How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 1 (result: 640)

Today’s the first day of my plan. A practice test with 113 questions, 61 verbal and 52 quant. I get a raw scores of 51 and 39, corrected to 49 and 36. The combined corrected 83 gives me a projected GMAT of 640. Okay from a cold start I suppose.

Post mortem of the questions I got wrong comes tomorrow, but here are the sample (unscored) essays:

Analysis of an issue

“Business relations are infected through and though with the disease of short-sighted motives. We are so concerned with immediate results and short-term goals that we fail to look beyond them.”

Assuming that the term ‘business relations’ can refer to the decisions and actions of any organization – for instance, a small family business, a community association, or a large international corporation – explain the extent to which you think that this criticism is valid. In your discussion of the issue, use reasons and/or examples from your own experience, your observations of others, or your reading.

I disagree with the author – but not completely. His concerns about short-sighted decisions obscuring an organization’s long-term strategy are valid. But I believe he’s working from a false premise: that long-term relations exist independently of actions taken today.

Any ‘Strategy Document’ setting out a company’s long-term goals tends to be written by management or marketers – not the far larger number of people whose daily actions and attitudes directly affect customers, corporate culture, and the bottom line. Indeed, the existence of such a document can have a negative impact on the workforce – a ‘commandment from on high’, something to be sneered at, rather than guided by.

In the USA today, the average worker stays in a job less than seven years; to Mr Smith from Sales, ‘long-term’ may mean no more than hitting his targets this quarter – especially if failure means his family will go hungry. Making that Friday afternoon sale is far more important to him than acting in strict accordance with a mission statement. It’s an immediate need – with an immediate action. Long-term business goals are driven by thousands of decisions like these, bubbling up from the shopfloor. They’re not independent entities.

Besides, who can decide what’s ‘long-term’ and what isn’t? In Japan in 2006, a family enterprise, Kongo Gumi, closed its doors – after being in business for more than fourteen centuries! Kongo was in the business of building temples, and had been since 578 AD. But even that long-term strategy wasn’t enough to save it: decisions taken in the 90s, which doubtless seemed like sensible long-term planning at the time, drove it into bankruptcy.

However reluctantly a CEO might admit it, long-term goals – in any organization – are simply the side-effects, over time, of the actions of the organisation. This isn’t a bad thing. After all, it means they can change.

FAULTS: Too much confusion about business goals and business relations here. Should have put ‘in the 90s to invest in land’ in Kongo para! The last paragraph is hurried and does not tie up the essay effectively. I’d score myself 4 or 4.5 out of 6.

Analysis of an argument

The following appeared as part of a campaign to sell advertising time on a local radio station to local businesses.

“The Cumquat Cafe began advertising on our local radio station this year and was delighted to see its business increase by 10 percent over last year’s totals. Their success shows you how you can use radio advertising to make your business more profitable.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion, be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. You can also discuss what, if anything, would make the argument more sound and persuasive or would help you to better evaluate its conclusion.

Radio advertising works for many companies – and seems to have worked for the Cumquat Cafe. But any business thinking of driving sales with jingles and scripts should do its homework before making a decision – because an ad, created to portray the station in the best light, will never give the full story.

Firstly, the ad doesn’t say anything about the local economy. How fast has business as a whole been growing this year? Several world economies are growing at over 10%. If the Cafe’s in a certain region of China or India, its little slice of the economy may actually be shrinking.

Secondly, assuming that 10% figure is accurate, has the ad itself – paid for by the station, not the Cumquat Cafe – driven much of the new business at the Cafe, merely by repeatedly mentioning it on air? If the market value of this ‘free’ advertising is higher than the 10% growth spurt the Cafe enjoyed, it suggests radio is actually a poor media choice – with the campaign’s cost exceeding the incremental business generated.

Thirdly, the ad implies any business can benefit from radio advertising – quite a claim. If the station is a drivetime favorite, and the Cafe is located on a street used by 60% of local workers between 5 and 8pm, it may well be capable of bringing hordes of hungry workers through Cumquat’s doors every evening. But would those same people be as hungry for engineering parts?

Finally, the ad claims business ‘increase(d) by 10 percent over last year’s totals.’ This may refer to turnover – not profits. If costs increased by 11 percent, the Cafe lost money. In addition, when did the Cafe start up in business? If this is only its second year, a 10% hike in business would be far from sizzling; many new businesses double in size annually in their early years.

Radio advertising may well be an excellent way for local businesses to drive sales. But anyone encouraged to advertise their business by this method needs more information about both Cumquat Cafe and the radio station – because correlation does not mean causation.

FAULTS: Did I analyze the line of reasoning – which was that advertising on this station would drive new business for you? It’s not even clear this was a radio ad – I assumed it. Should I leave lines between paras, or indent paras? Will ask on test day to make sure. But for 30mins work, I think this essay is reasonable, and probably a 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: a blog within a blog

I’ve decided to try the GMAT test. It’s a combined English and maths exam, standard worldwide, used as an entry requirement for most MBA programmes. And it’s quite clever. So I thought I’d record my thoughts on it as I start a month of part-time study.

The GMAT is scored out of 800: 200 to 800. (People who get 200 turned up to the exam room and… died.) But it’s not about simply getting a list of questions right: it’s a computer-adaptive test. If you keep getting questions right, the following questions will be harder, and harder questions carry a higher weighting. To have a chance of getting near 800, you need to get the first 10 questions all correct, since that determines the ‘direction’ (harder or easier) of subsequent questions. 78 questions are ‘corrected’ to two scores (theoretically up to 60 each) then extrapolated into a number between 200 and 800 plus a percentile – the percentage of people who did worse than you.

