I’m a brand-new MBA student at Imperial College Business School. To get in, most MBA schools require a good score in a gruelling test called the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). I too had to take this test, which measures all kinds of critical reasoning as well as verbal and quantitative information processing skills.
My problem was that I was a late applicant in an admissions process which normally takes a year. I had only ten days in which to prepare for the GMAT, and I managed a score of 620. The difference between my first practice test and the final test was pretty stark:
|Total score||Quant score||Verbal score||Quant %||Verbal %|
|Practice test (estimated ranges)||370–470||6–18||37–39||0–6||83–89|
Contrary to most of the advice I read online, it turns out you don’t need a minimum of three months, a private tutor or to be a maths savant. Here’s what I would say about preparing for the GMAT at short notice.
How I spent my 10 days
On the first day, I took the micro version of the GMAT simulation test on the London Business School website. I didn’t know anything about the test and I thought I would just jump in and see what it’s all about. I failed dismally as I hadn’t realised that the timer you see isn’t for the question you’re on, it’s for the entire test. I totally ran out of time. Also, the maths questions I did attempt felt very difficult – this was the first time I had done any maths in a long time.
Next I took some time to read up on the test, its parts, its timing and the various question types. Throughout my ten days and for this ‘getting to know the GMAT’ period, I found the website GMAT Prep Now invaluable. I recommend the general GMAT strategies videos for a really good overview of what’s ahead.
On day 2, I took the full test simulator to get a starting score. It gives you a range of where your score would likely land on the real test. I got 370–470 (out of 800). I was aiming for 600, so that was pretty disheartening. However, the simulator gives you a breakdown of which areas you were strongest and weakest in (you can see mine here!). Obviously, as an editor, I had a strong verbal part of the test, but unsurprisingly the maths part needed a lot of work. As you can see, I’m in the 0-6th percentile! It gives you enough detail to drill down into which sub-parts of which area gave you trouble. You can then target those areas specifically in your revision.
I figured that I should do little to no work on my verbal skills, given that I only had a short time. Instead I would devote my entire efforts to doing what I can to improve the quantitative score. I’m afraid there’s no magic to what I did – I spent every morning, lunchbreak and most evenings watching through the maths revision videos on GMAT Prep Now, and working my way through practice problems. I was able to remind myself of the maths I had learned in school and teach myself a few new bits, but mostly the former.
I think that anyone who starts out with a foundation of having at some point learned algebra, geometry and arithmetic will be able to prepare in quite a short time if they have the time and tenacity to revise it all. I was never what I would call good at maths, and that’s reflected in my final score still, but I had the basics down at some point years ago, and a lot of it came back quite easily. It also helped that I had learned it originally in English when I did the International Baccalaureate in senior secondary school.
In the second week of revision, I downloaded the official GMAT practice software which comes with two full-length practice tests. I decided to take one on the Saturday before my Friday test, use it to hone in on what was still weak, then take the other one on Wednesday, leaving me Thursday to plug any remaining holes. It worked well, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much progress I had made in a week:
Almost as important as the maths revision was getting a good understanding of how the test works.
Helpful things to know about the GMAT
The most helpful things for me to understand about the test were the following.
- The questions change depending on your answers.
The test is computer adaptive, which means that if you get a question right, your next question will be a little bit harder, and conversely you get easier questions after incorrect answers. Your score is based on how many questions you get right and how hard they were. This didn’t really have a practical impact on me, but it felt good to understand that the test was essentially trying to help me to do well by adjusting the difficulty level to something I could handle.
- The maths part of the test is not about performing calculations in your head.
You can’t use a calculator on the day, but that doesn’t mean that they want you to be able to perform complicated calculations on a piece of paper. For one thing, the time you have for each question (about 2 minutes) is not enough. Instead, you can often guess strategically or understand the answer by eyeballing the question. So the problems are designed to test your understanding of the basic concepts, instead. You’ll get some note paper and often you will try some simple equations out, but in general it’s not about mental acrobatics.
- It’s much easier to improve your quantitative than your verbal score.
Okay, this one is only helpful if you’re good at the verbal stuff like me. If you ask me, the verbal questions rely on skills you’ve built up over years – understanding written information, handling long passages, attention to detail and also the ability to grasp the big-picture concept. All of this is very hard to get to grips with n a short time. Conversely, you can make big gains in the maths.
- You get points for good time management.
And penalised for every question you don’t have time to answer. I learned an excellent, simple time management technique from GMAT Prep Now which involves spending about a minute to begin with creating a timetable. I had plenty of time on the verbal test, but the timetable was crucial on the maths part. I think I finished with a couple of seconds to spare and had answered all questions.
In short, I would recommend a bifocal approach: first, find out what your worst area is and focus your energies on bringing that up. If you have time, tackle the second worst, and the third. Second, make sure you understand how the test works because it will help you stay calm and assured on the test day, and you will score a few low-hanging fruit like time management points.
I hope this helps – and good luck!