Illustration of people studying

Not The Definitive Guide to the GMAT Exam

Just my experience with it, and tips on how to tackle it better

Krittr
10 min readNov 5, 2021

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So about a month ago, I gave the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) Exam. I did fairly well on it, and ever since then I have had a lot of people ask me questions about the exam, how to prepare, where to study from, how to strategise, so on and so forth.

I often reply with an on-the-spot unstructured response that leaves me feeling unsatisfied after, and so I thought I would concise my thoughts on the matter once and for all in the best way I know how — write it.

Before we start, a disclaimer — I am by no means an expert on the subject, and every person’s journey is different. This is just a condensation of my thoughts on the matter.

Let’s start here.

For the uninitiated, the GMAT exam is part of the entrance process for an MBA — A general management and leadership degree that helps everyone from entrepreneurs to corporate leaders to artists become leaders in their field.

An introduction — When I studied for the GMAT exam, I was fortunate to have just quit my job and could study full-time for the exam. Now, when I say full-time, it does include the occasional fun, study-free weekend and a few road trips here and there, but mostly there was nothing else taking precedence in my mind while I studied. That was a huge advantage because of course, my focus was much better.

What I did:

I studied for 6 weeks in total. Of which, 4.5 weeks were focused on practice problems and understanding topics and 1.5 weeks were for mock exams

Studying

Manhattan GMAT Strategy Series Books

I started with reading the Manhattan GMAT series to get a handle on the topics and kinds of questions in the exam. I had never given GMAT a thought before, so everything was completely new to me at this point. I read every book cover to cover, but I found the verbal books too jargon-y and complicated so I didn’t grasp much there.

I then jumped straight into solving questions from the physical Original Guide books (I had the 2019 version since it was borrowed from a friend. It didn’t matter that it was an older version) — I would not recommend this.

GMAT Official Guide books

This was way too soon to go into questions and I got a lot of things wrong. People often say it’s good to jump straight into practice, but that was not my experience with it. I needed more brushing up on strategies, topics, etc. Also, the solutions for questions in the OG book are lengthy and verbose, so reading those did not improve my speed or tact.

GMATClub Logo

Eventually (2.5/3 weeks in), I dropped everything to focus on learning from GMATClub (a forum for people to post questions and answers for questions and also general MBA advice). It was hands down the best resource I used. I used these lists to tackle practice problems one topic at a time, and this thread for theory.

Above that, I used Youtube videos to go in depth into weak areas. I recommend everything by Erica on strategy (She was with PrepScholar then Magoosh and I think Veritas after that).

This is how Erica Looks, from a youtube thumbnail by PrepScholar

In addition to that, all of GMATNinja videos for Verbal and many one-hour seminars per Quant topic like this one for weak areas.

Mock exams

In a true Indian fashion, I took all the free mock exams I could — Kaplan, Veritas, eGMAT, you name it (here is a comprehensive list). Most of them were disappointing.

I paid for —

  1. Manhattan — A set of 6 exams that are known to be tougher than the final exam. These were INVALUABLE because they made me a lot faster and sharper. On final test day, I finished every section at least 4–7 minutes early.
  2. GMAT Official — Two of these are free, and I bought 2 more to practice with. They are the closest to the final exam, so I used them closer to test day. Again, invaluable.

Timing

Initially, when I started giving mocks I used to look at the clock at random intervals and sort of calculate my pace by dividing the time left.

So, for example, if I had say 24 minutes left and anything under 12 questions left I would conclude that I was doing well on time. But if only numbers were always that easy to divide (spoiler: they weren’t). What happened as a result was that I wasted few precious seconds making this division.

A friend suggested that instead, I divide the test into blocks of 3 and know the timing for those blocks. For example, in Quant which has 31 questions, I divided it into three blocks: First 11, 11 — 21 and 21 — 31 which should take 10 minutes each. Similar maths for verbal. By memorising the time needed for each block, I did not have to calculate. Also, I checked the clock only 3 times then.

Strategy

The same friend told me another important thing — no one question is fatal. Since the GMAT score is a measure of the difficulty level at which you get 50% questions right, it is okay to skip questions. What’s important is to not get stuck and spend too much time on it. So as a strategy, if you’re stuck or a question is taking too long, pick C and move on.

Random bonus for Verbal — Don’t hold me to this but something I went with for verbal (because it’s worked for me in the past), is to pick the longest answer if I’m stuck. I had read this online years ago before a similar exam I didn’t want to study for (TISSNET, if you’re familiar) and I swear it works. The reason for this is that the more correct answer typically needs more qualifiers to make it completely correct, while wrong answers are already wrong so they can get away with being further wrong (if that makes sense). Only use this if you’re really really stuck, but it’s a cute little trick to have in your back pocket.

