The GMAT

 

The single most important thing to take away is that this test is NOT the only thing between you and an MBA.
 
Throughout my research, I have come to firmly believe that all schools look at more than just your GMAT score. The way I see it: sure a school would love to take an applicant with a 780, but if that applicant had a horrible work history and no potential to be employable after 2 years in the program there wouldn't be much value-add to admitting them beyond a brief boost in rankings.

 

Remember schools WANT a diverse array of candidates- diverse in terms of background, identity, work experience and goals.
 

  • Before we go any further two VERY important points

    • This is NOT an intelligence test

    • Your score does NOT determine your self-worth
       

  • GMAT Basics:

    • The test is scored on a scale of 200 and 800 in increments of 10

    • Schools will only look at your highest score no matter how many scores you opt to report

    • You can take the exam a total of 8 times in your entire life in part because this guy took the GMAT over 500 times and went to jail for it

    • The test is $250 a pop (it’s 100% a racket!)

    • People will refer to either their success with Verbal or Quant (I imagine that’s where Poets and Quants gets its name).

      • I, like many people I have spoken with and seen online, struggle with the quant portion of the exam because my entire life I have been led to believe I suck at math and I never applied myself and get anxious when I think of taking a math test and I hate the idea of a square root or seeing the letter x standing alone….

        • As a result of this, most of the focus ends up being on Quant and ZERO effort is put into Verbal. THIS IS A HUGE MISTAKE! The GMAT is a terribly frustrating exam- even if you are a native English speaker and your friends tell you that you’re an excellent writer. The verbal portion of the exam is unusual. STUDY BOTH.

    • Using Official Guide (aka the OG) to study is the best path to success.

      • You will probably have to combine it with another resource such as an online self-study program, tutor, class or some combination, BUT you must use the official material to understand the test format, wording, and process and be successful. Period.
         

Most blogs and forums will guide you to the median or average GMAT score (don’t forget these are completely different measures: the median is the midpoint of scores so exactly 50% of students scored above the median and 50% scored below it, while the average is the sum of all scores divided by the total number of students- different measures. My elementary statistics class tells me that the median is the best measure because outliers are not simply absorbed, skewing the data and you can truly identify where you stand. So if the median score is 720 and the class size is 202, you know about 100 people scored above 720 and another 100 people scored below 720. If the average is 720, you could have 1 person who scored a 200 absorbed into a pool of 201 students who scored just over 720).

 

Personally I advise looking at the 80% range (if schools offer it) because it provides you with a range of scores such as 600 to 790, so you can say that 80% of the student body is in this range- who knows where the other 20% is, but at least when you have an official score you can identify if you are within 80% of the student body. Granted the school will list both the range and the median, but hopefully you don’t feel like complete garbage with your first, or second, or third, or fourth, or fifth...GMAT score.

  • Keep in mind that the larger the MBA program, the greater the likelihood they will accept a lower GMAT score as they theoretically absorb the lower score into a pool of higher scoring applicants.

For your reference and some context, according to Graduate Management Admissions Council, the average US GMAT score in test year 2017 (7/1/16 - 6/30/17) was 549. Furthermore:

  • The average GMAT score for white test takers was 565

  • The average GMAT score for black test takers was 453

  • The average GMAT score for hispanic test takers was 500

  • The average GMAT score for asian test takers was 586

  • The average GMAT score for native american test takers was 491

  • The average GMAT score for multi-racial/ethnic test takers was 550

  • The average GMAT score for test takers who opted not to identify their race or ethnicity was 611
     

This test totally sucks. Though it is NOT the only barrier to admission, in my conversations with women it is by far the most common block to even considering business school.  
 

The GRE is a totally viable option!!

Rankings require schools to report the GMAT, hence its value in the process, but schools are increasingly open to the GRE because it both broadens the applicant pool (more potential MBA candidates is a fairly lucrative proposition) and the GRE is not yet used in rankings- however:

  • Word on the street though is that schools prefer the GMAT (despite what they say)

  • The one big caveat is that I understand Management Consulting and Investment Banking may be the only industries which request/demand(?- still researching) students have a GMAT score to provide during the recruitment process. If you think you may want to pursue these careers it may be advantageous to take the GMAT
     

How to start?

  • Take BOTH the GMAT and GRE cold (without studying) and see which you do better on.

    • The GMAT requires 100% mental math as you do not get to use a calculator

    • The GRE will allow a calculator during the quant section, BUT you must learn tons of vocabulary words to do well on the exam (scored out of a possible total of 340- 170 verbal and 170 quant)

  • Determine your career objectives- if consulting or banking are potential targets then you should probably take the GMAT.
     

