“The GMAT measures how good you are at taking the GMAT“. This was the opening line of the book that I used for my preparation years ago. The sentence resonated with me because it highlights two crucial points: the GMAT is a unique exam and requires an intensive training; at the same time, it does not test your IQ, so an excellent performance can be planned and achieved. [Side note: how you should interpret this series of posts on the application process.]
I had the “pleasure” of taking the GMAT twice, in two distinct occasions. The first time in April 2006, since a score above 650 was required to apply to a scholarship granted by my undergraduate school, Bocconi University. I scored 730, and got the scholarship. Unfortunately the result is valid for 5 years only, and I decided to apply to MBA in 2013. Too late!
So I had to find the inner strength to take the test again in January 2014. In all honesty, I was concerned that I would not be able to repeat the performance of several years earlier, when my age was 21, my mind was very elastic and I was at the peak of my study efforts. However, as I said, it is possible to strategize the right preparation for a great performance. I eventually scored even higher than in my previous attempt, 740, and this represented a tremendous confidence boost for my MBA application.
There is a myriad of online resources and books to prepare for the exam. Some of the most renowned are the Kaplan, Manhattan and Princeton Review books. I made the conscious decision to use the official tools only: The Official Guide for GMAT Review and the GMATPrep software. Unlike the other books, the official guide includes questions from previous exams, so the practice is as close as it gets to the real thing. During my first GMAT preparation in 2006, I took a Kaplan test the day before the exam and scored 650 (decreasing my confidence), whereas in the official GMATPrep tests I had consistently scored 730, as I did in the real test. So I realized that the Kaplan simulation was much harder and ultimately not reliable.
I would like to share here my general learnings, without going into any detail of each section.
- Take a diagnostic test and review the theory first. When you kick off the preparation, a hard-to-resist temptation is to start tackling questions without a plan. This might be fun at first if you like solving crossword puzzles, but it is very inefficient. The best first step is to take a diagnostic test on each section, and asses your high-school/college memories of basic Maths (algebra, geometry, probability, linear and quadratic equations) and English grammar. You should then focus on reviewing the theory for the areas where you have forgotten the most.
- Practise, practise, practise, especially in my weakest areas. I spent 3 weeks doing as many practice questions as I could. Timing is not as critical during this first part of the preparation, but you should still aim to answer each question in less than 100/120 seconds maximum. I quickly realized that I was particularly strong in Problem Solving, Reading Comprehension and Sentence Correction. My accuracy rate was ~95%. I had instead a ~80-85% accuracy rate on the Data Sufficiency and Critical Reasoning sections. Therefore, I focused my efforts on these two areas, carefully reviewing the questions I got wrong and learning from my mistakes.
- Build my stamina with several test simulations in “real” conditions. Once I felt confident about each section, it was time to sit in front of your computer for about four hours and do a simulation. There is a significant difference between tackling the questions with pen and paper (preparation so far) vs checking a radio button on a blue/white screen and scribbling your calculations on an erasable notepad (exam day). Therefore, I tried to make the simulation as real as possible. This implied shutting myself in a silent room with no nuisances, take all the exam sections in religious order (including Analytical Writing Assestment and Integrated Reasoning), and take a 5-minute break between each section. I decided to take the test in the morning when my mind is fresher, and I made sure I kept myself hydrated. It might all sound ridiculous but it truly helped build my stamina. I felt drained after the first simulation, slightly better after the last. With hindsight, I can say that if I had taken the exam without any practice of this kind, I would have done significantly worse.
- Improve my pacing strategy. I took 2 simulations which came for free with the GMATPrep test, and I then bought 2 more. My test scores improved with each test: 700, 730, 740, 750. I then settled for a satisfying 740 on the real exam. The 30-point difference between the first and the second test was due to a crucial detail which I overlooked, as I transitioned from pen&paper to simulation: pacing strategy. I spent too much time on a few hard questions in the Quantitative section, and I was unable to finish all 37 answers. This cost me several points. I then learnt how to instinctively allocate more time to the first 10-15 questions (as I am sure you know, the GMAT is an adaptive test), then accelerate in order to complete the section. If I realized that too much time was being spent on a single question, I made the best guess based on my calculations/thought process, and moved on.
- Aim to a balanced test score. The 0-800 score is undoubtedly the most important number in your final score, but I realized that it is also important to put emphasis to the individual scores in the Quantitative and Verbal sections. My score was balanced from the first simulation. However, if I had been consistently scoring above 700, but with a significant difference in percentiles between the two sections, I would have gone back to the practice phase and improved my skills in the weaker areas.
- Do not forget Analytical Writing Assessment and Integrated Reasoning. Last but not least, the IR and AWA sections. I am not sure what their weight is in the admission process, but I decided to put on them as much importance as on the rest of the test. In my mind, a poor performance on these sections would have just reflected badly on my overall GMAT performance. Therefore, after careful practice, I managed to obtain the maximum scores of 6.0 and 8, which added even more credibility to the 740 score.
Overall, my recollection of the GMAT preparation is definitely positive. It was a lot of hard work, but far from a nightmare. I actually felt that my mind was stimulated in a completely different way compared to my day-to-day job, and I liked that feeling. If you are considering taking the test in the future, try and have as much fun as possible. You will look like a mad scientist for a few months. Good luck!