The GMAT Online test

So, I gave the exam twice within five days (because I choked the first time and got around 70 points below what I had been getting in my mock exams). In order to be able to do that, I had to give the second one at home (a provision for COVID with an online proctor). For this, there were some preparations I undertook that I would recommend everyone considering GMAT Online to look at:

  1. LAN — One of the biggest risks of the GMAT online exam is that the electricity or internet can crash suddenly and you will be responsible for it, not them. I arranged for a LAN cable to connect directly to my laptop from the main power source which was connected to my apartment building’s backup electricity. This meant that it would work even if the electricity failed.
  2. Whiteboard — One needs to buy or borrow a whiteboard for this exam no larger than 12 inches x 20 inches. I would suggest at least 2 timed mock exams with the whiteboard to get a hang of erasing it continuously. I erased it after every question in Quant to start with a clear head, and after every 5/6 questions in verbal. There is also the option of using an online whiteboard that I did not bother with.
Ad Gel Pen

3. Markers — In order to maintain optimal speed, the markers for the whiteboard need to be thin, not thick (so your hand can grip them properly). Where I live this proved to be a surprisingly difficult thing to find. After a lot of searching in brick-and-mortar stores (since I had only four days and nothing on Amazon would deliver in time), here are two viable options — Add Gel Softline (that I painstakingly found at a local store) and Mungyo Power Liner (that a friend sent to me).

4. Prepping the room — There can be no writing on the wall, on the desk, no papers, etc. when you take the GMAT Online exam, so be sure to scan the room properly to avoid any rearranging / stress when the proctor checks your room on test day.

What I would do differently:

Now that I’ve told you largely what I did, let’s talk about what I would do differently. These are in two buckets — not wasting time and not freaking out.

Not waste time

Since I was relatively new to the GMAT, I ended up wasting a lot of time on resources that weren’t optimal. I wouldn’t recommend that.

  1. Not read Manhattan so intensely: When I started out, I read the Manhattan books very deeply — made notes, hung onto every word, etc. This was not necessary because Manhattan doesn’t have the right kind of strategy, in my opinion. I found that on GMATClub.
  2. Use the Official Guide better: I didn’t end up using the OG book well because I started it too early. I also focused too much on the explanations they had for questions which were — to put it lightly — horrible.
  3. Start on the computer: I started solving questions from the official guide physical book. Then, when I switched to solving from GMATClub and mock exams, it took me a minute to adjust to that. Would recommend that you start directly from the computer, use PDFs, etc.
  4. Take better mocks only: I took a lot of free mocks, which didn’t add much value. Veritas, in particular, was horrible. I suggest you take only the good quality mocks, and not waste time on sub par ones.

Not freak out (easier said than done)

So, on D-day, I reached the test centre bright and early, waited outside for a good half an hour before they let me in and

Indian Passport

When I reached, I was told that my Passport was the only valid form of identification and I only had my AADHAAR card. On the drive home and back (with speed straight out of a Bond movie), somewhere I started panicking. The panic left a lasting impact and I felt lightly dizzy through the entire exam.

That first attempt, I bombed. But I knew that I had nothing left to study so I gave it again within 5 days, rested better and worked on my mindset, and scored in line with what I was getting on my practice tests.

Here are some of the things people say to me often and my reply to those:

“But I’m bad at maths…”

I’m a graduate in Psychology, and haven’t studied anything quant heavy in a long time. That being said, I’ve always been very good at Maths and comfortable with numbers. I would say the most important thing for the GMAT is not to be super quant-heavy but just to be comfortable and not get scared of numbers.

“But I’m not an MBA person…”

I struggled with this a lot. Being both left-brained and right-brained, I wondered if it was the right fit for me. But what I concluded was that an MBA is what you make of it, and there is no “MBA person”. A general management degree can give you what you need if you use it wisely. Also, a degree will not and should not define you anyway. Go forth and be the best you can be.

“But should I get coaching…?”

I am personally against coaching because for me, it reduces my accountability and makes me work less hard. I have friends who did well with coaching too, it just depends on what kind of student you are (I have always been extremely self-reliant).

In my moments of panic and self doubt, a very dear friend regularly reminded me that the GMAT is not a test of smarts. Its a test of how well you can take the GMAT. So, keeping that in mind, here are a few parting thoughts:

Remove yourself from the outcome

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

— Epictetus (Stoic Philosopher)

The outcome (your GMAT score) is out of your control. Focus heavily on input variables like the quality of your study and your mindset, and don’t go into the exam thinking “I need 740” because I think that causes more harm than good.

Don’t put your life on hold

Initially, I did a lot to focus on my studies. I stopped going out with friends, deleted Instagram, reduced TV time etc. While this is helpful, don’t go overboard. Find a balance. Rest is productive.

Don’t take too much advice

Trust your own experience, needs and weaknesses. A lot of people will say a lot of things (including this article) and while it worked for them, it might not work for you. The important thing is to get started and work through your own journey.

Mindset is everything

This exam does not define you. Don’t put so much pressure on it. Work hard and let it go. Also, every question is a new question. Let previous questions go. Also interesting — think like a test-maker.

That’s all folks. Go kill it!

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Krittr

VC Investor, Product manager, Psychologist, Reader & Writer. Exploring ideas in the intersection of design, business and the human experience.