Monday, March 20, 2006

GMAT 770

A few days ago, I finally received my official GMAT score, including AWA (i.e., essay) score. Of course, when you take the GMAT, you'll receive an unofficial printout immediately after completing the exam that lists your verbal and quantitative scores, although not your AWA score. I'm going to give a recap of how I prepared for the GMAT, in the hopes that it will help others who are facing the same challenge.

First, my scores themselves, so you'll know that my preparation actually yielded something:
Verbal: 48 (99th percentile)
Math: 49 (90th percentile)
Total: 770 (99th percentile)
AWA: 6.0 (96th percentile)

As you may have guessed from my scores, the math section was the hardest for me. Even though in the professional world I use fairly advanced math on a daily basis, I was unable to translate those skills as much as I would have liked. Knowing how to do binomial approximations or Bayesian probability calculations isn't going to help a bit on the GMAT.

So what did help me? I used a number of resources to prepare:
I started preparing around 12 weeks or so prior to the test. My first purchase was the Kaplan book. At first I couldn't decide between the Kaplan and Princeton books, but I was finally convinced by Kaplan's "mobile prep" software: An application that installs on your Palm-compatible phone and lets you do quantitative questions on the go. Unfortunately, this software was a huge disappointment. I was able to get it installed, but when I tried to run the application, the display was so corrupted as to be unreadable. Emails to Kaplan and to the makers of the software only resulted in them redirecting me to each other.

The Kaplan book itself was reasonable, but nothing special. Like the Princeton book, it covers the basics of the GMAT test itself, and the fundamentals of the quantitative and verbal sections. It also offers a number of tests on the accompanying CD-ROM. I only took one of these tests, since the Princeton ones were, in my opinion, much better.

The Princeton Review's Cracking the GMAT was my primary guide for test-taking skills. I found their "Joe Bloggs" approach to be insightful, and their writing was more entertaining than Kaplan's while covering the same material. If I had to pick just one resource among all of the ones I used, it would be this one.

As I started taking practice tests, a clear pattern emerged: I would consistently score incredibly well on the verbal section, but comparatively poorly on the quantitative questions. My problem was that even though I knew how to do the questions, I couldn't do them fast enough. After I identified this weakness, I picked up a copy of the Rapid Math Tricks & Tips book. The book is divided into two sections: one section on rapid multiplication and division, and one section on rapid addition and subtraction. I only made it about three fourths of the way through the multiplication and division section before test day, but even so I learned a couple tricks that came in handy. Perhaps equally important, the ability to do calculations more quickly (even if it was only certain kinds of calculations) boosted my confidence.

My confidence really needed boosting after it go destroyed by the Princeton and Kaplan practice exams. The exams included with the books were consistently significantly harder than the GMATPrep ones. At one point, about halfway through my preparation, I got as low as a 620 from the Kaplan test. I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that Princeton and Kaplan do this on purpose. Anyone who gets a GMAT score that's 50-100 points more than what they were getting on the practice exams is naturally elated. Since the Princeton and Kaplan tools were probably their main guides when preparing, the test-taker naturally credits their "improved" score to the guides. Now I don't deny that the Princeton guide helped me, and as I said if I had to pick just one book it would be theirs. However, once I understood their strategies, took a couple of their tests, and understood my weaknesses, it was consistent, nightly practice with the Official Guide and the Quantitative Supplement that I felt helped me the most.

In addition to working through the books, I also took one test using the GMATPrep software each weekend before the test including the timed AWA sections, as suggested by the folks at the TestMagic Forums (another great resource). In general, although there was one bug in the software (some questions in one of the test referred to a portion of a reading passage that was missing), I thought that the GMATPrep tests were excellent. There were only two improvements I would have made: more tests, and the option to send my essays in for grading. I even would have been willing to pay a nominal fee to have the essays graded as they would have been in a real GMAT test.

