They say the couple that studies for a graduate admissions test together, stays together. Or, if no one says that, Surya Kapur might hope it’s true. A month after getting married, Kapur, 32, and his wife began prepping for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), required for most business school applications, by taking classes at Sherpa Prep.

When Kapur first took the GMAT in 2009, he studied on his own with test prep books from Kaplan and The Princeton Review. But he knew he could do better.

“I sat in on a Sherpa class,” he says. “I learned something new that day that I was tested on [in] my actual test.”

Most grad schools require some sort of standardized graduate admissions test as part of the application, including the GMAT, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). When deciding how to prepare for them, students must consider whether an in-person or online class would be beneficial, or whether self-study would do the trick.

“Test prep is a very personal choice,” says Joanna Graham, director of academics at Veritas Prep. “It’s kind of like buying a car. You would never just show up and pick out a car in the lot because you think it looks pretty. Everyone is going to have a very different testing style.”

Jay Friedman, founder of Sherpa Prep, recommends researching prep companies and asking if you can sample a class before committing. “Do the legwork,” he says.

Here are a few things to consider when deciding how to prepare for grad school admissions tests.

The price of prep classes can be steep. Sherpa Prep’s eight-week GRE course is $599 and its nine-week (40-hour) GMAT course is $999. Veritas Prep offers a 36-hour GMAT class (in person or online) for $1,650. Princeton Review’s in-person or online classes start at $799, but it also offers a self-guided online course for $499.

“We know that test prep isn’t cheap,” Graham says. “We want students to recognize that it’s an investment.”

A GRE or GMAT study book, by contrast, can cost less than $50, but requires a lot of self-discipline on the part of the student.
Graham notes that 60 percent of students report that they self-study for the GMAT exam, and statistically there’s no difference in their scores.

“You have to do what’s going to be best for you,” she says.

Part of the cost of the prep classes comes from hiring top teachers: Sherpa Prep instructors have a master’s degree or higher, at least two years’ teaching experience and have scored in the 99th percentile in math and verbal on the GRE or GMAT. Veritas Prep instructors similarly have scored in the top 1 percent of the GMAT and are rigorously trained.

“You want someone who is naturally good at the content,” Friedman says.

Alana Williams, 31, liked the personalized touch of Sherpa Prep’s on-site courses, which have no more than 12 students per class and encourage questions and dialogue. Williams took the class in 2015 and again in 2016 (Sherpa Prep allows students to take the class a second time at no extra cost), and began her MBA at the University of Texas at Austin this fall.

“I knew I wanted to go to a top-20 school,” she says.

Graham notes that Veritas Prep is moving more toward online delivery of classes.

“Most grad students are working professionals,” she says. “They have other things that are top priorities, so we try to make delivery as easy as possible.”

Consider whether you learn better in groups, Graham suggests.

Whether students self-study or take a class, experts agree that they have to put in the time to get the scores they want.

“It takes a lot of time, energy and commitment,” Friedman says. Even if they’re not taking classes, he suggests students put in a minimum of 100 hours of preparation before the big exam.

Kapur says students should expect to spend 10 hours per week studying in addition to the hours spent in class. He retook his test in September and scored 30 points above his target score. His wife will take the GMAT in November.

“Having a prep course definitely helps, but a lot of the preparation depends on students themselves,” he says.

Check the fine print
Before taking a grad school admissions test, be sure to check the requirements for specific schools and programs of study. In addition to the GRE, some programs require GRE subject tests, such as English or chemistry. Many business schools now accept GRE scores in lieu of the GMAT, including American University, Georgetown University and the University of Maryland. At George Washington University, some departments will waive the GRE requirement for students who already have a law degree, medical degree or doctorate. And note that if you took the test but didn’t apply to grad school right away, the scores are usually valid for five years