Beat the GMAT debriefing

OHK! here comes the heavy post by our very own Eric.
first of all I must provide the reference link to this debriefing. Thanks Eric for such a wonderful debriefing. Or his original post at his own blog.
Should I have a comment on this looong post of his?
maybe not. may be some other time.
I dont know why he has not disclosed his sectional scores… 90 and 85 percentile in V & Q respectively. but how much they actually scaled up?.
Anyway one line I liked most about this debriefing comes at the final advice of the story… (when you are completely pissed off) Eric writes,”if you are still reading it, I am amazed”
On Tuesday, August 16, 2005, I took the GMAT and scored a 720 (90th percentile quant/85th percentile verbal/96th percentile overall). The result was slightly lower than what I had anticipated, but I am still satisfied. I worked very hard over the last few months to obtain this score.
I am a recent non-engineering graduate from a top university in the United States. I will soon be starting my first full-time job out of school at a major software company, and I plan to work for several years before applying to business schools. Since I had some leisure time between my graduation and my first day of work, I decided to take this opportunity to get the GMAT out of the way. In hindsight, I should have spent my summer drinking more and traveling around the world–oh well.
I was born and raised in the United States.
Overview of How I Studied
My first step in this process was doing a search on and determining which books seemed worthwhile for my preparation. After reading some reviews on Amazon as well as doing some significant Googling, I decided to buy the following texts:
– Official Guide for GMAT Review, 10th Edition
– Kaplan GMAT 2005 with CD
– Kaplan GMAT & GRE Math Workbook
– Princeton Review Cracking the GMAT 2004 (I bought this one a while ago)
As I got into my prep, I added the following:
– The Delta Course (an online math review)
– Kaplan GMAT 800
I was initially confused about how I would design my study plan, but fortunately I discovered two incredible TestMagic posts by two incredible people: Ursula and TwinnSplitter. Both were high scorers themselves, and each had an excellent methodology for attacking the GMAT. I urge all future GMAT test prep folk to check out their posts.
I devised the following study plan for myself:
First, I familiarized myself with the GMAT as a whole. Before I started studying, I had no knowledge of the GMAT. Period. I didn’t know what subjects were tested, how many questions each section had, etc. I initially learned about the GMAT and its subtleties by reading through Princeton Review Cracking the GMAT, Kaplan GMAT 2005, Kaplan Math Workbook, and Delta Course (since I assumed I was weak in math) cover-to-cover in that order. I spent the first half of my studies just reading through these books linearly and not emphasizing any single topic, just to get a general feel for the test.
After thoroughly reviewing the aforementioned texts, as well as the problem sets featured in those texts, I systematically attacked each section/problem type on the GMAT–reading comprehension, sentence correction, critical reasoning, data sufficiency, and problem solving–by practicing with Official Guide (OG) and Kaplan 800. Here, I employed TwinnSplitter’s approach for tackling each section: for a given section I would rigorously practice problems of that type from OG and Kap800. I would do about 40 problems a day and would carefully review all explanations and analyze all errors. To help me analyze my errors, I recorded all my answers onto an Excel grid originally created by Ursula. This grid greatly aided me in determining where my weaknesses were in each section. Usually after about a week or a week and a half, I would feel like I had gained sufficient proficiency in the given section and would move on to another section, applying the same methodology but also doing 10 review questions from the previous section(s). I was able to finish all of Kap800 and most of OG through this strategy.
Finally, in my prep strategy I made it a point to take as many practice tests in front of the computer as possible. I tried to take a practice test every week using tests from PowerPrep, Princeton Review, Kaplan, and GMATPrep. These practice tests were crucial for helping me build the stamina I needed to sit through a 3.5-hour test.
Also, throughout my prep I handwrote close to 300 flashcards. Whenever I encountered some piece of information that I thought was critical to my GMAT success, I wrote it down on a flashcard. I tried to make it a point to review my flashcards everyday. Doing so helped me stay fresh on topics that I had covered well in the past.
I normally studied about 2-4 hours per day, but during my prep I took several long vacations that disrupted the consistency of my schedule. I usually did not work during the weekends.
