But if you plan on applying to business school, you’ll have to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). And for most programs, the GMAT is the test of choice.

More than 500 undergraduate colleges have decided that standardized exams like the ACT and SAT are of limited value and have gone test-optional. Unfortunately, their MBA counterparts have not budged on testing requirements. Love it or hate it, business schools use GMAT scores as tool for comparing candidates and for assessing each applicant’s strengths. If you hope to attend a competitive MBA program, you will need to do well; your scores on the GMAT will matter.

What’s a smart MBA-hopeful to do? How many times can you take this test, and what do you need to do to ace it? We’re here to break it all down and help you prepare for the GMAT.

What’s on the GMAT? How long is the test? How is it scored?

The GMAT is a computer adaptive test (CAT) that is 3 hours and 7 minutes long — recently shortened from 3 hours and 30 minutes. There are four sections on the exam: a quantitative section, an analytical writing assessment, an integrated reasoning section, and a verbal section.

Test-takers are scored on each section of the exam. A total, or composite, score is computed from all of these sections ranging from 200 to 800 points. An overall score of 800 is the highest possible GMAT score.

What Score is Required to Get Into Business School?

The ideal GMAT score range for admission varies from program to program, and even from applicant to applicant. Some programs want candidates with sky-high scores. Others accept those with average scores, focusing more on other parts of the application.

Business school admissions are holistic. No matter your target school’s particular approach, GMAT scores will always be considered in context with the other criteria in your profile. For example, strong work experience might act as a counterbalance to weaker GMAT scores. But if you’re looking for a ballpark range for which to aim, read on for more information.

Figuring Out Your Own Target Score

Ask yourself what your overall profile looks like. Where are you applying, and what types of students are those schools seeking? For example, most business schools weigh quantitative strength very heavily. Does your background show any evidence of your quantitative skills, either through work or undergraduate experiences?

To get a sense of the scores you should aim for, you’ll need to determine how competitive admissions are at your target Business Schools. Almost all programs publish their admissions stats. This includes the median GMAT scores of those they admit. At the very top schools, scores that are 750 and above are fairly common. Lower ranked schools tend to accept more reasonable scores. The applicant pool at any given school – and the scores and experiences those students bring to the table – may define what is necessary to earn admission.

Low scores are not an automatic ding on an applicant. Again, business school admissions are holistic. Committees will heavily weigh other criteria, including your work experience, the field you’re coming from, your essays, interview, and recommendations. Although it may be challenging, it’s possible to overcome a lower score at some schools. Identify the score range at the school you are considering, and then figure out where you stand in comparison.

Why Your Math Score Matters

When it comes down to it, most schools will look at your overall GMAT score as a factor in admissions. But it’s important to note that doing well on the quantitative section is key. Even if you earn a high score on all the other sections, a lower math score can be problematic.

In the world of admissions, there is something known as a "lopsided" student. This is someone who can earn a high score on one part of a standardized test, but earns lower scores on the other sections — so a high score in verbal reasoning, for example, but a low score in math. It is not uncommon for test-takers to excel in one area and falter in another. But for business school admissions, strong math and weaker verbal is the preferred mode of lopsidedness.

MBA programs can’t always overlook a low math score or wobbly quant skills, because number-crunching and working with data is an inescapable part of the business school curriculum. The intense quantitative nature of study requires students to have a strong aptitude for math.

If you get a weak score on the math section of the GMAT and you don’t have evidence of quantitative experience in other areas of your life (your job or your undergraduate major, for example), this could be harmful to your candidacy.

The best way to be proactive about a weak math score is to continue to focus your efforts on boosting the math section of the exam with serious preparation. You should also show proof of strong quant skills elsewhere if at all possible.

Can I Study for the GMAT? How Do I Get My Best Score?

Yes, you can and should study for this exam. If you are able, consider investing in professional test prep. This may mean hiring a tutor or attending a credible test-prep class. There is an entire industry built around helping people like you get your best score.

