How I Beat the GMAT: My Journey to a 750
By: Alec Emmert
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” -SunTzu
Love it or hate it, the GMAT is the single most significant factor in determining the success of your MBA application. Schools weigh it heavily because it is a standard, objective measure among all applicants. The exam is an exhausting four-hour experience that tests your mental fortitude just as much as it tests your academic ability. The good news is that with hard-work, diligent preparation, and an effective test-taking strategy, you should be able to earn the score you need to compete for a spot at a top business school.
I am by no means academically gifted. I was, at best, an average student at the Naval Academy, and made it through Naval Nuclear Power School by the skin of my teeth. However, I was able to score in the top two percent in the world on the GMAT because I not only put in the hours studying but also took the time to understand the test and how I could best leverage my strengths when taking it. The purpose of this blog post is to share the program I used to get the score I needed to get into a top MBA program so you can apply it to your own studies. It worked for me, but it is by no means one-size fits all.
You need to ask yourself three questions before you start studying for the GMAT: where do I want to go to school? What score do I need to get in there? And, am I able to put the work in to get that score? Veterans are in a special category in MBA admissions. Therefore, a school’s published GMAT average is not necessarily the best guide to look at when applying. The best proxy I have found is Service to School’s admissions data which shows that scoring 700 or better will give you a decent shot at getting into every top MBA program.
People often ask how many hours they should study to get a 700. This question is flawed for two reasons. First, the quantity of hours matters much less than the quality of the time spent studying. Second, shooting for a 700 is not the best plan of action. The standard deviation for GMAT scores is approximately plus or minus thirty points, so you should set 730 as your goal to give yourself the best chance possible of breaking into the 700s when you take the test.
My three-part prep plan took approximately six months to complete. It included a prep course, every question in the GMAT Official Guide, and seven practice tests. All-in-all, I would say I spent over 200 hours studying for the test. It was exhausting. But, the phone-call I received telling me Wharton had accepted me made it all worthwhile.
Part 1: GMAT Prep Course
If you have the time and resources, I highly recommend taking a GMAT prep-course because it will give you a comprehensive overview of the test and cover numerous tricks you can use to solve seemingly impossible problems. I did my research on the best programs in Washington, D.C., where I lived at the time, and found Sherpa Prep. It is a locally run course that operates much like a small-business which I found to be its greatest strength. Sherpa’s classes are strictly limited in size, its teachers are engaging, and it utilized short, focused study guides to teach concepts efficiently. If you are in the D.C. area, I highly recommend signing up for one of their courses. If not, other programs such as Manhattan and Veritas Prep offer excellent classes.
You should take one practice GMAT early in your study program to get a feel for the test. I took a practice test off of the Manhattan Prep website and scored a 610. Although this score was not terrible, I saw that I had my work cut out for me. I then started taking Sherpa’s three-hour classes once or twice per week over an approximately two-month period. Additionally, I did about two hours of homework to prepare for each class. I used this time to gain insight into the test so I could “know my enemy.” I also came to “know myself” by learning how to leverage my strengths and mitigate my weaknesses.
These were my big takeaways:
- Do not downplay the verbal section: Most people do not know this, but the verbal section is weighted more heavily than the quantitative part in determining your overall score by a 55% to 45% margin. Allegedly, this is to put American students, who have notoriously mediocre quant skills, on a level playing field with their international counterparts. Since we use English every day, and most have not done a math problem since college, there is an understandable focus on the quant section during preparation. However, since the verbal part is more significant than the quant in determining your overall score, you should devote at least as much time to studying the verbal as the quant.
The chart attached to this blog post shows how significantly your verbal performance influences your overall score. For example: if you score a 47 on the verbal, which places you in the ninety-ninth percentile, you can score a 39 on the quant and still break 700. In my case, I scored a 47 on both the verbal and quant sections which gave me a 750 overall. I have heard that, because the MBA curriculum is math heavy, admissions officers at top schools want to see a quant score of 45 or better. I have never seen any hard evidence of this because schools only release their overall GMAT score averages and ranges. Regardless, a high verbal score will drive up your score more than a strong performance on the quant section so put some time into studying for it.
- It is not how many you get right, but what you get right: Unlike most standardized tests such as the SAT and LSAT, your performance on a set series of questions of increasing difficulty will not determine your score. Instead, the GMAT is a computer adaptive test that starts by giving you a question of average difficulty; if you get it right you will get a harder one, if you get it wrong, you will get an easier one. This pattern repeats itself for 31 quant and 36 verbal questions. The test’s algorithm uses these questions to hone in your ability. If you bat .500 on tough problems, your score will most likely be higher than if you get more easy ones correct. Therefore, don’t worry if you find the questions challenging, you’re probably doing well.
- After three minutes on a question, punt: You have 62 minutes to complete the 31 quant questions, and 65 minutes to complete the 36 in the verbal section. Therefore, you have roughly two minutes per problem in each section. If you take more than three minutes on a question, you are probably stuck and are wasting time you could be using to solve questions you know how to do later in the test. You do not want to be forced to rush through problems at the end of the test or leave them blank because you ran out of time. Leaving questions blank is the single worst thing you can do since they are automatically graded wrong. You want to ensure you can at least make an educated guess on every question on the test, so don’t waste time on a losing cause. Make an educated guess and move forward.
