Test Prep

When Is the Right Time to Start Studying for the GMAT?

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I just finished my sophomore year of college. I won't be working this summer because of COVID so I've decided to start studying for the GMAT. My parents say it's too soon. Is that true? When is it too early or too late to take the GMAT?


Preparing for the GMAT this summer probably isn't a bad idea and it might even be a good one. It would be helpful, however, to know why your parents are against it. Do they worry that you haven't taken appropriate college classes yet? Are they assuming that, as your age goes up, your test scores will, too? Or have they already earmarked your jobless COVID-19 summer as a chance to commandeer you to clean out the garage?

The GMAT — or Graduate Management Admission Test — is the standardized exam most commonly required by graduate business programs, and good GMAT scores can play a leading role in acceptance verdicts. Although you probably don't want to turn test-prep into your number-one extracurricular activity, there is rarely a downside to starting your preparation early. On the other hand, most GMAT insiders suggest that college courses in calculus and statistics (ideally those with a biz-school spin) can be helpful to GMAT testers. So if you haven't taken these classes yet — and plan to — your GMAT prep this summer might be premature. It won't be too soon to familiarize yourself with the test and with the testing protocol now, but you may be better off postponing your preparation — and then the actual testing — until after you've completed calc and stats.

But if your math background is already solid, then it's fine to forge ahead. Many students prefer to pay for a structured online test-prep "class," while others go with a mix-and-match approach, using free or low-cost books and online materials. Whichever route you choose, it's important that you take practice tests under timed conditions. The more comfortable you are with the test format and the more accustomed you are to focusing for 3+ hours and moving as quickly as possible to be sure to finish, the better your score is likely to be.

If you are pleased with the practice test scores you receive this summer, then there's no reason not to try a real test right away. GMAT scores are valid for five years. So if you plan to go to graduate school straight from college or to take just a year (or even two) off afterwards to work, you can use the scores you earned in 2020. You can also try the GMAT multiple times, and admission officials will always use your best results. Yes, they will see all of your scores, but they will also see that your first attempt was when you were barely halfway through your undergrad years, and they won't be surprised — or suspicious — if you retest and do much better later on.

The one pitfall you will want to avoid is putting on the full-court test-prep press this summer, and then letting months go by before you sit for the actual GMAT. Similarly, if you do the prep work now, and then you take the test in August or September but decide you're not happy with your scores, you need to continue to study before you test again. You won't require the same level of intensity that you seem to be planning for this summer, but do set aside time to retain your familiarity with the materials right up until your new test date. (Note also that, if you walk out of the test center thinking, "I really blew it," you have up to 72 hours to cancel your scores, and colleges will never know that you took this test.)

Unlike the SAT and ACT, which are administered less often than once per month, the GMAT is offered nearly non-stop in dedicated test centers around the world. Although these centers were closed due to coronavirus, they all will probably be open again by the time you're ready to register, and you can almost always find an open test date in under 30 days (and often far sooner). So you can wait until you're fully in the throes of your studying to decide if you're going to feel comfortable taking the GMAT this summer, in the fall, or at some point farther down the road. And the sooner you have at least ballpark GMAT scores, the easier it will be to compile a list of graduate programs that are likely to admit you. By preparing now, you can also avoid getting entangled in challenging classes and other college commitments that might prevent you from adequate GMAT preparation later on.

You certainly don't want to put off taking the GMAT for so long that you end up in danger of missing application deadlines, nor should you wait until your last math class is so far back in your rear-view mirror that you can barely remember it. So unless your parents have a compelling reason for steering you away from your summer plan (is it that garage??), then it's a plan that does make sense to "The Dean."

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

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