You’re Fooling Yourself: The GMAT is NOT the SAT!

StudentWhile a fair number of GMAT test takers study for and complete the exam a number of years into their professional career (the average age of a B-school applicant is 28, a good 6-7 years removed from their undergraduate graduation), you may be one of the ambitious few who is studying for the GMAT during, or immediately following, your undergraduate studies.

There are pros and cons to applying to business school entry straight out of undergraduate – your application lacks the core work experience that many of the higher-tier programs prefer, but unlike the competition, you have not only taken a standardized test in the past 6 years, but you are also (likely) still in the studying mindset and know (versus trying to remember) exactly what it takes to prepare for a difficult exam.

However, you may also fall into a common trap that many younger test takers find themselves in – you decide to tackle the GMAT like your old and recent friend, the SAT.

Now, are there similarities between the GMAT and SAT? Of course.

For starters, the SAT and GMAT are both multiple-choice standardized exams. The math section of the SAT covers arithmetic, geometry, and algebra, just like the quantitative section of the GMAT, with some overlap in statistics and probability. Both exams test a core, basic understanding of English grammar, and ask you to answer questions based on your comprehension of dry, somewhat complex reading passages. The SAT and GMAT also both require you write essays (although the essay on the SAT is now optional), and timing and pacing are issues on both exams, though perhaps more so on the GMAT.

But this is largely where the overlap ends. So, does that mean everything you know and prepped for the SAT should be thrown out the window?

Not necessarily, but it does require a fundamental shift in thinking. While applying your understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem, factorization, permutations, and arithmetic sequences from the SAT will certainly help you begin to tackle GMAT quantitative questions, there are key differences in what the GMAT is looking to assess versus the College Board, and with that, the strategy in tackling these questions should also be quite different.

Simply put, the GMAT is testing how you think, not what you know. This makes sense, when you think about what types of skills are required in business school and, eventually, in the management of business and people. GMAC doesn’t hide what the GMAT is looking to assess – in fact, goals of the GMAT’s assessment are clearly stated on its website:

The GMAT exam is designed to test skills that are highly important to business and management programs. It assesses analytical writing and problem-solving abilities, along with the data sufficiency, logic, and critical reasoning skills that are vital to real-world business and management success. In June 2012, the GMAT exam introduced Integrated Reasoning, a new section designed to measure a test taker’s ability to evaluate information presented in new formats and from multiple sources─skills necessary for management students to succeed in a technologically advanced and data-rich world.

To successfully show that you are a candidate worth considering, in your preparation for the exam, make sure you consider what the right strategy and approach will be. Strategy, strategy, strategy. You need to understand which rabbit holes the GMAT can take you down, what tricks not to fall for (especially via misdirection), and how identification of question types can best inform the next steps you take.

An additional, and really, really important point is to keep in mind is that the GMAT is a computer-adaptive exam, not a pen-and-paper test.

Computer-adaptive means that your answer selection dictates the difficulty level of the next question – stacking itself up to a very accurate assessment of how easily you are able to answer easy, medium, and hard questions. Computer-adaptive also means you are not able to skip around, or go back to questions… including the reading comprehension ones. Just like on any game show, you must select your final answer before moving on.

As a computer-adaptive test, the GMAT not only punishes pacing issues, but can be even more detrimental to those who rush and make careless mistakes in the beginning. To wage war against the CAT format, test takers must be careful and methodical in assessing and answering test questions correctly.

Bottom line: don’t treat the GMAT like the SAT, or assume that because you did well on the SAT, you will also do so on the GMAT (or, vice versa). Make sure you are aware of the components of the GMAT that are different and where the similarities between the two tests end.

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By Ashley Triscuit, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston.

GMAT Tip of the Week: Ernie Els, The Masters, and the First Ten GMAT Questions

GMAT Tip of the WeekAt this weekend’s The Masters golf tournament, the most notable piece of news isn’t the leaderboard, but rather the guy least likely to get near it. Ernie Els set a record with a nine-stroke, quintuple bogey on his first hole of the tournament, effectively ending his tournament minutes after he began it. And in doing so, he also provided you with some insight into the “First Ten Questions” myth that concerns so many GMAT test-takers.

With 18 holes each day for 4 days (Quick mental math! 18×4 is the same as 9×8 – halve the first number and double the second to make it a calculation you know well – so that’s 72 holes), any one hole shouldn’t matter. So why was Els’ first hole such a catastrophe?

