Each year thousands of individuals begin journeys that they hope will ultimately lead to an acceptance offer from top-tier business schools around the world, and for the majority of these applicants one of the first steps on the b-school path is studying for and taking the GMAT exam. With the 2012-2013 application season wrapping up, a whole new cohort of aspiring MBA students are beginning to get serious about their own school choices and application materials. Most schools won’t be releasing their updated application requirements until later in the summer, so one concrete element of their application that they can start working on now is properly preparing themselves for taking the exam. We sat down with the founders of the major online GMAT communities (Beat The GMAT and GMAT Club) as well as the Director of Academic Programs at leading GMAT test prep firm, Veritas Prep. These individuals have a combined wealth of experience to draw upon when providing helpful tips and insights to share with anyone contemplating an application to business school in 2013-14. In the article that follows, readers will have the opportunity to learn about common misconceptions many test takers have about the exam, successful approaches to creating a study schedule, specific tips that can help those who struggle with either the verbal or the quant sections, and valuable insights on how to approach retaking the test. We additionally have checked in with the official information provided by GMAC, the organization that creates and administers the GMAT exam.
One of the first things any first-time GMAT taker should consider is just when to schedule their exam, and how to create a study plan. Eric Bahn, Founder of the popular social network for GMAT preppers Beat The GMAT, highly recommends that applicants – whether studying independently or planning on enrolling in a study prep course – take the GMAT in late spring. While the goal is obviously to reach your target score on the first try, some test takers struggle the first time round. Bahn notes that if you don’t do as well as you had hoped, then taking the exam in late spring will allow you the the time to retake the exam in 60 days without running out of time to start “diving deep into the other aspects of the application.” Bahn further believes that self-studying individuals – those not enrolling in a prep course – should allot themselves 60 days to prepare, “making sure to carve 1-3 hours of study per day.” He went on to explain that the “trick to being a successful GMAT test taker is the same as what it takes for anyone to prepare for a marathon. Just do a little each day…it’s especially critical not to skip a day. Performance really does build upon the previous day’s work.” Bahn went on to caution against studying for longer than 90 days, saying that this often leads to studiers becoming “too saturated” and “running out of material.”
Brian Galvin, Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep, suggested a slightly longer time frame, but not by much, saying about three months, or a 10-12 week guided study program should adequately prepare someone for the exam. Galvin focused on the importance of using that study time wisely, quoting famous basketball coach John Wooden and saying “Never mistake activity for achievement…it’s not the number of hours you study, but how wisely you use those hours.” Galvin also thought that aiming for studying 10-12 hours per week, in line with Bahn’s similar figure, was more than enough if the person studying truly used those hours effectively.
BB, founder of the GMAT Club, another online community built around the GMAT, echoed Galvin and Bahn’s sentiments, first noting that each individual has their own story and that there is no all encompassing length of time that will work for everyone. That said, BB did “not recommend spending more than six months” on study prep. “If one studies longer than six months,” he argued, “they are quite likely to start forgetting and would require spending over a half of their study time on reviewing what was covered previously. Think of it as a leak in a water tank. The longer one takes, the bigger the leak grows. For example, one of the GMAT Club members [took] the GMAT and scored 720 (which he was not happy with since he was applying to the top 10 schools), so he decided to take a year to retake (he was obviously not in a hurry), and to his surprise, after a year of studying, he scored 690. His story ends well, however, since he was admitted to Wharton with his original 720.”
