As a college student, you may be deprived of many things—time, sleep, money—but you always have plenty of exams. With dozens of midterms and finals dotting your undergraduate years, to say nothing of projects, papers, and pop quizzes, it’s understandable that you might want to postpone taking the GMAT until after your diploma is hanging on the wall. You may think that unless you’re one of the relatively few students who plans to proceed directly to business school, there’s no rush to take the GMAT.
But while the Graduate Management Admission Test, as it’s formally known, is no one’s idea of fun, there are many good reasons to forge ahead and take the test while you’re still in college, even if you intend to wait for several years before entering business school—or, for that matter, if you’re still deciding whether the MBA is in your future. As a student, your test-taking skills are honed through constant practice. You’re in an environment that’s relatively conducive to studying. And knowing your GMAT score can help you plan your post-collegiate career in order to compete successfully for admission to top programs.
In this two-part article, we consider several great reasons to take the GMAT before you graduate. In the first section, we discuss whether you might be one of the small but growing number of women who pursue their MBA degree directly after graduating from college—in which case, you have little time to dawdle about the GMAT. In section two, we discuss why you should consider taking the GMAT sooner rather than later, even if you’re undecided about whether you should go to business school.
Part One: Get Your MBA—Now
The most pressing reason to take the GMAT would be if you plan to go to business school in the relatively near future. That’s not the case for most students, of course. The average MBA student logs several years in the conference room before returning to the classroom; only a handful at any top program are freshly-minted college graduates.
However, competitive applicants to MBA programs do not necessarily need to bring years of work experience to the table. In the 1970s, many students proceeded to business school directly after graduating from college. Among them was, for example, eBay CEO and Harvard MBA alumna Meg Whitman.
But over the past few decades, business schools began to emphasize experiential education based on feedback from corporate recruiters, who were interested in hiring MBAs with substantive work experience. As a result, students felt increasingly compelled to bolster their applications with impressive work experience. Some negative consequences have resulted.
“For years, we’ve been leaving a lot of great candidates on the table,” says Thomas Caleel, the director of MBA admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, noting that a number of would-be competitive applicants leave school planning to return, only to find that life gets in the way.
Britt Dewey, the managing director of MBA admissions at Harvard Business School, emphasizes that deciding when to go to graduate school is a complex process that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. “There is no “right time” to apply to business school,” she says. The right time for an individual, she notes, may be directly after college.
Some top schools are making a drive to recruit more “early-career” candidates. Although such students are definitely the exception rather than the norm, a small but increasing number of observers are arguing that pursuing an MBA directly after college enables students to fast-track their careers while avoiding the opportunity costs that might arise for those who wait.
Business schools have not changed their stance on the importance of work experience. But admissions directors have started to realize graduating seniors have meaningful work experience that would be valued by corporate recruiters. College students routinely complete rigorous internships or take on impressive extracurricular commitments. This experience is sufficient, in many cases, to enable early-career MBA students to make substantive contributions to class discussions.
Admissions directors at Harvard, for example, are focused on quality of work experience, not sheer quantity. “Time tells you nothing about the quality of the experience,” explains Dewey. “Time, for me, is not a proxy for capability or insight or quality.”
As business schools are encouraging college seniors to send in their applications, many of these students are realizing that the sooner you go to business school, the fewer opportunity costs you have to deal with. Although individual situations vary greatly depending on your family, background, and personal decisions, odds are that you will have fewer commitments at 22 than at 27. As Dewey points out, “the longer you wait, the harder it is to go back to a full-time MBA program.”
Five years after graduating from college, an applicant to top MBA programs may have an impressive salary or tempting opportunities for advancement that do not require a graduate degree. She also may have entanglements, such as a mortgage or a spouse, that make it hard to move across the country or take out loans for graduate school.
On balance, earning your MBA directly after college is probably not the best choice for most people. Even if full-time work experience isn’t necessary to make a competitive application, it may be crucial for helping you determine your career goals and interests. And once you go to business school, you can’t go back if you want to shift your career focus from marketing to finance, for example. As Caleel puts it, “You only get one bite from the apple.”
Still, earning an MBA directly after college may be the optimal decision for you. And if that’s your plan, you’d better make time for GMAT preparation alongside your regular coursework and extracurriculars.
Part Two: Lay the Groundwork for Your MBA
But what if you don’t plan to go business school for several years? Why add GMAT preparation to your long to-do list?
There are a number of reasons to take the GMAT before you graduate, even if you don’t plan to go directly to business school. For one thing, that to-do list may be even more daunting several years down the road than it is right now. Student life is busy and hectic, but relative to the young professional lifestyle, it offers several advantages as you study for the GMAT.
As a college student, you have a relatively set routine that allows you to make time for test prep—and the test itself. It would be stressful to have a paper due on the Monday after the GMAT. But it would be even more stressful if, as you’re leaving work on a Friday evening, planning to turn in early so you can be ready for the exam the next day, your boss stops by your desk with a project that needs to be completed in twelve hours. Also, as a working professional, few of your acquaintances are going to go home after work to study. In contrast, the libraries will be full of your peers studying for the LSAT, the MCAT, the GRE and the GMAT. These informal support systems can help keep you motivated to study for the test.
In addition, as a college student, your test-taking skills are at their absolute peak. You probably have a test-taking routine of sorts that you’ve developed over the past few years. You know better than to drink a large coffee the night before the test, or you’ve discovered that a certain hoodie has lucky properties. These habits may seem insignificant, but if they contribute to your comfort and calm on the morning of the GMAT, they can make a big impact on your score.
Beyond test-taking skills in general, your quantitative and analytical skills are likely to be up-to-date and fairly sharp—or at the very least, if they’re not, you can schedule a class for next semester to brush up.
In addition, taking the GMAT while you’re still in college can give you perspective on what you need to do after college and before you apply to business school. If you ace the GMAT, that is, you may feel inclined to spend your Saturday mornings watching cartoons rather than engaged in some more socially conscious pursuit. Conversely, if your score wasn’t what you hoped it would be, you can compensate by finding work that relies heavily on your quantitative abilities. Alternatively, you can make arrangements to take the test again at a later date. In fact, the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the GMAT, reports that 21% of all GMAT exams are repeat attempts by people who have already taken the test that year.
If you expect your quantitative skills to improve significantly post-college, then waiting to take the GMAT may be a wise move. In most cases, however, the experience you acquire after you graduate is not directly relevant to the GMAT. Accordingly, you may want to consider taking the GMAT sooner rather than later.
Is Now the Right Time for the GMAT?
To be sure, not everyone should take the GMAT while still in college. If test preparation would seriously detract from your ability to prepare for your regular coursework, for example, you may want to consider waiting.
However, if you’re confident in your test-taking abilities and optimistic that business school is in your future, you may well want to join the growing number of college students sitting for the GMAT this year.