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The what, when and how of the GMAT
Nirman Shetty Rajmohan
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October 03, 2007

The difference between the mile and the marathon is the difference between burning your fingers with a match and being slowly roasted over hot coals."

-- Hal Higdon, American writer and runner


The GMAT is the standardised test you take when you want to seek admission into most business schools around the world. It is administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), and is usually available on most days of the year in most parts of the world. You can get all the details from


The GMAT is best viewed as a marathon, and you prepare for the GMAT just the way you would train for a marathon. The most important requirements, apart from your basic knowledge of high school math and a very good grasp of English, are for you to keep your wits about you and the stamina to keep them for the entire duration of the exam. Yes, the GMAT is the long haul, with the total duration of time spent in the exam centre easily breaching four hours.



The GMAT is usually the first step in the journey to business school. Therefore it makes sense to decide when to take the GMAT based on the admissions deadlines of the schools you are interested in.

Most US B-schools have their first round deadlines in October/November. The Indian School of Business (ISB) had its first round deadline for admission into the 2009 batch on September 15 2007 (second round deadline on November 15). So we work backwards starting from October (assuming you are applying to a US B-school).


You need about 15 days to fill in all your details on the online application and at least a couple of months to write your essays and get your letters of recommendation. Which means you should have written your GMAT and been done with it sometime in June, or latest in July. Any later than this and you'll be pushing yourself really hard and making compromises in your application process that you needn't have to.



The GMAT has 4 sections -- the first two sections are essays (together called Analytical Writing Assessment). One essay requires you to take a stand on a contentious issue, and make a cohesive, coherent argument for your position.


The other requires you to critique an argument that you are provided with, looking for logical inconsistencies and structural flaws in the construction of the argument. Both essays are to be written in 30 minutes each.


Then you have one Verbal section and one Quantitative section, each of 75 minutes duration. These two sections have multiple-choice questions, with varying levels of difficulty. Here is how the questions are shot at you by the GMAT computer -- all questions on the GMAT question bank are divided into bins of varying difficulty -- so you have the Very Easy, Easy, Moderate, Difficult and Very Difficult bins holding questions.


For the first question, the computer picks a question from the Moderate bin. And you start off with the median score (GMAT scores run in 10 point increments within the range 200 to 800.


So the median score that everyone starts off with is 500). If you answer the question right, your score is incremented and the computer picks the next question from a higher difficulty bin. If you answer the question wrong, the computer decrements your score and picks the subsequent questions from an easier bin.


For those of you familiar with computer algorithms, the GMAT test works like a sort of 'binary search' to level in on your relative score in the 200 to 800 range. If you get answers right, you are asked progressively tougher and tougher questions, and your score is adjusted upwards. If you get answers wrong, your score is adjusted downwards and you get easier questions.


At the end of about 37 questions, the GMAT test assumes that it has gotten close enough to your true score and the section ends. This format works for both the Verbal and Quantitative sections, although the number of questions in a section may vary. Another important thing to keep in mind is that the quantum of increment or decrement in score after each question answered is higher for the first few questions, and keeps decreasing as you progress into a section.


This means that it is very important for you to get the first few questions dead right -- if you start off bad it becomes very difficult to recover. Another side effect of this testing format is obviously the fact that you cannot go back to a question later in the test -- every question has to be answered as you come across it.


[Caveat -- the above description is based on my understanding of the test, and is meant to only give you an indication of how the GMAT test works. It is very likely to be factually incorrect -- for instance in the number of different question bins].



The time and amount of preparation required for the GMAT can vary a lot, and depends to a large extent on the individual taking the test. Here is how I would recommend you go about the whole process (this is based on my experiences and is full of my opinions) -- the first thing you do is to go to the GMAT site ( and download the test preparation software that is available for free.


This software comes with two practice tests. Since the makers of the GMAT provide these tests, it is the closest you will get to the actual GMAT itself. Take the first test immediately. This will help you determine where you stand.