The other element of timing that should be considered when looking at the GMAT is the fact that the test itself does have a definite length and time limit that cannot be changed, which forces the majority of test takers to manage not only their knowledge of math and grammar but also how long they take to respond to any given question. The current running time for the exam is three hours and thirty minutes, and both Galvin and Bahn noted that one common theme and concern they heard from those posting on forums or coming to tutoring sessions is their fear of running out of time. Bahn shared that when he studied for the exam he kept a timer by him and if he couldn’t answer a question in 90 seconds he’d “force [himself] to guess and go on to the next one.” This approach can help test takers avoid the “huge penalty” of not finishing the exam. In Bahn’s opinion it’s “better off to get wrong answers but to complete the entire exam.” Galvin also knew how much anxiety can be created when students get too caught up with worrying about timing, sharing that Veritas generally structures its classes so that students first have entirely mastered the information that the test will cover before turning to the matter of speed: “In the beginning don’t worry about the clock. Retrain yourself first and then the time will come up.”
These basic timing suggestions are generally in line with the amount of time GMAC reports for all those who have taken the test. According to the Official GMAT blog, “49% of test takers spend at least 51 hours prepping for the exam, and those who do better on the GMAT tend to spend more time studying for it.” Though they are careful to clarify that putting in the time does not a guarantee a high score.
GMAT Urban Legends, Misconceptions and Concerns
One potential downside of the many online communities and forums dedicated to the GMAT on the web is that certain rumors or legends about the exam can be perpetuated even if they aren’t based in fact. We asked our experts what some of the most prevalent GMAT urban legends, misconceptions or concerns were and there were a few that seemed especially important to share with our readers. Bahn began with noting that while it might be a slightly controversial position, he does not “believe the GMAT is the most important part of your admissions profile.” In fact, he often thinks that applicants should spend more time on essays and recommenders than overthinking their GMAT score. That said, he did have one major myth he wanted to refute, and that was how important it is to get the first five questions of the exam right in order to score a 700 or higher: “That has been proven wrong through many, many sources including GMAC. People are overblowing it. You can get those first questions wrong and still recover and do well. The reason why this is dangerous thinking is that it leads to a prevalent belief that inordinate amounts of time double checking their work will help them get the right answers, but this totally throws off their pacing and causes test takers to struggle to finish their section.”
Galvin refuted a similar myth, which purports that the first ten questions on the exam could make or break one’s final score. Veritas’ belief is that while it is imperative that students master the basic skills for which they are being tested – skills they would have developed by their final year of high school – it is equally important that they remember that the GMAT is also a test of their reasoning abilities and to that end it’s important to “think like the test maker and ask yourself what ‘traps’ they set.” With ten years of experience teaching the GMAT, Galvin expanded on the nature of these ‘traps’: “While you want to make sure you know all (or at least most) of the content, at a certain difficulty level questions become that much more about traps and rewards. They’re sometimes trying to sell you an answer that seems the most obvious, but is often wrong. There’s an obvious bait answer (which is incorrect) but there is also a reward. It’s not like it’s a devious test that’s always trying to screw you over. They give you clues that if you’ve prepared properly you can pick up on. The rewards – the right answers – go to those who have become effective problem solvers. Those who aren’t thinking critically fall into the traps, those who are avoid the traps and get the rewards.”
BB observed that a large concern he saw expressed on the GMAT Club’s forums and boards was the discrepancy between how individuals do on practice tests and the official scores they receive once they have taken the actual exam, which lead many to “scoring considerably less on the test day” than they expected. He went on to note that there could be a number of factors that lead to the difference between a practice test average and a person’s official score, among them were the quality of the test prep materials individuals used ahead of time, failing to account for the difference in environment and surroundings at a test center, and the need for test takers to remain capable of seeing the bigger picture. “Each test consists of only 37 quant and 41 verbal questions. That sometimes is not enough to test one’s understanding of ALL topics thoroughly. Thus, test takers need to look at a bigger picture when evaluating their performance. For example, if one took four practice tests over the course of two weeks and got 650, 660, 720, and 670, then the 720 should be the outlier, while the majority of test takers will celebrate the 720 result and will write off 670 as a fluke.”