Thoughts on Each Section of the GMAT
On my test day, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the quant questions I saw on the real GMAT were virtually identical to those found in Official Guide, 10th Edition. I’m referring specifically to the medium/hard bin questions in OG. While I took my GMAT, I arrived at the conclusion that ETS was lazy. So many of the same question patterns I had seen in OG were tested on the actual test. Even the language of certain questions was the same, except for some slight changes in numbers used. It was really great!
Therefore, I believe that the best way to prepare for the quantitative section of the GMAT is to practice with OG, practice with OG, practice with OG! Be sure to pay special attention to the medium/hard bin questions in this book. If you are using 10th Edition, you can identify the difficulty level of each question using this grid. If you have time, try to do all the questions in OG. If you are pressed for time, do the last 100 questions of the problem solving and data sufficiency sections–they are the most representative of the real test because they come from the most recently retired GMAT exams.
Data Sufficiency
Data sufficiency (DS) caused me a lot of problems early into my studies. Like many GMAT takers, I hadn’t seen this question type before and I was initially confused about figuring out the best ways to attack these questions. Eventually, I was able to master DS by: (1) practicing as many DS questions as possible and reviewing my errors; and (2) systematically approaching each question:
Here’s the DS strategy
I wrote about in my Day 52 blog entry:
1. First, I read the question prompt very carefully, making sure I understand the information being presented. A common error I make is in misreading.
2. Next, I determine the question type-whether it is a “YES/NO” or “Asking for Value” question. WRITE DOWN the question type on your scrap paper. I’ve discovered that writing down the question type has been the most important factor in improving my DS proficiency. It keeps me on track for determining what kind of sufficiency I am seeking in a given problem.
3. Finally, keep the statements separate when solving. Very standard and important advice. One thing that pissed me off about the books I read was that I couldn’t find a single book that addressed DS strategy well. I had to figure out my own methodology. But trust me, once you have had a lot of practice with these question types, they become easy. Future GMAT test takers: be sure to review plenty of number property DS questions before you take your real exam (questions like, is “x>y?” or “is integer N odd?”).
Sentence Correction
As I mentioned before, I am a native English speaker, a fact that gave me a huge advantage in sentence correction over non-native speakers. The GMAT tests a lot of idioms and subtle American English grammar that, in my opinion, cannot be easily learned unless you practice American English on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong-it’s still possible for any person to master these question types on the GMAT!
The great thing about the GMAT is that it tests only a limited set of rules. Princeton Review and Kaplan 800 provide a good overview of the various SC question patterns. Two free guides that I found critical to my study of SC were Spidey’s Sentence Correction Notes, and Sahil’s Sentence Correction Notes. These guides, created by two really generous guys, contain incredible information and no bullshit. Everyone should download them.
Even though I am an American native and had plenty of OG practice, SC was by far my greatest weakness on the GMAT. I never did get a complete grasp on the various question patterns to be found on the test. If I could do it all over again, I would have purchased the Manhattan GMAT Sentence Correction Guide. I’ve heard only phenomenal reviews about this book. This is especially a must have for non-native English speakers.
Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension (RC) was probably my strongest section on the GMAT. I had a very reading-intensive major in college so I was all ready used to breaking down passages like those found on the GMAT. The best advice I can give to someone about mastering RC is not to follow anyone’s advice too closely.
I believe that RC is particularly hard to advise people on because a person’s approach to these types of questions is very personal. Princeton Review and Kaplan say that skimming is the best method for tackling RC-which may be true for some people. However, I’ve found that reading carefully works best for me (but quickly–reading each passage in under 5 minutes), while simultaneously taking notes. Thus, different strategies for RC work for different people, so it will be up to you to experiment and determine what works best for you.
In any event, here’s the strategy I used for attacking RCs. The following can be found in my Day 44 blog posting:
1. Immediately write down the topic and scope after reading the first paragraph of a given passage. Doing so will help you think about questions relating to the main point or main purpose.
2. Try to go into an RC passage with an attitude that you are excited to learn about the information it contains. It takes some practice, but this strategy helps you maintain your focus while you read.
3. Read linearly. That is, try not to read sentences or parts of passages over and over again–doing so will slow you down dramatically and actually confuse you because the ideas in the passage are not being read in logical order.
