This is where I want to be right now...
It’s over. I made it. Step 1 complete. Mission: accomplished. Everything went better than expected. I took it one step at a time. I gave it 110%. Game, set, match. It is what it is. I know how Dwyane Wade felt when he hit that dagger 3 to seal Game 2 with 7 minutes left…
OK, I’ll stop with the lameness. Yesterday was d-day – I finally wrote the official GMAT. This is going to be a loooong post detailing my experience on test day, and my thoughts on preparing for the GMAT overall, so strap yourself in for the painful ride.
Saturday morning, I woke up around 7 a.m. with a really dry mouth and the beginnings of a bad headache – the telltale signs of a hangover-in-waiting. After cursing myself for over-doing it on Friday night, I grabbed some painkillers for the headache, chugged down a litre of water, and went back to sleep. Thankfully, when I woke up around 9, the headache was gone and I was just feeling tired.
My test was at noon, so I woke up at 9 a.m. with the intention of getting some last-minute prep in. I grabbed a coffee, and spent about an hour doing some word problems from the Manhattan GMAT strategy guides. It wasn’t anything too stressful and I just wanted to get my brain working and not feeling exhausted. By around 10 a.m., I was done with the prep work, and I felt comfortable. My headache was gone, and I was alert again. I grabbed a pretty big meal so that I could last past 4 p.m. and then watched some TV to get myself relaxed. Then, after a quick shower (read: 20 minutes soaking in boiling hot water), I grabbed some water and a bag of pretzels and headed out the door.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was driving at or below the speed limit. It was pouring cats and dogs outside, and I didn’t want to risk getting into any sort of accident. I hugged the right shoulder and made a few people go around me, and I got to the test centre at around 11:45 a.m. For those who are unfamiliar with the testing process, there is an extensive set of procedures you go through when you enter and sign in. After your ID is verified, you are asked to provide biometric information for documentation purposes. This consists of a scan of your right and left palms. They also take a mugshot for their records, and make sure you empty out your pockets into a locker provided. The testing room is a fairly large space, with cubicles and terminals along the perimeter. To enter or exit the room, you have to be escorted by one of the invigilators. Every terminal is under video surveillance, and outside the room, one of the invigilators sits and monitors the cameras. Before you enter, and when you exit the room, you are required to scan your palm on a reader which matches it with the information collected upon registration. They take every precaution to prevent any sort of cheating on these tests, and while the procedures are cumbersome, the overall experience is not really unpleasant.
After going through all the sign-in procedures, I was escorted to my terminal and provided with the standard erasable booklet and markers for my rough work. I quickly clicked through all the disclaimers and tutorial screens, and was finally ready to begin the test.
The AWA section was good, but not great. The argument essay was fairly straightforward, and I rattled off reasons why the argument was weak and how the author could strengthen them. The topic for the analysis of an issue essay was something I was comfortable with, so I again rattled off some points and provided my thoughts on the issue. Overall, I thought I wrote pretty well. My only apprehension is that I wrote too much again, in an attempt to develop my points thoroughly. Because of this, I think I sacrificed some clarity in my points and this might come back to bite me.
Once the essays were done, I took my 8 minute break, and went out and stretched a bit. The quant section was not as easy as I was used to seeing. There were far too many questions with absolute value inequalities and this slowed me down. I was behind pace for almost the entire second half of the section, and I had less than 1.5 minutes per question. Having to rush so many of these was not fun, especially since the difficulty level was consistently high (which I suppose is a good indication that I was doing all right). I had less than 45 seconds to finish the last question and wasn’t able to get an answer in on time. So once I was done, I didn’t feel very good. I knew I hadn’t bombed it, but I felt like my goal of hitting a 740 overall was now in doubt. I took a few deep breaths, and told myself that I would just have to try to make it up on the verbal section. I decided to skip the break because I was pretty focussed, and I thought I would be fine going right through to the end.
When I first registered to write the GMAT, my brother told me that I would have to focus on the verbal section a lot more than I would the quant section because the math should come easily to me. My friends echoed the same thoughts, and it made sense given that my undergraduate degree is in mathematics. But looking back, my performance on the verbal section has actually been consistently as strong as my quant performance, on a percentile basis. I always finished the verbal section with more than 10 minutes to spare, and most of the time it was careless errors that got me in trouble. So before I started the verbal section, I told myself that I could still reach my goal as long as I took my time and read every question thoroughly. I would have enough time, and although my stamina was running out and I was starting to feel tired again, I had to just work through it. I got started, and found myself breezing through again. Most of the questions were not as challenging as some I had seen in my practice tests, and I managed to still finish with about 10 minutes to spare. The key difference was that I didn’t feel like I had rushed. I genuinely took my time on any questions I was not 100% sure on. So coming out of the verbal section I felt a little more confident overall.