Say you scored a 650 in this first test that you took right off the bat, without any preparation. If your target school requires a score of 710, then you know that right now you are probably 60 points short of where you want to be. And to be safe, you should target a score between 730 and 750.

Of course, as with any other score, the more your GMAT score, the merrier you are. You should also do an analysis of where you scored well and where you made most of your mistakes. With many people, most points are lost in a particular sub-section or a particular type of question.


For instance, my weakness used to be 'Sentence Correction' questions in the Verbal section of the test. So you need to identify your weakness, and work on it. Lots of companies provide GMAT training material. I would recommend you try at least the following two -- the material from Kaplan as well as the 'Official Guide to the GMAT' (published by the GMAC). If you have the time, you could do Princeton Review and Barron's too, although the Barron's material is rather easy, and thus a waste of time in my opinion.


Going back to the marathon analogy, the Kaplan material is like high-altitude training for GMAT. It is probably the toughest GMAT material around, and once you're through with it, the GMAT will be a cakewalk. Once you've done Kaplan, if you have the time, do the Princeton review GMAT material.


If you don't have the time, go directly to the 'Official Guide to the GMAT'. Also remember to keep doing practice tests regularly. You can find a lot of these online, and the Princeton Review material even comes with a CD that allows you to take something like 15 full time tests.


Remember the key here is to practice with the full time tests. If you add all four section timings of the GMAT, you get a total test length of 210 minutes. Add in the five-minute breaks you will take between sections, and the initial time for registration and other formalities and you are looking at well over four hours spent at the test centre. So you can imagine what your state of mind will be when you are doing the last section of the GMAT (usually Quantitative), about three and a half hours after you walked into a test centre. You will be very tired mentally.


Therefore it is very important to practice with the full-length tests -- have a watch/clock next to you, and take the entire test in one stretch. This will not only give you a feel for what D-day will be like, but if you do this consistently every other day for a month, it will also build your stamina, so you feel reasonably alert and challenged even when you've been at it for four hours at a stretch.


In my opinion, this is the most important part of preparing for the GMAT. Indians are generally very good at math, especially the high school math that is asked on the GMAT. So it is important that you don't lose any marks on the Quantitative section -- any errors you make here are free points you are giving away.

Indians generally find the Verbal section a lot more challenging. The Verbal section of the GMAT is at a whole different level from the other B-school entrance exams one writes in India. You need a very good grasp of English, especially for sub-sections like 'Sentence Correction', where you have to identify subtle and involved errors that are not very apparent at all. It definitely helps a lot if you're the sort who's spent about one-fifth of your life so far reading novels, literature and P G Wodehouse.

The final leg of your preparation should involve taking the second test in the preparation software you downloaded from Since these tests are the closest you can get to the GMAT, doing well on this test a day or two before your actual test date will give you a huge confidence boost.


In conclusion, some tips:

~ Pick a time of day for the test when you feel you are most alert -- some folks are morning people and others come into their own late in the afternoon.

~ Try to do a recce of your test centre a day or two before, so you know where to go and how to get there on D-day -- just in case you are faced with a traffic jam or some other form of ill luck.

~ For the same reasons as above, plan to reach your test center about 30 minutes or so before you are due there.

~ Remember that your GMAT score is valid for five years. Something to keep in mind when you're planning long term (or you're just getting out of undergrad school).

~ Lastly, remember the three most important things to cracking the GMAT are -- endurance, endurance and endurance.


Enjoy your preparation -- like you would enjoy training for a marathon. That is the secret to doing well. The GMAT is a fun exam to prepare for. Not only will you get a good score at the end of it all, you will have gained much from the journey itself -- you will discover new things about yourself, about the subtleties and eccentricities of the English language, and a lot of confidence for your everyday conversations.


The author scored a 770 on the GMAT in August 2006, and is currently doing his MBA at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.
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