4. Do not skim, but read quickly. This is a personal strategy. I find that I digest information better when I don’t gloss over too much detail.
I also cycled the following questions in my mind while reading an RC passage:
1. Why is the author writing?
2. What is being said?
3. How does the author accomplish her goal?
This strategy worked for me, but it may not for you. Once again, it’s all about experimentation and a ton of practice.
Critical Reasoning
I developed a fairly systematic approach for critical reasoning (CR). Usually CR didn’t cause me that much problems, but I did tend to make a lot of careless errors because of lapses in concentration. This is the big challenge when it comes to CR: staying focused! I think that my verbal score suffered on the real GMAT because I started getting sloppy with these types of questions–I guess I’ll never really know for sure.
Here’s the method I came to rely on for CR–an excerpt from my Day 66 blog entry:
1. Read the question prompt first and WRITE DOWN the question type (weaken, assumption, etc.)
2. Read the CR passage actively, noting the location of the conclusion and premises.
3. Look at answer choices and immediately eliminate choices that are out of scope, moving top to bottom. Remember, the CR passage provides a limited set of information. There tends to be a lot of answer choices with out-of-scope information.
4. Review answer choices that are left and pick the one that best answers the question.
As for anything related to the GMAT, practice makes perfect when it comes to CR. After you do a lot of problems you well get a feel for the patterns and question types that ETS loves to test. In my actual exam, I found that ETS was particularly fond of strengthen/weaken questions.
Be sure to be familiar with boldface question patterns. None of the textbooks I reviewed addressed boldface questions, which are a new format for CR. Official Guide only had one boldface practice question in the entire book. I encountered two of such questions on my actual GMAT, and I was stumped for both. The only resource I have seen for tackling these types of questions was a post from TestMagic Forum. OG 11th Edition may address boldface questions better, but I haven’t had the opportunity to check out this new text. In any case, be sure to do your research on these types of questions!
I found preparing for the essays to be the easiest aspect of my entire GMAT prep. The first thing I did was download the official list of AWA topics. GMAC is nice enough to publish this list of topics that can be tested on the GMAT. Next, I tried to figure out what it takes to score a ‘5’ or a ‘6’ on these essays. I came across the 800Score AWA Guide, which provides some helpful templates for organizing a high-scoring essay, as well as a few good examples of essays.
After skimming through the 800Score guide, I did several practice essays under timed conditions using topics from the official list. In total, I did 5 analysis of issue practice essays and 5 analysis of argument practice essays. This is how I would typically spend my time for each 30 minute essay:
– 5 minutes for brainstorming, creating an outline.
– 20 minutes for writing.
– 5 minutes for proofreading and editing.
I recommend that you all do a few practice essays before your GMAT, just so you can get a sense of how to organize your time and ideas. Also, check out TwinnSplitter’s discussion of AWAs–he lists some useful additional resources. My Review of the Materials I Used Official Guide for GMAT Review, 10th Edition
Many people refer to OG as the Bible of GMAT prep. But it’s so much more than that. Official Guide is the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and the Gita of GMAT prep. Every person should buy this book.
If you have time, do all the problems in OG. If you are under time constraints, emphasize the last 100 or so questions from each section, as they contain the most recently retired GMAT questions and also tend to be the hardest questions of each section.
Be sure to carefully analyze your mistakes and to read the explanations to ALL the problems. ETS likes to test the same patterns over and over again in their tests. Be keen on learning these patterns–this can only be done through rigorous practice. Like I said, on my actual GMAT many of the quant problems were virtual replicas of problems I saw in OG.
A few weeks ago, a new Official Guide 11th Edition was released. I have yet to review this latest edition, but I would advise future test prep folk to invest in this book because it is always best to practice with the most recently retired GMAT questions.
Princeton Review Cracking the GMAT 2004 with CD
A lot of people bad mouth this book because they complain that PR’s practice questions are too easy, and that the book in general isn’t too helpful for people who wish to score 700+ on the GMAT. In my opinion, many of their complaints are valid. The problems do seem a bit basic. Additionally, it’s true that PR is designed specifically for people who wish to score in the 500s or 600s.