Test day, a Tuesday, arrived too soon for me. I had taken both Monday and Tuesday of the week off so that I was mentally relaxed and not worrying about work-related matters. On Monday I drove to the test site and took a look around the lobby, although the VUE folks wouldn't let me see the actual testing area. On Tuesday I arrived about an hour early to give me time to pick up some coffee. I know the some people say that caffeine impairs your mental performance, but personally I feel that I work much better after a Starbucks sugar-and-caffeine blend. If my biggest challenge, the quantitative section, wasn't the first one immediately following the AWA the Starbucks strategy migh have backfired on me since sugar only gives a short-term energy boost followed by a lull in energy.

Once I was at the testing center, I took a number and waited for it to be called. When it was my turn, the test administrator took a digital image of my fingerprint (no ink involved), and a photograph of me. These two were crosschecked each time I entered and exited the testing area. After the ten or so other test-takers and I had been photographed and fingerprinted, they called us two by two to start the test on the computers. Even though we all had numbers, each time they were ready for two new people they just asked for volunteers. If you feel that you want to start the test immediately rather than waiting around for another 20 minutes, be assertive! On the other hand, if you want some time to relax and steady your nerves, you can just wait for everyone else to go ahead of you.

When I sat down at the computer I was given an "erasable notepad". In reality, this was just three spiral-bound pieces of laminated cardstock and a fine-tipped marker. It is in no way "erasable" unless you wipe it with something wet. It is, however, very smearable if your hands are sweaty. I cannot imagine the difficulty that people who are left-handed must have.

After completing the preliminaries like confirming my GPA, undergraduate school, etc (which were all helpfully populated from my profile), I selected five schools to send my scores to and started the test! I finished each essay with a few minutes to spare, which I used to do some quick spelling and structural edits. My biggest advice for the AWA section would be to practice your typing speed--I would have been grateful for another few minutes on the essays, and both Princeton and Kaplan say that essay length is highly correlated with good AWA scores.

After the essays was the quantitative section. I'm not going to front--I seriously freaked out on the first question, and probably spent a solid five minutes on it even though in retrospect it was only a moderately difficult question. I was continually nervous throughout the quantitative section. Since the test is adaptive, if I got a question that I answered easily I would think to myself, "I must be doing really bad to get such an easy question." If I got a question that was hard, it was just as bad because I had difficulty answering it. I am not joking when I say that I seriously thought about cancelling my scores both after the quantitative section and at the end of the test.

After finishing the quantitative section (an accomplishment in itself--I often had trouble answering all the questions in time during my practice tests), I took a break and breezed through the verbal section in about 25 minutes. After I finished the test and had a brief internal debate about whether or not to just cancel the score, a combination of curiosity and dread at the prospect of having to do it all again convinced me to have the exam scored. When I saw that I got a 770, my first thought was confusion--I thought it must have been a bug in the program since I was sure I had scored in the mid-600s. For a split second, I wondered if I should notify one of the administrators that the software had a problem. As the realization gradually dawned on me that I had in fact achieved a great score, I became ecstatic. I grabbed my phone and keys from my locker, jumped into my car and cranked up the stereo as loud as I could stand as I drove home with a huge grin on my face and rekindled MBA ambitions in my heart.


Blogger Vikram said...

Congratulations. Awesome score.

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats. My story is VERY similar to yours. Studied the Princeton and Kaplan strategies, took their practices tests (very discouring results), and then studied the OG questions before taking the test. Ended up with a 750 and 6 on the AWA. I think your/our strategy is definitely an effective one.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

congrats. Any chance of copying this post to the admissions wiki ?

8:01 AM  
Blogger TJ said...

Alex, please feel free to link to this post off of the admissions wiki. The more people it helps, the better!


8:30 PM  
Anonymous iknownoone said...

Since you have cracked your AWA, I had a few questions:

What do you recommend the length of your essays (in number of words).

Did you use some sort of a template for the two essays?

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You finished the english section in 25 mins ?

3:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home