For many people planning to take any of the standardised tests required for admission to postgraduate education programmes, preparation courses are the most obvious choice. For others, not so much. The question is, then, can you prepare effectively for exams as demanding as the GMAT or IELTS without preparation courses?
Getting ready for exams can involve a wide range of methods and approaches. Aspirants can resort to preparation books, video lessons, various online prep platforms, and many more. However, the first step some of them take is to look for a preparation course and sign up, expecting that it will provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills to master the exam. Many consider these courses indispensable in terms of preparation effectiveness and end result. A complete no-brainer, so to speak.
However, there are people who skip the courses altogether and focus on other preparation methods.
Self-preparation for the GMAT and TOEFL
Donka Parapanova, who works at education services provider Advent Group, is one such. Back in 2002, she decided to prepare for the GMAT and TOEFL with resources she can either buy, find in libraries, or borrow from friends. She says:
It didn’t even occur to me to sign up for a course because I had previously self-prepared for SAT and achieved a good score. I decided to apply the same method to my preparation for the GMAT and TOEFL.
She isn’t even sure whether there were any GMAT or TOEFL preparation courses at that time in Bulgaria, and even if there were, she said she probably couldn’t afford them. Her main preparation resource for the GMAT was a study book, which contained practice tests for each section and also about eight full practice tests. For TOEFL, she used another popular study book. She also borrowed study materials from friends who had taken the exams earlier.
Donka could also browse the internet, but back then finding online GMAT and TOEFL preparation resources wasn’t easy. Her preparation was characterised by a great deal of improvisation. To improve her English and reading skills, she used to read news magazines and scientific articles, applying the same time constraints to each article that are required by the real GMAT exam. She also compiled a list of possible questions that may be asked in connection with the texts.
Oddly enough, she didn’t worry too much that she was reading books and taking practice tests on paper in the run-up to a computer-based test. She went to the GMAT exam largely unaware of its actual interface and layout.
It didn’t strike me as strange and unusual back then that my preparation for a computer-based examination was based mainly on the use of offline resources. But when I come to think of it now, it was quite strange, indeed.
Self-preparation: advantages and disadvantages
In Donka’s view, the biggest advantage to self-preparation is that you can choose the learning approach that suits you best. In addition, you have more flexibility to change approaches if you realise that they don’t work.
Regretfully, she also faced many difficulties. It was hard for her to track her progress because she didn’t know what scores she had achieved in the paper-based practice tests.
Today’s online tests give you your scores immediately. I had no access to such tests back then.
From today’s perspective, she admits she should have signed up for a GMAT preparation course to get a more structured preparation. She needed a tutor to point out the areas where she needed to improve. She acknowledges:
When you prepare on your own, you are left wondering what may come up in the exam and whether you will be able to deal with it. And the end result often has an element of surprise.
Yet another disadvantage of self-preparation is that it is excessively time-consuming. Going to the library, leafing through thick books and looking for study materials here and there takes too much time. She had only one month to prepare for the GMAT, so time was a factor. She realises that a preparation course would have saved her a lot of time and also helped her achieve more than her actual score of 640 (on a 200 – 800 scale). This can be a score that many dream of, especially with just one month’s preparation. However, it is worth noting that Donka has an excellent maths background from high school and has also taken the SAT test for her Bachelor’s degree application – which helped her a lot to achieve a high score on the GMAT subsequently.
When it comes to the GMAT, depending exclusively on self-preparation and your own -efforts is simply not feasible if you want to know where you stand score-wise, she says. You need someone to at least rate your essays. Donka submitted five essays to a private tutor for scores and feedback — the closest she has ever come to using professional assistance in her preparation.
More than a year ago, she scored 7.5 (on a 0 to 9 scale) in the IELTS, again relying on self-preparation, but also using many free online resources and, above all, videos.
B-school application is more than just exams
Donka obtained an MBA degree in here home country. But despite the good results in her exams (she doesn’t remember her exact TOEFL score but says it was “very good”) she never enrolled in a university abroad, because of, as she puts it, poor financial planning and business school selection. Looking back, she says she made the mistake of focusing almost exclusively on the exams and neglecting other important aspects of the application process. She concludes:
If I had to apply again, I would use a completely different approach.