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I clicked the radio button next to “Report my score” but hesitated before clicking “Next”. My heart was pounding as I debated whether I should cancel my score. The night before, as I lay awake at 3 am, I had seriously considered postponing my GMAT appointment because I did not want to take the exam on five hours’ sleep. And now that I was done, I was certain I had made some major mistakes. I finished the Quant section in 68 minutes – I had NEVER done that in any of my practice exams. The IR seemed like it was the easiest group of 12 questions I had seen as yet. Had the GMAC gotten the better of me? Had I overlooked the tricks and fallen into the questions’ traps?
I did not matter; I could not afford to postpone the test. Given that I had not slept well the night before, I woke up and looked at the next available appointment before heading to Pearson VUE. I would have to wait till end of August if I wanted to postpone and that simply was not an option. So, I clicked “Next” and after what felt like an eternity during which my heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s wings, I saw my score. A thoroughly satisfying 760 – my best score ever!
Ok, drama aside, I want to talk about what resources I used and what helped me the most. I hope that the following post will help others avoid my mistakes and improve their own score.
This was not my first attempt at the GMAT; in fact it was my fourth. I have been lucky enough to achieve a “good” score each time, but this is the first time I actually feel proud of my score. Below is my full story of how I got from 680 to 760. But in summary, I can say that the following three things mattered most for me:
- Bought Manhattan GMAT
’s practice exams (great value – only $75 for unlimited access to 7 practice exams, and lots of practice questions)
- Focused majority of my time on my weakest areas
- Felt the “correct” level of nervousness (the lack of sleep by the way, not GMAT related)How I got a 680 on my first try:
My first attempt at the GMAT was during my senior year in undergrad. I took the GMAT on a whim because I needed a backup plan at the time. Graduating during 2009 was a little scary because the financial crisis meant that people with Finance majors could not find a job to save their lives. I was in a similar boat and thought “At least if I have a GMAT I can apply to Masters of Finance programs (MSF)”.
I needed a 650 to get into University of Florida’s MSF program. I landed a semi-respectable 680 with a 6 in AWA. But then I got a job so I did not pay much attention to my score afterwards. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this experience was that I did not stress myself out too much. I remember I was more focused on trying to find a job, and even though I did not prepare much I managed a decent score. Looking back I now realize that I wish I would have applied this lesson better during my third attempt.How I got a 740 on my second try:
My second attempt was about a year and a half ago, and a year and half after my first. Once again, I was not taking the GMAT to apply for an MBA, but in fact for a Masters in Financial Engineering. Strictly speaking I did not need this degree but I thought that it would help me get further in my career. I also thought that I wanted to continue consulting in Risk Management and a Masters in Financial Engineering (MFE) or Quantitative Finance (MQF) made a lot of sense.
I knew that MFE/MQF programs weighed the quantitative section far more heavily than verbal. So I decided to focus on the quantitative section. I bought Princeton Review’s 1012 questions book and did every question in the quant section. I also purchased access to 5 Manhattan GMAT
practice exams, based on recommendations by the GMATClub community.
I meticulously kept track of every question I got wrong and tried to identify whether:
- I got the question wrong because I did not know an underlying principle (e.g. a number property, or a geometrical identity), or
- My approach to the question was incorrect (e.g. doing algebra when plugging in numbers would have been easier, or trying to carry out the calculations instead of estimating)
I had a very detailed spreadsheet showing me my performance analytics based on question type, subject type, and a variety of other dimensions (I am afraid since then I have deleted that spreadsheet, otherwise I would have shared it).
Coupled with the fact that, once again, I did not stress too much over this attempt, my strategy to focus on my weaknesses paid off. I walked away with a 740 and felt very good about myself. But, I had made a big blunder on this attempt. Since I scored a 6 on my first AWA attempt, I knew I could do no better. So I reasoned, “why try”. After all, the MFE/MQF did not care about the AWA and if anyone does, they can look at my first attempt’s score. So, I got a 0 on the AWA for this attempt.How I got a 700 on my third attempt
Unfortunately, when I became interested in MBA programs I realized that schools only look at one composite at a time. Therefore, my 740 coupled with a 0 on the AWA would probably disqualify me from the best MBA programs. I had no choice but to fork over another $250 and retry the GMAT.
