Now is a time when many applicants are scrambling to wrap up the GMAT so that they can finally focus exclusively on the written portion of their applications. Many are trying to decide whether to take the GMAT again, or just accept their current score and move on. While this is not a black and white issue, as the GMAT is only one component of the process, the following is some information that should help you put together your own GMAT game plan.

It’s important to understand how most of the top schools review your GMAT score. By and large, the GMAT score is self reported on your application. This means that the school will ask you for your highest score, or perhaps your highest and most recent, and you manually input it into your data forms. This self reported score is really the only one that the admissions commitee will look at until you are admitted. Once you are admitted, they will confirm the validity of the self reported scores. As a result, your highest score really, truly, is the one that is considered. I have been asked many times, and in turn have asked the schools – “Do you really only consider the highest score? ” The answer always comes back as a “yes”.

Does this mean that you should keep taking the test as much as possible until you see improvement? Absolutely not. You have much better things to do with your time and money. However, I do recommend planning to take the test at least twice. There is no harm in taking it twice, and because this test becomes easier with practice, there is a good chance that you will improve your score. Beyond two attempts it is really up to you – if you feel that you have a reasonably strong chance of significant improvement, you may decide to continue to divert time away from your essays and give the test another try.

What if you take the test and know, without a doubt, that you completely bombed it? Should you cancel your score? Again, since the admissions committee considers your highest score, there is no point in cancelling a low score. Every year I have clients who are convinced they floundered and were very pleasantly surprised. Those who cancel their scores are at a disadvantage – they have no idea how they scored, they have nothing “anchor” with, and no way of measuring improvement. Even if you did score low, it is nice to know where you stand, so that you can intelligently plan your next steps.

What is the score that you should be shooting for? The obvious answer is that you go for your highest possible score. Even if you recieved a 710 on your first attempt, a 760 is significantly better. If you think you can improve that much, even when your starting score is above average for a school, it is worth trying. That said, most of us cannot reach 760. The minimum you should shoot for is within the 80% range for your target school – again, the higher the better. Know that certain demographic profiles can get away with lower scores. It is true that a French female applicant, where English is a second language, may not be required to have as high a score as a Caucasian male from the US. If you are unable to reach the bar that you set for yourself, take comfort in the fact that 80% percentile means that 10% of the admitted class scored below that range. The rest of your application will have to work that much harder for you, but it is not impossible to overcome a low score.

Finally – preparation. While everyone has their own style and approach for preparing for the GMAT, I recommend a formal class or private tutor of some kind. Beyond the curriculum, a key benefit of a class is the discipline it provides. Between classes, homework and practice tests, you are likely to make the GMAT a part of your daily life and gain the practice that you need. Because the test is taken on a computer in a strange environment, practice and familiarity with the test is crucial. You should allow about 2 months for prep, and ideally you will not be distracted by essays and other aspects of the process during that time.

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