Saturday, August 20, 2011



The GMAT is one of those nasty little tests that nobody really wants to take, but it's one of the big items on the requirements list for MBA programs around the world. As that is the direction in which my life is headed these days, it was a not-so-little hurdle sitting in my way that needed to be overcome. I'm planning on aiming for some top-class schools, so rocking the exam was pretty much a must.

I'll let you know how it turned out, but I just wanted to give my account of taking on the GMAT as a reference for anyone else who is thinking about taking it too. There's a lot of material on the internet relating to the GMAT that I looked through and it was interesting to see what approaches other people had taken to prepare for the test, so I just want to add my experience into the mix.

The test is done entirely on a computer and you can't go back to review questions later; once you submit your answer that's that. It's a computer adaptive test, where the computer selects questions for based on how well you are doing. What that really means is that if you get a question right the computer gives you an even harder one. You could view it as the computer just trying to push you in order to accurately gauge your skill level, but the way I see it is that the test just wants to break you; it wants to throw you a question that you can't answer. It's also timed and gives you about 2 minutes per question, so it's pretty much go-go-go all the time and you really can't afford to play around with a problem you aren't sure about to see if you can sort it out.

There are two sections: Quantitative and Verbal. None of the actual subject matter is all that difficult and everything in it is part of a standard high school education. The Quantitative section is mostly algebra and geometry, the Verbal section mostly grammar and critical thinking. On a basic level, it's not particularly challenging stuff. But they've got some very smart people writing up these questions and they are very good at writing rather tricky questions.

I started preparing for the test about a month and a half ago, studying mainly on weekends as work tends to run quite late on weekdays. I'd picked up a couple of study guides when I was back in Ann Arbor in March, but I was a little nervous if that would be enough. As I looked around online for study information, I was amazed by the lengths that people go to in order to prepare for the GMAT. There were stories all over the place of people completely discarding their social lives and spending half a year or more studying, $1,000+ prep courses, and $200/hr private tutors. Many people take the test multiple times (and it's $250 a pop!) in hopes of getting a score on par with those of students at their dream schools. Some refer to the GMAT as "The Beast" and there are plenty of accounts of the heart break following a disappointing attempt. Was I really studying hard enough for this??

To be clear, here is a list of the exact resources that I used:
-GMAT Review Official Guide
-GMAT Verbal Review Official Guide
-GMAT Quantitative Review Official Guide
-Cracking the GMAT by Princeton Review
-Free flashcards from Manhattan GMAT
-Manhattan GMAT CAT practice tests (x6)
-GMAT Prep practice tests (x2)

I started with the Princeton Review book, which I think gives some great insights into how to approach the test and how to work your way through the answers. It won't do much for you in terms of really knowing the content of the subjects covered by the GMAT, but it was very good in terms of test taking techniques.

From there, I moved on to the Official Guide, which is pretty much just a big collection of practice problems. The book has sections briefly covering the core topics, but not nearly thoroughly enough to be of real value if you are aiming for a high score. Fortunately it has a ton of problems to work through, each of which becomes a little lesson in itself for understanding what the GMAT wants from you. Most important, every answer also has an explanation, so you can see exactly how to tackle each type of problem. Most of the early questions are quite easy and I flew through them, but they definitely started getting trickier later on.

Once I had finished the main Official Guide, I started taking practice tests and working my way through the two subject-specific official guides. The subject guides are pretty much just additional practice questions and don't teach anything more about the respective subjects, but I think one of the most important things is just seeing a ton of questions and getting comfortable with the sorts of problems that will come at you come test day. This is also where the practice tests come in handy. The first practice test I took was provided free by Manhattan GMAT and I liked it so much that I happily shelled out the $30 or so to get access to their five other tests. Like the Official Guides, the Manhattan GMAT tests offer explanations for all the problems so you can look at what you should have been doing or, in some cases, how you could have been more efficient about solving the problem. Though they let you set the time limit for each section of the test, I took them all under the same time limits as the real test to get used to the time crunch. I also used the GMAT Prep practice tests that the company which runs the GMAT provides, but found the questions less challenging than Manhattan GMAT's and was disappointed to find out they only tell you what the correct answer was, but not how to solve it.

