Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to ace the GMAT, or What worked for me

Recently, I have been surprised by a few people indicating they found the GMAT difficult, and know at least one person who gave up on their B-school dreams because they thought the GMAT was too difficult a barrier to cross. The latter in particular, is I think a real tragedy so felt compelled to write this post on how to excel in this test.

Fear of this test is, I think, completely unjustified. The GMAT is truly not that difficult. I understand people put a lot of pressure on themselves, but that is not all bad. It just means they care more about the outcome. If only you can channel that in your favor... you can excel if you study smart, study hard, and are careful as you take the exam. Learn the test, some time management skills and test taking strategies, and you can score in the high percentiles.

"Fear is the mind-killer.
  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
  I will face my fear.
  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
  And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
  When the fear has gone, there will be nothing... only I will remain."
                                                                       -- "Litany against Fear", "Dune" by Frank Herbert

I took the GMAT after a decade (you read that right) in the work force, while working a very hectic job, and with no exam experience during the previous 10 years.With 3 weeks of studying part-time (okay, just half the time or so very seriously), and 1 week full-time (very seriously), I earned a 750. As I am fond of saying, this is what worked for me, every person is different, so do what works for you, your mileage may vary with the below. But the ideas down here will likely help. So let's get to it...

[Quick note: you do not absolutely need to get a 780 - 800 score to get a top 5 MBA. If people tell you otherwise, ignore them. You need a "good" GMAT score, the higher the better, but yes, every year there are several people with high 700 scores that don't achieve a top 10 admit, and there are several with sub-700 scores that do. Your GMAT score is but one (very important) component of the full admissions package. That said, you want to get as close to 800 as you possibly can.]

Full disclosure - I am not affiliated with any of the authors or companies that prepare any of the material I refer to below and receive no compensation from them. I do support ChiPrime, but their computer adaptive quant preparation materials are completely free, and I do help ensure they are of consistently high quality.

