700 on the GMAT

As mentioned before, I’m hoping to do an MBA in the second half of this year.  The first step in that journey is to apply to the MBA programmes I’m interested in (Sauder, Ivey, Nanyang & Smurfit, for the record).  The first step in that process is to take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test).

Kaplan's GMAT preparation book - a great resource

Kaplan's GMAT preparation book - a great resource

First, a bit about the exam.  Then, how to get 700 on it!

It’s an interesting exam, because it principally tests aptitude in two things – maths and English. It’s also a “computer adaptive test”, which means that the questions you are asked are made more difficult each time you get an answer right, and easier when you get a question wrong.  That means that you eventually reach a stage, theoretically, when you’re getting alternate questions right and wrong, which means you’ve reached your “level”.  I don’t know that that actually happens, but over the 41 maths questions, for example, the system gets a fairly good idea of where you stand.

This adaptive nature means that the test is delivered on a computer and, importantly, you can’t go backwards – only forwards.  So timing is key.  There’s no going back at the end to review your answers.

The exam is made up of three sections.

Analytical Writing

The Analytical Writing Assessment is designed to assess how well you can make or destruct an argument.  You’re given two essays to write, in half an hour each.  You start off each with either a statement/argument (normally only a single sentence) to analyse.  The instructions then are (not verbatim):

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statment above.  Support your view with reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations or reading.

The next essay revolves around an argument being presented.  For example, it might be a memo from a fictional company manager, a reasoning behind a bank allowing or refusing a loan, etc.  The instructions are (not verbatim):

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument.  In your discussion be sure to analyse the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument.  Discuss what would strengthen the argument and what, if anything, would help to better evaluate its conclusion.

Sounds simple, but 30 minutes is barely enough to do that in.

Quantitative Section

The next section tests your mathematical skills.  It goes into basic arithmetic, geometry and algebra.  There are two types of questions – problem solving and data sufficiency. Problem solving is just like the junior/leaving cert.  Here’s a problem, and five possible solutions (all of which can be reached by making minor errors in your calculations/method).  Solve the problem, and pick the right answer.  Simple enough.  Here’s an example, if I can manage to format it right (ignore the  line on the right – it’s a cursor from a screengrab):

What is the value of a?


The data sufficiency gives you a question, followed by two additional pieces of information.  Rather than solving the problem, you’ve to decide whether the problem can be solved, given the information available.  The options are:

  1. Can be solved with statement 1 alone
  2. Can be solved with statement 2 alone
  3. Can be solved with statement 1 or statement 2 alone
  4. Can be solved with statement 1 and statement 2 together, but not either alone
  5. Cannot be solved with the data provided

To give an example, you might be asked:

How long does it take John to type a particular document?

1) John types at 45wpm

2) Typing at a rate of 30wpm, Lisa can complete the document in 5.3 minutes

The answer to that one is that it can be solved with both statements together, but not either alone, by the way.  From my practice exams and learning, I knew that, for some reason, I’m bad at data sufficiency.  Put the same question in front of me as a problem, and I’m fine.  Bizarre.

Verbal Section

The third, and final, part of the exam tests your English language skills.  There are multiple choice questions on sentence correction (not a problem for me, as victims of my grammatical pedantry will attest!), critical reasoning (e.g. a statement is given and you are asked what has been assumed by the writer) and comprehension.   Comprehension gives a passage of text, normally three to four paragraphs long from a scientific or business magazine, and asks you various questions about the content.


It’s difficult to explain, so here’s what Wikipedia says:

The “Total Score”, comprising the quantitative and verbal sections, is exclusive of the analytical writing assessment (AWA), and ranges from 200 to 800. About two-thirds of test takers score between 400 and 600. The score distribution resembles a bell curve with a standard deviation of approximately 100 points, meaning that the test is designed for 68% of examinees to score between 400 and 600, while the median score was originally designed to be near 500. The 2005/2006 mean score was 533.

I got a 700, which is in the 90th percentile (i.e. better than 90% of those who take the test, worse than 10% of those who take the test).

How to Get 700 on the GMAT

Hmm.  Difficult one to answer!  I used the excellent Kaplan training book.  It comprises a (large) textbook, with an accompanying CD of practice tests (both full tests and section-specific tests).  I highly recommend it.  I studied for about twenty minutes a day, about three times a week, for two months.  Not a huge commitment by any standards.

One thing to note, and I only found this out when I turned up at the test centre and talked to the other people taking the test, is that Kaplan scores you very, very hard.

I had been expecting a 650-700 score, based on my good maths and English skills.  The first time I did one of the Kaplan full practice tests, I got a 600.  The second time, I got a 580.  To say I was shocked would be an understatement.  The third time, I got a 610. Better, but not what I was expecting.  The courses I want to get accepted into would require at least a 650 to compensate for the 2:2 in my primary degree (most require a 2:1).

I was a bit concerned until I heard about Kaplan’s trends in scoring.  So, I thought I was back in line for a 650 again on the morning of the test.

The Test Itself

The two analytical writing essays went fine (I’m not giving the questions here because it’s part of the agreement when doing the test, and they haven’t given me my official score yet!), although I went right to the time limit on each of them.

Maths was up next, and I felt at the time that I’d made a bit of a balls of that.  I took too long on some of the early questions – my head just wasn’t in it, and I couldn’t get a grasp of them.  I then found myself with half the questions left, and only a third of the time.  I even guessed a few answers towards the end in order to get through it all (you’re punished more for not reaching a question than for getting it wrong).

The verbal test is my strongest card (ironically, in the Junior and Leaving Certs maths was my strongest subject, while English was one of my weakest).  I flew through that in about half the time allocated, and got most of the questions right.

Once you’ve done that, it tells you your test is over and gives you a score – 700 in my case (90th percentile).  Simple as that.  The score is provisional, and only covers the verbal and quantitative sections (not the two essays), but it’s the key number for your overall result.  700 is a good score.  The best I could have hoped for.

Next Step

Next step, the applications.  Most of that’s easy, but they all require essays.  Some of you who I know in real lifewill be getting essays to analyse and/or correct for me!  I hope you’ll oblige.

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