Seven hints to help you sail through the GMAT exam

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It doesn’t matter how good your work experience or application essay is, if you mess up the GMAT exam you can essentially kiss goodbye to your chances of getting into a top business school.

Here’s an idea of the average GMAT scores at some of the top business schools: Harvard (730), Indian Institute of Management, Ahemedabad (722), New York University: Stern (717) Yale (715), London Business School (701), INSEAD is (700), HEC Paris (689), IMD (670). To give you an idea of how difficult it is to achieve this, only the 88th percentile achieve 690 or above.

Yes, you have the opportunity to retake the exam (a maximum of five times, allowing 31 days between each attempt), but this is not the point. This year, candidates also have to battle the new exam, in which an integrated reasoning module replaces the analysis of an issue essay.

Arguably, therefore, it’s harder than ever to make the grade.  Here are some tips to ensure you don’t slip-up.

1. Remember, the exam wants to trip you up

It may seem like common sense to carefully read the questions before launching into an answer, but when the questions include “convoluted, difficult-to-understand subject matter”, according to Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at Veritas Prep, it’s doubly important.

“Your goal is maximize your GMAT score; the GMAT question writers’ goal is to minimize it,” he says. “For example, a question for which the value of x can easily be solved, the question might well require using that value to determine the value of y; similarly, many questions will require a simple conversion to be made at the end (minutes to seconds, perhaps, or metres to kilometres), and you can be sure that the incorrect answer choices will include the values that would result from not taking that last step.”

All this is particularly important when you consider that many undertaking the exam won’t have English as their first language. As Bob Ludwig, a spokesperson for the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), says: “Proficiency in and good use of the language is the basis for high scores on GMAT verbal section.”

In other words, also make sure you’ve passed your TOEFL or IELTS tests.

2. Practice patience

The online GMAT exam uses a computer-adaptive test (CAT) method; namely, using algorithms to determine the difficulty of questions on a sliding scale.

If you answer an average question correctly, the next question will be slightly more difficult, but if you get that question wrong, the next will be slightly easier. You probably know this, as well as the fact that difficult questions are weighted more heavily in your final score.

It’s tempting, therefore, to rush through the first few questions on the assumption that they’re easier than what comes later. Unfortunately, the CAT algorithm uses the first couple of questions to determine the range of questions it believes you can handle. If you mess them up, the questions that follow are based on a narrowly defined range that only allows you to ‘fine tune’ your score, suggest MBA coaches. You can’t go back to adjust your answer, so ensuring that you spend enough time on those first five questions is integral.

The secret, of course, is practicing your pacing.

“While many test-takers make the obvious error of taking too much time and failing to answer all questions, others unsuccessfully employ the opposite strategy, rushing through the test and making numerous errors, only to have ample time at the end that can only be attributed to the final question,” says Shrum.

3. Practice more

MBA candidates are already losing sleep over the prospect of the new integrated reasoning part of the exam. Before it was launched on 5 June, students rushed to register for the test in order to avoid the new module. The one thing it will bring is the need to increase your prep time.

“The rule of thumb used to be 100-120 hours, based on the average preparation time of successful GMAT testers,” says Andrew Mitchell, assistant director of GMAT programs for Kaplan Test Prep. “With the new section on the GMAT, integrated reasoning, that figure increases to 120-150 hours — which, for most people, means about three months of dedicated preparation.”

4. Become expert at the Verbal and Quantitative parts of the test and THEN integrated reasoning

As we’ve mentioned, the new integrated reasoning element of the exam has caused a minor sense of panic. There are good reasons for this; a survey of GMAT students by Kaplan suggests that the majority of people think the types of questions posed are dissimilar to any other part of the exam. Ludwig says the questions are “complex” and that “recognising patterns and trends from a variety of data is important”.

“The timing is aggressive and the questions can get complicated,” adds Mitchell. “The primary challenge of these questions is managing information—grasping information, using information, prioritizing information, and so on.”

However, some careers coaches suggest it’s easy to tame the beast. The point, says Shrum, is that the questions you encounter are not new, but rather a combination of what you’ll encounter elsewhere in the exam.

“It is simply a section that integrates and tests the skills that you will use throughout the GMAT, and does so in a business-focused context with charts, graphs, e-mails, and other formats commonly seen in the real world,” says Shrum.

In the actual exam, the integrated reasoning section comes before the quantitative and verbal elements. When practicing, master the latter first.

5. Even if you work in finance, don’t assume that your maths skills are up to scratch 

You may have spent two years working on complex financial modelling for a bulge bracket investment bank, but this doesn’t mean you’ll breeze through any maths-related questions.

“Realistically, when was the last time you used any algebra or geometry in your day-to-day job? You don’t need to be an economist to make sense of the exam, but you do need to dust off your basic maths skills,” says Graham Richmond, CEO of MBA admissions consultancy Clear Admit.

6. Subtlety is everything

You’re a GMAT wizard, guaranteed to be in the upper 10% of testers, right? The only thing you need to practice are the advanced concepts, because the basics premises are mere common sense to someone with your god-like intellect. Well, you’re in for disappointment, because you’ll miss the “important-but-subtle fundamentals,” says Shrum.

“The GMAT, for example, likes to position statistics or combinatorics questions so that they hinge on a simple definition of a unique number property (0 is an even integer, but is neither negative nor positive, for instance),” he says. “In essence, the GMAT can distract test takers by appealing to their enthusiasm for the difficult at the expense of attention to minute detail.”

7. Reasoning, not language skills, are key to the verbal part of the test

When you know that ‘reading comprehension’ and ‘sentence correction’ are key elements of the verbal aspect of the GMAT, it’s tempting to conclude that it’s your English language skills up for assessment. Obviously, English is key to comprehending the questions, but it’s simply another test of your reasoning skills.

“GMAT examiners want test takers to be able to discern the important details from the unimportant ones, be able recognise patterns as they occur (in both the questions and the answer choices), and be able to put complex information into shorter, simpler terms without sacrificing meaning,” says Mitchell.

“The test still measures your reasoning skills,” adds Shrum. “Knowing that, your approach should be to master basic logic skills such as how to strengthen or weaken an argument, how to deduce a conclusion from given information, how to solve a problem in the face of uncertainty.”

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