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A Software Engineer's Path to Financial Independence and Early Retirement (FIRE)

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Optimizing GMAT Preparation: Expert Strategies for Top Scores

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: A Guide to Elevating Your Score

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The GMAT exam is a stepping stone for many engineers towards their dream of attending a prestigious business school. The MBA will allow them to combine their existing technical skills with business skills. The combination is indeed very powerful. I’ve blogged about the advantages of the MBA in the previous post Is an MBA Worth It?.

However, with countless resources available, how do you decide which ones to use as part of your GMAT preparation? I embarked on a similar journey, navigating through a sea of study materials, practices, and mock tests. Today, I’m sharing my step-by-step process, highlighting the resources I found most useful.

What is the GMAT?

The GMAT is a computer-based test with multiple choice questions. It is also computer-adaptive, which means that if you answer one question correct then the next one will be harder, whereas if you answer one question wrong then the next one will be easier. It has the following sections:

  1. Quantitative Reasoning (Q)
    • Tests: Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry
    • Format: 31 questions
    • Time: 62 minutes
    • Max score: 51
  2. Verbal Reasoning (V)
    • Tests: Reading, Grammar, Analytical Reasoning
    • Format: 36 questions
    • Time: 65 minutes
    • Max score: 51
  3. Integrated Reasoning (IR)
    • Tests: Ability to solve complex problems using data from multiple sources
    • Format: 12 questions, some with multiple parts
    • Time: 30 minutes
    • Max score: 8
  4. Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA)
    • Tests: How to analyze an argument
    • Format: Essay
    • Time: 30 minutes
    • Max score: 6

My score was 740 (97% percentile) and was split as follows:

  • Quantitative: 50
  • Verbal: 40
  • Analytical Writing Assessment: 5.5

The Integrated Reasoning section is a new addition to the test and was not included when I took the exam.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation - What are the best GMAT study materials?

What are the best GMAT study materials?

  • Study guides
    • All The GMAT by Manhattan Prep: An invaluable resource for GMAT preparation. Includes the best guides for all GMAT sections. Studying these guides will give you a concrete understanding of all GMAT topics. This bundle includes 6 full-length GMAT computer adaptive tests (CATs). My personal highlights within the set are the books on:
      • Sentence Completion (SC): An invaluable resource for Sentence Correction (SC). Comprehensive and user-friendly, it drastically improved my SC scores.
      • Word Translation
      • Geometry
    • The PowerScore GMAT Critical Reasoning Guide: Essential for Critical Reasoning (CR) improvements. After studying with this guide, I saw a significant boost in my CR scores.
  • Additional practice questions
    • GMAT Official Guide (bundle): This bundle includes the GMAT Official Guide, the GMAT Quantitative Review, the GMAT Verbal Review, the GMAT Data Insights Review, as well as the Online Question Bank. This is the only official set of books with real GMAT questions.
  • Online practice tests
    • GMAT™ Official Starter Kit + Practice Exams 1 & 2: This is a set of 2 free official online practice tests. They are the best simulation of the GMAT environment. If you are interested in purchasing additional official practice GMAT tests, then you can look at the GMAT Official Prep Store.
    • GMAT Club Quant Practise Tests: These Math tests are created by GMAT Club. Based on their own description they are “The Hardest Quant Tests. Period.”. I definitely recommend them for those, who are scoring 49-50 on other Quant practice tests and want to reach 51.
    • Manhattan Prep online tests: As I wrote above, this bundle includes 6 full-length GMAT computer adaptive tests (CATs).
  • Additional materials
    • Wall Street Journal & Businessweek: Not traditional study guides, but invaluable for Reading Comprehension (RC) improvement. Regular reading boosts comprehension and speed.

While preparing for the GMAT, I also looked at study materials from Princeton Review and Kaplan. However, I did not find that they correlate that well with the real GMAT exam and they did not help me improve. That’s why I do not recommend them.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: How to start preparing for the GMAT?

How to start preparing for the GMAT?

In order to start preparing for the GMAT you need 2 main elements:

  • Determine your target GMAT score: How much do you want to score? Is 650 enough? 700? 750? 780?
  • Understand your starting point: Which sections of the GMAT do you need the most focus on?

