Sunday, October 4, 2009

Choosing a GMAT Prep Course

Several years ago I took the GRE and did pretty well on it without taking a prep course. I was considering not taking a prep course for the GMAT, but my lovely girlfriend (now fiancée), who earned a top score on the LSAT two years prior talked me out of it.

As I see it, there are three main reasons for taking a GMAT prep course:

  1. To learn the material. This is a biggie for anyone who lacks the math background, or is a non-native English speaker.
  2. To discipline yourself to stick to a practice plan. By taking a prep course you’ll probably end up studying more and working more practice problems than you otherwise would. The downside is the prep course may also cause you to spend more time than you should in some areas and less time than you should in others.
  3. To get access to extra study material, including online adaptive tests.

As I’ll explain below, I believe that earning a top score on the GMAT boils down to two determinants: putting in a LOT of practice hours so that you can work the problems quickly and accurately (#1 and #2 above), and figuring out how to pace yourself on the exam (#3 above). A GMAT prep course can help in both areas.

After considering the Princeton Review prep course, I ended up taking the Manhattan GMAT online course. I didn’t put a lot of thought into the matter at the time – I made the decision mainly on the basis of scheduling considerations. Now that I've been through the process, here are the issues to consider when choosing a prep class:

Does the program offer an online class?
I’m a big fan of online courses, since they save a LOT of time. Having taken a few semester-long graduate engineering courses and now a GMAT prep class online, I prefer them to physical classrooms for subjects that don’t require a lot of in-class discussion. First, online courses fit into my travel schedule. Not everyone travels as often as I do, but I attended roughly two-thirds of the classes from hotel rooms around the country. If you travel, online courses may be your only option.

Second, online courses save a ton of commuting time. Assuming 20 minutes each way (probably on the low side for most people), you’re wasting 40 minutes week. Assuming you spend ten weeks preparing for the GMAT, that’s a conservative estimate of 400 minutes you could have spent studying or resting. That could make a big difference in your score.

Third, online courses allow you to leave without being rude when the discussion turns to BS logistical issues (as it does at some point in every class - and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're probably the one asking those BS questions!). When other students start wasting your time at the end of the class with complaints about how unfair the GMAT is, or with silly questions the instructors can’t possibly answer, you can bail without making a scene. (For the record, I agree that the GMAT is an unfair test, but don't waste your time commiserating about it with your classmates - you've got work to do.)

Last, online courses are usually recorded, so it’s easy to make up for missed classes. For subjects you don’t have a lot of questions about, recorded classes are ideal, since you can easily fast-forward through explanations that you don’t need.

Does the program offer additional computer adaptive tests (CATs)?
When you sign up for the GMAT you’ll get access to two practice tests, which isn’t nearly enough. Manhattan GMAT offers several additional, online computer adaptive tests that will help you learn how to pace yourself and get used to the adaptive nature of the GMAT. If you do nothing else in your preparation for the GMAT, take lots of computer-based practice tests.

Does the program have strong instructors?
Clearly, instructor quality is a major factor in choosing a prep course. I have no basis for judging the quality of the instructors at other programs, but the Manhattan GMAT instructors for my section were very good: they had the material down, they were good at handling questions, and they knew how to manage the classroom.

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