However, if you are starting off your GMAT studies without any prior knowledge of the GMAT (like I did), of all the books I have reviewed, PR offers the best introduction to the test. What makes this book terrific is that it is an easy read. The authors of PR have a great sense of humor and they organize their material well.
I liked the practice tests that were featured on the PR CD. Do them all if you have the time. Watch out for practice CAT 2 though–I found a bug in the scoring algorithm.
I highly recommend people to read the PR book first in their prep. From this book you’ll get a good sense of what this test is all about as well as pick up some handy general test-taking strategies.
Kaplan GMAT 2005 with CD
This book also offers a good introduction to the GMAT. It is not as readable as the PR book, but the Kaplan book is certainly more thorough and features rigorous practice problems.
A special caveat to those people unfamiliar with Kaplan: Do not worry too much if you have difficulty solving Kaplan’s practice problems. They are very hard–much harder than what you will see on the actual GMAT–and many of the problems are also poorly written.
Do not fret about your Kaplan practice test scores. The scores tend to be skewed down dramatically–from 70-120 points below what you should actually expect on your real exam. This is just a ploy by Kaplan to scare people into buying their expensive classroom test prep services. Nevertheless, it’s still worth practicing the tests on the Kaplan CD because you should have as much GMAT simulation as possible before your real exam.
Kaplan GRE & GMAT Math Workbook
I’m lukewarm about this book. I didn’t find it too useful in my preparation. At first, I thought I was going to like this book because it seemed to comprehensively cover the fundamentals of GMAT math–which it does in fact do adequately. However, by the time I finished I felt like this book was too basic and didn’t offer much strategy.
This book may be well suited for people who have been out of college for a long time or have not touched math in a long time. But the regular Kaplan and Princeton Review books are probably sufficient to cover the fundamentals. Save your money.
Kaplan 800, 2005-2006
I bought this book on a spontaneous shopping spree. What surprised me about this book is that it does not offer that many practice problems, in comparison with the aforementioned books. However, it does feature very thorough and very clear explanations to each problem. This is a great book to buy if you are looking for decent strategies to obtain a 700+.
Kaplan 800’s math review is simply fabulous.
The math review alone is reason enough to buy this book. Purchase this book and review it slowly, if you have the time.
The Delta Course
I feel like I wasted my money and time investing in the Delta Course. Don’t get me wrong–this online advanced math review will teach you a lot of great tips for solving probability, permutation, and combination problems.
Nevertheless, the reality is that people overemphasize the necessity of preparing for these kinds of questions. In my actual GMAT, I only encountered one permutation/combination problem. It was so easy that I didn’t even need to apply my fancy Delta Course knowledge.
To do well on the quant section of the GMAT, you are best served by thoroughly practicing arithmetic and algebra. Don’t waste your money by buying this service like I did.
PowerPrep and GMATPrep
The great thing about these software programs is that they are free, so definitely download them.
PowerPrep is a great resource. Be sure to look through the quantitative review. It is very comprehensive and also contains some good strategies for solving some hard problems. The look and feel of the practice tests on this software are exactly the same as what I saw on my actual GMAT. The only bad thing about this software is that the questions employed in the practice tests are drawn directly from Official Guide 10th Edition. Do one practice test at the beginning of your prep, before you touch OG, and one after your prep, after you reviewed OG. The two scores have traditionally served as an accurate predictor of the range of your real GMAT score. One complaint that a lot of people have had about PowerPrep is that its tests’ quant sections are too easy in comparison with the real GMAT. In my actual test experience, I didn’t find this to be the case.
GMATPrep is the new software that is supposed to replace PowerPrep. In the near future, all GMAT tests will have the same look and feel as the tests found in GMATPrep. The makers of this software claim that these practice tests do not overlap with questions found in OG 10th Edition; unfortunately I found some overlap, but not too much. GMATPrep also features tests with more difficult quant sections than can be found on PowerPrep. Consequently, I think that GMATPrep is presently the most accurate representation of an actual, typical GMAT exam.