If you’re worried about the quant section in particular, a good test prep program will help. Tutors or instructors will teach only those math concepts that will be covered on the exam, and will prepare you to recognize problem types and develop strategies for speed and accuracy. Another bonus of working with a test prep organization is that you will have the opportunity to take at least one mock exam and get a baseline score to identify weak spots. This will help you make the best use of your study time.

Even if you believe that you can do relatively well on the exam without additional prep, you should formally study in some way — be that through a GMAT prep book or an online program. This exam can make a major difference in admissions and even scholarship offers, so you want to rock your very best score. Everyone benefits from becoming familiar with how these tests work, what they cover, and the timing for each section.

How Far in Advance Should I Start to Study for the GMAT?

This will depend on your work schedule, personal life, timeframe for applying, and general test-taking aptitude. At a minimum, a few months of study is best. If you plan on taking the GMAT more than once, you could plan for much more time.

Many test-takers only get better over a longer period of time. It takes regular, consistent practice to become familiar with how this test operates and what the wrong answers look like. Test-taking strategies such as process of elimination are essential for doing well on the GMAT, and it takes some time to master these.

That being said, test-takers come in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone needs a lot of time or practice to do well; some lucky individuals can study for a short period of time and nail it. But the GMAT is not a content driven exam, so it’s not testing any specific knowledge. That’s why practice and familiarity with format are of the utmost importance for most students.

How long is my GMAT score good for? Should I take the test right out of college, or when I’m ready to apply to grad school?

The good news is that your GMAT score is valid for approximately five years after your initial testing date. So you can take the exam when it makes the most sense for you — whether that’s towards the end of undergrad or after two or three years on the job.

If you think an MBA might be in your future, take the test whenever you can devote the most time to nailing a great score. As long as you apply within five years, your score will be ready whenever you are. Some schools will even accept a GMAT score that is more than five years old — though it’s always to best to check directly with the admissions department at any given program.

How Many Times Can I Take the GMAT?

You can absolutely take the GMAT more than once, and many business school applicants do. In fact, so many students wish to repeatedly retake the exam that the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), the testing service that facilitates the GMAT, has rules regarding frequency. For most people, these rules are not hard to follow: you can take the exam up to five times in any one 12-month period, but no more than once in any 16-day period. And if you want to take the test more than five times in one year, you can make that request in writing to GMAC.

Here comes the warning label: It is still not a good idea to take the test over and over and over. In fact, this is a bad idea and can damage your application, despite the GMAC’s generous policy.

Many GMAT test-takers plan to take the exam two times. And you should definitely take the test a second time if you do not ace it on the first try. Admissions committees are comfortable with a two or even three-time attempt. It’s just a logical and reasonable progression, and shows your dedication to presenting your best work.

But it’s best to limit your GMAT attempts to three sittings at most, unless there are unusual circumstances such as illness, family or personal issues, or a language problem. Beyond three tries, and admissions committees may not trust your final score — even if it’s very high. After all, if you keep shooting an arrow over and over, the law of averages says that it will eventually hit the target; this is not a true sign of talent. Taking the GMAT too frequently could also make admissions committee think that you are insecure or lacking solid judgement.

A second warning about repeat GMAT testing: ideally, each time you take the test, there should be an improvement. That is the point of taking it again. If you have multiple scores that keep falling into the same range, or even going down, you may be creating a problem for yourself.

Don’t take the exam the first time unless you feel prepared. Try not to take it additional times unless you believe you will have a decent score increase.

The GMAT Takeaway

When it comes to the GMAT, practice may make perfect — or at least a big difference. With proper study and repeat tries (within reason), you can improve your score.

But preparing to be a successful applicant is about more than getting the right scores. There is no perfect application. Take some time to shore up all the components of your candidacy. Showcase all of your strengths and unique qualities. With any luck, you’ll convince admissions committees that you have the right stuff.

Nedda
Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.