Comparing GMAT Prep Options: Self-study v.s. In-Person & Online Tutoring

GMAT Prep Options Comparison

Although its importance is often overstated, the GMAT is, of course, a critical factor in the MBA admissions process.

While some applicants can achieve their target score without investing in any sort of GMAT prep service beyond purchasing some prep books, most applicants invest in an app, in-person or online GMAT class, or in-person or online GMAT 1-1 tutoring. In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of various GMAT prep options and offer some advice about how to choose among them.

Before doing that, however, it’s important to ground ourselves in how to begin any GMAT prep decision process.

What are the basic principles of effective GMAT Prep?

Before deciding how to prepare for the GMAT, it’s important to keep the following core principles in mind:

The GMAT is one part of a broader application. A score >700 does not automatically mean you are in really good shape for most of the top schools and the rest of the application process can be taken lightly. There is still an important story about your application to be told. A score < 700 does not mean you can’t get into HBS, either. MBA programs care deeply about why you are pursuing an MBA, why you want to go to that school, and what you’ll bring in terms of leadership and communication skills. You need to allow time after you take the GMAT to write and re-write essays, prepare your resume, gather recommendations, etc. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to do these things well. Sometimes, not taking the GMAT again so you have time for these activities is the right call.

It’s important to work back from your targeted MBA programs to establish a GMAT goal score for yourself. Per bullet one, you can overinvest in GMAT prep.  If you have a score of 690 and are targeting an Indiana University MBA, a good but not top tier program, you probably don’t need to take the GMAT again. But you could get denied with a 700 score and inconsistent or confusing application.

It always makes sense to start early and give yourself time to either a) take the GMAT again if you don’t hit your target score or b) spend more time on the rest of your application, which may or may not need to be adjusted based on how you do on the GMAT (i.e., if you just can’t seem to get your quant score high enough, you may want to find ways to highlight your analytical prowess in the rest of your application).

If you choose any sort of self-paced approach or GMAT class, always take the outline in the prep book, course, or app, and create a customized study plan. No matter what approach you follow, there should be a diagnostic exam completed upfront, and a customized study plan developed in the early stages of your GMAT prep process. Even if you are taking a GMAT course, the homework you do, or at least how you focus on that homework, should be customized to your strengths and weaknesses.

The following image will guide our discussion of the pros and cons of various GMAT prep options.

GMAT Prep Options
GMAT Prep Options

Should you prepare for the GMAT?

The only part of the image above that is red, indicating we think it’s clearly a bad idea, is to take the GMAT but not really prepare for it. I don’t think many  people really consider doing this, but I DO think some people believe that, to some degree, the GMAT is a bit like an IQ test, and there is a floor or ceiling to how well you can do, making intense preparation unnecessary. But it’s not like that. The GMAT tests knowledge of a foundational set of concepts and theories and your ability to think critically and logically.  This ability to think critically and logically through various math and reading comprehension questions is a skill that can be developed. The more you practice, the better you’ll do. Getting a high score is as much about hard work and practice as it is IQ.

Even if you are targeting a less selective MBA program, don’t assume getting an average GMAT score is easy. It takes time to remember math formulas and learn how to apply them, and taking the test cold may just mean you have to spend the money to take it again after you’ve done at least some prep.

Should you study on your own or invest in some sort of GMAT prep option beyond a basic prep book?

There are a few pros to self-study. It’s obviously the least expensive option, at least explicitly (but more on that to come).  It’s always highly flexible, as you can fit in your studying whenever it makes the most sense to you. Whether studying on your own is a legitimate option to consider depends on your target score relative to your current skill level. If you are considering self-study, you need to take a timed practice test upfront and compare the results of that to your target score.

Let’s say you are targeting a 700 score at least (a common goal). Even if your diagnostic practice test comes in at 450, you don’t necessarily need to immediately assume you can’t self-study. During that first few weeks of prep, as you are gaining comfort with question types and recalling basic math formulas and facts that you simply have forgotten, your GMAT skills and score can increase dramatically.  So, you should then take a practice test after 3-4 weeks of self-study. If you have improved from 450 to 575 after 3 weeks, you may be on the right path and self-studying could be a reasonable option. 3 weeks later, if you are at 625, the self-study option may be working for you.