As Bahn mentioned, the GMAC has made a concerted effort to address the persistent myth that a test taker can’t bounce back if they have difficulty with the first 5 -10 questions on the exam. “On the GMAT, all the questions are important, not just the first few. At the same time, it is important that you finish. There’s no need to stress if a problem looks easier than the last one—it doesn’t mean you got the last one wrong. Just answer every question to the best of your ability within the time allotted, without worrying about whether it is the first one or the last one, or whether you got the previous one right or wrong.”
Preparing for the Verbal Section as a Non-Native English Speaker
Because a fairly substantial number of test takers are non-native English speakers, Clear Admit was curious to hear what advice or guidance experts had on how to best prepare for the verbal section of the exam if your exposure to the English language is comparatively limited to those who have lived or studied in the U.S. Galvin’s main advice was not to get too ambitious in your studies and to “carve out a relatively narrow scope that you know you’re responsible for and get good at that.” For example, making sure you’re comfortable with “cause and effect relationships and how a passage is structured, including important words like ‘also,’ ‘furthermore,’ ‘however,’ and ‘because.’ They’re usually testing the words more than the subject.” In other words, Galvin suggests that a non-native speaker should worry less about the subject or content of the reading comprehension passages and should instead make sure they can determine the kind of argument or thesis trying to be made. “Narrowing your scope instead of chasing the obscure” helps test takers make the most of their knowledge without getting bogged down by rules that more likely than not won’t be found in the sentence correction section or elsewhere in the exam.
Building off his thoughts about common GMAT concerns, BB suggested that one way to make sure you’re prepared for the exam in general, but the verbal section specifically, was by truly familiarizing yourself with the exam’s language: “Official GMAT questions, especially verbal questions, have a certain style to them that’s very hard to emulate. Most of the prep companies have a hard time staying within the boundaries and following the style of the official verbal questions. Thus it is very hard to create a good verbal test that produces accurate results. A major flaw in preparation is not practicing enough official questions or not giving them the attention they deserve … I would recommend [that] test takers save the OG questions for last (either at the end of each chapter if they are working by topic or to cover them at the end of preparation if they are not following a topical approach to the OG).“ As a non-native English speaker himself, BB had even more of a firsthand perspective to share with those in similar positions. “When I was studying for GMAT, I had a really hard time with the Reading Comprehension section – it was too difficult to digest in the amount of time allotted, often had new words, and took double the processing power to understand. I tried reading scientific articles and business magazines but I read only for the sake of reading and naturally in about three minutes I would catch my mind wandering somewhere else … There had to be a better way to do this, and I think I found it – reading interesting books with strong written English. Now, rather than reading myself to sleep, I would stay up till 2 or 3 am with a dictionary next to my bed, unable to put the book down. When I read these books, I wanted to know what every word meant. I also was able to remember the vocabulary a lot better since I now was much more invested into the book and my reading was now done as a fun activity … Also, even though I started reading fiction to get my Reading Comprehension up … I found that reading also trains your “ear” and helps with Sentence Correction. More and more I was able to pick out the issue with the sentence simply because it did not sound right and not because I ran through my 13 point check-list for CR questions. Eventually I scored 42 on verbal – back then it was 96th percentile, not too shabby for a foreigner.”
Bahn’s main tip was to “to use trusted verbal resources,” such as U.S.-based companies’ test prep materials or grammar books that focus on sentence structure and critical thinking. He expressed slightly less confidence in study materials made outside of the U.S., noting the slight nuance and advantage of having materials created by native speakers. Additionally Bahn also felt that increased exposure to reading the written word would be a valuable method to prepare for the verbal section, encouraging readers to “get in the habit of reading English publications like the Economist or New York Times. It goes a long way with the reading comprehension section, as a lot of the articles are similar in style.”
