Writing the GMAT? We’re here to help!


IMG_9456In preparation for tomorrow’s Math Refresher Workshop at Rotman, we sat down with Sergey Kouk, Senior Trainer at Admit Master GMAT Prep and shared some frequently asked questions from test-takers.

Here’s what the expert had to say:

Q) I don’t have a quant background. How should I approach the GMAT?

A) GMAT is one of the hardest tests you’ll ever write. It’s also one of the most frequently misunderstood. Many candidates believe that if they don’t already have strong Math skills, they can’t do well on the GMAT and will have to settle for a low Quant score on the test.
It’s true that test takers, who are naturally strong in Math, tend to do better on the Quant section. However, I’ve seen many engineers or mathematicians who don’t do well on the GMAT, and many candidates with Arts backgrounds who do extremely well. I like to joke with my students that GMAT is not the “Grueling Math Aptitude Test”, but rather a “General Management Admission Test”. Simply learning Math rules and formulas could improve your score, but that is not what the GMAT is all about and it would not be enough to reach high scores on the test.

I’ve recently worked with a musician who was able to improve his Quant score from the 30th percentile to over the 90th percentile, thus raising his overall score from 580 to 760, by focusing almost entirely on advanced decision-making strategies that make the most difference on the test. Coincidentally these skills are the same that successful senior managers use day to day: thinking outside the box, recognizing trends, making confident decisions, leveraging what you know, and managing time.

If you don’t have a quant background, you could still do very well on the test. By focusing on the right strategies and methodologies, you too could ace the test, just like that musician. But first you have to learn all of the Math theory. Many test takers are afraid of this, but remember that most of the theory is high school or earlier. So, if you learned it back then, you can learn it again. Some of you may say, “well, I don’t like geometry, so I’ll just skip it”. Bad idea! Geometry can be 4-6 questions on the math section – that’s 4-6 questions you should be getting right! Again, the material is from high school and the only reason you are intimidated is because it was so long ago.

Most importantly, the theory is finite, which means that there is an end in sight. It may seem daunting at first, but with time and effort, you can learn every section that is tested. No one said the GMAT would be easy – it’s work. So learn the theory 100% before diving into tips, tricks, shortcuts and methodologies, and you could be well on your way to 700+ scores!

Q) What is actually being tested on the GMAT?

A) Many beginner test takers believe that since there are 2 major sections on the test – Quantitative and Verbal, the GMAT tests basic Math and English skills. However, this is not exactly what the test is designed for. As you already know, by now, the GMAT is a Management test. Therefore, it is designed to evaluate skills that good managers should demonstrate: analytical, critical thinking, decision making, and time management skills.

Here is what the Official Guide for GMAT is saying about the Math section that many students fret about:

The GMAT exam only requires basic quantitative analysis skills. You should review the math skills (algebra, geometry, basic arithmetic), but the required skill is very low. The difficulty of the GMAT Quantitative questions stems from the logic and analysis used to solve the problems and not the underlying math skills.

When studying for the GMAT, make sure to get the basic Math theory out of the way, and then focus on developing the management skills actually being tested on the GMAT. Do careful research about GMAT preparation programs and make sure the resources you use focus on training you, and not just on covering the course content.

Most importantly, the GMAT evaluates your ability to learn and study for an unfamiliar test. One of the first things I tell my students in class is that everyone could get a 700 score on the test. They need not be mathematicians or PhDs to ace the GMAT. They just need to have an open mind, study “smart”, and trust the system: thousands of students before them mastered the test, and they could certainly do so too!

Q) What is the format of the test and how can I best approach it?

A) The GMAT consists of 4 sections:

  1. Analytical Writing Assessment, also known as the “essay” (30 minutes)
  2. Integrated Reasoning, a section that combines Math and Verbal question types into 12 mini-cases (30 minutes)
  3. Quantitative, also known as the “Math” section, that includes 2 types of multiple-choice questions: Problem Solving (that’s all about finding the right answer out of 5 possible ones in the shortest time) and Data Sufficiency (that evaluates candidate’s ability to understand whether information given is sufficient to answer the question, but does not require finding the actual answer). The Math section includes 37 questions in total and lasts for 75 minutes.
  4. Verbal section that includes 3 types of multiple-choice questions: Sentence Correction (that’s all about working with Sentences), Critical Reasoning (working with Arguments) and Reading Comprehension (working with longer Passages). The Verbal section contains 41 questions and also lasts for 75 minutes. Verbal section is the last on the test, has more questions, and requires higher mind concentration to select the best answer. This is one of the reasons why statistically it’s a lot harder to achieve very high scores on the Verbal section.

The only 2 sections that contribute to the total score on the GMAT (the score that ranges from 200 to 800) are Quantitative and Verbal. And while business schools will receive scores for all 4 sections, it is the total score that makes the most difference on the application. For this reason, candidates should focus first on studying for the Quant and Verbal sections.