If you aren’t making rapid progress, however, you should probably strongly consider investing in GMAP prep services of some sort. This is our recommendation for two reasons:

  1. Time is money. Even if you ultimately can read and practice and watch videos and build the requisite skills to hit your target score, it will take longer than if you had access to expert teachers or tutors to explain things to you. The time it takes you to get to your target score could be better spent doing other things, and may be worth more than the monetary cost of a GMAT tutor or class.
  2. The guidance of a teacher or tutor, including the way they explain a concept or how they pose a question, can often “unlock” a difficult concept for you. In that sense, it’s not about time or money for you to figure it out on your own, it’s a matter of either being able to ultimately master the topic, or not being able to. Obviously, this will have a big impact on your GMAT score.

You are going to invest in some paid GMAT preparation services. Should you choose an in-person or online option?

Because the idea of working with an instructor in a 1-1 vs. class-based environment is something that can be addressed as we discuss the online approach, let’s just focus here on in-person vs. online question. Many people understandably gravitate to in-person GMAT tutor or classes. They believe they will just learn better with a face to face approach where they can see the instructor, read facial cues, ask questions, etc. And these are valid points. However, it’s important to note that with the right platform, an online approach can include a live video feed and online whiteboard comes close to approximating an in-person experience.

And an online approach has its own benefits. Perhaps the most important benefit to an online approach is that you can find the best instructor or class for you and bring it to wherever you are. Accepting a lower quality of instruction based on who is in your particular geographic area doesn’t make sense.

Another primary benefit of an online approach is convenience/efficiency. Most GMAT test takers are busy professionals juggling many responsibilities. Negotiating schedules and locations for tutoring sessions or finding a way to make a class fit into your schedule can be challenging. If you can simply log online from anywhere, the GMAT prep process becomes more convenient and efficient.

And there are other benefits, too, namely:

  • You take the GMAT on a computer, so prepping for it on a computer helps build familiarity with how you’ll have to work out problems on test day
  • It’s often possible to literally download a PDF copy of the notes for the session, so you can focus in real-time on what the instructor is saying to ensure you understand, vs. furiously copying down notes you can’t read later anyway
  • In some cases, you can record a session for later review

There is no doubt that for some people who are less comfortable with technology and benefit from face-to-face interaction, an in-person approach is the way to go. But for many others, and we believe, for more than may even realize it themselves at first, online GMAT prep is an attractive option.

How does an online app/self-paced course compare to a more traditional GMAT course?  How does private tutoring fit in?

We think about these three options as lying on a bit of continuum from closest to furthest away from self-study, but there are some nuances here. Let’s start with some definitions:

  • Magoosh is a great example of a self-paced course/app – you are offered study plans, watch videos, do practice problems and full-length practice tests, can review explanations of missed answers, and get customized feedback on your strengths and weaknesses
  • Kaplan offers live, in-person and online classes
  • MyGuru primarily provides GMAT tutoring

An app or self-paced course approach offers great flexibility, and generally delivers video content in such a way that you are offered guidance on why you are missing questions and where to focus moving forward.  So unlike a prep book, you might say that explanations of how to do problems are greatly enhanced through the use of video, and the feedback you receive on your missed answers is highly valuable.  When you compare the option of self-studying with just the Official Guides to the GMAT (which, if you are going to self-study, you should be using) to spending $250 on Magoosh,  it’s a no brainer. That $250 is money well spent.

In-person or online classes are a nice option for the person who feels they need more guidance and accountability than self-paced courses or self-study provides. With a class, you have the option to ask questions in real-time, and most importantly, a plan of attack is given to you, and if you just show up each week for class and do the assigned homework, you know you’ll be making progress. Most GMAT classes are a great option for a student looking to score in the 600s (an above-average score). A GMAT class instructor must, on some level, teach to the average student, reviewing the moderately difficult concepts and questions to ensure understanding.  Substantial time can’t be spent on the easiest or the hardest questions, as only a few students will really be benefiting from the explanation.

Private tutoring is the ultimate in customization. A great GMAT tutor is a coach and mentor, and helps you develop a highly customized study plan. They help build accountability into the GMAT prep process. And the benefits of customized study planning and immediate, personalized feedback are significant. Across disciplines (academia, athletics, music, etc.) it has been shown that skill development is greatest when deliberate practice principles are followed, and customized instruction and real-time feedback are hallmarks of that. That said, of course, private GMAT tutoring is typically the largest investment of the above options. On the other hand, if you get where you need to be in 6 weeks instead of 24 weeks, there is a lot of value in the extra time you can spend on your applications and the reduced level of stress in knowing you are getting past the GMAT efficiently with the score you need.

In sum, we recommend preparing for the GMAT in a very serious way that’s customized to your situation, and as you consider your options, at the margin, consider whether an online GMAT prep approach could work for you.

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