Why Prospective MBA Students are Turning to GMAT Tutors

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When Chioma Isiadinso worked as an admissions officer for Harvard Business School over a decade ago, the average GMAT entrance test score was “well below 700”. Today the average score has risen to 730, demonstrating a trend of surging scores at elite schools in recent years.

Isiadinso, who now works as an MBA admissions adviser for her firm, Expartus, says without a 700 score on an application to a top school, “it’s a non-starter”.

In fact, a survey of admissions officers by education services company Kaplan Test Prep found a poor GMAT score is the “biggest killer” of MBA applications.

Why GMAT scores are important

With competition for business school places seemingly as fierce as ever, many would-be MBAs are turning to GMAT tutors for help. Dennis Yim, director of academics at Kaplan, estimates the number of GMAT tutors is “probably in the thousands” and at his firm there are dozens.

There are numerous advantages for MBA applicants to hire a tutor. For one, a high GMAT score can increase your chances of securing a business school place, though admissions teams stress that it’s just one element in the decision-making process.

Russ Morgan, senior associate dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business says, “The GMAT score can assess academic fit and readiness for a program. That’s critically important in being able to predict success academically. However, what the score can’t assess is the cultural fit and a person’s leadership potential. That’s why a holistic look is so important.”

The benefits of high GMAT scores

A candidate with a high GMAT score is also more likely to receive scholarship funding, according to Matt Symonds, director of the Fortuna admissions consultancy firm. He says, “Higher GMAT scores are an influential factor in the schools’ thinking.” But if other application parts are saliently lacking, then securing scholarship dollars is by no means a guarantee.

GMAT tutors offer a variety of services covering the entire standardized testing process, for those wanting only a little guidance to those seeking a great deal of support. Firms have online and in-person courses, with the latter enabling people to go at their own pace. Students typically work with tutors for three-to-six weeks, though sometimes for several months, either one-on-one or in groups.

With so many services, choosing the right firm, package and instructor can be a challenge. Many companies provide practice materials for free, so you can get a feel for the service before investing. Manhattan Prep, for instance, has some free content online, including a full-length practice test.

GMAT tutor profiles

All of the firm’s instructors have top-1 percent GMAT scores, but there are other factors you should look for in selecting a good tutor, who can address different learning styles. Chris Lele, a lead content developer at test prep firm Magoosh, says instructors should also understand where a candidate struggles, what they can do to improve and most importantly, can communicate that effectively.

“They have to be invested in your mission and goals,” he says. “Otherwise, they’re just watching the clock.”

Measuring the effectiveness of a tutor and quantifying clients’ success, however, is difficult. “Like almost any endeavor, how much effort you put in directly affects outcome,” says Kaplan’s Yim. For each hour of classroom or tutoring time, students can expect to spend about three-to-six hours on homework.

Who does it best?

Some tutors use a net promoter score — a traditional measure of customer satisfaction — to assess their value to candidates but declined to share the data.

Kaplan provides clients with a guarantee: if you take a course and don’t reach your individual score goal, you can take it again free of charge. If a student still doesn’t increase their score, they’re eligible for a refund. “It holds us accountable,” Yim says.

The larger problem for GMAT tutors is the concern that they could give clients an unfair advantage over those who don’t have enough money to hire them. Business schools are already considered to be elite institutions. At Manhattan, live-meeting programs range in price from about US$1,000 to US$3,000.

Noah Teitelbaum, executive director of pre-business programs, notes the firm launched a Social Venture Scholars program, where aspiring MBAs can apply for a free GMAT course. Manhattan gives away 16 free courses each year for people who meet criteria, such as working for an organization promoting positive social change or who demonstrate a clear financial need.

“We want to make test prep as accessible to as many aspiring business school students as possible,” he says.

“Any student can also gain free advice about their overall study plans from expert instructors on our forums,” he adds. Other free resources are available online, such as via the PrepScholar GMAT blog or Beat the GMAT forum, so MBA applicants may prefer to crowdsource support instead of paying for a tutor. 

But with GMAT score averages continuing to climb at the elite schools, it seems likely more candidates will seek every edge they can get.

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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