How I broke 700 on the GMAT

Kaplan GMAT PremierI had a little money available to me from my workplace to spend on professional development back in May of this year. At that point, the idea that I needed to get my MBA was tickling the back of my mind, but I hadn’t actually done anything about it. Then I found out that I could use my professional development funds toward a GMAT prep course at a local school. Being a test prep course veteran, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew the course wouldn’t be very rigorous (this wasn’t a fancy Kaplan or Manhattan course–it was something like an equivalent to a small community college course), so I didn’t depend on it for my learning. It was more of an excuse to get going.

Keeping past lessons in mind, my #1 goal by far in terms of studying was to complete as many full-length CATs as possible. To this end, I bought the Kaplan Premier GMAT prep book (only the 2013 version was available at the time) since it came with the most CATs–five. You can get more if you pay to enroll in a Kaplan classroom course, but I just didn’t have the money (nonprofit, remember?). I also ended up buying and using this imitation noteboard a lot, which was very helpful for me because it took away a lot of the unknowns of the testing experience. And, of course, I got the Official GMAT book.

My initial 3-month study plan went something like this:

Early May: Take practice exam 1 with the free official GMAT software, start methodically working through the Official GMAT book in its entirety.

Mid-May: Take CAT #1 from Kaplan Premier, wrap up all the questions in the official book by the end of May.

Early June: Take practice exam 2 on the free official software, then start working through Kaplan Premier in its entirety.

Mid June: Take CAT #2 from Kaplan Premier, continue working through Kaplan book

Early July: Start (free to me) GMAT classroom prep course and use it as a refresher. Continue through Kaplan Premier book on my own + homework from class. Take CAT #3 from Kaplan Premier.

Mid July: Take CAT #4 from Kaplan Premier. Continue through Kaplan Premier book on my own + homework from class.

Early August: Conclude classroom course. Take CAT #5 from Kaplan Premier + retake CAT #2 from the official GMAT software from back in June for a reliable prediction of my final score.

August 10: TAKE THE REAL GMAT. Then figure out what schools to apply to and try to get all apps in for round 1.

A pretty tight schedule, as you can see, and I was working full-time, too, of course. I tried to study for 1-2 hours each weeknight and around 6-8 hours total each weekend. I ended up not going through the Kaplan book in its entirety (just all the quant since that’s where I had the most ground to gain). I took a full CAT every other weekend, and I am so very glad I did so. I took some of the Kaplan CATs more than once, too. If you email them and ask, they’ll reset your scores for you so you can take them again, and I didn’t notice any repeat questions (or had forgotten them).

This is what my practice scores looked like:

Official Practice Exam 1 (before any studying): 650

Official Practice Exam 2: 670

Kaplan CAT #1: 600 (told you they skew the first exams really hard!)

Kaplan CAT #2: 650

Kaplan CAT #3: 610 (I was in the worst mood [for unrelated reasons] when I took this exam. If I had even gotten a 400 I wouldn’t have given a shit)

Kaplan CAT #4: 660

Kaplan CAT #5: 690

Official Practice Exam 2 (repeated, and not particularly reliable since I could remember a lot of the questions): 730

Official GMAT Exam Results: 730 (percentage-wise, 80-something quant, 90-something verbal)

From the practice scores, it seems pretty surprising that I ended up with a 730 on my official exam, right? 730 was the highest I ever got on a practice exam, and that one didn’t even really count. But from my experience, the Kaplan material is pretty difficult in general, so the scores I got on their CATs make sense to result in a 730, IMO. But, in general, I made out very well compared to my studying results, and I chalk that up to being very used to sitting in front of a computer and charging through a four hour exam in a timed environment. I kept a very steady pace during the official exam and could definitely feel myself in the zone the entire time (so very unlike my GRE experience). My goal was to break 700 on the official exam, so I was ecstatic to see my 730 at the end of the test.

If I could do things over again, though, I’d definitely change a few things. First, I would have done the Kaplan book first and the official GMAT book second. The official book doesn’t really teach you anything, and I needed a refresher of all the math (uh–how do you do long division, again?) to get some solid footing. Also, instead of wasting time on that small classroom course (it was just way too basic for me), I should have done something like the Kaplan 800. The GMAT really tests your potential, so figuring out how to do the hardest questions possible for you is really important. If I had spent more time dissecting difficult math questions instead of reviewing basics again and again, I think I could have scored higher. I also just completely lucked out timing-wise. I could feel my brain settling into thinking the GMAT way at the end of July–right before my official exam was scheduled. If I had tried to condense my timeline any further, I would never have reached that level of comfort or confidence.

A note on the new integrated reasoning section:

I was basically in a kind of denial about integrated reasoning during all of my time spent studying. The section was pretty new, not much material was available for review and I was hearing conflicting things about how much the score actually mattered in the first place. Meanwhile, I was scoring everything from as low as a two (yes–two!) to as high as a seven on the section in Kaplan CATs (IR is scored out of 8).

Well, I ended up with an 8 on the section during my official exam. The real test differed from my practice tests in one big way: There were fewer huge tables of data to comb through and more logic questions (Tom sits next to Jerry, but Jerry cannot sit next to Sally, but Sally must sit next to Jane–who does Tim sit next to?), which was only beneficial for me and my skills. On practice exams I struggled a lot with running out of time after having to do a bunch of arithmetic with data from tables with 10 columns at 30 rows, but I didn’t have that experience during the real exam. I also got a 6 out of 6 on the analytical writing assessment, but if I had gotten anything lower than that I would have been extremely disappointed with myself. I do write for a living, after all.

Better late than never?

Well, I’m not quite at the beginning of my MBA journey, even though it’s only been about four months (!!) since I decided to go for bschool in the first place (I can’t believe I made this life-changing decision only four months ago and how fast everything has moved since then!). My GMATs are done and I’ve pretty much chosen the schools I’m planning on applying to. But, I like blogging, and I figure I could add to the very little material out there about doing non-profit work and getting an MBA. So…better late than never, right?

Come back for stats, strategies and stories. And sex, violence and intrigue. Well, not violence (hopefully), and not sex (sadly)–but intrigue, yes, as I wait to find out what schools decide to admit a very strange and unlikely candidate (me).

Big head nod to the guy behind www.mybreakaway.com — love the blog and appreciate the insights.