Practice Tests
I took a ton of practice tests. Do as many as you can during your own prep. Here’s a breakdown of my scores:
4/7/05 – PowerPrep 1 – 690 (45Q, 39V)
4/20/05 – Princeton Review CAT 1 – 690 (46Q, 40V)
4/29/05 – Kaplan Diag CAT – 670 (42Q, 41V)
5/6/05 – Princeton Review CAT 2 – 690 (43Q, 42V) [Skewed down from a bug]
5/16/05 – Kaplan CAT 1 – 610 (39Q, 35V)
5/25/05 – Princeton Review CAT 3 – 720 (45Q, 45V)
6/2/05 – Kaplan CAT 2 – 590 (38Q, 33V)
6/17/05 – Kaplan CAT 3 – 620 (38Q, 36V)
6/24/05 – Kaplan CAT 4 – 590 (37Q, 35V)
7/15/05 – Princeton Review CAT 4 – 720 (45Q, 45V)
8/1/05 – GMATPrep 1 – 720 (47Q, 41V)
8/8/05 – GMATPrep 2 – 740 (49Q, 42V)
8/15/05 – PowerPrep 2 – 760 (51Q, 41V)
8/16/05 – ACTUAL GMAT – 720 (96th Percentile)

Final Advice
My apologies for this post being so long. If you are still reading–I am amazed. Here are some concluding thoughts I have about preparing for the GMAT:
– To Recent Grads: If you are a recent college graduate thinking about business school down the road, consider taking the GMAT in the near future. This test will probably be a lot easer to study for as a student or a recent graduate because your study habits will still be fresh. Your GMAT scores are good for 5 years, so get the test out of the way early if you can.
– Flashcards: Record all your critical notes about the GMAT onto blank flashcards and make it a point to review your flashcards frequently. This is such an effective method for drilling strategy points and knowledge into your head. Start making flashcards from the first day of your studies. By the time I took the test, I had close to 300 cards–I was really glad I made the effort because they made my last-minute review a breeze.
– Online Forums: I wish I had done this more myself, but participate on online fora like TestMagic and ScoreTop. These fora foster excellent discussion on all things GMAT, from general strategy to answers to specific questions. Participate a lot and solve the problems that are posted–it’s an excellent way of mastering the test. Careful though: these fora can be addictive!
– Keep it short: I did about 12 weeks worth of prep over the span of four and a half months. In hindsight, I wish that I had maintained a tighter schedule so that I could have taken my test earlier. Try to keep your test prep within 2-3 months. Extending your prep too much can lead to burnout as well as forgetfulness.
– Read about others’ successes: If you find yourself slumping in your studies or becoming jaded, read about the successes of other test takers on the online fora mentioned above. These people have a lot to share in their happy posts. It’s a surefire way of gaining insight about the exam and boosting your own morale.
– Confidence: You must walk into your test with a leave-no-prisoner-behind attitude. No matter what happens during your prep or during your test, NEVER lose faith in yourself. Prepare well for your test, expect to score high, and reach your target. Shaky confidence will lead to disaster.
– Blog it: Consider blogging your own test prep experience. It’s a great way of staying on track with your studies, and you will be helping future generations of GMAT prep people through your documentation. E-mail me your blog address and I will create a link to it on Beat The GMAT. Let’s create a new online community of people who have successfully studied for the GMAT on their own! Set up your free blog at Blogger.
– Finally, Enjoy!: Don’t forget to enjoy what you are doing. Don’t you remember a time when math problems were kinda fun? Don’t you sometimes think that the reading comprehension passages you read contain some interesting information? Find a way to have some fun with your GMAT preparation. It’s probably something very different from what you do on a normal basis, so appreciate the experience for what it is. Once you can convince yourself that what you are doing is fun, the process becomes a whole lot easier.
That’s all I got. I apologize if I left out some details or if I made some grammar/spelling mistakes.
I’d like to send out my sincerest thanks to all of you who have read my blog and supported me throughout my GMAT preparation. Beat The GMAT! has received visitors from every continent in the world (except Antarctica-maybe soon). It has been so satisfying for me to know that my blog serves such a large and diverse community. I hope to continually show my thanks and commitment to you all by maintaining my website for the future.
Remember: You can Beat The GMAT too! Best of luck!

One thought on “Beat the GMAT debriefing

  1. Sailaja

    Oh my God…awesome post…so much of information…I am very thankful to u…Im planning to give gmat in aug…Hope to benefit from ur post and use time wisely..Thanks for all the info…


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