I Took the GMAT With No Preparation. Here's What Happened

Test-taker and author Amy Choi
Test-taker and author Amy Choi
Photograph by Brent Murray/Bloomberg
The GMAT isn’t supposed to be easy. The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the exam for business-school applicants, has spent six decades tweaking things, striking questions deemed too simple, and ensuring that the result is equally tough on U.S. test-takers and international entrants. Last year more than half of test-takers spent at least 51 hours studying for the exam. What if they didn’t?

I decided to find out. Earlier this month, I registered for the exam to see what the yearly crop of 250,000 would-be MBA students put themselves through. Unlike most of them, I didn’t peruse online tips or take the two free practice tests provided for the $250 admission fee. I didn’t study at all.

This dismayed Tracey Briggs, director of media relations at the Graduate Management Admission Council. “I admire your willingness to take the GMAT exam cold,” she said. “But I hope you understand that’s not really the norm for people planning to go to business school.”

On test day, I arrived 30 minutes early, feeling well-rested and completely unburdened by much in the way of concrete knowledge about the Graduate Management Admission Test. The testing center was dignified and drab, and the check-in procedure was elaborate: Stow lunch and scarf in a locker; present government-issued ID; submit palm for a scan; turn out hoodie pockets and slide hands into boots to prove the absence of contraband. Then I took a trip through a glass-walled security room in which test-takers were being observed on a bank of overhead screens. Once inside the testing room, I was told I couldn’t walk anywhere without an escort.

Photograph by Amy Choi/Bloomberg

Despite the tight security, the most common reason officials cancel test scores isn’t transmission devices hidden in rain boots—it’s sneaky glances at cell phones. You aren’t allowed to access your device at any point during the test—not even breaks.

I was escorted to a desk bearing yellow foam ear plugs, giant noise-canceling headphones, a notepad of laminated, wipe-able graph paper, and two dry-erase pens. On-screen instructions told me I had 30 minutes for two essay questions. The first asked me to point out weaknesses in a case study. I finished with 19 minutes still ticking away in the corner of my screen. So much time for the second question!

There was no second question. Maybe I should have read the instructions better.

On to integrated reasoning, the newest section of the exam. So many people wanted to avoid taking integrated reasoning that GMAC saw an historic spike in test-takers the year before it was introduced. I knew I had to do well out of the gate. Computer Adaptive Testing, pioneered by GMAC and now used by many standardized exams, effectively programs the test to increase difficulty after you answer a question right. So acing the first few questions is particularly important.

Twelve questions, 30 minutes. I had been told by GMAC that pacing should be my top priority, so I tried to tick through a question every two minutes. A few questions required careful reading, but none were terrible. I even found the sorting required for the table-analysis section quite satisfying. But the graphics interpretation section, which asks you to read data graphs or visualizations, made no sense. Was this why they gave me graph paper? I picked “C” a few times and hoped this section came late enough in my series not to bracket me into the never-going-to-B-school track.

I finished with four minutes left and used one of my two allotted eight-minute breaks to scarf down half a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. I was about to face my demon: quant.

Rebecca Lehrer, chief executive of Mash-Up Americans and a 2010 Yale School of Management MBA, said of the math section: “Just select blindly.” Four questions in, I was ready to give up. Truly, I couldn’t remember how square roots worked. If something is to the nth degree, and something else is to the nth-plus-one degree, how do you add those two numbers up and find n? Was this problem giving me enough information to answer what n is? What does n mean?

It got worse. I frantically tried to remember which one was the Y axis. I scribbled incomprehensible graphs and drew meaningless triangles inside circles on my wipe-able notepad.

At around question 13, the questions suddenly got easier. Had I failed at enough questions that the adaptive-testing algorithm had officially clicked over to the remedial level? I felt some relief. Then the succeeding 16 questions were hopeless. I couldn’t focus on the bleak, problem-filled monitor. I felt slightly comforted that test-takers around the world were looking at this exact same 17-inch screen. They probably studied.

My ears started to sweat, so I took off the headphones. The soft mouse clicks around me made me jittery. Suddenly, I noticed 20 seconds left on the clock and rapidly started selecting C, C, C, aware of the penalty for unanswered questions. I was slowed by the two-click process required to confirm my answers, and the GMAT shut me down at question 36 of 37.

Back at my locker, I finished my PB&J and tried to relax. I’d have to really shine on the verbal section to get anything close to a respectable score. After six minutes and another palm-scan, I was back at my station.

The 41 verbal questions made sense. Some of the reading comprehension was repetitive, but sentence correction reminded me of what I do every day. I no longer feel as if I might go blind looking at the computer screen. Apparently, 13 years as a writer and editor is all you need to prepare for the verbal section of the GMAT. I finished with 10 minutes to spare. Almost instantly, my unofficial scores popped up.

My integrated reasoning score was 7 out of 8, putting me in the 82nd percentile.

Quantitative: 35 out of 60. 35th percentile.

Verbal: 42 out of 60. 96th percentile.

Total score: 640 out of 800. 73rd percentile.

I gathered up my things, scanned my palm a final time, and emptied my locker. I was weirdly juiced and tired at the same time. My GMAT experience was over.

My official score report arrived a week later and included an analytical writing assessment. My score was 4.5 out of 6, placing me in the 43rd percentile. Tracey Briggs at GMAC was right: brushing up on high school algebra and geometry would have probably inched me higher than the 35th percentile on quantitative, and some preparation might have meant I’d have to read each question only once.

My 640 puts me on the very low end of the range for ultra-elite business schools. Harvard Business School’s class of 2015 range was 550-789, with a median score of 730. The Wharton School’s class of 2015 range was 630-790, with a mean score of 725. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, No. 15 on Bloomberg Businessweek‘s 2012 ranking, might accept me more easily: The median score for the class of 2015 was 664.

All told, my score was respectable: The overall median is 546 (PDF).

My strong integrated reasoning score, says Briggs, is interesting. Since the section is relatively new, schools are still determining how to use it for admissions. At Kelley, for example, integrated reasoning shows a higher correlation to academic performance than total GMAT score or undergraduate grade-point average. At Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management, a strong quantitative school, high integrated reasoning scores can help Owen find students who scored poorly on quant but would be worth a chance, notes chief recruiting officer Tami Fassinger.

Dozens of schools in Bloomberg Businessweek‘s top 50 post median GMAT scores of 700 or less in their class profiles, probably because they understand that an imperfect score doesn’t preclude you from success in business. In fact, according to test officials, the GMAT best predicts academic performance in the first year of a graduate management program.

The GMAT may test your mettle and your memory, but it doesn’t measure innovation or determination. If you don’t test well, persuade schools in your essays and interviews that they need to see beyond your first year—to your future. Tell them Amy, a 640, said so.

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