A column by Lawrence Rudner, GMAC VP of Research and Development, Lawrence Rudner, in Dean’s Digest confirms the importance of thinking not only about the mechanics of the Verbal or Quant sections, but also an overall ability to think critically about the information presented: “A Verbal question might present a short, two- to five-sentence paragraph and then ask, “Which of the following, if true, would most seriously weaken the argument above?” or, “The argument depends on which of the following assumptions?” The test taker must examine and break down information into parts, evaluate statements against the stimulus paragraph and draw conclusions based on the evidence. Yes, the test taker must possess basic decoding skills and literal understanding of written English. As with the Quantitative questions, the Verbal questions are not about assessing of basic skills. Rather they are about applying higher-order skills to handle complex concepts.”
Preparing for the Quant Section
Another popular concern or trouble spot is how those without a strong mathematical academic or professional background can prepare for the rigorous quantitative section of the exam. Galvin pointed out that “most of the math on the test you needed to know as a sophomore in high school. You can laugh at yourself and say ‘my 15 year old self was a master of this’ … It will take time and patience but it’s not a math test as much as it’s a reasoning test that uses math. Part of succeeding in this section is relaxing and embracing the opportunity to relearn material you may not have thought about in years.” Among his suggestions of how to get back into the mathematical swing of things, Galvin thought that doing more pen and paper math could help those who struggle, whether figuring the tip at a restaurant without the aid of a calculator or establishing how long a drive might take when factoring traffic and speed limits.
Bahn’s advice was similar to that he provided in relation to the question of non-native speakers: “Use trusted materials and invest in the right books from the right name brands and test prep.” He also echoed BB’s earlier point that test takers would benefit from becoming acclimated with official GMAC materials because prepping “with real retired practiced questions can help you get a sense of the style of GMAC’s questions. It’s a very intangible thing but you can start to pick up on patterns in their questions, especially in math, which makes it a lot more easier to see what’s typical than with other resources.”
BB wanted to remind test takers that as long as they “get the basics, you will do just fine. Over 50% of the questions are arithmetic and most are based on middle school math. Don’t get scared by the Probability or Geometry, or Statistics questions – those do happen but at a much less degree (1-2 questions per test vs. 15-20) and if you can’t master arithmetic, you will never get to the harder questions anyway, so stop wasting your time on hard questions. Gain solid framework of the basics and if you have time, go further. You can use these skills not only on the GMAT but also in the business school and in life.“
In the same column with Rudner was another quote that generally supports the perspectives of Bahn, BB and Galvin and again highlights the importance not only of basic math skills, but the ability to apply them. “Yes, some basic algebra is required─the test taker must know about multiplying by zero, converting a square to a product, and simple equation reduction. But the question is not about algebra skills of the test taker. Rather it is about the collection of higher-order skills.“
And for those who suffer from a general anxiety when it comes to standardized tests, BB, Bahn and Galvin all had perspectives and insights that could help even the most nervous applicant gain a modicum of calm. “I often ask students if they have ever been nervous buying a lotto ticket … You’re not nervous because the chance of winning is so tiny.” But the GMAT is different, “adrenalin is telling your brain that you should be able to expect success” so Galvin tries to encourage students to think of their nervousness as a positive: they are nervous because there is a true possibility of success and achievement. He also believes that “schools only care about your top score.” And to that end, the first time you take the exam it’s “an opportunity to create an asset in your application…but it’s not a catastrophe if your first score is lower than your target. Everything about the experience encourages you to think that this is a very high stakes environment, but it’s only high stakes if you get a high score…if you don’t it’s a bummer, but then you can go back and take it again.”
Reiterating his earlier sentiment that the GMAT is not the most important element of an MBA application, Bahn built on Galvin’s basic point saying “The GMAT is not that important in life. If you bomb your test, your family and friends are still going to love you. It’s not a clear indicator of your intelligence or lack thereof. You’re ambitious enough to be taking the exam. Even if you don’t get to b-school you’re clearly resourceful enough to find a really satisfying career. It’s not worth being too nervous. It’s not going to be life changing in the grand context of your life.” While Bahn does encourage readers to keep that perspective in mind, he also offered slightly more concrete ways a nervous test taker can bolster their confidence by “trying to take lots of practice tests that mimic the environment of the real GMAT.” In his own experience, he would take practice exams at the exact same time of day for which his actual exam was scheduled and in conditions similar to those at a test center: in a library that is lightly trafficked and has some ambient noise. He also made sure he took breaks at the same junctures that he would during the official test. Acclimating to this environment, Bahn believes, will help you get comfortable and alleviate nerves on the actual day of the test.
