Planning to take the GMAT? Here, this might help!

Long post warning!

So you are applying to a top MBA program in the US? You need to take the GMAT and get a score around the median score for your target schools. Right? Wrong!

Unless you have an outstanding profile (such as an Indian female with 6 years of social/development sector leadership experience AND great academic achievements from a top-tier institute in India AND reasonably sound goals),  if you want to apply to any of the top 15 MBA programs in the US, it will be good if you aim for a score north of 720, preferably 740+.

I am sure you know this and I am sure you are thinking, ‘I came here for the tips, let’s just get there’! But not so fast :) there isn’t always a quick and dirty way of doing things elegantly, you know what I mean?

Right, then! What is the GMAT all about? It is critical to understand this, and we will come back to this again later in the blog. GMAT stands for Graduate Management Aptitude Test and is a pre-requisite to apply to most MBA programs. It is generally believed that the GMAT score has good correlation to a student’s performance in the MBA program and is a standardized way of assessing thousands of students coming from diverse backgrounds, educational systems and countries. Before you miss, the GMAT is not a test of your quantitative and verbal ability – it is a test of your “logic and reasoning ability”!

Currently, only the verbal and quantitative scores are prominently used, and the essays are used to cross check with your MBA application essays if schools doubt your writing abilities, but the Integrated Reasoning scores aren’t used much (or at least, nobody specifically talks about them). IR scores will get prominence once the IR section gets 5 years old, which is soon. So how do you begin your preparation, and where do you focus? What books do you need?

First – get yourself the latest Official GMAT Guide. Go through it for a week and understand the pattern of the exam, the various sections, the question types and the answer choices. Try out a few questions randomly, and test your comfort levels. Depending on your educational background and work experience, you will either find questions too easy or moderately difficult. Take the Diagnostic Test. It will not give you a meaningful score, but it will tell you which areas you are good at, and which ones need focus, in quant as well as in verbal.

Second – now that you’ve identified your weak zones, read about the types of questions and understand what is being tested in each question type. Try solving a few more questions for a couple of days, and then take the first official GMAT mock test (from the software provided with the OG). Remember – take mock tests on a quiet afternoon, and I would highly recommend you take it on a desktop computer! Hopefully, you’ve also scheduled your actual test for an afternoon slot.

The score you get in your first mock, is your baseline score. A good 1 hr a day prep for 2 months can help you improve your score by about 50 points higher than that. But let me take a moment to give you some insights. It is typical for people from engineering backgrounds to score better than people from arts backgrounds (logical reasoning, remember? GMAT isn’t about forming alternate theories of parallel universe, no offense meant). People with work experience in data analytics will surely score higher than everyone else – this is largely because they are used to seeing numbers day in and day out, and can do basic arithmetic rapidly. Also, people who have ‘successfully’ taken other competitive exams such as IIT JEE, CAT, etc will score better purely because they know how to handle big-exam stress, and of course their quant preparations for those exams!

Set your target GMAT score only after you get a baseline score. If your initial score is around 680-700, you should be able to reach 740-760 in 2 months and about 4-6 mock tests. If you get <650 in your first mock, put in 3 months of dedicated effort instead of 2, using the first month to focus purely on revisiting high school mathematics and reading some good books. For Quant – go through the OG notes and your class 9/10 syllabus. You won’t be asked calculus or trigonometry in the GMAT. Even statistics will largely be limited to mean and median! Understand set theory well, get a grip on prime numbers and shapes. I did not study Manhattan books for Quant and do not recommend it to anyone unless you really want to. Many of those questions will never appear in the GMAT. But do go through the entire Verbal theory from Manhattan – understand the idiosyncrasies in idioms – especially if you are a non-native speaker.

Solve the entire OG once, keeping a track of average time spent to solve questions correctly. Mark answers on a separate sheet, never on the book itself. Once you are done solving the entire OG, re-do the incorrectly answered questions. Continue to iterate till you have solved all questions in the OG correctly at least once.

The above process itself takes 2 months at 1 hr per day. Take Manhattan mocks in week 3 and week 5. Do not be disheartened if your scores in the Manhattan tests are below your official GMAT tests, they are meant to be tough, especially the Quant parts. Take the second official GMAT test in week 6. By now, you should be seeing a significant improvement in your score. I hope you have been giving your tests on a desktop computer, on quiet afternoons? I also hope you are giving the entire test in one go, much like the real one. The GMAT, like all other tests, is also a test of endurance!

If you are facing trouble in Verbal, like I did, go back to the basic question – what does GMAT test? It does not test your grammar skills or vocabulary as much as it tests your ability to reason. Many times, the correct answer is the one that sounds right, but be careful, there could be a punctuation error or a tense error or a number error. In verbal section, elimination of choices works very well. In very few questions will more than 2 choices seem close enough. You do not have to be a verbal-bee champion to get 40+ here. Reason and Logic! Remember.

A lot of passages in RC section are around American history, social rights, and legal battles, or around biology and evolution of life! Do not get bored midway into them, go with the flow and note key events or theme changes as you read. In 6-8 weeks of practice, you will get a hang of such passages. Please expect 2-3 passages from these themes in your actual test. 

Another great set of study material for verbal consits of the Veritas Prep videos on YouTube and I highly recommend them! During the last 7-10 days before my GMAT, I watched all their videos. You may find that the videos are scattered on YouTube in no logical order, but if you have an iPad, download their app and watch them there! They are amazing!

Always study one type of question on a given day. Use the initial diagnostic test to evaluate how weak you are in each question type, and give more days (but not disproportionately more) to those types.

Now you are past the 6-week mark, and it is time to fire up! Take another Manhattan test. Do not worry much about the score there; as long as it is above your previous Manhattan score, you are safe. Buy the two extra official GMAT mock tests from the GMAC website and take them in week 7 and week 8. You should hopefully see a better score! It may very well be your target score. Do not take any mock tests 2-3 days before your actual test. The actual test score will be in close range of your last official mock test. Some people feel the pressure of taking a real test, and may score 10-20 points lower, and those who get pumped up during the real test, may score 10-20 points higher.

Test Day – be calm! Do not touch your books :) Start your morning with a light breakfast. Carry a chocolate bar and an apple with you along with a bottle of water, to be consumed during the break. Have a Red Bull before you leave home, it works (just make sure you visit the restroom right before your test)! Red Bull, Chocolate and Apple all ensure that you stay alert!

Follow this, and you will likely end up in the 720+ zone, provided your starting point wasn’t below 650. My baseline score was 720, and I ended up getting 770 in the actual test. Here is a table of my scores.


If, unfortunately you do not get a good score (720+ is what I call good), do not be disheartened. I have personally known people who have taken the GMAT 4 times, and many of them have eventually achieved their target score! Read Varun’s blog on how he finally hit 740. He took a different approach, had other demons to fight, but he conquered it. Remember – GMAT isn’t testing your quantitative ability or your verbal skills, but your ability to reason – a lot of which is built into who you are. Improving GMAT scores beyond 80-100 points above baseline takes a huge effort and time, but 40-60 points increase is possible with determination and a targeted approach.

All the best! And do feel free to drop in your questions (and scores :) ) in the comments below!



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