Should You Take a GMAT Prep Course?

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In some parts of the world, particularly in major metropolitan areas such as Manhattan, GMAT prep courses are almost a rite of passage for prospective M.B.A. students. For those students, it isn't so much a question of whether, but one of which. With so many companies competing for your four-figure checks, who deserves to be your guide through the murky waters of GMAT preparation?

Let's back up a step and focus on the whether question. As you probably know, you can spend a lot of money on a GMAT prep course, and any respectable sales rep can spout dozens of success stories of former students now happily ensconced at Wharton, Harvard, or Duke, or in their million-dollar yachts. Good for them. But is it right for you?

In my experience, there are three main advantages to taking a classroom course:

  1. A structured schedule. Usually, you'll attend class once or twice per week, and you'll have a fairly consistent amount of homework between each session. This is certainly preferable to spending two weeks cramming. Whether or not you stick religiously to the schedule, it does get you thinking about the test several weeks ahead of your exam date.
  2. Extensive resources. This is particularly true with Kaplan. Of course, you can also gain access to a company's resources by signing up for private tutoring; you can also get some of the same material in the review books they sell to the public.
  3. Learning in a group setting. Depending on how you feel about working with other students, you may not view this is as a plus. However, in a group of 10-12 students, there are a number of possible benefits: others will ask questions that you were unable to phrase or embarrassed to pose, peer pressure may induce you to keep up with the workload, and you might meet a useful study buddy.

Of course, there are negatives to the classroom experience, as well:

  1. It can be time-consuming. If you are traveling to a classroom 8-10 times for 2-3 hour sessions, the time investment is almost certainly greater than it would be with a private tutor or for self-study. I've seen dozens of students give up on the process (sometimes temporarily, sometimes not) when a class schedule no longer fits into their lives, or when they didn't do the homework one week and were ashamed to have fallen behind.
  2. It isn't personalized. One of the most common complaints I heard about the classroom course offered by my former employer is that it was designed for a 550-600 GMAT scorer. If you are starting at a low level (perhaps you haven't done math in a decade) or you are already a 90th-percentile scorer, much of the material covered in the course may not be useful to you.
  3. Not every teacher is great. Every test-prep company has standards (ones they consider to be quite high), but I heard more complaints about teaching quality than any other single aspect of the classroom course at my former employer. You can mitigate this effect by relying on the recommendation of a friend who prepped with the company you've chosen, or by sampling a number of different teachers. Another option is sticking with a smaller company that has gotten its reputation based on the strength of a single instructor.

Most of these pros and cons do not apply to everyone; that's part of the reason I wanted to set them out this way. If you work next door to the location of a classroom course where a great instructor is teaching and you're shooting for a 630 on the GMAT, it may well be the best option.

On the flip side, there are many students who would not benefit nearly so much from the experience and would better spend their time and money elsewhere. In future tips, I'll get into more details about other study options. In the meantime, remember to think about whether or not you ought to take a classroom course--that is, before you compare brochures and write a check.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Math

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Quant section. It's "far and away the best study material available," including over 300 realistic practice questions and more than 500 exercises!
Click to read more.