1. Business programs are becoming increasingly popular, as more and more people are making the decision to obtain an MBA as part of an ambitious and rewarding business career. Of course, the one hurdle that every business-school student has to clear before starting their MBA (let alone their career) is the GMAT.

    If you’re thinking about an MBA, you’re probably already aware that the GMAT is lurking at some point in your future. But when? How do you decide when to take the test? This guide will help you pick the perfect date.



    You’re in luck!! Unlike the standardized tests you take before college, such as the ACT and the SAT, where there are a limited number of testing dates available,  the GMAT is offered year-round.   That is, you can basically take the test whenever you want (though, depending on test center availability, you may need to schedule at least a week in advance).  As such, there is no need to worry about available dates; instead, focus your time on the best date for you according to the guidelines below.



    Most MBA programs conduct their admissions in multiple rounds—usually three. This allows you some year-round flexibility in terms of when you actually apply. Round 1 usually occurs in September/October, Round 2 early in January, and Round 3 in April.

    However, not all rounds are created equal. So which one’s best? This depends entirely on you, and on where each school you’re applying to falls in your rankings of desirability. Many students apply to their top-choice schools in the first round—only applying to their safety schools in rounds two and three. Other students are less strategic, and less picky—simply applying whenever they are able to prepare the strongest application.

    It does appear that there may be some competitive advantage to applying in the first round. In part, this is because applying to a school in your first round makes it more likely that it is one of your top choices, and because schools have the greatest number of spots available in the first round.  Whatever the reason, ideally you would have your application prepared and ready to go for the first round admissions deadline. But – sending in a bad application to the first round is worse than sending in a great application to the second round!  So, if you are confident that those extra months can help you solidify your GMAT score or give you time to personalize your essays, it could be to your advantage to wait.

    All in all, you’ll be best off if you plan your GMAT prep so that you apply to your top choice schools in the first round.  However, if things don’t go your way the first time, the multiple-rounds structure can offer you a second chance.



    Once you know which round you’d like to apply for, try scheduling at least two months between your test day and the date your application is due. This allows the GMAC time to process and distribute your scores to the schools you’re applying for and also allows you extra time to work on your application materials, including any essays and personal statements, before the deadline. (These things always take longer than you think!)

    Moreover, a good chunk of time allows you the freedom to take the test a second or third time should you need it. Many students have to take the GMAT multiple times before reaching their target score—it is probably a good idea to leave enough time after your test date to take the test again, in case you don’t reach your target on your first attempt.


    The GMAC makes you wait 16 days before retaking the GMAT. You should be aware of this when you plan your first testing date. However, you’ll likely want to allow more than 16 extra days if want to leave yourself the option of retaking the exam. Not only do you want to leave time for things to go wrong–you’ll also want to give yourself more time to prepare (and perhaps to recover from the first GMAT) before you retake the exam. Otherwise, what’s the point of taking it again? If your prep didn’t serve you as well as it could have the first time, you’ll want time not only to do more studying, but also to reevaluate your process and your approach, so you can prep better this time around.


    We believe that the optimal preparation time for most student is two months.  This is just enough time to study for the recommended number of hours (100 to 120) at an involved but not overly intense pace without spreading your studies over such a long time that you start forgetting material.  If you’re not a native English speaker, then it would be best to add another month to this, dedicated solely to working on your language skills.

    Of course, some students are able to study more or fewer than ten hours a week — but 100 hours is a helpful number to start with. Studying much more than this can start to have diminishing returns, and studying much less can keep you from making the progress you want.

    As such, start your GMAT preparation six to eight months before the time your application is due. This will give you time to study, to potentially retake the exam, and to have enough time to work on the rest of your application materials before the deadline.  Don’t forget that it takes 20 days after your exam to send your score to the schools you chose at registration. You will likely want to leave some time for things to possibly go wrong, or for you to send additional score reports for schools you didn’t choose initially. You will also want to leave time to do your best with the rest of your application materials, including any essays or personal statements.



    One thing you might want to consider is taking a diagnostic test or a full-length practice test at the beginning of the process, as you try to decide your timeline. See where you stand in terms of your current GMAT abilities. Then consider the kinds of schools you’re thinking of applying to, as well as the scores admitted students tend to earn on the GMAT. Using this information, formulate a realistic but ambitious target score. How close are you to achieving that target score on day one? Depending on the answer to this question, you may conclude that you need more or less time than you’d anticipated. Or, you may even conclude you need to reexamine your target score, or your target schools. As mentioned earlier, we’ve written a step-by-step guide about preparing for the GMAT; use it to fill in all the missing details!


