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GMAT preparation : Prep course or independent study?

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Alyssa Walker :
Regardless of what you think of it, if you're thinking about applying for your MBA, chances are pretty high that you have to take the GMAT.  And if you have to take the GMAT, you have to study for it.  But how?  By yourself?  By taking a test prep course?  We've outlined several pros and cons of each to help you decide-and to do your best-when you get to test day.
Pros of a Prep Course:
1. Organize your studying.
Regardless of how you study, you have to devote your time to studying.  Experts suggest that you should spend at least 100 hours-that's 10 hours per week for a minimum of 10 weeks-to prepare for the GMAT.  If you take a prep course, that time is organized for you-by experts who know the exam, know the material, and know, essentially, what you have to know.   A course will have scheduled meeting times, in-class assignments, and homework that will help you organize your time-and your studying-as you prepare.
2. Receive professional help.
You'll have an instructor who know the exam inside and out-and who should be able to guide you as you study.  If you already know that you have a hard time with statistics, for example, a professional instructor will not only be able to help you in the course, but may be able to offer additional help.  Another benefit of working with a professional?  Motivation.  You won't have time to slack off if you're working with a professional instructor who will keep you on your game… and inspired.
3. Cover areas you may overlook.
Unfortunately, not feeling super-confident about a subject doesn't exempt you from that portion of the test.  If you know you struggle in certain areas, you're less likely to want to study them independently.  By taking a professional prep course, you ensure that you will cover all of the material on the GMAT-regardless of how you feel about it.  The benefit of covering everything?  See #2.
Cons of a Prep Course:
1. They're expensive.
Let's face it: prep courses are expensive.  You might think of it as an investment.  If all goes according to plan and you get into the MBA program of your dreams, and then secure an amazing job, well… is it worth $1,000?  Maybe.  But what if you don't?  What if you change your mind? Sherpa Prep courses cost $999-and they're taught by individuals with teaching experience, a master's degree or higher, and scores in the 99th percentile. Veritas Prep, Kaplan, and the Princeton Review have similar requirements for their instructors.  Do you get what you pay for?  Maybe.  Maybe not.
2. Independent prep materials might be all you need.
For about $50, you can purchase a few GMAT study books and be on your way.  What do you need besides the book?  A study plan that you keep.  If you're motivated, diligent, and can work through potential distractions during your scheduled study time-like surfing the web, seeing that new movie with a friend, reading a book-or any of the other myriad of distractions that you may encounter, you will be successful studying.  A prep course organizes that time for you-do you need someone to do that for you?  Or are you competent on your own?
3. Prep courses don't reveal any big secrets.
Business lesson #1: don't believe all the marketing hype that you read.  So-called "secret techniques" are just test-taking strategies.  Now-maybe certain companies offer courses where you practice those strategies in a variety of ways-but no one will give you the keys to unlock the secrets of the test.  That takes work and time-not fancy marketing.
The exciting endeavor of taking the GMAT and earning your MBA is just beginning.  It comes down to this: ask yourself what you need to for successful studying-then go out and do it.  Knock 'em dead!

(Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family).

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