Testing Times for B-School Hopefuls

Applications are dropping, but the books and prep courses geared to the GMAT keep on coming

By Jeffrey Gangemi

Erika Ware, who works in financial services for Deloitte & Touche LLP in New York, decided to go it alone in preparing for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), the exam necessary for entrance into most graduate business schools. She passed on taking a pricey preparation course and instead prepped for the exam from two books.

"I just felt I had the time and ability to do it on my own," Ware says of her decision. But after two test attempts resulted in the same score of 580, out of a possible 800, Ware identified her Achilles' heel -- the data sufficiency questions that form part of the quantitative section. For her, it was time to hit the books again.

Among a shrinking number of test takers, Ware is a prime target for today's competitive group of test-prep companies. Along with the corresponding decline in B-school applications, the total number of test takers decreased more than 15% , to 206,852, between 2002 and 2004, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the organization that oversees the exam.

Graham Richmond, founder of ClearAdmit, a business school admissions consulting service, says GMAT test prep business hasn't experienced a corresponding downturn, because those who apply are savvier than ever about application techniques. It's unusual for someone to refrain from investing in test prep materials, particularly if the applicant is interested in top-tier schools, Richmond adds.

So, test prep products -- from books to computer programs -- continue to appear. If you search for "GMAT" on Amazon.com, you'll find about 300 relevant titles. Here's a look at some of the latest in prep products and services:

Going Wireless.

Your books will, literally, be calling you on July 1. That's when Princeton Review (REVU ) launches wireless test prep. Students enrolled in any of the company's GMAT courses -- in the classroom or online -- will receive sample questions delivered to their cell phones at times determined by the student. As the handheld device of choice, the phone seemed the obvious way to accommodate a population used to studying on the go, says Andy Lutz, vice-president of development for Princeton Review in New York. The cost of the entire course, wireless questions included, is about $1,250 for students in the classroom and $800 for those online.

Live Grader, where students can complete sample essays modeled after the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) on the GMAT, is also included in Princeton Review tuition. Student essays completed online at the time and place of the student's choosing receive immediately critiquing from Princeton Review course instructors with special training in scoring the AWA.

Erika Westerhaus, a first-year student at University of Chicago (Graduate School of Business), who scored a 760, wishes such a service had been available when she was preparing for the GMAT. "I ended up barely practicing [writing] at all, because there was nothing out there that could evaluate me," says Westerhaus.

In the Pocket.

Kaplan, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Co. (WPO ), is also trying to cater to the ever-busier GMAT test taker. GMAT Pocket Reference, a pint-sized book with reviews of all the main concepts in the exam, is promoted for its portability.

"It's like a cheat sheet, but more thorough -- I carried it in my purse for whenever I had a spare 30 minutes," says Elisabeth Irwin, an MBA applicant and Kaplan student in Washington, D.C., who scored in the 700s on her first attempt. The Pocket Reference is included in the Kaplan course-enrollment fees -- around $1,300 for the classroom course and $1,150 for the online version.

If a course seems too time consuming, you have other options. QBank is a stand-alone Kaplan product that offers customized computer-based practice with a self-assessment tool and personalized sample tests.

The appeal? It allows users to formulate quizzes heavy on the types of questions that give them the most trouble.

The downside? It costs $149 -- four to six times the price of a book-and-CD combination that does virtually the same thing. GMAC, in fact, offers free computerized practice tests when you sign up and pay the $250 to take the exam.

Page-Turners. Books abound in the world of test preparation. Barrons, The Princeton Review, Cliffs Test Prep, and Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions, among others, constantly update their books, which range in price from about $20 to upward of $35. Many of them contain a CD for interactive practice, and they all cover most of the same topics.

One interesting publication, the 11th edition of The Official Guide for GMAT Review (GMAC, $36.95.), comes out this summer. The GMAC has added a new section entirely devoted to debunking the myths that reportedly continue to cripple many test takers. And who better to hear it from than the people who developed the test?

The best-known legend: that the first 10 items in each section are critical, says Lawrence Rudner, GMAC's executive director for research and development. This is a dangerous belief because too much focus on the first questions prevents many test takers from finishing a particular section, which results in a severe penalty, he says.

Among other myths that Rudner and GMAC hope to expose: the necessity of studying vocabulary lists. "Assuming [you have] a tenth-grade reading level, studying vocabulary lists is totally irrelevant to the GMAT," says Rudner. "There are lists out there, and they're garbage."

Precious words. Not everyone agrees with GMAC's take on vocabulary skills. In July, New Concept Education is releasing Memory Express: Business Words for Success, a computer-aided tool which uses auditory and visual prompts to pose multiple variations of definitions and force the user to spell and use words in sentences. At $595, the obvious drawback is a hefty price tag.

Jerry Bobrow, author of more than 40 books on test preparation and executive director of Bobrow Test Preparation Services in Woodland Hills, Calif., endorses the product. More important than reading on any specific grade level, the ability to read between the lines and understand what a passage in the GMAT suggests is a necessity, says Bobrow.

Experts and students agree that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the world of test prep. It's a matter of patience, persistence, and perseverance in finding what works for you.

Ware's own brand of perseverance ended up paying off. She will attend Emory University (Goizueta School of Business) in the fall, after boosting her score 100 points, to 680. But she doesn't recommend studying on your own. "If I had it to do over again, I would've taken [a class]," she says. "It would've saved me a lot of time."

Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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