I consider this attempt my biggest failure. Not only was I overconfident, but ironically I was also very nervous. Looking back I can somewhat rationalize these conflicting feelings. Having already scored a 740 once, I felt the third attempt would be a breeze. When I started studying for this attempt, I took the GMATPrep software’s practice exam and scored a 720 on my first attempt. I thought, “Psh, I don’t need to study for this! I would rather focus my time on starting a blog, and doing other extracurricular activities… (sometimes that meant having way too much fun)”
I took a few practice exams, redid the questions from 1012 Questions book, but otherwise put in minimal effort. However, the day before the exam, I realized I still had access to ManhattanGMAT practice exam results (which by the way is awesome!). ManhattanGMAT’s questions tend to be harder than the official GMAC ones, and my score on the practice test was a low 600. Immediately I panicked.
Even after calming myself down all night, I went to the exam feeling very nervous. Because of this nervousness, I felt I needed to double check everything and make sure I did not fall into a trap. I also ended up making more silly mistakes on the math. By the end of the IR section I was completely frazzled. I remember I ended having to skip 3 IR questions because I ran out of time, and this pretty much guaranteed that I had a poor IR performance. Similarly, because I did not practice timing on the quant section, I struggled to finish the exam on time and remember guessing the answers to a lot of questions. I literally broke a cold sweat during the exam as I realized that this may end up being my poorest performance yet, even though I NEEDED it to be my best.
I managed to get a 700 simply because my verbal performance was so strong (I think it was a 45); my Quant performance was my poorest yet and I am too ashamed to even look at my IR score.How I got a 760 on my last attempt:
I seriously debated whether to even attempt the GMAT again. Rationally speaking, 700 is a good score and $250 for another attempt is not a small chunk of change. But my biggest motivator was the feeling that I knew I could do better. So, I gave myself three months to reattempt the GMAT.
Humbled as I was by my third attempt, I went all out for this preparation. I bought the Manhattan GMAT
practice exams again (so I could reset the question bank and reattempt the exams). This purchase also gave me access to their “Challenge Questions” bank, which I believe they only recently added. I found this resource to be immensely helpful. There are around 500 questions in their challenge bank (I did ~200 of them), and I had trouble answering each one of them. But the process of getting the question wrong, understanding why I got it wrong, and then trying to apply those lessons to future questions was the best training I received.
I also focused heavily on timing. I considered any question that took me longer than 3 minutes as incorrect and referred to the posted answer for the “correct” approach. Around 75% of time of time the approach posted by Manhattan GMAT
turned out to be quicker than my original approach. The day before the exam, I spent about 3 hours coaching myself simply on timing. Contrary to the popular opinion, I felt this was very helpful for my mind to correctly approximate how long 2 minutes is during the exam. This was critical because not once did I fall into the trap of getting too attached to a question. I knew that at two minutes if I was not close to an answer, I had to take an educated guess and move on.
Finally, my mindset going into this exam was probably in the best shape. Though I studied for two months very diligently, I gave myself a two week break during the last month before the exam. This was not something I planned, but happened because I was too busy to study (see last post). I then studied hard during the last week before the exam. Coming back after the two weeks, I could clearly see what concepts or strategies I had retained best during my earlier studies, and where I was still weak. This assessment further allowed me to optimize my studies and I spent the majority of the last week focused on IR MSR questions and word problems on the Quant.
Finally, the week before the exam I spent in a very relaxed environment. I took a vacation from work and went to Florida to visit my parents. So, even though I was nervous about the exam, my surroundings helped calm me down. On the morning of the exam, I felt focused and ready to go. I worked out a little and did a little sudoku before heading to the exam.
My final score breakdown was:
My IR and AWA scores are still not here, but I think I did well on those sections. And so, the first step of my application is complete. Now to move on to the harder part!