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…