Saturday, August 8, 2009

My GMAT experience

Odd to follow my first post with my second one, but I'm still awake, and after 8 hours straight of organizing my material for my recommenders on top of my normal workday, I'm ready for a break.

The GMAT is viewed by some as some sort of magical measure of worth. I half hope it is, because in the end my unofficial score was a good one (still waiting on the official), and that might help counter my undergrad experience. Historically, I have been a very good standardized test taker and essays don't phase me, but this year I have a lot riding on it.

Last year, I looked at the GMAT... a little. Maybe 2 hours a week for six weeks in Feb-Mar '08 before giving up. My practice tests were in the 500-600 range, fairly terrible if I wanted to get into any top-10 school, but my heart wasn't in it. Knowing you are ready to go makes a world of difference; this year I took the GMAT very seriously.

This year, I signed up for the GMAT on August 1st, a Saturday, at 8am. Unfortunately for my planned study schedule, I was on a *major* project for May and June. Very big, very time consuming. I took the first week of July for vacation, and much of it was just to recover. I remember falling asleep at 8pm while gathered with family and friends on the weekend of the 4th of July ... in the living room. I woke up at 8am the next morning, having slept through their antics the entire night. Ouch. When I got back to work, all the lower priority tasks that had been pushed aside reared their heads and demanded my attention, and for two weeks I got caught up. I dithered over whether to change my date, since I knew I was cutting it far too close. I began studying on Saturday, exactly a week before the test.

My first concern: The test was at 8am. I'm not a morning person, I'd rather work till 4am than get up at 6. However, your body will do exactly what you condition it to do. I set my alarm for 6:00 every weekday morning that week, and made sure I got up. The third day was by far the worst - the second night I got perhaps 3 hours sleep, then drove two hours to another office to work, worked a full day, and drove back. It was a living nightmare. By the end of the week, while I was not exactly 'chipper' at 6am, I was definitely alert, aware, and ready to take tests. Thursday and Friday I had finished a practice test by 9am.

My study pattern was straightforward: The GMAT is a collection of tricks; Learn them. View it as a worthy, fun challenge. My first practice test (Kaplan 2007 CD) I got a 540. Ouch. I studied 12 hours a day Saturday and Sunday. Worked 8-5 Mon-Wed, and studied till midnight. I had to travel as well, which cut into my sleep time. 540, 590, 680, 610, 660... with each test, more tricks became apparent, as my mind started to adapt to the format. I was ready to take the GMAT's 'official' prep software. Note to those reading: I highly recommend leaving that little program until you feel you are comfortable with the test - it was the closest experience to the genuine test and my score on it was very indicative of my final score. I scored 700, 720 on it, and felt more comfortable. The night before the GMAT, quite tired at 8pm, I took the free "Manhattan GMAT" and got a 570. I wasn't shocked - I took the test rather halfheartedly to try to expose myself to new types of questions, but it was a little unsettling. I was in bed early.

Day of: Woke up at 5:30 to my alarm feeling fresh and prepared. Had a light, healthy breakfast and reviewed all the problems I'd gotten wrong on the Manhattan GMAT the night before. Left at 7am and drove through the city (I love the Iphone!) and walked in. There were 11 other people there to take the GMAT! Wow. I let everyone else go first (you can start before the official time, it's whenever the test center is ready) and went to the bathroom. I assured myself that, worst comes to worst, I could retake in September, and I still had my GRE score from 2005 which would be a competitive score at the top-10's that were willing to accept it.

The actual test was quite a lot of fun. As many have said, people who view the GMAT as a giant obstacle are psyching themselves out. The essay questions were especially fun, the latter of which was on a topic of great interest to me, which I had held a lengthy debate upon with my roomate (a phd in public policy) two weeks prior.

The math is the area I truly wished I'd had more time to study. At one point in my life, I was quite good at math, but the GMAT is more about figuring out the trick than it is learning differential equations. Every standardized test up to the GMAT, I'd excelled at the math and done well at the verbal. Oddly enough, the GMAT flipped those, but my tentative final score did pass the 80/80 threshold the schools talk about. I'm still awaiting my official score, but if the unofficial one that flashes up on the screen (and is on your test printout) is accurate, then I'm very happy.

My personal goal is to be 'done' with the application process by September 1st. The rest of the year holds a *lot* of work for my team, and while my manager is aware I'm applying (and offering support!) she expects my full commitment to work come September.

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