Sometimes I feel like I need to work harder than other people to get comparable results. I felt this way with cycling, and part of me feels this way with the GMAT. With bike racing, I felt like I had to work much harder than other people to achieve similar results, and I attributed much of my racing success simply to my ability to outwork the competition. I was willing to grit my teeth during intervals, sacrifice social time for sleep, and spend long hours on the bike in order to get strong and fast. I feel the same way about the GMAT. I spent a lot of time studying and practicing in order to achieve a score that smarter people could achieve with less time. But I suppose that part of my skillset is the determination to spend a lot of time doing the hard work. Winning bike races and scoring well on the GMAT both require dedication and time.
The first time that I committed to studying for the exam, I diligently tracked my time in a spreadsheet. I had a silly assumption that if I studied 100+ hours, then I would be able to achieve a 730+ score. I recognize now that this assumption was not based on anything tangible and that the amount of study time varies greatly from one person to the next. Anyway, I studied consistently over the period of 2-1/2 months, and logged 128 total hours. After studying for 128 hours, I took the online exam, and I did not meet my goal.
Therefore, after much deliberation and talking with my fiancé (now my wife), I decided to commit to a second round of studying. This time, I cared less about tracking my hours, and focused more on improving my test-taking ability. Since I recognized that my weakest area was pacing, most of my time during the second studying period was spent actually taking practice exams and then reviewing those exams. Although I didn’t diligently track my hours, I estimate that I spent a total of 30-40 hours studying over the course of one month. This means that my total study time was approximately 160-170 hours before taking the GMAT for the second time. Assuming that a typical workweek is 40 hours/week, my total study time was equivalent to about one month of full-time work. For me, this amount of time was spread across several months, because I was balancing GMAT studying with a full-time engineering/management job, engagement and wedding planning, social life, and training to run a marathon (sleep was optional during this time period. I conducted several experiments on myself to understand how my body performed on consistently getting 4-5 hours of sleep per night for several days in a row).
Before my first test attempt, I took a total of 4 practice exams – all of them were the official GMAT Practice exams. My first attempt was to establish a baseline, and I expected to do poorly. However, I didn’t expect to score as poorly as a 550. There were many reasons that I didn’t score well. Mainly, I knew nothing about the exam, including the fact that the exam was timed. Since I didn’t know the exam was timed, I only answered about 70% of the questions. After this initial debacle, I committed to studying and taking regular practice exams to gauge my progress. My scores quickly improved: 680 on my second attempt, 720 on my third attempt, and 740 on my last practice exam. After scoring a 740 on the practice exam, I felt comfortable taking the official test. For my first attempt at the GMAT, I chose to take the online GMAT.
The online test did not go well, and I was disappointed with my performance. So, I began a second round of studying and practice exams. Since I felt comfortable with all of the GMAT concepts, I felt like my weakest area was timing. I took too long to answer most questions, and I was never able to answer all of the questions before time ran out. Therefore, I spent most of my time practicing how to pace the test. I figured the best way to practice pacing was to practice actually taking the test. Therefore, I took 3 official practice tests and 3 Kaplan practice tests. The Kaplan tests were discouraging, because my scores were consistently low: 690, 710, and 700. However, I liked the Kaplan tests because the answer explanations were much better than the explanations in the official tests (actually, the official tests gave the correct answer, with no explanation at all), and it was easier to navigate the review of the Kaplan tests compared to the official tests. Although my Kaplan scores were not ideal, my official practice test scores were 750, 740, and 740, which I felt like were more realistic gauges of my ability since they came from the actual test provider.
Test Attempt #1: Online GMAT
The first time that I took the GMAT, I opted for the online version. Honestly, the biggest factor in this decision was the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA). Since I do a lot of typing and use a custom keyboard layout that is a non-QWERTY configuration, I was apprehensive about typing an essay on a QWERTY keyboard. I was accustomed to typing quickly and efficiently, but I knew that I would be using chicken fingers to peck at single keys if I was forced to type on a QWERTY keyboard during the exam. Therefore, for my first test attempt, I chose to take the online GMAT, because it did not include the AWA, and I would not be required to type anything. Setting up my office space to prepare for the online GMAT was an inconvenience. My roommate and I were both working remotely, and we shared an office space that needed to be cleaned before I could take the exam. I had to remove my monitors, camera, textbooks, and other work items so that I could show the test proctor that my working area was clean. I was familiar with the rules and made sure that my testing area complied. Once the exam began though, I was quickly rattled. The miniature video of myself in the corner of the screen was distracting, but the most serious distraction was the proctor who sent me several messages. I must have been reading silently or mumbling under my breath, because the proctor interrupted my exam several times, telling me to be silent or else my score would be revoked. Whenever the proctor interrupted the exam, a message box covered a majority of the screen, and I was not allowed to continue taking the test until I acknowledged the proctor’s message. Furthermore, during these interruptions the exam timer continued to count down. I don’t remember exactly how many times I was interrupted, but it was 3-4 times during the entire exam, and these interruptions were a significant distraction. They interrupted my thoughts while I working through quant questions and while reading verbal passages. On the online GMAT test, I scored a 710, which was lower than I wanted, and I felt that it was not a true reflection of my ability. I think that the proctor interruptions were the biggest reason that I did not achieve my target score on the online GMAT.
Test Attempt #2: In-Person GMAT
After completing several practice exams and consistently scoring 740-750 on my previous 3 practice tests, I was confident that I had the ability to score in the 730-760 range, with the exact score dependent on my test-day nerves and number of lucky guesses/silly mistakes. After arriving at the test facility and before entering my test cell, the test administrator talked me through a self-pat-down to ensure that I was not bringing anything into the test lab besides myself and my ID. This was not something that I practiced during my practice exams and not something that I expected. However, it was not a significant inconvenience. After completing the quant and verbal sections of the exam, I took a bathroom break, and I felt confident about my score. The testing experience felt just like my practice exams, and therefore, I expected that my official score would be similar to my practice scores. The Integrated Reasoning part of the test was easy, and I scored a perfect 8/8 on this section. The AWA section was inconvenient, as expected, because I needed to chicken peck on a QWERTY keyboard, but the prompt itself was easy to answer, and I felt confident about my AWA response. My unofficial score after the completing the in-person GMAT was a 740 (8/8 on the IR, and unknown on the AWA), just like I expected.