It forces him to be nearly perfect the rest of the tournament, because he’s playing at such a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Day 1 leader Jordan Spieth shot par (“average”) his first few holes and Rory McElroy, in second place at the end of the day, bogeyed (one stroke worse than average) a total of four holes on day one. The leaders were far from perfect themselves – another important lesson for the GMAT – but by avoiding a disastrous start, they allowed themselves plenty of opportunities to make up for mistakes.

And that brings us to the GMAT. Everyone makes mistakes on the GMAT, and that often happens regardless of difficulty level. So if you’re shooting for a top score and you miss half of the first ten questions, you have a few problems to contend with.

For starters, you have to “get hot” here soon and go on a run of correct answers. Secondly, you now have a lot fewer problems available to go on that hot streak (there are only 27 more Quant or 31 more Verbal questions after the first ten). And finally, the scoring/delivery algorithm doesn’t see you as “elite” yet so the questions are going to be a little easier and less “valuable,” meaning that you’ll need to “get hot” both to prove to the computer that you belong at the top level and then to demonstrate that you can stay there.

That’s the Ernie Els problem – regardless of how good you are, you’re probably going to make mistakes, so when you force yourself to be nearly perfect on the “easier” problems you end up with a tricky standard to live up to. Even if you really should be scoring at the 700-level, you don’t have a 100% probability of answering every 500-level problem correctly. That may well be in the 90%+ range, and maybe your likelihood at the 600 level is 75 or 80%. Getting 7, 8, 9 problems right in a row is a tall order as you dig your way out of that hole.

So the first 10 problems ARE important, but not because they have that much more power over the rest of the test – it’s because the more of them you miss, the more unrealistically perfect you have to be. The key is to “not blow it” on the first 10, rather than to “do everything you can to get them all right,” which is the mindset that holds back plenty of test-takers.

Again take the Masters: the leaderboard on Thursday night is never that close to the leaderboard on Sunday evening. Very often it’s someone who starts well, but is a few strokes off the lead the first few days, who wins. The GMAT is similar: a lot can happen from questions 11 through 37 (or 41), so by no means can you celebrate victory a quarter of the way through. Your goal shouldn’t be to be perfect, but rather to get off to a good start. Getting  7 questions right and having sufficient time to complete the rest of the section is much, much better than getting 9 right but forcing yourself to rush later on.

Essentially, as Ernie Els and thousands of GMAT test-takers have learned the hard way, you won’t win it in the first quarter, but you can certainly lose it there.  As you budget your time for the first 10 questions of each section, take a few extra seconds to double-check your work and make sure you’re not making egregious mistakes, but don’t over-invest at the expense of the critical problems to come.

Getting ready to take the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And as always, be sure to follow us on Facebook, YouTubeGoogle+ and Twitter!

By Brian Galvin.

GMAT Mythbuster #3

Myth: The verbal section is more important than the quant section, because more people do well on the quant section, so a high verbal score will have greater impact on your score.

Fact: Schools look at your individual section scores as well as your overall score, and ideal candidate will have a balanced, high score; in some cases, schools are particularly concerned with a candidate’s quantitative abilities, as business school curriculum often requires strong math skills.

An admirable quality of business school aspirants is their desire to study as efficiently as possible (putting it nicely) or to beat the system (telling it like it is). Perhaps inspired by the efficiency models of Amazon, Ikea, and other leading business, GMAT students often look for an edge by attempting to determine which sections or quesitons count more than others. Some recent comments in the blogosphere and on GMAT message boards have led to a belief that the verbal section is such an edge. In this event, the logic goes that, because quantitative scores are higher on average than verbal scores, a high verbal score and an above-average quant score will give you a higher overall score than will the reverse (high quant, average verbal). While this can actually be supported, in a way, by evidence (99th verbal and 70th quant will produce a higher score than 99th quant and 70th verbal), the impact toward your applications may not follow this logic as directly as many believe it will.

Consider the following:

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1) Business school curriculum is often heavily rooted in math. Most schools will have you take required coursework in finance, statistics, and accounting, and every discipline involves the use and analysis of numbers. A GMAT score, even if high overall, that betrays a potential quantitative deficiency isn’t one that will likely put your best foot forward. At quantitatively-intensive schools, such a score may indicate that you’ll struggle to keep up with your classmates; at schools that are reputed as being a bit lighter on math skills, we have also found that the admissions committees are concerned about such a reputation as being “technically soft”, and will often require higher quant scores as a credible commitment to employers that their students are just as quantitatively capable as their competition.