    If possible, it’s also a good idea to take the test while you’re still in school. For one thing, taking it during this time helps ensure that you don’t lose some of your mental dexterity with the kinds of test-taking skills required for the GMAT. But also, once you leave school, preparing for the GMAT can be such a disruption from your productive routines that it will be hard to get into.


    But what if you don’t know when you’ll be able to enroll? It’s still a good idea to take the test right out of school. Remember: your GMAT scores are valid for five years. So even if it might be a few years after finishing undergrad before you finally apply to MBA programs, it can still benefit you to take the exam before or soon after getting your undergraduate degree. If you think you’ll be applying at any point in the next five years, then the right time to start your GMAT prep is as soon as you can make the time for it.


    Using a personalized GMAT prep course can help save you a lot of preparation time!  Many test prep programs are based on a one-size-fits-all curriculum.  Students are expected to sit and solve thousands of problems in the hope that they will encounter a solution approach that fits their mindset.  Alternatively, students will try to do it alone, and go through the entire GMAT Official Guide. Both of these methods are inefficient! As there are many different methods for solving any GMAT problem, and as different students work best with different approaches, you will want to take a course that adapts the preparation process to you.  For example, at examPAL, we have combined crowd wisdom and AI to learn which solution methods work best and, over the GMAT course, make sure to adapt the solutions and questions to each student. This makes sure that you don’t waste time and mental energy studying things that aren’t right for you and can make the test prep both enjoyable and efficient!



    One of the ways the GMAT is different from other standardized tests is that it gives you the opportunity to pick what time of day you’d like to take it. For some people, their schedule will only allow them to take it at one particular time of day. Others with more flexibility will have to choose the best time.


    Our feeling is that you probably know yourself best, and can make the best judgment about what time of day will allow you to get the rest you need while performing your best. But it would be negligent not to point out recent research into standardized test scores that suggests taking the exam as early in the day as you can will help maximize your score. This research was aimed primarily at children, but the results are still compelling. Based on our experience, we recommend taking the test early, as our experience corroborates the conclusion of the researchers that cognitive ability steadily declines throughout the day.


    Whatever time of day you choose for your exam, it might be worth trying to match your time spent studying to that time of day. This can be difficult for people with demanding or inflexible schedules. But you should at least try to take your practice exams at the same time of day you’ll be taking your actual GMAT, so you can get the best idea of what taking the test at that time will be like.



    There is no perfectly standard MBA applicant—some come straight from their undergraduate program, others come after having achieved a significant amount of seniority and accomplishments in the professional world already. Luckily, the administration of the GMAT as well as the multiple-round admissions structure of most MBA programs allows you a significant amount of flexibility and control as you plan your optimal path to business school. Therefore, you should be able to tailor your exact testing timeline according to your own personal needs.  Below, we’ve given a sample trajectory for the talented and ambitious Harvard applicant — someone just like you.



    Just to give you an idea of how to implement all this information, let’s take a look at one particularly ambitious GMAT-to-MBA timeline. Harvard Business School ’s hasn’t officially announced the first round application deadlines for 2018, though we can assume they will be somewhere in the vicinity of 2017’s first round deadline in 2017, which was on September 7. We can build backward from this date to plan our trajectory.


    Our model HBS applicant will want to get the best possible GMAT score, since HBS is so competitive. Therefore, our applicant will allow three months of prep time, including a month to work only on Verbal, before taking the GMAT for the first time, plus an extra two months to improve and retake the exam in case the first score is insufficient. That brings us up to five months. Our applicant will also want to leave an extra two months to prepare the best possible application materials, and to allow time for any possible unforeseen circumstances that might arise. That brings us to seven months in total. Working backward from the September 7 application deadline, our applicant’s 2018 will look something like this…


    February 1, start GMAT prep. April 15, take GMAT for the first time. If necessary, begin the second round of GMAT prep. July 1, take GMAT a second time and ace it. July 2-September 7, round up those recommendation letters and polish off those essays. work on the rest of the application. September 8 until getting notified of acceptance, relax in the sun with friends; you’ve done an amazing job!


    If you like, you can even start prepping earlier, say in January or December.  This will give enough time for a (hopefully unneeded) third GMAT attempt.One thing this timeline suggests is that the most ambitious MBA plans might require the most conservative GMAT prep timelines.

    Dave Green
    Senior tutor and professional test-prep writer. Interdisciplinary wizard, with Master’s degrees in economics, philosophy, and political science at HUJI.

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