From China to the GMAT

For the better part of five months, the GMAT was the bane of my
existence. I don’t think an hour went by without me thinking about it.
It was everywhere I looked. I one time even figured out the possible
combinations of the food items offered at the restaurant I worked at.
Ironically, I didn’t come up with the right answer.

At some point the GMAT stopped being a test and started being a fight.
That is a development I am certainly thankful for. Because once I
stopped thinking of the GMAT as a test and more of a mountain that I
had to climb, thing became much clearer.

Looking back, I realize that the concepts that the GMAT tests are not
complex. There’s no calculus, advanced physics, or expectations of you
analyzing Shakespeare’s later works. The GMAT is simply high school
math and grammar meant to stump the smartest people alive. It’s
slightly ingenious really.

A little about me. 18 months ago I had never given a thought to
business school. I was working in China and enjoying the spoils of
what I thought had been a pretty rigorous education. Mitigating
circumstances forced me to return to the US and I began to reconsider
my options. Studying and living abroad had impressed upon me the power
of business – both good and bad. It was these experiences that led me
to explore the idea of attending a graduate business program.

It was sometime around there – underemployed and living in New York
City that I ran into the nice folks at Bell Curves. While this is
their blog, I’d rather not toot their horn too much, since their track
record makes it unnecessary. What I will say is this – the concepts
they impressed upon me directly resulted in my success on the GMAT and I’ve since applied to work for them as an intern helping them get this blog and a newsletter off the ground.

Here are a few lessons and a few warnings that stand out from my GMAT

Lesson #1 – The GMAT is about a finite set of concepts.

If you can understand these concepts, the entire tests opens up to
you. I drilled and drilled on questions and didn’t see much
improvement. I could figure out what I did wrong on one problem, but I
couldn’t apply what I learned to a different problem with a different
wrinkle. And believe me, the GMAT is all about throwing wrinkles into
relatively simple problems.

Lesson #2 – There will be bad times.

I think it was the second practice test I took. Upon receiving my
score I had a tough time ever looking at a GMAT prep question again. I
had been studying for something like three months without seeing
results. My self-guided study had provided me with plenty of hours of
work but little insight. Reviewing the questions I missed, I was
stunned by the simplicity of the answers.

Lesson #3 – The GMAT is a tough as you make it.

I was very fortunate to be involved with Bell Curves on a professional
level, and decided to seek some guidance. It was during various
lessons and Q&A periods that I began to understand what I was doing
wrong. Each question, and on a deeper level the concepts, had a simple
explanation. This wasn’t rocket science, as I had once thought it
might be. It was basic math and English presented in a way that tests
true understanding of the concepts being tested. Really understand the
ideas behind the questions – not just how to solve them – and suddenly
the stigma of the GMAT is gone and you’re left with a variety of
problems that you can effectively attack at their most basic level.

Now that I’ve shared the lessons I learned while studying for/taking
the GMAT allow me to impress upon you a few things not to do.

Thing to avoid #1 – Drilling is not studying.

Doing practice questions is unquestionably important. I do not regret
all the hours I spent pouring over questions – just the hours I spent
working on questions I did not understand. If you do not understand
the statistics questions you encounter, do not immediately sit down
and do 20 of them. The way you study is going to be as important as
your volume of studying. That being said, do not be shy to jump into
these concepts – just make sure that you’re actively learning the
rationale behind these questions.

Thing to avoid #2 – On GMAT day, avoid excess nerves.

Easier said than done. I took the GMAT twice. The first time I put up
a solid score. The split ended up being a great verbal score, but an
atrocious math score. I cannot tell you how nervous I was. My test was
scheduled for 4:30 pm and I arrived at the area of the testing center
around 10 am. I subsequently went to the nearest Starbucks and pounded
coffee and drilled for longer than I care to admit. I have no doubt
this did not help. My second time around, I arrived about an hour
before my testing time, got one cup of coffee, perused some triangle
theory (to this day I hate triangles) and read some of the newspaper.
My score increased dramatically. While my previous score was not
satisfactory, I knew it was not terrible. This resulted in me going
into the second test with a much better mindset. There may be any
number of factors that contributed to this discrepancy, but I feel
pretty sure that my gameday plan had something to do with it.

Thing to avoid #3 – Rushing

During my first official GMAT test, I left myself with 18 minutes on
the verbal section and had to do the last seven quantitative questions
in about eight minutes. This is obviously something you want to avoid.
It’s something I trained to avoid. But my eagerness got the best of me
in both sections. On math, I spent a little too long on some of the
tougher questions, desperate to get them right and help my score. On
verbal, I was so upset about my timing in the first section that I
rushed the second. I essentially ignored my pace training and just did
whatever I felt right about at the time. I chalk this up to thing to
avoid # 2. Basically, as you train and drill, make sure to emphasize
pacing. Getting into a good rhythm can make a surprisingly big

In the end, I saw a 90 point improvement between my first practice
test and my second taking of the GMAT. I was fortunate during the time
to be an intern at Bell Curves and was able to soak up their
considerable knowledge. My improvement ended up being close to even on
each section. I am generally better with words than I am with numbers,
and my GMAT scores reflected that. While this might have been made it
easy to focus on the quantitative section, I split my time about
evenly and saw a solid increase in both sections.

So that’s my story. If you have any additional questions, feel free to
email me at Jay at

[Editor’s note: Jay final GMAT score puts him in contention at all schools in the country.]

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