When is the right time to take the GMAT?

For scores of admission seekers to coveted MBA colleges in foreign universities, the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) is one weapon they possess. The higher the score, the better are your chances of getting into your dream business program.

For the uninitiated, the GMAT is an admission test that most foreign universities insist on as part of their international MBA admissions process. It helps to get a good score, in line with the expectations of your target programs.

Why is there confusion about when to take the GMAT?

The question about GMAT timing stems from the fact that this exam is different from its Indian counterpart – the Common Admission Test (CAT). Many applicants tend to compare the international GMAT exam with the CAT exam in India and (incorrectly) assume that most aspects, including the test dates, will be similar. So let’s get some basics straight.

CAT is an admission test for MBA seekers in India, but it is only mandatory if you wish to study in one of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) or its affiliated institutes. You can sit for the CAT exam only once a year and the CAT score is valid only for that year. This means the ‘when to take the CAT‘ question has a clear and unambiguous answer.

On the other hand, GMAT scores are accepted by the business management degrees offered by foreign universities. They are also accepted by a growing number of Indian institutes.

The GMAT score is valid for up to five years. You can take it five times a year with a minimum gap of 16 calendar days between two tests. That is one of the factors that gives MBA applicants a lot of flexibility (and creates confusion).

Read more about the differences between GMAT and CAT.

Let’s now consider a few aspects that influence the best time to take the GMAT.

Factors that decide when you should take the GMAT


1. Your choice of MBA programs

A crucial step in the MBA admissions journey is to shortlist the names of at least 5 schools before you walk into the GMAT test center.

That is because the organizers of the GMAT offer the option to forward your score to five of your chosen programs, for free. And you need to specify that choice in a very short span of time immediately after you’ve taken the test.

If you randomly pick any five schools, you’ll be wasting the opportunity and be forced to shell out more money later (i.e. when you have more refined choice of programs based on your real GMAT score).

Read this article on how to select the right MBA college.

The MBA school list is important for another reason. Application deadlines will vary according to the number of application rounds for each college. Many colleges have 3 (or more) application rounds.

You’ll have to decide if you wish to apply in round 1 or round 2 of the admission process (sometimes referred to as R1 or R2). Round 1 is where, usually, the biggest chunk of applicants gets accepted by the schools. The next round is where the other applicants who’ve missed the earlier boat come into the picture. But the competition at this stage may get fierce as you are competing against strong applicants who couldn’t get through in the first round (maybe because they applied to ambitious schools).

As a rule of thumb, it helps to apply in the earlier rounds, but that may not always be possible for many reasons including personal / professional commitments.

Read how MBA admission chances vary in Round 2 vs Round 1?.

2. Your mock test scores

While deciding on when you should appear for the GMAT test, here’s one query to ask yourself, ‘Am I prepared to get my target GMAT score?’.

Not sure what your target score should be? Here’s the average GMAT score for the top MBA universities. If you want to be on the safe side, aim to get higher than that.

Among the key things you can do to find out whether you are getting close to your target score, is to take mock GMAT tests.

Mock tests not only prepare you for the real tests, these also give you an assessment of how ready you are for the actual GMAT test in terms of accuracy and timing. The popular GMAT books and test preparation software from various companies are quite popular with MBA applicants.

One word of caution here. The results of these mock tests may not be the final word on how you’d fare in the actual test. You might want to read this bit on the mock tests vs real GMAT scores to understand the subject better.

Have you taken enough mock tests to be absolutely ready? If you are, then you are ready to book an appointment at the GMAT center. If not, take your time, work a little more and then plan on the test date.

While the test score may be valid for five years, but it is advisable to use it for applications within the first three years of taking the test.

3. Your GMAT score breakup

Another perception about the GMAT is that it is only the higher overall score that does it for you. Well, it is important to get an overall high score, but admission officers will equally be interested in seeing how you performed in the individual sections as well.

Here are the basics. There are four sections to the GMAT test paper-analytical writing assessment, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal. In your test results, you will get your scores into four individual sections and one final total score.
Scores for verbal test are given in the range of below 9 to above 44. For quantitative, it goes below 7 and above 50. You must try and attempt all the questions, as your score will be affected with every question you did not attempt. The analytical writing assessment will have you writing an essay on a given topic. You will be graded in the range of 0 to 6 for this test which will get two independent ratings. The integrated reasoning test is scored in the range of 1 to 8.

It is complex exam as some of the questions will require you to give more than one response to see how you crack difficult problems using data.