All in all, I took eight practice tests and got the following results: (Overall (Quantitative, Verbal))

700+ is generally the target range for Top 10 schools, almost all of which have an average of 710-720, so I was feeling pretty good going into the test. The Verbal score definitely has a larger impact on your overall percentile, which many think is on account to the increasing number of people taking the test who are from Asian countries that have very math/science-focused education systems. They kill the Quant section and get super high scores, but struggle more on the Verbal part which is quite grammar heavy. As such, my Quant score was actually a significantly lower percentile than my Verbal for all but the last test.

There is one other section of the GMAT, two 30 minute analytical essays you write at the beginning of the test, but they're scored separately and getting a satisfactory score on them shouldn't be a big deal. They're put in there just as a language evaluation for schools to reference, so I should be fine and I didn't bother doing anything to prep for them other than looking over some suggestions for organization structures.

Finally, this past Friday, it was time to take my first shot at the real deal. I'd taken both Thursday and Friday off from work to make sure I was well rested and relaxed. I made my way to the test center a good 45 minutes early just to be safe. A lot rides on this test and people invest a lot of time and money to get their target scores, so I suppose there's a lot of incentive to try to cheat and as such security is super tight. They take a scan of the veins in your palm (which apparently are unique for each person like fingerprints) and you have to have your palm scanned as well as show picture ID every time you enter and exit the test room for the breaks between sections. Intense!!

The Quant section of the test went much like many of the practice tests I'd taken, with time being the biggest issue. A few problems took more time than I'd have wanted, but there were a couple that I knew right away and just blew through as well as some where I could tell I wouldn't be able to solve quickly enough, so I could cut my loses, guess, and move on. The craziest part by far though was that about half way through the section a magnitude 6.8 earthquake started shaking the building. The tremors lasted for a good while and kept going stronger, but time was already tight and I've rode out enough quakes over the last 5 months that there was no way I was going to let it slow me down, so I just kept pounding away at problems. In the end, I finished with just 30 seconds left, but didn't have to guess purely for the sake of completing the test on time as had been the case on some of the early practice tests, so I was feeling pretty good about my performance.

The Verbal section was also not particularly different from the practice tests. I got a couple really difficult reading comprehension problems, but all in all it was pretty reasonable. I finished with 10 minutes left, which was how the practice tests had gone as well.

When you're done with the test, a page comes up giving you two options: Submit your score or have it cancelled. Obviously cancelling the score wasn't an option for me, but knowing that as soon as you press the button to submit your score will pop up on the screen builds up the anxiety for that brief moment. I literally just sat there for a good 30 seconds just trying to prepare myself for whatever might happen. I pushed the button aaaaaand....

Overall: 740 (97th percentile)
Quantitative: 49 (85th percentile)
Verbal: 42 (95th percentile)


One and done baby! That's a score that will hold it's own on an application to any school in the world. It isn't so high that everyone is going to think I'm some sort of genius, but it will clear all the necessary hurdles. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, you name a b-school and that score won't be out of place. I couldn't be more thrilled. The Verbal was a little lower than I had hoped and who knows what another couple of points there would have done for my overall score, but it will certainly do just fine.

The GMAT is just one step on the long hard road to an MBA. From here, there are schools to research, essays to write, a resume to polish, recommendation letters to have written, interviews, and more. But it's very much a step in the right direction. Though I have to admit that I did sort of enjoy working through the practice problems, I am more than happy to put my prep books away and move on to the more meaty parts of the application process. First Round deadlines in early October are probably too soon, so I'll be spending the next several months trying to get everything together by the end of the year in time for the Second Round cutoff.

I'm confident that I have what it takes to not just hold my own but really contribute at the top top schools out there and that's what I'm going to aim for. They're super selective, taking 10-15% of applicants, but you'd better believe I'm going to give it my best shot and make something happen. Watch this space, because I'm only just getting started!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you're learning that you're ready to be a big fish in a big pond. Not really news to me, but, like the Wizard told Dorothy, you've got to learn it for yourself.