By Brian Burnsed

It can lead to a higher score, but your mark might expire before you garner enough work experience

Natalie Alvarez enrolled in the M.B.A. program at Concordia University -- Irvine in 2010, but still laments the process of getting there: She took the GMAT in 2009 but wasn't happy with her score, eventually paying $2,000 for tutoring. She wishes she'd taken the GMAT while still an undergraduate.

"I had found that I have forgotten almost all of the material I learned [as an undergraduate]," she says. "It wasn't just that I was two years removed from school, but five years removed from relevant math classes I took my freshman year. I am a firm believer that had I taken the GMAT while still in school, with material fresh in my mind, my scores would have been better."

Alvarez may be right. According to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, students who take the test when they're 20 or 21, presumably while they're still in school, score an average of 39 points better than their 22- and 23-year-old counterparts. A higher score can lead to entry into top programs that typically garner higher salaries for graduates. In fact, every 10 point decline in a GMAT score roughly correlates to about $3,000 less in starting salary after business school, according to analysis of GMAT score and job placement data performed by test prep firm Knewton.

"Being in school while prepping for the GMAT might give you an edge because your schedule is much more flexible while in college, so it's easier to find time to study, and the test material should be fresher in your mind given some likely overlap with your existing coursework," says Alexis Avila, founder of test prep firm Prepped & Polished.

Students who take the test while still in college may have to sacrifice grades or their free time. Erika Walker opted for the latter. She ultimately decided against attending business school and is now a human resources manager, but took the GMAT in 2002 while still in school. She says the test didn't interfere with her studies or harm her grades, but that it ate into her free time. "GMAT preparation took most of the time I used to spend with my friends and family, so they had to bear not seeing me around for some time," she says.

For those who opt to take the test after graduation, the verbal section of the GMAT can pose a challenge. Though many who wait a few years after college to take the test may dread the quantitative section, it's essentially rooted in algebra and arithmetic, which can be refreshed through simple review, experts say. The challenge in the quantitative section -- formulating a strategy for the GMAT's unique question types -- is similar for college students and graduates. The verbal section, however, could prove to be the most challenging for those who don't take the test during college, says David Ingber, a GMAT instructor for Knewton.

"People still know how to read -- and people read all of the time pretty much no matter what your job is -- but reading critically, answering critical reading questions, and really focusing on very meticulous grammar can be a really difficult thing for people who are a few years out of college," Ingber says. "People tend to focus on the math, but reading dense passages and trying to draw information out of them can be just as difficult, if not more so."

Though the material may be fresh for college students, and data suggest taking the test before graduating can lead to a higher score, there is a catch for those who wish to take the test during college. GMAT scores only stand for five years, so the window to apply with a score from a test taken in college may close before students attain the three to five years of work experience required by most schools, Avila of Prepped & Polished says. "It's a risky strategy to take the GMAT during undergrad and assume you'll be at b-school within five years," he says.

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Pros and Cons of Taking the GMAT in College