While Bahn and Galvin first reminded all test takers that the exam is not the be all and end all of their lives, BB turned more directly to actionable ways to deal with the stress of taking the exam, stating that it’s important to “take one question at a time. Do not try to figure out where you are in the test and what difficulty the question is. You must address the issue at hand and not think about anything else.” He also recommended building just a few seconds of time into one’s test taking approach to ensure they have a slight moment to check their answers. Building on Bahn and Galvin’s suggestions on how to get accustomed to the testing environment, BB also recommended that applicants actually visit the test center before taking the exam. He concluded with a reiteration of the fact that what may work for one person may not be the salve necessary for another “Finally, we are all different and something should work for you to be able focus on the test. If you can figure out what it is, you will be a stronger and a better test-taker, mba student, and eventually, executive. Maybe you need to sign up for toast masters or perhaps engage an expert to help you manage stress – do what you can to address it. These skills will be very valuable throughout your life and provide the best improvement for the GMAT score.”
GMAC has also anticipated the stresses and concerns that come with taking the test, and have provided information about how to soothe worried GMAT takers in video form. GMAC’s test prep software is another method for students to acclimate themselves to the style of the exam.
Retaking the GMAT
It has been established that Bahn and Galvin both felt that one shouldn’t overstress about the GMAT, but both also acknowledged that there are times when retaking the exam will certainly benefit an applicant’s chances at schools with especially competitive average incoming GMAT scores. BB’s earlier anecdote about the community member who chose to retake the exam after earning a 720 highlights the potential downside of being too tough on oneself. We asked what tips they might have for those who have already taken the exam once.
Bahn explained that the approach someone looking for a marginal improvement of 10-30 points would take is different than that needed by individuals hoping to increase their score by 50 points or more. For those in the latter category, Bahn suggested that larger changes to one’s style of studying will need to be made. If they self-studied for the first exam, then it may very well be advantageous to make the investment and find a professional tutor or sign up for an established prep program. Bahn further recommended that test takers take notes throughout their study sessions. In his own experience he wrote “down all the answers and notes I was taking through each practice question, looking for patterns in the questions that I would miss. Using that information I was able to refocus my time to improve my mastery of those weaknesses. This kept me from wasting time studying material that could be considered my strengths.”
Galvin felt that regardless of your initial score and how much ground you might need to make up, there were a few first steps that all retakers should consider. This started with doing a debriefing of the exam within the first few days after you took it, asking questions like “What did you see that you didn’t see when you were studying?” “What areas or subjects kept you up the night before the exam?” “Did you feel rushed?” “Did you guess on a few?” Reflecting on these questions can help you target areas that are in need of the most improvement. He then reiterated the importance of not turning only to a desire of chasing and mastering obscure mathematical or grammar rules but instead doubling down on expanding your knowledge of the reasoning behind the exam and making sure you’re thinking critically and identifying both the trap answers and subtleties in the questions’ phrasings.
In an Official GMAT blog post Rudner reminds readers that retaking the exam generally only leads to moderate improvement, which those working with scores just marginally off their target may keep in mind when deciding whether their attentions would be better spent retaking the exam or turning to other aspects of their applications. He concludes the post saying “As to whether you should retake the test: If you didn’t finish a section or if you have reason to believe you did not perform as well as you could have, it may be worth taking again. Be sure you have prepared adequately and are comfortable with the types of questions you will see on the GMAT exam. You should only need to read a question once before selecting your answer. This is true for reading comprehension questions as well.”