- Treat the Analytical Writing (AW) and Integrated Reasoning (IR) sections as a warm-up: These two sections do not factor into your overall score. They are each about 30 minutes long and occur before the quant and verbal sections. You start with the AW section where you will have to make an analytical argument on a topic presented to you on the test. The basic structure you should use for your essay is to write a 500-word piece with an introductory paragraph, three supporting arguments, and a conclusion. I followed this structure and got a 6, which is the highest score possible. However, schools will be looking more at your admissions essays when they assess your ability to think and write clearly. So, do your best, but do not burn yourself out. The IR is 12 questions long and involves interpretation of data. I used it to get my mind ready for the numerical analysis I would be doing on the quant section, but did not let it affect my confidence.
If you stress yourself out during these two sections, you will not go into the GMAT’s critical parts in the right frame of mind. Schools will see these scores, but I have never heard of them playing any significant role in an admissions decisions. Of course, bombing them will raise some questions, so you should not blow them off. Take a few deep breaths, relax, and use these questions to get you in the right frame of mind for the later sections, but do not let them affect your mentality before starting the meat of the test.
Part 2: The GMAT Official Guide
I took about a month break in-between the completion of my prep course and the beginning of my self-study. I moved to Saudi Arabia to work on a consulting project and was eyeballs deep in my work, so I struggled to find time to study. Getting into a study routine is the best way to learn the material to improve your score. I highly recommend finding a two-hour block in the day when you know you will consistently have uninterrupted study time. Studying on and off will not reinforce the information you learn. I realized that the only way I could guarantee two hours of continuous preparation time during the week was to study from 5:00–7:00 AM. It was tough at first, but I got into a routine after about two weeks, and waking up early to study soon became second nature.
I had a simple plan: I would do every one of the approximately 1,000 questions in the GMAT Official Guide. I figured that, if I did every problem in the book, there would not be a single type I had had not seen when I took the test. I did about 20 questions per day, checked my answers, and practiced the ones I got wrong until I could do each one automatically. I went through the entire book, cover to cover, in about two months. This part was, by far, the toughest part of my study program, but it was worth it. When I closed the book, I was ready to begin the final phase of my preparation: practice tests.
Part 3: Practice Tests
The best way to simulate taking the GMAT is to take practice tests on the GMAT website. These tests are virtually identical to the actual one you will take. You get two for free and can pay for an additional four. I recommend you get all six. You can also order extra questions that you can do on your computer.
I took one test per week, usually on a Sunday afternoon, and spent the rest of the week reviewing what I had gotten wrong, and doing additional practice problems. I started scoring in the low-700s on the tests and worked my way up to the mid-700s, so, I knew I was in range for the score I needed when I finished my last practice GMAT. At this point, I had completed the hard work and just had to perform on game-day. So, I took a deep breath and booked my test appointment.
You can take the GMAT five times in a given year and can cancel your scores after you take the test. So, I recommend taking the test once you can consistently score above 700 on practice tests. If you don’t duplicate this performance on the actual test, you can use the experience to refine your study plan and give it another go in a month or two. I’ve talked to numerous people who took three or more tries to break 700. So, don’t worry if you don’t get your target score on your first attempt, you’re in good company. The key is that you learn from your mistakes.
Try to schedule your test for a time of day when you feel your sharpest. I booked mine for 11:00 AM. Late morning worked well for me because it gave me time to wake up at a reasonable time, eat breakfast, and get a coffee before I went to the test center. I even watched a few episodes of Archer to put me in a good mood before the test.
The preparation paid off because I went into the GMAT confident and relaxed. All the practice tests I took made me comfortable with the exam format and timing, so I felt well-rehearsed as I went through the questions. I remember thinking that I was doing well, but the 750 score I saw at the end was far better than I was expecting. This result was not due to an extraordinary talent on my part, but rather hours and hours of work and practice.
Final Pieces of Advice
As you prepare to set out on your MBA application journey, I would like to leave you with three final pieces of advice:
- Set your goal: Where do you want to go to school? What is its GMAT average? Once you have that target, you can develop your study plan. If you need a 650 to get in, you will not need to study as hard as if you were shooting for a 700+ GMAT.
- Start early: I started studying a year before Wharton’s Round 1 application was due, giving me time to prepare at my own pace and a time buffer to retake the test several times if needed. Applications for most schools open in June, with Round 1 deadlines in September. The applications are stressful and time-consuming enough without the added stress of taking the GMAT. Also, you’ll have a better idea of which schools you should apply to once you’ve got your score finalized. Granted, studying a year in advance may be unrealistic for many people. However, the earlier you can put the test in the rear-view mirror, the better.
- Get into a routine: Studying for the GMAT is a lot like working out. You will only get true gains if you get yourself into a consistent study program where you reinforce concepts. The best way to do this is to get a set time of day set-aside to study and make it a habit.
Best of luck in beating the GMAT. If I could do it, so can you!
Alec Emmert is a former Navy Submarine Officer who has been working as a consultant in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the past two years. He will be starting his MBA this fall as a member of Wharton’s class of 2020.
Follow Alec on Twitter @alecemmert