywhere. By the end I reeked of the GMAT. I was re-framing everything that happened throughout my day into verbal or quant question format. I’m pretty sure every conversation that I had with my supervisor, parents, and friends was strongly tied to the test in some way.

Then it was test day. The night before, I picked up my favorite ice cream watched a Kevin Hart stand-up special (all of my research said that comedy was the best way to unwind before the exam) and went to bed early. I arrived at the testing center armed with my snacks and forms of identification and flowed through the GMAT. It was an intense couple of hours but I emerged from the battle victorious, with exactly 700 and a huge weight off my shoulders going in to the application process.

This is NOT meant to be a score elitist post or discourage you if you’re in the five or six hundred range! The GMAT is only one element of your application and many incredible students at top 10 schools have scores below the 700 range. But I wanted to let you know that even if you don’t have the financial means to hire a tutor or go through the entire Manhattan Prep course, you have options and can still compete with the best.