  1. Approach the test with the right attitude. Try not think of it as yet another obstacle on your pathway to success. Think of it as your time to shine. Make sure you put in the hard work to do well in the days and weeks leading up to the test, then approach the test itself with a calm confidence. You've worked hard, so why shy away at the precise time when you should be collecting your reward? Also keep in mind that the GMAT is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. The top 5 MBA is your prize. Your step to a better career... a better life (OK, it is one way to these goals. I am not denying you can move up via other paths, but presumably you are reading this because you want that MBA). And many factors besides a GMAT score determine your odds when you apply for admission anyway so don't pressure yourself unduly.
  2. Work through the material first increasing accuracy, then efficiency. This holds true both for the verbal as well as the quantitative sections. Being fast and wrong, and being right and so....o slow are both equally good ways to not achieve the objective... and we are taking the test just to achieve the objective, right? Enjoy the journey, and the learning, but with an eye firmly fixed on the destination.
  3. Measure everything - are you doing well on a particular type of question? poorly at another? where are your weaknesses? how are they improving with time? Make certain to keep careful track of this. If you score routinely in the 95-98% range without stumbling, you are close to ready.
  4. Target a perfect score - if you want to score above 700 come test day, you have to believe you are capable of scoring an 800. Your preparation should be that thorough. "Shoot for the sky, that way you will land among the stars."
  5. Be resolute and determined - let's face it, most of us study for the test while working punishing schedules at full time jobs. You need to want the MBA so bad you can taste it. This fire gives you discipline, that leads to a determination to work as hard as necessary to excel at the exam. "There are two ways of doing things - the right way, and again." - Navy SEAL aphorism. Take the GMAT once only. Make it count.
  6. Learn the test, then pick a date - before starting preparation in earnest, look through what the test entails, how long it is, what the content is, what types of questions are included, estimate realistically how long it might take you to become proficient in the material. Then pick a date. Commit to it. Picking a date will force you to focus.
  7. Use time to your advantage in preparation - start out learning the different types of questions, strategies to solve them, methods of elimination of false alternatives with minimum work, how to maximize accuracy with minimum effort, how to guess effectively, how to do apportion time based on problem difficulty, how to determine when to guess vs when to just suck it up, spend an extra minute, and do the hard work to get the correct answer. Learn to think at the micro level on the question, and at the macro level on the test - when should you give up a question to ace the test? when should you power through the question to ace the test? Thinking this way should become second nature. Eyes on the goal please.
  8. Practice harder than the test - Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. During the preparatory phase, perfect practice is your goal. Solve the hardest relevant material you can get your hands on as you prepare. Then take the hardest tests first. Finally, make certain you finish the official GMAC guides - all of them - before the exam. These tend to be considerably easier, and you will get the confidence boost when you need it most. I went so far as to take two full GMATs including the essay section, back to back for 5 days or so some time before the test (don't want this to be too close to test day, or you might burn out), trying for 700+ on each. A week of this, and I was no longer afraid of the GMAT. "The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war" - Navy SEAL aphorism.
  9. Use the right material - when I took the test, several years ago now, Magoosh wasn't as well known (I don't even know if it existed). I used (to the best of my recollection since it was a while back that I took the test) the GMAC guides (required in my view), "The GMAT advantage with Professor Dave", the Princeton GMAT Premier edition, the Kaplan GMAT Premier edition, and Kaplan GMAT 800. These days I hear Manhattan GMAT prep is the best there is, and Magoosh (I am told) offers the best value. Use whatever you think helps you the most in your weak areas. Kaplan tests are very hard when compared with the real thing, so stresses you into putting in more work early on if you use it right.
  10. Use the material right - find your weaknesses, eliminate them. "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win" - Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
  11. Make smart use of supplementary material - I had a hard time when I started out, particularly with Critical Reasoning questions (was getting about 20% of the questions right, which would never do on test day). Then I read somewhere that the LSATs have the hardest critical reasoning questions available. So I used the Kaplan LSAT Premier guide to practice that. This also has difficult reading comprehension tests as well, and helps build mental muscle.
  12. Be present when you take the test - Time is a weapon. Learn to use it. OK, Lance Armstrong is not the hero people thought he was before the drug scandal caught up with him. But I remember clearly in one race when he took a nasty fall, and still finished at the top, he was asked, what were you thinking when you got back on your bike after falling? To paraphrase, he said something like "I told myself, if you want to win the Tour de France, win it today". That is what your mind-set should be going in - not "Oh, I am not so sure how I am doing. That question looks hard, I wonder if I picked the right answer" or "Hmm... mind... wandering... will... this... test... ever... end...?", but "I am here, this is a question I have to solve, I will pick the best answer for it and move on to the next one", and "I have answered one question right, now the next, ... and the next. Bring it." 
  13. Build your stamina, competence, and confidence - you need all three. If you are mentally resilient and confident but haven't studied, you will fail. Have studied well, are well rested and resilient but fear the exam, you will fail (it is natural to be a bit nervous, it just means you care about the outcome... so focus). Have studied well, are confident, but your mind starts to wander half way through, ... same outcome. "Climbing is not about mastering the rock. It is about mastering yourself." - Jim Collins. The same can be said about the GMAT. 
  14. Sometimes it is a marathon, sometimes a sprint - know which parts are which. It is a 4 hour test - you need to be alert and present for all of it. In that sense, yes, it is a marathon. On the other hand, the material is really not that difficult, you cannot study months and months and keep motivated throughout, so you know yourself best, you have to budget time accordingly to peak just when you take the test and ace it. You also need to know which problems to give up on and guess intelligently so you do well overall, and where you need to just hunker down and do the calculations needed to get the answer. In that sense it is a sprint. 
  15. Rock it! - Be careful with your preparation and time it to peak on test day. You are ready. Psyche yourself up for a victory before you go in. Rest well. Think about doing well in each question and the test as a whole. Forget the larger canvas of life. Only you, the clock, and the problem in front of you, exist. Every tick is a step toward successful completion.
Good luck!