Determine your target GMAT score

Obviously, it would be great to have 800/800 as our target GMAT score. However, the effort to reach this score would be tremendous. And it might not even be needed to score this high.

As a first pass, you can look at the average GMAT score of your target business schools. Each school provides these statistics in their website. A quick way to find these averages is to just google “<B-school name> gmat average”, e.g. “HBS gmat average” (without the quotes).

Most top B-schools, have an average GMAT score of 720-730. As you go lower in the rankings you will find schools that have considerably lower averages. Obviously, you want to reach as high as possible. An average score means that there will be students that have much lower scores than the average, however the lower your GMAT the more stellar the rest of your MBA application needs to be.

My GMAT target was 750. In order to keep myself focused on the target, I wrote this number in big letters on a piece of paper and put it in a place where I would look at it multiple times a day. In the end, my 740 score was a tad short, but close enough.

Understand your starting point

At the beginning of your GMAT study, everything is unknown. You don’t know what types of questions to expect, the difficulty of each section, or even your own capabilities. You might have given CATs (Computer-Aided Tests) with multiple choice questions before, such as the GRE, or you might not have.

In order to quickly reduce this uncertainty as quickly as possible, my recommendation is to give an official free GMAT practice test as early as possible. This will help you:

  • Understand the format of the exam
  • Become familiar with the types of questions
  • Find out your strengths and weaknesses
  • Determine where you need to spend more time going forward

In my case, my first practice test was one from Princeton Review. I got 610 (Q48 V26). Even though I don’t recommend Princeton Review online tests, as they don’t correlate with the real GMAT, it helped me understand that I need to focus on verbal, in order to increase my score. So, this is where I started my efforts.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: Mastering Verbal -Three Pillars of Preparation

Mastering Verbal: Three Pillars of Preparation

1. Sentence Correction (SC): My initial struggles in SC were dramatically alleviated after diving into the Manhattan Prep GMAT SC guide. Highly recommended for anyone finding themselves lost in SC. It’s comprehensive, yet easy to digest. After finishing this guide, my accuracy rate in this section skyrocketed immediately. It was a really quick win for me.

2. Critical Reasoning (CR): The PowerScore GMAT Critical Reasoning Guide was my savior here. This is a relatively large book, but it has a great structure. A noticeable surge in my CR scores was evident after I finished it.

3. Reading Comprehension (RC): RC improvement, in my experience, isn’t about cramming from a guide. I found that regularly reading publications like the Wall Street Journal or Businessweek made a significant difference. Immersing myself in such content improved both my reading speed and comprehension.

After these rigorous preparations, my practice sessions with the GMAT Official Guide on Verbal had an 80-90% accuracy rate in each section.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: Quantitative Preparation - From Fundamentals to Advanced Insights

Quantitative Preparation: From Fundamentals to Advanced Insights

Though confident in my quantitative abilities, I still aimed to optimize them. Enter the suite of Manhattan GMAT math books. Particularly, their Word Translation and Geometry guides proved invaluable. For those hovering around the Q48 score, the Word Translation can give you that push to hit Q50 or Q51.

After finishing the above books I continued with exercises from the Quantitative books of the GMAT Official Guide, prioritizing those mentioned in the MGMAT guides.

As part of my final push in Quant, I practiced with the GMAT Club Quant Practise Tests, initially scoring between 80%-95%. However, after some alterations in their scoring metrics, my percentile dropped. At that point, I shifted my focus, considering them more a test of morale than of knowledge. However, I do believe that they helped me boost my confidence that I could score even a Q51.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: AWA Mastery - Templates To The Rescue

AWA Mastery: Templates To The Rescue

The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) section of the GMAT consists of one 30-minute writing task, which is the Analysis of an Argument. This might seem daunting, but with the right strategies, you can effectively prepare for it.

I would like to note here that AWA is scored algorithmically by a machine and not by humans. So, your essay needs to:

  • Be structured
  • Include appropriate keywords that are relevant to the topic
  • Find holes in the argument

In order to tackle the above, the best way is to start with a specific template that you reuse in all your essays. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or provide some incredible idea that will amaze the evaluator. Instead, you need structure and consistency.

My recommendation is to start with the AWA template from the GMAT Club user chineseburned. They are not perfect and might not be best suited for you. Also, they might be copied by thousands of other readers online. So, the best way is to customize them, in order to fit your writing style. From that point on, you write all the AWA essays using the same structure.