Keeping it Real

If you dig around enough forums you will find the MBA applicant who scored a 780 with a month of hardcore studying.

 

Sure YMMV, but the odds of scoring a 780 with 30 days of rigorous studying are slim.

 

Realistically to do well on the GMAT will require 3-12 months of hardcore studying.

 

The word hardcore is a deterrent.

 

How are you supposed to juggle studying when you work full time? How the hell did this guy score a 760 while balancing a demanding job and young children? (Hint: an extremely supportive partner and minimal sleep).

 

Before I launch into what I did to prep for the exam, if given the chance to redo the process with 6 months to study, I would do 4 things:
 

  1. Buy a 3 subject notebook which will serve as your note-taking book and error log: 

    1. Since the GMAT is about quickly moving through problems and avoiding small errors which can easily result in the wrong answer, this notebook will allow you to see your progress as you can dissect approaches to solving each problem effectively and consistently. 

    2. Take notes! Write down concepts you want to review and break it into smaller chunks. Don't try to tackle quadratic equations before understanding isolating x.

    3. Anytime you get an answer wrong, review where you went wrong and try to understand why you got it wrong.
       

  2. Get the Official Guide (OG) and sign up for the exam:

    1. By using the official material (aka old test questions) you ensure you will cover all your bases in the actual format the exam uses.

    2. By signing up for the exam, you get access to 2 free full-length GMAT Computer Adaptive Tests (CAT) exams to practice on- this is priceless and horribly undervalued! By using retired test questions in the exact format of your exam the score provided is pretty accurate to what your test day results will be. I strongly advise only using the 2 CATs 2+ months into studying so you already have some good practice under your belt- although they are adaptive so you can reset the exams at any point and retake them with effectively all new question. 
       

  3. Sign up for either Magoosh or Target Test Prep:

    1. Each resource is truly magnificent and low cost!

    2. Magoosh ($149 for 1 year of access) is by far the most well regarded in forums and has an extensive test bank of both quant and verbal questions. Their website offers incredible customer service (rapid response) and numerous study plans. I was blown away by the detailed video breakdowns of every problem and the scoring methodology and all of the resources available on their website.

    3. Target Test Prep ($299 for 4 months of access) only provides quant material BUT it truly ensures you grasp the concepts behind the quant sections and builds up to common problems you'll see on the exam. As a result, it requires more than the 2.5 months I had to prepare to get through all the modules, but it was truly a great product.
       

  4. Sign up for GMAT Mentors (100% free):

    1. Major shoutout to Dan and Eric for working to connect GMAT test takers across the globe!

    2. Essentially you are matched with someone who aced the exam and is open to providing guidance and support for free. I learned an incredible amount from my Canadian partner who scored close to 800 and was able to review some of the more difficult quant problems from my practice CATs via skype over 3 sessions.

    3. The key to making the mentorship a success is coming prepared for each session with problems to review (to maximize each others time) and with your approach to solving it. I can't believe this is a free service- it is truly innovative and good karma mixed together.

 

Here is my GMAT study plan September 2017 to January 2018 which got me a mid-600 score:

  • I decided to pursue my MBA in the middle of September 2017, being slightly older than the median age of MBA candidates and with my WE veering dangerously close to 'Executive' MBA territory (10+ years) I opted to pursue Fall 2018 admission. The first thing that was clear was that I was going to have to take the GMAT.
     

  • I registered for a mid-December GMAT (the $250 fee is a total racket!)
     

  • If you just google GMAT+study you will be overwhelmed by the plethora of materials and websites geared towards MBA candidates. It is both scary and overwhelming. Magoosh kept breaking through the noise. I poked around for an hour or so and found their 3-month study guide. I felt my heart sink a little when I read that many GMAT test takers devote a year or more to studying for the exam to clear my target score of 730. I would soldier on no matter what!
     

  • I created an intense GMAT study plan in google sheets and purchased all the required material on Amazon. My target study plan was to study for over 200 hours after seeing that the majority of GMAT test takers who cleared 700 studied for over 121 hours. That weekend I took a free practice Kaplan GMAT exam cold and scored a 540. There was a lot of work to be done. I reached out to friends currently in business school and sought their advice and encouragement. I would not be deterred! 
     

  • For the first week, I diligently followed the Magoosh study plan. Then life kept happening. I was busy at work. It was hard to say no to friends and various commitments. I overestimated my ability. I talked more about studying than actually studying. I got distracted by the forums and the websites and videos guaranteeing a better score with simple methods.
     