On an aggregate level, your total GMAT score will range from 200 to 800, the higher in this range the better.

It’s common for Indian (and non-native English speakers) to score lower on the verbal section than in the quantitative section. Others score well on the main sections, but get very low scores on AWA and Integrated reasoning. These can be red flags in an otherwise strong MBA application.

Don’t rush into registering for the GMAT exam before you are convinced that you can do justice to each section.

4. The expected number of GMAT attempts

Despite your best preparation, there could be a thousand things that could go wrong on the GMAT test day, resulting in a score that’s way below expectation.

Unlike the CAT where you essentially lose the whole year, the GMAT allows you to retake the exam several times in the same year.

While there is no limit to the number of times you appear for the GMAT before you decide to apply to bschools, you must tread the path cautiously. Taking the GMAT once will cost you $250 (upwards of INR 16,000). That’s quite a lot of money. You sure wouldn’t want to waste it by taking the test without the right amount of preparation.

There’s also the time factor. After a recent debacle, it wouldn’t be prudent to walk back into test center in a few days all charged up to set things straight. Take the time to cool off. Work on your weaknesses. And then take another appointment. Which means your talking about 1-3 months at least.

That takes us back to the main question.

When is the right time to take the GMAT?

Read this first to get an idea of how you should plan your MBA application timeline. GMAT is just one part of the bigger plan.

It is ideal to appear for it the first time one year before the application deadline for the university of your choice.

This strategy is helpful in case you don’t get your desired high score in the first attempt that your choice of university will accept. Then you have enough time to retake the test for a few times more. Once you have the results in hand, you can go ahead and start planning for your student visa and managed the other paperwork.

So for instance, if your target program is set to begin in Fall 2018, you should have your desired score in hand before August 2017. Some might suggest that you should start preparing for your GMAT one or two months before your application. But we don’t think deferring such an important till the last minute is really wise. But then, it really depends from person to person.
You must be wondering if GMAT score is the be all and end all of your MBA journey, especially when you have exhausted yourself appearing for the GMAT exam time and again. Take heart, for it is not always so, at least not with all programs. The definition of good GMAT score for top MBA colleges abroad can vary. Some may take the highest score. Others may take the best sectional scores from multiple attempts.
We must mention here that a GMAT score is important, but not always the deciding factor in your journey to get selected. It is important to get you shortlisted, but your fate really depends on how well-rounded your application is in terms of your work experience, academic achievements, SOP, references and the like. It is not just the topping that matters, the whole cake better be delicious!

After you’ve given it your all, move on to the other parts of the MBA application timeline.

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MBA Crystal Ball provides professional Admissions Consulting services. Hire us to improve your chances of getting into the top international universities. Email: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin


  1. Somya says:

    Hi Sameer,

    I am going to apply for B-schools this year. I am hoping to get into a top-30 school from the Financial Times list. Having worked in IT consulting companies (currently in Accenture with around 4.5 years of experience at 10.5L CTC), I wish to build a career in strategy and management consulting. Are only top-10 business schools good to lend a job in one of Big-3 firms? Also, please advice a better geography (US/Europe/UK) for schools. Considering Europe MBA has a smaller debt, typically 1-year program, etc., which country’s MBA program (top-30 FT) will give me a better long-term ROI (also considering US’s 1-year OPT risk)?
    Xth – 85%
    XIIth – 79%
    B.Tech (Amity) – 6.4 CGPA
    GMAT – 740
    Exp. – 4.5 years
    (Applying for Spring and Fall 2018 programs)

  2. Rajkrian b says:

    Hi Sameer,

    I am Rajkiran – Btech passed out in 2007, 32 years old.
    Profession – Assistant Manager – Larsen and Toubro. 9 years exp in construction industry – Site based job.
    Planning to do 1 year MBA course. Starting to prepare for GMAT.
    1.Please let me know how beneficial will it be for me.
    2.How and what are means to prepare for GMAT?

  3. VIVEK SINGH says:

    Plz comment on my chances if I score close to 700 in GMAT
    10th 80
    12th 83
    Graduation -B Tech in Electrical Engg with8.31/10 from NIT Allahabad.
    Working in a steel PSU since 2012 as Electrical Engg.

  4. Sameer Kamat says:

    @Somya: The elite consulting firms recruit at many bschools, outside the top 10. Here’s a list to help:

    On the topic of RoI, a one year MBA will fare better since the expenses and the opportunity costs are both low.

    @Rajkiran: You’ll find many resources for GMAT preparation on this page:

    @Vivek: Here’s why we can’t talk about chances:

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