Of test-takers, 50% score 540 or below. 680 is the 90th percentile; 710 is the 95th and 750 is the 99th. To hit that top one percent, you’ve got to ace both quant and verbal sections: you won’t get it if you’re perfect in one of them but missed a few in the other.

Some example corrected raw scores from people who hit 750 are: 41V/51Q, 46V/47Q, 44V/49Q, 45V/48Q, 47V/47Q. ‘Hard’ questions – the kind these people saw a lot of in their exams – combine concepts rather than testing individual things like algebra or geometry: 750-level questions will need creative combining of ideas to solve in the two minutes or so you can afford for each question.

The test is in three sections: written, quantitative, and verbal. The written section consists of two essays – analysis of an issue, and analysis of an argument – for which you get 30 minutes each, and each is scored 1-6, which doesn’t contribute towards your score out of 800; it’s a separate number called AWA. The quant section is maths, with 37 multiple-choice questions (A to E), and the verbal section has 41.

So what’s my plan for acing the GMAT? Well, GMAT questions come in a finite number of flavours, so my first task is to find out what I’m weak on.

Quant (maths) questions come in two flavours: problem solving, and data sufficiency. Each type of question may test your knowledge of arithmetic, algebra (simultaneous equations and graphing functions), properties of numbers (roots and exponents, negatives and fractions), proportions and ratios, sets, geometry, and co-ordinates. Verbal questions come in three flavours – reading comprehension, sentence correction, and critical reasoning.

Reading comprehension may test overall understanding of a passage, detailed understanding of a passage, and inferring ideas from a passage. Sentence correction tests your knowledge of verb tenses and agreement, pronouns, modifiers, parallel construction, comparatives, and overall style. Critical reasoning tests assumptions, things that strengthen or weaken an argument, things that support or do not support an argument, explaining things, inferring things, and anything else the question writers could think of.

In maths, problem-solving questions are straightforward, if not easy: you just do the math according to methods you’ve learnt. Data sufficiency questions are conceptually harder. Instead of answers A-E relating directly to the question, you get two statements that (may) add further information to the question, and have to answer from a standard set of A-E as follows:

(A) if statement (1) ALONE is sufficient, but statement (2) alone is not sufficient to answer the question asked;
(B) if statement (2) ALONE is sufficient, but statement (1) alone is not sufficient to answer the question asked;
(C) if BOTH statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are sufficient to answer the question asked, but NEITHER statement ALONE is sufficient;
(D) if EACH statement ALONE is sufficient to answer the question asked;
(E) if statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are NOT sufficient to answer the question asked, and additional data specific to the problem are needed.

Data sufficiency questions make your brain do somersaults, because you don’t actually have to work out the result: the answer is in deciding whether, conceptually, finding that result is possible. I like them, but am not getting many right yet.

The way to find out what you’re weak on is simple: learn the 30 odd question subtypes (quant: 2 types x 7 areas + verbal: 3 types x 5 areas), do a bunch of practice tests, and see which types of question you’re getting wrong.

Then learn how to get them right.

Goals are good, so set some. If you score 640 from cold (as I did) and you want to hit 750 (the 99th percentile) subtracting one from the other and dividing by the days available for study gives you a concrete objective for each sucessive practice test. In 28 days, doing a practice test every other day, I want my score to rise by 10 points on each test. In practical terms, one less question wrong each time.

So here’s my method. In the morning, do a practice test. (Include the practice essays – many people neglect to develop their writing skills on the essay section, and scoring a pair of perfect sixes here is impressive.) Score yourself and correct the raws using the table provided.

In the afternoon, gather together all the questions you got wrong. See if they fall into groups: certain types of question, certain areas of knowledge. Is data sufficiency cropping up all the time? Are all the plane geometry questions foxing you? Find out which ONE kind of question you’re weakest on.

Then hit the books – Dummies and Kaplan do good ones – and learn how to get that ONE variety of question right (such as plane geometry in data sufficiency). One only. Pacing is important in exams, and acing one further question type a day is a reasonable goal for a month’s study.

Keep track by keeping two lists. The first list is for reduxing the questions you got wrong, and then solving them verbally by writing down the logical steps you should have applied. (As I’ll do in the ‘analysis’ blogs ahead.)

The second list is ‘tips’. In solving the ones you got wrong, you’ll learn tips and shortcuts (‘I could have solved that if I’d known about the 15:18:19 triangle!’) for getting them right. Write down these tips. Before you go to sleep memorise TWO tips a day. 50+ tips are all you’ll need to ace the exam. (I’ll add my tips in coming blogs, too.)

You need these tips because YOU WILL NEVER HAVE TIME to work everything out longhand during the exam. At 2 minutes per questions or less, you HAVE to know the techniques for cutting through the clutter and making decisions quickly.

That’s why the GMAT is a worthwhile exam. Because techniques – the ability to weigh incomplete information and make fast decisions based on it – are what any great manager needs, simply to get stuff done in any reasonable time.

Here goes nothing…

Great-great-grandfather isn’t going to like this…

Imagine you’re the fortieth-generation owner of a business in continuous operation since 578 AD. How would it feel to be the one who made the mistake that shut the joint down?!!!

Even more tragically funny is that the business involved building Buddhist temples – places specifically designed for ancestor worship. Not sure Mr Masakazu Kongo is going to be getting that warm a reception from them next time he visits …