  • My incredible partner had the great fortune of needing to spend a week in Europe. During the week I would join her, I fantasized about studying for 50 hours in cafes. This did not happen. After reading that many MBA applicants take the GMAT twice or even three times, I signed up to take an earlier exam in November so that my December attempt would serve as more of a safety net. 
     

  • I took tons of practice exams and never scored more than a 580. I was devastated. I took a free trial Manhattan GMAT Prep class, I was impressed by the approach, but could not imagine spending $1700 on GMAT prep (interestingly enough I spent about $600 more...)
     

  • The day of my official first $250 attempt I had my first 5K race and attended an event in my home city for a top-ranked program (that never extended an interview). I found a coffee shop near the testing center and started jamming to some great tunes, a friend happened to pass by and stopped by to chat. In a great mood, I walked into the testing center building had a long loud marble hallway that reminded of a European dictator. I made small talk with the other test takers as we entered the elevator on the way up to the center. I was cool, calm and collected. I started getting anxious as I took my number, put my things in the locker and had my photo taken. My heart started skipping beats once I entered the order of the exam: Quant, Verbal, AW. This was happening! The quant questions were harder than I remember. UGH. I trudged through, sweating. I hated the test center white flipboard and marker. It was truly a struggle I was ill-prepared for. My first GMAT report? I barely cleared 500. This was crushing! I wanted to give up.
     

  • Knowing I had a second GMAT scheduled for December, I threw myself back into studying the next day. The distractions would be minimized I would force myself to do better this time! I sought out a tutor after reading through GMAT Club forums and through an old roommate found a PhD student willing to accept $35 an hour. We met twice a week and I augmented our work with Magoosh and Target Test Prep (after winning a free trial via a Reddit competition).
     

  • My second attempt four weeks later saw a 30 point increase, but of course, just like the crazy person I am, I decided to take the exam the morning I was proposing to my partner (!!) why? It made sense at the time...Perhaps if I was calmer the outcome would have been better! I was disappointed and felt as though I had wasted more money. I failed to listen to the advice I had read about how to prep. Namely, I was not prepared to completely shut down my life for this exam or use the official study guides. I was convinced there was a shortcut. I switched tutors, now paying $70 an hour and meeting multiple times a week. 
     

  • The third time I took the GMAT was actually the original date I had scheduled way back in October. I took the morning off of work and made sure to have a hearty breakfast. I was ready! My tutor had suggested I switch the order of the exam I had been using (Quant first) and do Quant last in order to ease into the exam. My score improved by a mere 10 points. I was so upset. I sent a passive-aggressive text to the tutor and shut off my phone. It was not his fault of course, I just couldn't devote the time and attention to the exam that was necessary to crack 600 on this exam! Work was busy. Life was busy.
     

  • Spending time with family during the holiday season while GMAT prepping made me anxious and upset, each dinner was a lost study session, especially now that I had decided to try my hand at the GRE! Corporate finance would be just fine for me career-wise I told myself as I downplayed my interest in investment banking and the practical requirement I have a GMAT score. Over the course of nine days I studied for the GRE, cramming vocabulary into my head and appreciating the fact I had spent so much time on GMAT quant I didn't need the calculator (but appreciated the safety net). I took the GRE the day before new years eve and couldn't crack it. I felt good about the quant, but not about the verbal and even though my essays got a perfect score- all told, my GRE score converted to a lower GMAT score than my second attempt.
     

  • So I was a lost woman. A sub 600 GMAT. Application due dates fast approaching (via the Consortium) and anxiety. I completely turned my attention to my essays. Acknowledging my low GMAT score in my applications, I noted that I had another retake scheduled and had also enrolled in an undergraduate statistics class at my local community college. I was emotionally exhausted as the deadline for submission approached and I had to hit submit.
     

  • I spent the final day before my GMAT reviewing old tutor notes, especially on verbal.
     

  • The fourth and final time I took the GMAT exam I was truly a crushed woman. Applications had already gone out so this was a true hail mary. I was out of juice, but I scheduled a 3pm on a Saturday. Hung around the apartment with my partner and made my way to the testing center on one of the coldest days of the new year. I sat at the coffee shop around the corner listening to hype music while texting friends and very briefly reviewing the notes I had composed with my tutor. Deciding to pop into the testing center 30 minutes before the exam, I was surprised to learn I could take the test earlier than 3pm. I sat down and launched into the quant section. The verbal seemed to breeze by and I ended up feeling pretty good the entire exam. When the mid 600 score popped up I couldn't believe it. I started shaking. I had improved 110 points from my first GMAT attempt almost 2 months prior. It was miraculous. I immediately called the Consortium to let them know I had a new score to report. I took photos of the print out from the testing center and sent emails. I was elated!

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