These Words

I just started seriously preparing for the AWA section of the GMAT. Until a week or so ago, I had no idea what was involved in the Analytical Writing Assessment. After reading a few different sample essays and some preliminary prep material, I devised a basic approach.

Intro to the AWA

The AWA includes 2 essays: an analysis of an issue and an analysis of an argument. The time allotted for each essay is 30 minutes. Each essay is graded on a scale of 1-6 by multiple markers, and the average of these marks is what you are awarded. The average is rounded up to the nearest multiple of 0.5. A score of 5 or 6 would be a good score to achieve.

The analysis of an issue is your standard five-paragraph opinion essay. You are given a topic and you are expected to choose a side on the issue and make arguments to support your position. Generally, 2-3 arguments with some supporting examples drawn from history, literature or personal experience are more than enough for a strong essay. As with any essay, a strong introduction/conclusion stating your thesis is required.

The analysis of an argument essay is like an extension of the critical reasoning questions from the verbal section. You are given an argument: “when i taught middle school the grades of my students went up x%. When I was fired and someone else took over, grades fell x%. Therefore I should get my job back.” Based on such an argument, you are to discuss how well-reasoned the argument is. In every case, the best bet is to say that the argument is poor or flawed, and provide reasons why. Invariably, the reasons are that the author’s premise and assumptions are not well supported. The authors of these arguments usually do not provide any evidence to support their claims, and implicit to their arguments are assumptions that establishe causal links between two events. Breaking 2-3 of these assumptions down should be enough for a strong essay.

How to Approach the AWA

If you are comfortable with your writing skills, the best way to prepare for the AWA is to practice. Most of the time, you would want to allot 5 minutes to outline your essay and come up with your main points, spend 20 minutes writing, and the last 5 minutes proof-reading the essay. So if you are a strong writer, the best way to tackle these essays is to visit mba.com (http://www.mba.com/the-gmat/test-structure-and-overview/analytical-writing-assessment-section.aspx) and download the official list of topics, and then just write as many timed essays as you can before the test day.

If your writing skills need some brushing up, there are numerous resources providing tips and templates/outlines that you could memorize to make life easier. These can be found at Beat the GMAT.com (http://www.beatthegmat.com/mba/resources#linkcat-68). After reviewing these tips and formulating an approach that works for you, go back and practice, practice, practice.

My Prep Plan

Given that I like to write, I decided that the best way to practice for me was to write timed essays along with my practice CATs. I might occasionally write a couple of timed essays when I have a free 30 minutes as well. I’ll post my latest essays separately in case anyone’s interested in seeing a sample or providing feedback.

I plan on reviewing the official topics and making sure I don’t see anything too difficult. If I see topics I might be unfamiliar with, I will probably try to set aside time to write them. My goal is to write between 10-15 of each type of essay between now and June 4th.

Last Words

The AWA does not test whether someone is an amazing writer. The goal of these tests is to assess whether someone is a competent business writer, and can think analytically about an issue and critically about an argument presented to them. So the goal is not to spend hours polishing writing skills and achieving the quality one might need to be an author, but rather to understand how to formulate an argument, develop each point fully but concisely, and present an essay with minimal grammatical and spelling errors. This is a much easier goal, and should be achievable for everyone comfortable with the English language.

Hope that provides some encouragement to anyone who might be dreading the AWA portion of the GMAT. Happy writing!


Walk This Way

Time for an update on how my prep is going. Over the past 3 weeks or so, I have completed about 35 hours of prep. This time includes 5 practice tests. With the remaining time, I went through the Princeton Review guides, attempted a few questions from their bins before deciding that it might not be very useful, reviewed some concepts from the Manhattan GMAT strategy guides, and done some preliminary work on the AWA. Here are the results from my tests so far:

Notes on the scores:

