Cracking the GMAT

The secret to cracking the GMAT is simple - practice. Lots of it. The GMAT tests your time management and decision-making skills as much as, if not more than, your math and vocabulary skills. This is just a preview of what most MBA programs put you through as well. Embrace it - the experience will serve you well.

The GMAT consists of three sections. You can find all the information you need at Two, sharing a similar layout and each scored out of 400, test your mathematical and vocabulary skills with a series of computer-adaptive multiple choice questions. Computer-adaptive tests adjust the difficulty of the next question based on your performance so far. The intention is to enable you to score to the best of your ability. Preliminary scores for these sections are available as you finish the exam. The third section consists of two essays written in responding to an essay prompt. These are scored by both a computer (!) and a human, so their scores are not released immediately. The essay score is given separate to the rest and accounts for only 6 points.

Each part of the GMAT takes quite long in its own right, and if you want to take an entire test in one sitting you can pretty much forget about at least half your day. Paper-based practice exams will only get you so far, so you will have to find the time to take entire sections in one chunk - most of them will not let you pause halfway.

As much as you practice the math and English multiple-choice questions, time yourself typing (yes, typing, not writing) essays. The hardest part for me, hands down, was the miserly word limit - again put there for a reason. If, like it was for me, this will be your first time studying in the U.S., you'll find that the word limits don't budge by much when you get to the classroom. The sooner you get used to changing the way you write for such audiences, the better.

Now don't get me wrong, I do not think this style is suited for many perfectly good purposes. I realized not a moment too soon that Americans do not in fact speak and write in English, but in American - a much sparer, less elegant but extremely efficient dialect. The difference is like that between a Rolls Royce and a Lancer Evolution. Even as I type this, I can hear my first-quarter professors complaining about the lengths of sentences and the "flowery" style we are more used to in Sri Lanka.

Focus on your Strengths, Improve on your Weaknesses

The best news about the GMAT is that most people who might be weak in math should be able to compensate in the vocabulary parts, and vice versa. Don't waste too much time worrying on your weaknesses; concentrate on your strengths, and make sure you're as well prepared as possible for each section. Preparation can get you a lot further than just general ability due to the design of the program. This design is not a mistake. As I said before, while most people are more than a match for the intellectual content, it is time management and decision-making that enables you to ditch the questions that are taking too much time, pick one of the two answers when both could be right, and just make educated guesses when you're running short on time.

If you're feeling a little rusty or just need a confidence boost, don't be afraid to reach out to a tutor - even a little help goes a long way, and if you avoid the London O'Level and other exam cycles you'll find most tutors able to be quite flexible in terms of appointments.

Take the Exams Early

GMAT results are valid for five years. TOEFL, which you'll need for most universities, is valid for two. Do the exams as soon as you can - you'll thank yourself later.

Keep in mind that most exams are now administered over the internet, though you will have to go to an exam center to take them. Seating is limited, and queues build up quite fast, so make sure you book the date and time that best suits you well in advance; try to avoid the predictable rush closer to deadlines. This gets worse in the case of exams that undergrads need to take as well - or when the center offers such tests too.

The GMAT computer based test had just been introduced in Sri Lanka when I took it. You make your reservation online at The centre, which I shall not name (it's on Duplication Road) confirmed my reservation and when I arrived half an hour early as required, asked me to wait five minutes while they sorted out a minor glitch. This stretched out into four hours. Your experience should (I hope) differ, bur remember to plan for all contingencies.

A quick tip when going for the exam: most tests let you send your results for free to around five universities - precisely because they know very few people would have thought that far. Do some basic research ahead of the exam and go with a list longer than the number allowed. You'll be surprised how many big universities (particularly non-U.S. ones) do not appear in the selection boxes.

Not Happy with your Score?

Despite all the preparation, any number of reasons can mean that your score is not what you expected or got on your practice tests. Don't panic. These scores are just a part of your entire application. Any admissions officer knows to look beyond just the score and at the entire package.

Most admissions departments use standardized scores as a first-order filter to weed out the most obvious "No's." This means that the minimum score is quite low, and in practice much lower than the average scores you'll see in the class summaries for your dream universities. As long as the score is not a disaster, you're still in the game.

Still Not Happy? Retake It

If you are still unhappy with your score, the good news is you can usually retake the exam, at least for a reasonable number of times within a particular period. More often than not, the limiting factor will be how much time and money you're willing to spend.

A classmate of mine, who came from India, scored 780 out of a possible 800 on the GMAT. He applied with the score, but retook the exam too, and emailed the Admissions Office to let them know he'd got a perfect 800, even though it was after the deadline and did not make the slightest difference to his eligibility.

The bad news is that schools usually ask you for your previous scores too when applying. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if pride was the main motivation in re-taking the test, at least this fact should help you come to terms with your score and focus on the rest of the process.

J. Charitha Ratwatte (Junior).Charitha is entering the second year of his MBA program at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, California.

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