Note: This one unfortunately is dedicated to MBA applicants—I do plan to post a LSAT version in the coming weeks.
I’ve been dreading writing this. But if I continue to delay, that doesn’t help us through the trials and tribulations we face as we aim to conquer the enemy—the standardized exam.
Now, history and data have shown us comparatively, relative to other races/ethnic identities, the exam is not necessarily our forte. But today, let us abandon the mental imprisonment of statistics. Let us no longer be victims of it because its mere existence stifles us and inhibits our potential. I see it as a boundary because it seeps into our subconscious like a viral disease and orients our minds incorrectly. We then think “what score do I need to get in” instead of “what’s the maximum score I can attain?” And although the nuance is subtle, it’s vastly significant. I don’t want us thinking about these ceilings anymore, because regardless of data, we impose them on ourselves. So unchain yourself from “the average African American scores” because it doesn’t encapsulate your potential. You escaped average when you dared to get your bachelors, because “on average,” we don’t do that. Know that you have ascended to exemplary when you started seeking a map to the MBA or JD. So today, let’s declare that your new minimum score is 800!
Now, as you progress through the cycle, you hear little rumblings. “You a black girl and you got a 680, you’ll definitely get into Kellogg.” And my favorite “you heard about Daquan? (and yes I’m profiling a little bit with that name. lol). He got into HBS with a 560.”
My only response to those is utter and remote silence with a strong side eye….
When someone shares this HBS story, you kindly excuse yourself to the lavatory because you’ll find better shit in the toilet compared to that bull. Now can it happen? I’m sure. Then why is it bull? Well, firstly what is that supposed to do for your life? Are you supposed to find comfort in a rarity? And secondly, and more importantly, a test score is completely unqualified without an application. More colloquially, a test score without the context of an applicant’s story is just simply that, a test score—not a predictor of your admission success. For example, if my name was John Roger Stephens, and I graduated with Latin distinction from Penn, subsequently worked at BCG, and went on to become a multi-platinum Grammy Award-winning vocal phenomenon with countless philanthropic endeavors, I would imagine HBS could overlook my 560 as well. But none of us are John Legend. And if you low key are, and at the risk of giving advice, I highly recommend you reconsider pursuing graduate education, because you done kilt the game. A score, however is still needed to stay in the admissions game. Think of it as a reason to keep reading or keep your application in the pile. Think of yourself as a commodity good where you differentiate on service (your story). Think to yourself, Does my story mirror John’s? Lol. I’m joking, but y’all get it.
Now, how do we conquer the exam? I don’t know for certain, but as always I have my experiences. What I can share is what I did well, what I wish I knew, and what I wish I did. Do extract some “lessons learned” from my shortcomings.
Let’s start with what I wish I knew.
An acceptance letter is not necessarily the end of the road. Think about an acceptance letter as a gold prize and what we want is a platinum package (which includes scholarships and financial rewards from schools and organizations.) Schools are much more incentivized to offer more robust packages when you have higher GMAT scores. It makes you a more viable candidate and schools have yield figures to protect, which ultimately affects rankings. Also, based on your career aspirations, the GMAT score can still be used to assess your candidacy in recruiting. Let’s look at me for example. I studied for 4-5 months, without aid of a course, and got a 680 under the premise of “minimum score I need”. I then struggled to recruit successfully for consulting companies because relative to my classmates, my GMAT score was on the “lower end”. Now that is not to say, retake the exam if you get a 680. If you plan to retake, at minimum you should be aspiring to score 60 points more than before. Retaking the exam to go from a 680 to 710 does not alter the perception of your application. Your time will be better spent allocated to strengthening the qualitative components of your applications (i.e. essays, recommendations, resume). I even felt my score held me back from diversity Pre-MBA opportunities at consulting firms, which could earn you some extra cash as well. So even if consulting is not your end goal, let’s maximize those scores, because I’ve heard stories of GMAT scores coming up in behavioral interviews across different industries.
What I Wish I Did
I wish I gave myself more time. I do believe this is the most common mistake we make as applicants. We get caught up in a timeline for taking the exam. The biggest difference between undergraduate and graduate endeavors is that we are in complete control of when we take the exam and when we apply. What’s the rush? The schools are not going anywhere!!! Apply when you have the score and take the test only when you are ready. I repeat, take the test when you are ready! We are all very different and have varying appetites for standardized test taking. An engineer and a journalist are going to have different approaches to GMAT preparation based on their organic strengths. I could have probably elevated myself into the mid-700s range with an additional 6-8 weeks of preparation.
What I Did Well
- I was a test prep hoe in the sense that I wasn’t loyal to ManhattanGMAT, Veritas, or Kaplan and you are not obligated to loyalty either, especially after that check clears. No test prep organization’s methodology/philosophy fits everyone perfectly, so sometimes you need a good hybrid of each company’s offering in conjunction with untraditional resources. Did I enroll in any of their classes? No! Am I saying you shouldn’t? Of course not! There is a lot of benefit to being in a structured setting to get the tools you need to do well. But ManhattanGMAT should be your foundation for prep, not the extent of it.
- I used YouTube. YouTube is your friend and one of those untraditional resources!!! I found so many tips, tricks, and strategies nicely packaged in a short video. Also do a thorough Google search. You’ll find “generic brand” GMAT prep material that can be helpful. The best studying you can do is practice. If you search around, you can find PDF’s of GMAT questions.
- I mixed and matched exam prep strategies. I think LSAT prep resources do a way better job of teaching you how to do well on Verbal, especially when it comes to critical reasoning and reading comprehension. The LSAT exams’ counterpart sections to the GMAT are much more difficult. Doing the LSAT prep for verbal is reflective of the ManhattanGMAT approach, if you can do well on ours, you can do well on the real thing.
- Ask your peers what they did. I think everyone has something unique that really helped them. Utilize those networks.
IF YOU REALLY BOUT THAT LIFE, you will persevere. I know we all have different journeys and engage with the exam in different ways. We’ve prevailed over slavery, segregation, and even the Bush administration. Remember there is never a testimony without a test. We have no choice but to rise to the occasion because you decided to be exemplary. Don’t empower the exam by conditioning yourself to live in fear. You got this.