  • Since my first GMAT prep test, I have been writing AWAs before I start the actual test. This has helped me realize that the extra hour takes its toll on stamina and I’m hoping that through enough practice, I will have developed the endurance to stay focused on the verbal section before my test day. I’m already seeing results on this front.
  • On the first Princeton Review CAT I took, I scored only a 700. From everything I read, these tests were more likely to overstate scores than understate them, and so I got a bit worried. I attributed the lower score on the first test to the fact that I wrote it at 7 p.m. after a long day. I was also rushing to write it so I could head out to meet friends – I had about 30 minutes left on my verbal section when I was finished. This test was also the first time I had tried to do the AWA before the actual sections, and that impacted my focus on the last stretch.
  • Looking back now, I’m not fully sold that the Princeton Review tests are a good tool. The algorithm seems off when compared to both the Kaplan test and the first GMAT Prep test, and the questions seem to have a different style as well. I was able to identify a couple of patterns, and picked up on a couple of key things through these tests, but overall, I think I might have made a mistake paying for theses and perhaps I should have paid for access to the Manhattan GMAT CATs instead.
  • The one benefit PR offered is the chance to have a couple of AWA attempts graded. I’m saving my last test for a date closer to my actual test date to evaluate my AWA writing again then.
  • The Kaplan test I wrote today felt good. Not as good as some of the PR tests (all the more reason I believe that those tests are flawed), but still fairly good. The score on these tests are supposed to understate expected results on the actual test, so I’m feeling ok after that one. Familiar patterns that I saw after my first GMAT prep test, but which seemed to not be the case after my PR tests re-emerged, suggesting that either I worked on these weaknesses but am slipping back into old habits, or that the Princeton tests are flawed. Either way, I have a clearer picture on where I need to improve.
Plan going forward:
I’ve mentioned some patterns I’ve observed and some things I need to work on. Here they are, along with steps I’m going to be taking to address these:
  • While I am fairly confident with sentence correction, it remains my weakest area. I have not built up the familiarity with all the question types and although I am confident I can do well with idioms, there are some on whose usage I am still not 100% comfortable. So over the next couple of days I will be going through the MGMAT SC guide and working through some of the advanced material to get up to speed.
  • I still tend to speed through questions, especially data sufficiency questions. The answer is almost always not ‘E’, and I tend to miss minor details in the question which alter my answer. There was a question today where I thought to myself: “If they gave me this piece of data, then I could solve using statement (II), and B would be the answer, but since I don’t have it…” Turns out the info I needed was in the question the whole time. I absolutely need to avoid mistakes like this as I would just be wasting away easy points. Gonna be doing a whole whack of DS questions from the OG after I work on SC questions and see positive results.
  • I am still writing AWAs, and even wrote one with the Kaplan test today. I just have no way of really assessing my work except for comparing with other essays online. Overall, I think my argument essays are fairly strong and I am able to identify flaws and convey my arguments in a concise manner. With the issue essays though, I have difficulty keeping my thoughts brief and still developing them fully. I find myself overwhelmed with ideas and points I want to make, and I invariably end up flitting through too many points without giving any of them the full time they deserve. So that’s what I’ll be working on going forward.
Overall, looks like things are going according to plan. No reasons to panic yet, but no real reason to celebrate either. As long as I am able to achieve some measure of improvement on my SC questions and learn to take my time with DS questions, I should see consistently strong results. Here’s hoping the next few practice tests bring me the consistency I seek.

Destination Unknown

I bought Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson a few weeks ago. I finally got around to reading some of it recently, and I realized that I probably read at a lower level now than when I was 10. I remember reading this classic as a kid, and enjoying it immensely. Now, while it is still a good read, I don’t find myself getting through the book as easily as I would have imagined. I have to get back to reading at a higher level, if for no other reason than to satisfy my ego.

As a young boy, I wasn’t a big fan of video games or toys, but if you gave me a good book, I would get drawn in for hours. I used to love opening up a book and getting lost in its pages. I would come home from school, spend some time playing with friends, have some dinner, and invariably spend a few hours reading before bed. Yes, school work and studying took a back seat; in fact, my appetite for reading is probably what caused me to develop my propensity for procrastination and my willingness to prioritize my hobbies ahead of my work.

Armed with a membership to the local library, I devoured hundreds of books. My usual fare tended to be mystery novels and thrillers – an enthralling narrative tended to capture my imagination better than eloquent prose. I moved quickly from the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie to Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Doesn’t sound like the highest quality of books or the most challenging to read, but this was between the ages of 6/7 – 10/11. Along the way, I read some of the classics like Great Expectations or the aforementioned Treasure Island.

I was also a sucker for series which created vivid universes and a diverse set of characters. One such series was the Animorphs by K.A. Applegate. Those familiar with the series will agree that the books were fairly poor in the quality of writing, but were strangely addictive because of the plot. Each book was formulaic, and built up to a fast-paced climax. I would blaze through each of them in a couple of hours, and I would eagerly await my next opportunity to get my hands on another book from the series. My parents spent a fair chunk of change on these books, ordering them off those Scholastic lists we would get at school. Each time, my dad would roll his eyes and tell me how I was wasting my time reading something so bad, but he would never stop me from buying them.