Finally, you can use the official list of AWA topics, in order to practice. I made sure to use several of these topics, in order to try my structure. Also, it was important to make sure that I could remain within the 30 minutes of the allocated time.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: The Pivotal Role of Practice Tests

The Pivotal Role of Practice Tests

While preparing for the GMAT it is crucial to keep track of your progress and the areas of improvement. Doing periodic practice tests helps a lot in knowing where you stand and whether you have reached your GMAT score target.

In my preparation, I mainly used the 2 Official GMAT practice tests, as well as the 6 full-length CATs from the Manhattan Prep bundle. If you want, you can also buy more official tests from the GMAT Official Prep Store. I found that both of them were great in predicting my final score, however there was a difference:

  • The Official tests have questions that seem relatively easier, e.g. shorter texts for Reading Comprehension. I always had quite a bit of spare time after finishing these tests
  • The Manhattan Prep tests felt much more difficult. The questions seemed harder and I barely managed to finish the tests within the allocated time.

The interesting part for me, though, was that the scores from both tests were highly correlated together. If you feel that you only prefer to do official tests, then I suggest that you buy more of the official ones, as their price is not very high. However, if you decide to try the Manhattan Prep tests, feel assured that their scoring is valid.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: How Long to Study for the GMAT?

How Long to Study for the GMAT?

I think that the optimal time for GMAT study is around 2-3 months.

It is easy to get burned, if you study GMAT for a long time. After 2 months, you will go into diminishing returns (and possibly even negative returns). The exercises become boring, studying becomes careless and it seems useless to start reading another book from the beginning, because you already know 90-95% of the material anyway (but you still want to read 300 or 500 pages, in order to cover the last details). You don’t need to spend additional time learning the same things again and again from different books. Don’t fall for analysis-paralysis.

One typical mistake is to focus on achieving a perfect score in a section (e.g. very often people try to score Q51 in Math), but neglect the other section (i.e. Verbal in this example). If there is a big diference between the two sections, then the best way to improve your overall GMAT score is to focus on the section with the lowest score. After a specific level in math or verbal, you get insignificant results for lots of effort. For example, there is no point trying to go from Q49 to Q51, if you have V30, because the increase V30->V32 is both easier to do and more effective than Q49 -> Q51.

Therefore, in my opinion, you should set a target based on either of the following:

  • Date: Register to set the GMAT exam 2-3 months after the date that you start studying
  • Target score: At the beginning of your studies set a GMAT target score. After you hit this target 2-3 times in practice tests, register to take the GMAT in the next week.

If there is no target (either score or date), it’s really easy to get burned.

Just for reference, here are my personal scores in the last 5 tests that I gook:

  • Manhattan GMAT CAT 5: 740 (Q50 V41)
  • GMATPREP 1: 760 (Q49 V46)
  • GMATPREP 2: 740 (Q50 V40)
  • Manhattan GMAT CAT 6: 750 (Q51 V41)
  • GMATPREP 1 Retake: 770 (Q51 V43)

At that point, all scores were consistently around my target of 750, so I decided that it was time to give the actual exam.

Optimizing GMAT Preparation: Final Thoughts and Closing Advice

Final Thoughts and Closing Advice

With a target score of 750 in sight, my actual GMAT yielded a 740. A tad short, but reflective of my consistent performance. Towards the test’s conclusion, I felt the drain, which might have affected my verbal score. And it was a huge relief, when I saw the official score on the computer. It meant that my journy was over.

To all GMAT aspirants, remember that the journey to your dream score is unique. It’s about finding resources that resonate with your learning style. My story is one among many, but I hope my insights offer direction and motivation.

What GMAT resources did you swear by? Which ones would you recommend? Share your experience in the comments below!

About Me

I am an engineer with 15+ years in the tech industry, including roles at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. I've been a Software Engineer, Product Manager, and Technical Program Manager. I also have an MBA from Kellogg School of Management with Majors in Finance and Marketing.

What drives me? A passion for empowering engineers to achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE). I reached FIRE, when I turned 40 years old. Whether it's through personal finance strategies or career insights, I'm here to guide you on this path. Have questions or need advice? Feel free to reach out!

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