To be completely honest, curiosity was the most overpowering feeling that I had when first encountering the GMAT exam. Aside from a single semester of Business Administration that I had taken during undergrad, and did well in, I had no experience with the path that leads to an MBA program. After several years of working in media production I had decided that an MBA was my true calling. I was creative and ambitious but lacked a discipline and instinct that were necessary for success. Always attempting to strengthen my weaknesses I set forth my plan to attend business school. The first step would be to master the GMAT exam, the exam that admission counselors use to gauge potential student’s aptitude. Without a doubt I was certain the test was business oriented and I had heard from several sources that knowledge of quantitative skills was required. These thoughts created a slight panic in my mind but I traversed forward only to learn what the exam really entailed. Here is a list I put together detailing every misconception I had about the exam and what can actually be expected. The sooner you know what you are facing, the quicker you can begin appropriate test-preparation.
- It’s not a business test.
The biggest surprise was that the GMAT is not a business test. Although confusing, it was very comforting to know that I would not be tested on concepts that I did not spend four years of college preparing for. The best way to explain what consists of the actual exam is to describe a book of riddles and brainteasers. Although you shouldn’t expect to find actual riddles, what you will find is a series of sections and questions aimed at making your brain work. The questions on the exam are aimed at promoting analytical and critical reasoning. You must question the questions. For example, on the reading comprehension section you will be provided with a several paragraph text. You might then be required to explain the primary purpose of the text as well as extract and analyze key data. The exam does not require you to understand particular business concepts; it simply asks that you pay as close attention to the questions as you would to a credit card statement with suspicious charges.
- It’s also not a math test.
I was told that the GMAT required a working knowledge of numbers and the consequences of their interaction. This was a very scary thought considering how math was a personal weakness going back to High School. When I began my test-prep I didn’t know what to expect but hoped that with years of maturity I had developed the ability to manipulate math problems like Neo from The Matrix. Another surprise came when I learned that the quantitative skills required for the exam were basic and easy to review or learn. The purpose of the quantitative section is the same as every other, to assess analytical and critical thinking. The only difference is that word problems are replaced by numbers. Remember, it’s not a math problem you need to solve, it’s a riddle.
- The brain is a muscle, train it.
I heard several fellow test-takers talk about how the exam is aimed at assessing analytical and critical reasoning abilities, natural talents. They underwent minimal preparation for the exam because they believed that, like an IQ test, whatever was going to be asked on the GMAT could not be prepared for. “You are born with your intelligence level and that’s that,” they would say. This could not be further from the truth. The brain, like a muscle, can be trained and developed. Sure, some people are born with an easier ability to absorb new information, however, without any new information that talent is wasted. Ignore any preconceived notions about your own abilities, I did, and focus instead on what you need to learn to master the exam.
- Beat the test, not the questions.
The GMAT has a very specific design. There are four sections and each one is timed, the time is limited. Although it is important to practice test questions and master the methods in solving the problems on the various sections, it is also important to remember that the test as a whole is more important than any individual question. An instructor in a test-prep class I was in recommended that I pick up a novel and time myself how long it takes to read each page. With each page I pushed myself to read quicker and beat the previous time. This training exercise shaved minutes off of my test taking time and had nothing to do with quantitative or verbal studies. Pacing during the exam is just as important as correct answers. A correct answer that takes too long and causes three missed questions at the end is a worse scenario than a wrong answer and time left over to possibly answer three questions correctly at the end.
- The location is part of the test.
Practice is important but no matter how much you practice using sample exams, nothing will be as real as the day of the actual test. The initial feeling is one of being an agent for the CIA. They scan your palm and guide you into a secure area where you will hear clicking and competition. You will be given headphones and a scratch pad for notes. All of your belongings are to be left in a locker. For the following hours there is no outside world, only you and the GMAT. Even the most prepared test-takers can panic and lose focus under these conditions. It is important to prepare mentally not only for the exam but the test taking conditions. Personally, I found places I felt most uncomfortable having to conduct a practice exam. I rode the public subway system for hours once completing questions, using the first and last stops as a timing mechanism. Training yourself to concentrate under strenuous conditions is just as important as being able to solve the trickiest of riddles.
The GMAT exam is complex but far from a mystery. As long as you have the mindset that what you are preparing for is just another exam you will be poised for success. Dedicate the appropriate amount of time and focus necessary for studying and mastering test taking methods and be sure to utilize every resource available. The GMAT aims at assessing individual’s analytical and critical reasoning abilities but it also aims to assess your mastery of the exam structure. This comes from conditioning and disciplined study habits, key characteristic sought by the top competitive business schools. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you’re willing to learn.