I guess it was always my dad who encouraged me to read. I virtually had a library at home growing up because of all the books he had read and collected over the years. Whether it was through buying me any book I wanted, from Tintin and Asterix comics, to World book Encyclopaedias and the Childcraft series, or through giving me recommendations for more advanced reading, he developed my love of reading. For that, I have to say thanks.

I used to average about 40-50 books a year in my preteens, and that is probably grossly understating it. Granted, some of these were comic books, but they all count in my opinion. Over the past 5 years, during my university career, my average is probably 10-15 a year. Life gets in the way too often. The point of this post before I went on a completely unrelated tangent, was that I need to get back to reading. To that end, here is a list of books I plan on reading in the next few weeks, all loaded up on my Kindle and ready to go:

  1. Bossypants – Tina Fey
  2. Treasure Island – R.L. Stevenson
  3. The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King (mostly to see if it lives up to whatever hype it gets…)
  4. 1984 – George Orwell (for some reason I never finished this book my first time through)
  5. The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
  6. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift (don’t think I ever read the entire original)
  7. Moby Dick – Herman Melville (haven’t read this either… man I’ve skipped out on a lot of classics)
Other recommendations welcome!

On Bargnani

Taking a break from studying, I started thinking a little bit about where the Raptors can trade Bargnani this off-season. There have been numerous calls for him to be traded, but are there even any teams that would consider trading for him? I believe it’s not about the contract for Bargnani yet – he’s making a reasonable amount comparatively for what he produces and so how much he’s being paid doesn’t hurt his trade value. This could change if, for example, Bargnani is traded to the Celtics and forced to come off the bench and all of a sudden loses faith in himself and can’t score 10ppg. Such low production would definitely make his $10M/year contract look as bad as the Baron Davis and Jermaine O’Neal contracts. As it stands, I think trading Bargnani is more about getting him in the right situation so his particular talents can be used effectively without hurting his team’s chance of success.

To get a better understanding of realistic trade options, I looked at two factors – teams that might want Bargnani, and teams which have players the Raptors would want. Sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many trade scenarios I’ve read that don’t consider one factor or the other.

So what kinds of teams would want or take a chance on Bargnani? He is essentially a high-volume scorer and not much else, ideal for a sixth man type role or when paired with a defensively strong big. This is all well-documented, and Colangelo even tried to do the latter by attempting to trade for Tyson Chandler last year. In the past, the Raptors have experimented with bringing Bargnani off the bench, and it appeared to have an impact on his confidence. So for a team to use him in a sixth man role, they would likely still need to give him decent minutes.

Teams with a good (term used loosely) defensive big to pair with Bargnani (in no particular order): Lakers, Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Washington, Clippers, Phoenix, OKC, Portland, Sacramento, Memphis, San Antonio. Of these, the Lakers, Bulls, Trailblazers, Clippers and Grizzlies are unlikely to have room in their big man rotations. Portland might, if Greg Oden is gone, but a front-court of Aldridge and Bargnani would probably have similar defensive issues to Bosh/Bargnani. Dallas has Dirk, and Bargnani would have no place there. This leaves about 12 teams that can probably find a significant role for Bargnani alongside a good defensive big man.

Bargnani on almost any team above is scary. Pairing him with Howard, Garnett, Perkins, Bogut or Horford would make for a top-notch frontcourt, and other possibilities like Bargnani-Okafor, Bargnani-ageing Duncan, or Bargnani-Cousins could be amazing as well. But what can the Raptors get out of these teams? If I were the GM, I would attempt to get high draft picks and a couple of prospects, or a solid player with first round picks in future years. Here are a few ideas (just the principals in the trade, haven’t worked out salary matching issues etc.):

