GMAT Tips: The Numbers Game

Experts offer advice on improving your score on the business-school admissions test's quantitative section

Before he began studying for the GMAT exam, Jason Adler had been working in public relations for six years and hadn't taken a math course since his freshman year in college. "I had spent the last six years writing, and as an undergrad I majored in communications and politics," says Adler, who started full-time at the Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration this fall.

So he did what many prospective business school applicants did: He started from scratch, studying sample test problems and GMAT test prep materials: "I threw out any lingering things that I remembered from school." It worked O.K. for him. He ended up scoring a total of 670 on the exam and did well on the math portion.

When it comes to the GMAT, not all students start out with the same level of mathematical understanding. So if you're anything like Adler, taking the quantitative portion of the exam will require some extra steps. But you don't need to go back to high school or ask embarrassing questions in a prep class to get closer to 800. In addition to books and courses, there are nontraditional ways that can help pump up your math score. And while none of these should replace looking at annotated past exams and reading through specially formulated study materials, they are a good starting point to get you thinking quantitatively.

No Trick Questions

Lawrence Rudner, vice-president for research and development at the Graduate Management Admission Council (publishers of the GMAT), said that while math questions on the exam are designed to test a basic level of math knowledge, there are no trick questions. "We're assuming most people are coming to the plate with basic math skills. If you're coming in really weak at math you do need to brush up," he says.

And even though the GMAT quantitative exam only asks data sufficiency (BusinessWeek, 5/8/07) and problem-solving questions, problems are still grounded in basic mathematical concepts. Rudner's main advice is for applicants to look through previous GMAT exam questions in order to understand these question types, which are rarely encountered in other tests. Rudner also recommends doing real world data sufficiency problems. "In everyday life, you can come up with real problems and ask yourself if there is enough information [to solve them]," he says.

Indeed, working through one or more of the many exam prep books that are available is always the first step towards restoring math skills that may have gone fuzzy since high school. But there are other ways to prepare. Here are a few tips offered up by experts.

TRY A PUZZLE: Completing puzzles that require problem-solving abilities can be a good way to exercise the math portion of your mind, says Robert Moyer, a professor at Southwest Minnesota State University and author of McGraw-Hill's Conquering GRE/GMAT Math book. (McGraw-Hill is also the publisher of BusinessWeek.) "After a while people can look at [too many sample questions] and cannot solve another math problem. At that point they can switch over to a recreational puzzle, which some people look at as a lot of fun," he says.

DO MENTAL EXERCISES: When it comes to exams, some experts believe games can help a test taker become more used to the challenge while providing a level of entertainment. "In terms of assessing information, patterns, and strategic problem solving, [there are] many games foster that skill, especially those with multiple levels of strategy, like chess or Civilization," says Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Serious Games Initiative, which looks at the usefulness of video games in situations beyond entertainment.

TAKE A COURSE: If you need a little nudging and a place to ask math questions you haven't asked since eighth grade, opt for a day-long course like Manhattan GMAT's new Foundations of Math. "We realized that a portion of our students were having some trouble and missing the basic skills you need for the GMAT," says Chris Ryan, director of product and instructor development at Manhattan GMAT about creating the course. "You have to suck up and say: 'This is what the GMAT requires of me, and the last time I saw this stuff I had a locker.'"

TAP YOUR IN-BOX: E-mail is a big part of everyone's day, so getting a newsletter with math tips is an easy way to review. For instance, Jeff Sackmann's free weekly newsletter at comes with five sample math questions. The next day he posts explanations on his blog. For reviewing basic concepts, you can also check online sources such as that let you create printable worksheets for simple yet specific topics. It's also a great way to practice not using a calculator (which is not allowed at the testing site).

BACK TO CAMPUS: If you're applying to business school but don't have the necessary courses under your belt, it may hinder your chance for admission. So taking a course at your local community college will not only help you for the application but can be helpful in studying for the GMAT. Speak to a school admissions counselor from your No. 1 business school choice to see what courses fit the bill.

TAKE IT SLOW: Mathematics professor Gus Stuart, a Columbia prof teaching at MIT's Sloan School of Management, suggests that students initially tackle easier math problems in order to boost confidence for the tougher GMAT questions. "If someone isn't confident it does hurt their test taking," explains Stuart.

TAILOR YOUR STUDY: Reserve time for extra practice in tackling hard-to-grasp math topics by initially scoring yourself on a sample exam. "Self-diagnose what you want to learn about a particular area and then you can buy a book that's just on geometry or just on number properties," says Manhattan GMAT's Ryan, who also teaches prep courses. Adler, who earned consistently high verbal scores on standardized tests, agrees. "It would have been a complete waste of time if I spent 50% of my time on the verbal section and 50% on math," he says.

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