The GMAT

The GMAT exam was the most worrying, stressful and generally unpleasant part of the application experience. It was also expensive.

For those who don’t know (and I’d never heard of it before this) the GMAT is a set of tests designed to measure your linguistic and numerical skills. Its closest relative is the American SAT test. Business schools use GMAT scores as an indicator of how bright an applicant is and most have a minimum score below which they won’t consider your application. Business Schools also publish the average GMAT score of their students in a show of intellectual chest beating.

GMAT stands for General Management Aptitude Test, but to my mind it was a test of

  • My ability to spot trick maths questions
  • My knowledge of obscure bits of English grammar

Getting through the GMAT with a good score involved a fair amount of effort, but there wasn’t a sense of achievement at the end, just a feeling that a needless obstacle had been overcome.

Applying for the GMAT

Applying to take the GMAT’s a straightforward business. You find your closest test centre, ring them up, arrange an appointment and give them the fee (about $200). Don’t leave this till the last-minute though, depending on how busy the test centre is it may be a few weeks before they can fit you in – and you’ll probably want a month or so to practice.

In America the GMAT is administered centrally. In Europe its outsourced to other testing organisations. The place I applied through was an offshoot of the Sylvan Learning Company and the booking was done through an office in Holland. The test centre was in London – although they have a few in the UK. I’d guess that unless you live in a capital city chances are you’ll be taking the GMAT a few hours journey from where you live.

Revising for the GMAT

When you book your test you’ll be sent a CD containing a couple of sample tests. Since the GMAT is entirely computer administered you’ll need access to a PC to practice. My initial response to the sample GMAT questions was shock – they ain’t easy. GMAT tests are split into three parts as follows

  • Quantitative Reasoning: Basically a test of high school level maths, but full of trick questions like asking for the answer in cents and giving you the information required in dollars.
  • Verbal Reasoning: Essentially a test of sentence completion and reading comprehension. If you had the kind of English teacher who cared more about pronouns than Shakespeare you may be ok, but this is probably where you’ll be doing most revision.
  • Analytical Writing: You have to write two essays for the GMAT, one criticising an argument, the other putting an argument forward. You get 20 minutes for each and apparently they expect 4-5 paragraphs for these – hardly an essay.

Questions in the GMAT come in a number of unusual formats such as data sufficiency ‘is there enough information to answer this question’ questions and ‘given the above is it more likely that…’ questions. The folks behind it claim this makes it harder to guess and makes the test more accurate. In reality it makes it easier to guess.

To help me prepare for the GMAT I bought a book called ‘Cracking the GMAT‘ by the Princeton Review. It was extremely useful and was probably worth a good 50 points to my final score. It covers basic techniques for spotting trick questions, analyses the way GMAT questions are composed and explains time management strategies for the exam. (In a nutshell spend more time on the early and late questions) I’d definitely recommend this book.

In the end my revision involved a couple of hours, a few nights a week for about a month. Had I spent more time on the Maths I’d definitely have improved my score. (another blow to the GMAT’s claim to be impartial – trained mathematicians should easily score 95%+ on the numerical section – if you get one wrong it’ll be an accident)

If you’re not a native English speaker you may want a lot more time to prepare the grammar stuff. The non-native English speakers I met on open days and MBA events were having a lot of trouble with the reading sections – hardly surprising given their preposterously obtuse nature.

Taking the GMAT

The test centre I went to was bang in the middle of London, almost next door to the MTV offices. That sadly was where the glamour ended – a few rooms of office space on the third floor was where the testing centre was based. Once there you’re briefed, sat in front of a machine and told left to take the test. As you go you’ll be watched on camera to make sure you don’t cheat.

I have to say the test was fairly stressful. If you answer a question right the next one is harder, answer one wrong and the next one is easier. This means there are very few easy bits in this exam where you can feel confident about having done well. (Unless you’re good at maths and doing the maths bit)

Your GMAT Score

Your GMAT score is given to you immediately at the end of the test by the computer. It’s in the same format as American SAT scores – a mark for quantitative and one for verbal, and a combined mark out of 800. There’s also a mark for essay writing which is out of 6. This is produced by the computer as well (I kid you not) but it’s checked by humans. You can read about how this works at 800Score.com

Your target score for the GMAT will depend on where you’re planning on applying to. How much weight a school puts on the GMAT scores varies, Harvard used not to read them at all, but changed their mind. Indeed Harvard, LBS and co boast of average GMAT scores over 700

According to the Said Business School “All candidates are required to take the GMAT test. Our 2001-2002 class average was 672. A high score does not guarantee a place nor does a lower score automatically disqualify your application. However, as several of the programme’s core courses are a high level of quantities and analytical skills we do look for evidence of these in GMAT results.’ (or similar)”

which suggests the GMAT isn’t the be all and end all. – but I’d guess if you score over 650 you won’t be doing yourself any harm no matter where you apply.

My GMAT Score

So did all the revision pay off? Well yes it did – and it showed. I did very little maths revision and my maths score isn’t exactly world-class. I spent loads of time worrying about the grammar side of things (I’ve always been bad at this) and that went swimmingly. The result was about 70 points better than my first attempt at the sample test provided on the CD.

700 since you ask.