  • Orlando: no idea what we would want other than Dwight Howard, and that’s not happening any time soon
  • New Orleans: Trevor Ariza + picks?
  • Boston: Jeff Green + picks? He hasn’t exactly worked out great there and Danny Ainge might be willing to go in another direction with his attempt to infuse new talent to the team. Might need another team to bring back some more talent to the Raptors to make this worthwhile as the picks are likely to be low for another couple of years. Will have to sell Boston a bit as Garnett is likely gone in a couple of years and without Perkins, they have no one to complement Bargnani
  • Denver: Ray Felton, Gallinari or Ty Lawson maybe, but I’m not sure they’d be willing to give up their point guards or whether these guys are really long-term answers for the Raptors at PG. Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari + picks might be the best we can do
  • Milwaukee: Jennings/future first round picks – if they get a top 2 pick this year and we don’t, maybe we can trade up in the draft as well
  • Atlanta: Depends on how they perform for the rest of the playoffs… don’t think they’d be willing to give up someone like Josh Smith or Al Horford, who are really the only assets I would want from them
  • Washington: 2011/2012 1st round picks + Rashard Lewis’ expiring – might need to package Barbosa to match salary.
  • Phoenix: Good sales job = Steve Nash + picks. They have Aaron Brooks to take over PG spot and with Bargnani/Gortat in the front court they probably don’t lose too much and still allow Steve Nash to end his career somewhere else. While it’s not the ideal go-to-a-contender scenario for Nash, at least playing in Canada might be of some consolation. This could also just be wishful thinking on my part…
  • OKC: I honestly don’t know. Their top 5 of Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Perkins/Harden are pretty much untouchable, and I’m not sure what else we can get for equal value
  • Sacramento: Dalembert or Casspi + 2011/2012 picks. Could throw in others to match salary. Would work really well if they get a high pick in this year’s draft
  • San Antonio: Tony Parker, if Buford/Pop decide it’s time to try something different. Blair + picks if they believe Duncan has enough time left to allow them to find another defensive big to pair with Bargnani for the future. Key will be convincing them that Bargnani will survive under Pop and not just wilt under increased accountability
So I guess what this post shows is that there are probably tons of options for trading Bargnani. As much as Raptors fans think he is worthless, it’s pretty obvious that if you can hide his defensive shortcomings, he can be a great asset. The Raptors will just be to make sure they get the right players coming back and can build from there. Of course, where we draft and any plays on free agents will have an impact on what we can do. It’ll be interesting to see what actually happens over the next 4-5 months and whether the Raps actually pull the trigger on a Bargnani deal.

How to Lose a Life

Sooo I’m beginning to panic a little bit. It’s starting to set in slowly as I realize that I might be taking on too much. More than I can handle. In the past I have done this a few times, and the end consequence is that I don’t do everything as well as I would have liked. I take on too many extracurriculars, watch too much TV, read one too many books, go out to one too many parties, and take one too many naps, resulting in my grades suffering. It’s always the grades that suffer of course, because studying was always the least interesting thing to do for me, especially considering that most of my school work related to accounting.

At least in the past, I managed to get through everything with minimal damage. Now I find myself wondering if I’ve really taken on more than I can handle. Here is a list of my commitments:

  1. GMAT studying – about 15 hours a week
  2. class time – 12 hours a week
  3. preparation time for class/studying (assignments etc.) – 15-20 hours a week (who am I kidding, this is gonna be all assignments and tests… I never prep for class…)
  4. Meals & daily chores – 20 hours a week (laundry + cleaning etc. included)
  5. Social engagements (family gatherings, birthday dinners, parties etc.) – 6-8 hours a week (conservatively)
  6. travel time (for when I go back home to visit family or commuting to and from school) – 6-8 hours a week on average
  7. Entrepreneurial ventures – 20 hours a week (target… this might take a hit based on other things)
  8. physical activity (intramurals/pickup) – 5-6 hours a week
That leaves about 60-65 hours a week to rest, including sleep time.  But then of course, I haven’t included any of my UFE prep courses. For those unaware, the UFE is the Uniform Final Examination to qualify for the Chartered Accountant designation in Canada. Writing the UFE is the last step for me in getting my CA designation, so I’m going for it. I’ve got training sessions on how to write the exam every week or so, sometimes just 2-3 hours a week, and some times for 20-25 hours a week. Soooo.. given the commitments above, something’s gotta give. I’m beginning to panic a little bit…

Summer 2011 Movies!

Every summer, Hollywood releases a slew of sequels and big-budget productions. The quality varies, and there isn’t much in the way of cathartic experiences, but every year, I pony up some cash to watch a few of these movies on the big screen. There are some movies meant to be watched on a giant screen (or in IMAX), and the summer slate of movies is usually jam-packed with these.

This year looks to be an especially exciting season. While there are way too many sequels, as has been the case in most recent years, there are one or two that are promising. Here’s what I’m excited to watch:

Thor – May 6, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – May 20, 2011

The Hangover 2 – May 26, 2011

X-Men: First Class – June 3, 2011

Super 8 – June 10, 2011

Green Lantern – June 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II – July 15, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger – July 22, 2011

Other titles of interest include Kung-Fu Panda 2, Transformers 3, Cars 2, the Smurfs (mostly out of curiosity to see how it’s executed), the Change-Up and 30 Seconds or Less. Of course, there might be others that turn out to be great, so we’ll see how things go. Oh, and Fast Five could unofficially be on this list too I suppose – it looks surprisingly decent.