2) People have a tendency to emphasize the things that they do well. An unbalanced score may dictate to schools that you took the “path of least resistance” to a higher overall score, by focusing heavily on your stronger suit and just hoping to get by on your weaker subject. Schools make no secret of the fact that they prefer balanced excellence, and such a performance also demonstrates a willingness to address weaknesses in order to get there.

3) Practically speaking, the GMAT is going to give you 37 math questions and 41 verbal questions, with 75 minutes for each section, and your job is to answer them to the best of your ability in order to post a high score. You won’t get a progress report on your scoring as you go, and any time that you save on one section will not carry over to the next. Effectively, you don’t really have the opportunity to sacrifice performance on one section in favor of greater success on the other…there’s just no mechanism for it. In an athletic endeavor, it may be possible to save energy during one part of a game in order to excel at the other, but there you’re conscious of the score the entire time in case you need to “pick it up”. Say that, in a triathlon, I decided to cruise through the swim to save energy for the bike and run, I’d be able to look ahead at my competition partway through the swim to determine if I were letting them get away and recalculate whether I could afford to stay on my strategy. On the GMAT, you won’t know your score partway through the quant section (and, although it’s a grueling test day, “saving your energy” by sluffing off the quant isn’t all that likely to improve your verbal, anyway), so you can’t rely on such a strategy without a fairly high risk of failure. Furthermore, if your quant score were to slip from “above average” (maybe 75th percentile) to “not really tolerable by a top program” (say, 55th), your study strategy to focus on verbal would have backfired. Again, there’s not a reliable-enough benchmark for how you’re tracking to try and cheat the system with such a strategy. Your goal should be to maximize your score by doing the best you can. If there’s any way to “save your energy” effectively, it’s probably to spend less time trying to game the system, and more time taking practice tests, analyzing your results, and making targeted improvements.

GMAT Mythbuster #2

As businessman extraordinaire Michael Scott said of Wikipedia, “anyone, anywhere can say whatever they want about any topic, so you know you’re getting the best possible information.” Such is life in the Internet age, in which the line between truth and fiction can often become blurred as rumors spread quickly and authoritatively at the speed of broadband.

As you prepare for the GMAT, you will likely be faced with a number of fallacies that seem to be conventional wisdom. Some are interesting topics for debate, others are incorrect but not woefully irresponsible, and others may significantly detract from your score.

This post is the second in a series that will debunk some of the more common myths that surround the GMAT. The truth is out there…

Myth: The first ten questions are more important than the remaining questions on either section.

Fact: All questions count the same toward your section score.

I’m not going out on much a limb here, admittedly – the Graduate Management Admissions Council takes care to debunk this myth in its book, the Official Guide for GMAT Review. However, this incorrect axiom may be the piece of GMAT mythology that has pervaded the conventional wisdom of test-takers the most, as the adaptive scoring nature of the GMAT has the power to confuse and intimidate many who take the test. Again, no less an authority than the creators of the GMAT themselves will explicitly state that each question counts for the same weight toward your score. So, knowing that, how can you use this to your advantage?

1) DO NOT plan to spend an undue amount of time on the initial questions (some believers of this fallacy advocate spending an additional 50% per question in the first ten, which could put you at a significant advantage later in the exam). Similarly, DO NOT invest an undue amount of emotional stress on those questions. If you cannot answer one, or answer one incorrectly, you’ll be able to bounce back on the next question; if you spend six minutes answering one correctly (or worse, six minutes and still make an error that causes you to miss the question), you won’t soon make that time up.

2) DO take an extra few seconds to double-check your answer to ensure that you haven’t made a silly mistake on an early question. At this point in the test, you can’t likely sacrifice extra minutes, but you can certainly invest extra seconds to ensure that you begin on the right track. Early in the test, you won’t know for certain whether you’ll have time left over at the end, but, if you do, you’d want to have used it to check your work carefully. If you need to guess on the last question or two because you used the time early in the test to double-check your work, that’s probably for the best (you’ll know it was time well spent if you catch even one error while checking your work). However, if you need to guess on several questions at the end, you’ve mismanaged your time. Essentially, the first ten questions aren’t worth enough each to blow off multiple questions at the end, but they’re worth enough collectively that you should invest some extra seconds to avoid mistakes, as you may still have that time remaining later in the exam, and a few extra minutes left over can only be used on that last question.

