My Experience with Standardized Tests*

Mara Walsh is a recent graduate who specialized in Marketing and Leadership & Change Management. Prior to Stern, Mara spent four years working in merchandising at Abercrombie & Fitch, followed by two years in digital marketing at Wayfair. In addition to serving as a Graduate Ambassador, Mara served as a VP of Alumni Relations for Stern’s Management Consulting Association (MCA), VP of Admissions for the Graduate Marketing Association (GMA), and a Block Leader. Mara originally hails from Wilmington, DE and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame. Mara now works at Deloitte as a Senior Consultant in its NYC office. 

It’s no secret that the MBA admissions process can be a stressful one. For myself and many others, most of that stress was brought on by standardized testing. I have struggled with standardized tests for most of my life and don’t exactly feel qualified to advise applicants on how to approach them, but I hope that sharing my experiences with the GMAT and GRE will be helpful to those about to embark on the same process. 

When I made the decision to apply to business school in late summer 2019, I chose to study for the GMAT on my own, rather than hire a tutor or pay for a prep course. I purchased a GMAT prep book, studied for about 2 months, and ultimately took the test for the first time in October 2019. Though my practice test results weren’t far off from the score I was aiming for, my performance on the test was much lower than what I thought would be acceptable for top tier business schools. I knew going into the exam that I would struggle with the data sufficiency portion of the quant section, and the anticipatory stress and pressure of taking the exam made matters worse. 

I was determined to improve my score, and subsequently took the exam twice more in November and December. Despite having more studying under my belt and trying new tactics to control my test-taking anxiety, I saw very little movement in my scores. I didn’t think there was much else I could do to improve my GMAT, so I submitted my application to Stern that January. 

In March 2020, amid the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I learned that I had been waitlisted at Stern. I graduated from college with honors and I had several  promotions at reputable companies on my resume, so it didn’t take much reflection for me to realize I needed to improve my standardized test scores to give myself a chance of being admitted into Stern and other business schools. 

I initially assumed that MBA programs had a strong preference for the GMAT over other standardized tests; however, I noticed on MBA message boards that the GRE was a potential option for those who may struggle with the quant portions. From my experience, the GRE’s quant questions are similar in terms of subject matter, but much more straightforward. As soon as I was waitlisted, I wrote to Stern reiterating my commitment to staying on the waitlist and indicated that I intended to take the GRE to improve my overall score. 

I spent a lot of my free time in the early days of lockdown studying for the GRE. Like with the GMAT, I studied from a prep book and took practice exams online. I ultimately took the test twice (from home on my laptop, of course), improving my score the second time. I knew that my application was strong overall, and I wanted to use my commitment to improving my score as an opportunity to prove to the admissions committee that I was going to work hard as a student.  I was admitted to Stern from the waitlist that summer. 

Looking back, I’m proud of the resilience that went into improving my standardized test  scores. That said, I would not recommend taking any (or more than one) standardized test five times! Instead, as you begin the process of considering an MBA, take some time to read up on which exam is best suited to your skillset. If the math section of the SAT wasn’t your thing, consider giving the GRE a try. If you take the GMAT and think you have a reasonable chance of improving your score with more studying or personal tutoring, go for it! But if after one retake you see little movement in your score, I’d recommend giving another test a try (in addition to the GMAT and GRE, Stern also accepts the Executive Assessment Test (EA), MCAT, LSAT, and DAT). 

Finally, if you find yourself on the waitlist like I did, take some time to reflect on what might make your application stronger. Stern places a tremendous amount of value on EQ, so demonstrating your self awareness with respect to your strengths and areas of opportunity can go a long way in the admissions process. 

*Please note we accept the GMAT, Executive Assessment, GRE, LSAT, the MCAT, DAT, and we consider standardized test waiver requests. Visit our website for more on our standardized tests policies.