The AWA (essay) is the easiest section and could certainly be mastered with a little bit of practice. The Integrated Reasoning section tests skills from both Math and Verbal sections with new question formats, so candidates who develop good test taking skills on the main two sections should do well on the IR section with some practice to get familiar with the unique IR question formats.

Luckily, all 4 sections on the test evaluate those same management skills that we’ve discussed earlier: thinking outside the box, recognizing trends, making confident decisions, leveraging what you know, and managing time. Good GMAT preparation programs will go beyond basic theory or simple tricks, and will train students to develop these higher order thinking skills that will not only help them do well on the test, but will make them better MBA students and ultimately more successful senior managers.

Q) How does the GMAT scoring work?

A) Upon taking the GMAT, you will receive 10 scores in total:

  1. AWA score on a scale of 0 to 6 with increments of 0.5
  2. IR score on a scale of 1 to 8 with increments of 1
  3. Quantitative score on a scale of 0 to 60 with increments of 1, with scores below 6 or above 51 extremely rare
  4. Verbal score on a scale of 0 to 60 with increments of 1, with scores below 9 or above 44 extremely rare
  5. Total score on a scale of 200 to 800 based on your performance on Quant and Verbal sections only

In addition to the 5 “absolute” scores described above, you will receive 5 “relative” or “percentile” scores that measure your performance against other candidates who have taken the test in the last 3 years.

The Quantitative and Verbal sections use a complex Computer-Adaptive Test (CAT) algorithm. Rather than adding or subtracting points for each right or wrong question, the GMAT adjusts difficulty of subsequent questions based on your answers to earlier questions. When you answer the easier questions correctly, you get a chance to work on harder questions, making it possible to earn a higher score.

Ultimately the GMAT is trying to “guess” your level on each of these 2 sections by presenting you with easier or harder questions and evaluating your performance on each of the questions. For this reason, no one question will be that important; it is your overall performance that will count. We teach our students time management strategies unique for the GMAT and provide practice tests that include special “pacer” features that help develop good time management techniques. When studying for the GMAT, make sure not only to learn how to answer questions correctly, but also how to do so within a limited time.

Q) Is the GMAT easier than the GRE?

A) Since more and more business schools now begin to accept GRE scores for admission to MBA programs, candidates now have an option to take either the GMAT or the GRE. While these tests are significantly different, it would not be fair to say that one test is easier than the other. While the GMAT and the GRE attempt to test similar skills, there are some notable differences:

  1. The GRE consists of 7 sections: 2 essays, 2 Quantitative, 2 Verbal, and 1 unidentified unscored/research section.
  2. The GMAT adapts question difficulty after each question, while the GRE adapts after each section.
  3. The GRE Verbal section includes 3 question types: Test Completion, Sentence Equivalence, and Reading Comprehension. As you already know, by now, the GMAT Verbal section includes 3 different question types: Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension. The GRE Verbal section involves a lot of vocabulary recall while the GMAT Verbal requires a bit more reasoning. Consider your strengths when making your decision about which exam to take: if you don’t like words, the GRE verbal will be tough for you.
  4. While the GRE and the GMAT Math sections are based on the same high school curriculum, the GMAT math questions require more sophisticated reasoning skills than do GRE math questions. For this reason, many students who learn Math theory, but not the advanced GMAT reasoning skills, might find the GRE math easier. Be careful, though – don’t think that you can avoid studying math by opting for the GRE. The GRE math still requires a sophisticated sense of numbers and an ability to solve problems.
  5. Both the GMAT and the GRE are significantly different from other exams you’ve taken – regardless of which exam you decide to take, you’ll need to spend time developing the right set of skills and practicing your test taking strategies.

Remember that the GRE was designed as an entrance test for a variety of Graduate Programs, while the GMAT is an admissions test specifically designed for MBA programs. If you’re still exploring your career options and are considering either MBA, or Master’s programs in other disciplines, the GRE may be a better choice. However, if you’d like to develop higher order thinking skills that are critical for becoming successful senior managers, studying for the GMAT may yield better long-term benefits, as long as you follow a study program that focuses on developing these important management skills and not just on teaching you the basic theory or the simple tricks.

Sergey Kouk is a Senior Trainer for Admit Master, a Canadian test preparation and admission consulting company. Having scored 750 on the GMAT on the first attempt and obtained his MBA degree in 2004, Sergey now leads a team of elite trainers, who develop advanced test taking strategies and train hundreds of candidates each year to ace the GMAT and gain admission to their dream business schools.

Sergey will be co-hosting and leading a series of GMAT seminars at the Rotman School of Management, including the Math Refresher Class on August 19th, 2015. Check out our Admission Events page to register!

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