After the 4 minutes of post-game Q&A (GMAC collects demographic information etc.), I was finally on the confirmation screen. I confirmed that I wanted this attempt and the scores to count, and felt a rush of adrenaline in the split-seconds it took for my score to pop up.
Quantitative: 49 (86th percentile)
Verbal: 46 (99th percentile)
Total: 770 (99th percentile)
When I saw those unofficial scores, I felt satisfied. Not elated, and not ecstatic, just satisfied. I think that was my competitive instinct kicking in. See, when I first started, I set a goal of 740 based on median scores to enter the top schools. Since then, I have talked to a few people, and knowing how they performed raised the goal in my mind. I knew that if I got anything below a 760, I would be dissatisfied. I would have still hit my original goal, but that would not have been enough. I think this competitive instinct made me feel like a 770 was around what I was expecting, and not a score to really be happy with. That, combined with the knowledge that I didn’t have my best showing on the quant section, curbed my elation. This morning, after letting it sink in, I am actually glad. Regardless of how well I could have done, I do have an excellent score and managed to beat my own high expectations.
What I Learned While Preparing for the GMAT
I learned that the GMAT is a test like any other. It is not an IQ test. Like every other exam students write, with the right level of preparation, anybody can do very well on the GMAT. The key is to get a proper understanding of where you stand before you begin preparing, and then create the best study plan for YOU. Although sites like Beat the GMAT and GMAT Club are very useful to get study tips and ideas, the only way preparation will be effective is if you are able to evaluate yourself effectively at every step. Knowing how much work you have to put in at the beginning, and measuring progress after each practice test is incredibly important to actually achieving your target score. Rather than following an arbitrary study plan you see on any of those sites, the best approach is to learn about all the resources available (strengths, weaknesses, best practice tests, difficulty level etc.) and then create your own study plan. After every practice test, evaluate whether you have improved in the areas you wanted to improve, and revise your study plan if you need to. There is no benefit to simply outlining an x-hours a day approach where you tackle one study guide after another. That kind of approach is just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. So the key to GMAT prep is not which resources you use or how much you study, but whether you use the right resources and spend the right amount of time preparing based on YOUR needs.
I put in about 50-60 hours of studying. I was lucky because for most people the hardest part is remembering all the math concepts and re-learning geometry and algebra, and I had no issues with these topics. My prep was essentially just getting used to the 4 hour length, and building the stamina required to stay focussed for that long. I did 8-10 practice tests, despite constantly reading that too many practice tests can be a bad thing, because my needs were not to learn the material, but to get used to the environment of writing the test.
So before any of you commit to writing the GMAT, or any other similar exam for that matter, first understand what is involved and how much preparation you will have to do. Then, create a realistic study plan with extra time built in so that if you find yourself struggling to prep, you have a few days to get back on track. Book your test as soon as you have this plan, not before or after, because that will keep you motivated while giving you enough time to prepare as you need.
I’m not going to leave detailed tips on how to approach each section, as there are tons of resources online that probably articulate this better than I can. I will talk a bit about general approach though. The best thing you can do, is have fun while preparing. When I went through the consulting case interview process, I was repeatedly told that if I was not enjoying doing practice cases, I should re-consider whether consulting was the right choice for me. The cases are reflective of the entire profession, albeit on a very basic level, and I genuinely liked doing prep cases with friends. Similarly, the GMAT is reflective of what being a higher-level professional in business is all about.
You might never have to do a set of geometry problems as an executive, but the principles the GMAT tests are essential to succeeding in business school and beyond. For obvious reasons, reading and writing skills are relevant, as are critical reasoning skills. The quant section just tests your general comfort level with basic mathematics to judge whether you will be able to perform and evaluate quantitative analysis in the future. Data sufficiency questions test quant skills, as well as your ability to reason whether you have enough information to reach a conclusion – it’s a test of critical reasoning as well as math skills. Given all of that, wouldn’t it seem intuitive that if you are to enjoy the lines of work for which an MBA is necessary, then you should enjoy using the skills required in that line of work? And if you enjoy using these skills, on some level, you should be able to derive some pleasure out of tackling GMAT questions. So treat them as an exercise in sharpening your skills, skills you should enjoy applying, rather than an obstacle you have to overcome.
When preparing, I repeatedly read things like “no sane person would find the reading comprehension passages interesting, so just get through them.” Perhaps fittingly, I found the passages really interesting. Many of them were not easy to read, and the points were made laboriously, but the subject matter was interesting to me. I approached every RC question as if I was just reading an interesting tidbit online, and that made it a lot more fun. I now know random facts about the women’s liberation movement in the early 50s, and the potential impact of solar winds on climate, and those kinds of things always come in handy at parties.
So that’s all she wrote. I’m done with the GMAT, and now I’m on to other things in life. I will probably post some reviews of resources I used, and maybe some other specific thoughts around how to prep, but otherwise, I’m off to go enjoy me some sunshine.