So it looks like I’m gonna be spending some cash at the local movie theatres this summer…


Defining Culture

I was talking to a friend of mine last night, who is in an undergraduate business program and will be entering recruiting season in the fall. Our discussion got around to “culture” within various firms and what it actually meant, and it got me thinking that maybe I should do a post on what “culture” means to me.

I’ve gone through recruiting processes for accounting and consulting firms – both, fields in which finding which firm is the “right fit” for you is emphasized constantly. In both instances, I neared the recruiting process with a strong preference for 2 firms; in both instances, I only received offers from one of the 2 firms, allowing me to avoid making a choice. My preference was based on a variety of factors, and ultimately reflected which firms I was most comfortable with.

What is Culture?

I like to think of culture as being analogous to climate: just as you cannot arrive at a conclusion that Toronto’s climate is rainy because you happened to spend one rainy day there, you cannot draw conclusions regarding culture from a small sample size of interactions. Culture, to me, is a pervasive set of attitudes and personalities among individuals of a certain group. Whether this group is defined by geography, race, employer, or educational institution, its culture is generally driven by common experiences and philosophies instilled in them.

In the case of employers and business schools, culture can be terribly subtle and difficult to isolate/identify. For instance, the general profile of an MBA student at a top b-school is someone who is incredibly motivated, determined, dedicated, intelligent and ambitious. Each candidate might demonstrate these characteristics in different proportions, but in general, most candidates possess some measure of each characteristic. So how then, can one distinguish between culture at b-schools if their students are so similar?

How to Identify Culture

As with anything, there are multiple approaches to identifying the culture of a group of individuals. One can simply amass as many interactions as possible with members of that group until it is possible to sufficiently distinguish what separates them from another similar group (even if one cannot adequately define what this quality is). Conversely, one can be more systematic in the approach, and attempt to track their interactions and compare the results.

The best way to track the latter is to list out the characteristics that influence “culture” and then to rate each interaction based on these categories. Once enough data is collected, a conclusion on the culture of the group relative to others can be reached.

For business schools, categories may include:

  • strength of alumni network (success as leaders in the future, breadth of industries etc.)
  • area of focus
  • teaching methodologies
  • class size
  • diversity
  • opportunities available upon graduation (various ways to measure)
This, of course, is only a rough list to give you an idea of what to think about. But it’s easy to see how after attending many recruiting sessions or reading articles, one could divine the strengths and weaknesses of a b-school, and consequently determine a clearer picture of its culture. But none of this is relevant unless you can relate culture back to yourself.

What is Your Culture?

The easiest way to find a good fit is just by the way interactions feel. We’ve all been to networking sessions and conferences where conversations get awkward. But if you find yourself consistently in awkward conversations with representatives from one institution or firm, regardless of where you meet them, then perhaps its indicative of a bad fit. A word of caution here that it could just be that your networking skills need a bit of polishing, or that the sample size of people you’re speaking with is small. Conversely, if you always have interesting conversations with people from a certain employer or firm, then it is likely to be a good fit for you.

Another key part of finding your fit, whether with an employer or with a b-school, is first identifying what you are looking for. This is often the part most candidates do not spend enough time thinking about. To really know where you would be able to make the most of your time, you have to know what your skills and preferences are. For instance, I identified that I tend to be goal-oriented, ambitious and opinionated. I tend to gravitate towards people with similar personalities who have strong leadership and communication skills and those who have a good sense of humour. So for me, a good fit would mean that in general, people from that organization are accomplished, have the demeanor of a leader, and are easygoing enough to have a light conversation at networking events. Once I recognized this tendency, I was able to clearly understand why I was more comfortable with certain firms, and finding my fit became a lot easier.

Last Words

If all else fails, simply use the airport test. Look at a list of individuals who attended the school – if you’ve networked well, you should know quite a few recent grads/current students – and ask yourself if you would mind spending a day with them at the airport (as in your flight is delayed and you’re stuck there, not as in you take a fun excursion to the airport). Employers do this all the time when selecting candidates; it works both ways. If you respect them, look up to them, find them easy to talk to, and generally enjoy their company, chances are you would not mind at all. If the majority of the reps of the school/firm pass this test, you have yourself a fit!

Whether you’re going into recruiting season, or applying to b-school, I hope this provides a little bit of insight into how you can cut through the constant talk about “culture” and find the right fit for you.


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