3) DO NOT simply take the above suggestion and run with it. Rather, DO take multiple practice tests before the actual GMAT so that you know within a reasonable estimate where you’ll stand on test day. If you routinely have several minutes left over on a section in your practice tests, by all means invest some extra time in an early question that requires that investment of time. If you find yourself regularly pressed for time, you’ll want to adapt accordingly.

GMAT Mythbuster #1

(We’ll take a break from our normal “GMAT Tip of the Week” series to present something new from the GMAT team here at Veritas Prep. We call it… GMAT Mythbusters! Over the next few weeks we’ll dispel some of the most common misconceptions about the dreaded Graduate Management Admission Test.)

Myth: Schools will hold a low score against you (even if you subsequently post a higher one), so:

-You should cancel your scores if you’re worried about your performance
-You should elect not to send your scores to any schools until after you have seen them and know that they are competitive

Fact: In all but the rarest of cases, schools only focus on your highest score, and understand that it may take a second or third attempt at the GMAT to fully master it. Unless you know for a fact that your score is doomed, you should elect to receive it, and send your score reports to the schools.

There exists a common fear among business school applicants that your GMAT scores will go on your “permanent record,” and that a low score will stay with you like a poor grade on your transcripts (or a felony conviction). While it’s true that schools will see all of your scores when you apply, it’s also true that the schools in the vast majority of cases only care about your highest score.

Consider this about the GMAT:

  • It’s an easy test to underestimate. The concepts tested look easier on paper than they do in reality (arithmetic, algebra…the list of testable concepts seems taken from a high school syllabus, but in reality the questions can be quite difficult, and the individual skills that are tested are often the ones that you’ve forgotten most thoroughly). The admissions committees know this — you may need a “wake up call” with a poor test score before you realize the effort that the test will require, and it doesn’t make much sense for the schools to punish you for that. Furthermore, your successful pursuit of a higher score demonstrates a determination to accomplish your goals; this quality will serve you well in b-school and in industry, and is something that business schools will look upon with favor.
  • The GMAT is the easiest statistical category for rankings services to use when comparing schools. Few things about the admissions process are both quantifiable and standardized, but the GMAT is both. Schools, therefore, are beholden in many ways to their average GMAT score when it comes to their appearance in the rankings. Because the schools get to report the highest score of each of their students for such rankings purposes, it’s in the schools’ self-interest to report your 720 and ignore your 550.

Given the above logic (and the fact that admissions officers routinely reiterate that they are primarily-if-not-exclusively concerned with your highest score), you should approach the GMAT as an opportunity to add an asset to your application, and not as a final, binding referendum on your candidacy. Because of that, there are several reasons that you should elect to receive and send your scores when you’re offered the opportunity to do so:

If you elect to cancel your scores, you will never know how you did. If you did well, your high score will go unreported and wasted. If you didn’t do well, you won’t necessarily know how poorly you did, or why (a score breakdown could give you some insight). If you do see your scores, at a minimum you’ll have some information on where you most need to improve, and you may surprise yourself with a higher score than you thought (your humble author was nervous to see his score on test day, but was thrilled to see that 99th percentile pop up immediately after taking the plunge).

Similarly, if you elect to cancel your scores, your test registration fee will go wasted, as well, and you’ll need to pay to take the test again. As mentioned above, your author wavered on his decision to see his score. The deciding factor? If there was even a sliver of hope that he could save the $250 test fee and not have to take the exam again, he wanted to take that chance!

Another financial consideration: Your test registration fee permits you to send your score to 5 schools, provided you send those scores immediately as part of the exam (you make this decision before you see the scores). If you decide to wait until after you see your scores, you’ll need to pay $25 per school to send your score reports…and, as mentioned above, the schools won’t hold a poor score against you. (Editor’s note: There is no evidence that the schools think this way at all, but if it were me, I’d have reservations about admitting anyone to business school who was willing to throw away a $125 investment by not sending their scores right away!)

In summary, the upside of seeing your scores far outweighs the negligible downside. The downside? In rare cases — say, a string of several low scores (<500) followed by one high score, which indicates that it took you too many attempts at the exam to realize that you needed to try something different in your preparation — a score pattern may betray some doubt about your candidacy. On a first or second attempt at the GMAT, however, you won't be a candidate for such a rare event, so for several reasons you should welcome the receipt of your score.

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