Integrated Reasoning and Why It Matters
The GMAT exam recently was updated to include a new integrated reasoning section. The general consensus thus far is that most b-school admissions committees aren’t weighing the results of this section as heavily as the more established sections, but our experts seemed to generally think the addition was valuable and will gain traction as the format of the section becomes more established.
Galvin, referring to himself as a “test prep geek,” described his and his colleagues’ initial reaction to the new section as “pretty excited and interested.” From his vantage point the new section is “true to its name” and truly requires an applicant to integrate their math and verbal skills while also applying their critical reasoning abilities. While schools “haven’t completely embraced it as a diagnostic tool” Galvin feels that the section is a great warm up for the remaining sections of the exam.
Bahn described the BTG community’s reaction to the new section as being a mix of excitement and anxiety. The excitement is because the section “really closely compares to business scenarios they’ll come across both in the MBA program experience and in their later career, such as interpreting an email, looking at business data and interpreting profit/loss statements. It’s doing a great job of presenting business-related topics…The community seems to see it as fun and useful.” Though there is excitement, the anxiety stems from a lack of clarity about just what it means to have a good or bad score. “The jury’s out on how schools’ are measuring the IR scores or using them in the application assessment process.” His last advice about the section, and the exam as a whole, is to lighten up a bit and to think of each section as a game or puzzle and to “have fun.”
BB’s observations leaned more towards the anxiety that Bahn mentioned. “So far it has been confusing and probably creating more insecurity among applicants. For example, is 740 with an IR score of 5 a good score or should one retake the test? Well … that question is impossible to answer since nobody knows what role IR plays at admissions at this point in time, thus for now, it is another thing for test takers to worry about. I am sure it will get better in two years (once those who took IR graduate and find jobs, allowing GMAC to run a study about the IR section’s applicability to the overall applicant success at graduation). However, until that study is completed, I am yet to meet a person who is thrilled about the IR.”
At the six-month mark after launching the new section, GMAC’s Rudner weighed in on what the organization had found thus far about how the section was functioning, saying “The differences between native and non-native English speakers, US and non-US citizens, US white and non-white test takers, and business vs. non-business undergraduate majors in their IR scores —when matched on their Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning skills using analysis of covariance — are, in all cases, less than one quarter of a standard deviation. The observed differences are psychometrically minor and practically inconsequential.” Meanwhile in a GMAC newsletter, Michelle Sparacino, associate director of the GMAT Program debunked a myth before it could gather much steam, stating that “the IR is not biased toward business majors. In fact, engineering and science students tend to have slightly higher-than-average IR scores compared with all majors, including business.” The newsletter also included the thoughts of Tuck and LBS representatives, which affirmed much of what Bahn and Galvin observed about how the material is relevant in a greater business context.
The MBA admissions process is not for the faint of heart. It is a journey that cannot be undertaken lightly or without a fair amount of self-reflection, discipline and sacrifice. The GMAT is just one element in this process, but can often be considered one of the most daunting. Unlike other facets of an MBA application, the GMAT doesn’t allow its takers to provide contextualizing information that might explain why they miss a question or struggle with a section. In other words, while an adcom member is capable of objective and subjective evaluation of an application, and can take into account an applicant’s full background including optional essays and insights from recommenders, the GMAT is entirely objective and incapable of being impressed or disappointed. This can rattle some applicants, but with the perspectives and advice of Bahn, Galvin and BB, we’re sure that test takers will be in a stronger position to conquer any doubts or address any weaknesses holding them back from reaching their targeted GMAT score. Be sure to check back in with Clear Admit, as we regularly feature additional GMAT study tips on our blog. We also encourage our readers to explore the respective sites of those we interviewed: Beat The GMAT, GMAT Club and Veritas Prep. You can learn even more about different GMAT study prep companies by downloading our free Guide to GMAT Preparation Companies.