My Interview with a Kaplan GMAT Expert

Each day, I receive many questions about the GMAT from our applicants. Questions range from what types of math questions does the GMAT cover to what is the new IR section and how should I prepare? I recently sat down with expert Kaplan GMAT Instructor, Alyson Fitch, to answer all of your burning questions about this exam: 

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CAROLINE: A common question I receive from prospective students I meet with is “How much time should I give myself to prepare for the GMAT?” Do you have any guidelines that you recommend?

ALYSON: Great question! The amount of time you need to prepare for the GMAT depends on the gap between your starting GMAT score and the score you need for admission to your target program.

If you only need to improve your score by 10-20 points, you can prep in just a few weeks. If you need to improve your score by 30-150 points, you’ll need about ten to fourteen weeks. If you need to improve your score by more than 150 points, extend your timeline to no more than twenty-four weeks. You can definitely earn the GMAT score you need for admission to your program of choice,  you just need to budget adequate time to learn the highly specialized GMAT skill set.

It’s important to think of GMAT preparation time not only in weeks, but also in study hours. In 2010 the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC, the organization that gives the GMAT) studied the top half of GMAT performers to find out how many hours those people spent training for the test. GMAC found that those who scored in the 550-590 range had spent an average of 79 study hours each preparing. Those who scored in the 600s and 700s had spent an average of about 100 hours each preparing. That was before the new Integrated Reasoning section was added to the GMAT, so we now recommend about 120 preparation hours total. The way you distribute your 120 hours will depend on the other commitments you’re juggling.

CAROLINE: Preparing for the GMAT exam can seem a bit overwhelming. Can you recommend a good starting point for someone who is struggling to figure out how to get started?

ALYSON: Take a GMAT practice test as soon as you possibly can. I know you don’t feel ready; take it anyway. You’ll be glad you did. Your first GMAT practice test diagnoses your strengths and areas of opportunity, and this is the first and most crucial step to creating an effective study blueprint. You can’t close your score gap if you don’t know what that gap is, and that means establishing a baseline score as soon as you can. 

UIC has a great partnership with Kaplan offering GMAT practice tests about once a month during the Fall and Spring semesters and for those who can’t make it to campus, Kaplan offers a schedule of online practice tests at KaplanGMAT.com. For a full listing of our upcoming events, click here.

CAROLINE: What common mistakes do you see first time test takers make?

ALYSON: The worst and most common mistake is taking the GMAT cold, with little or no practice. A tiny minority of test-takers can make their goal scores the first time they see the GMAT, but then a tiny minority of people can walk a mile or further on their hands! Your odds of being in either group are not high. Taking the GMAT is a big event, and you should train for it as you would for a major athletic event.

The second most commonly made mistake is preparing for and taking the test with no specific goal score, planning to select target business school programs based on whatever score one makes. That’s backward. Select the business program that will get you to the next place you want to be in your career and in life, then set your GMAT goal score based on what you need to be a strong candidate for that program. Your GMAT score is just a number to get you to your dreams.

The third most common mistake is identifying oneself as a “bad test taker.” You’re not a bad test taker, you’re just an inexperienced test taker who hasn’t yet learned the relevant skills needed to ace the test. Once you learn those, you’ll be an awesome test taker!

CAROLINE: Can you explain why you feel that taking a practice GMAT exam should be an essential component of any test preparation strategy? What can it tell someone who is studying for the GMAT?

ALYSON: If you have infinite time to prepare for the GMAT you can approach it as a hobbyist, but if you’re a busy professional you need to use your limited time as efficiently and effectively as possible. That means evaluating where you are in each area of GMAT content and skill, then marshaling your resources to get the maximum number of points possible out of your 120 study hours. The optimal distribution of those hours varies tremendous from test taker to test taker, so it’s important to work from personalized diagnostic results rather than from a one-size-fits-all plan.

One of the great things about the UIC/Kaplan practice GMAT is that your test performance is analyzed in terms not only of content, format, and question type, but also in terms of adaptive point distribution, so you can tailor your prep to your needs and timeline right away.

CAROLINE: A lot of the applicants I work with have been out of school and away from math for a while. How much math is required?

ALYSON: Math content is just one component of GMAT Quantitative section success. The Quant section isn’t truly a math test; it’s a logic and problem solving test for which math is only one of several vital tools. The good news is that you learned all the math content on the GMAT by the time you were sixteen years old. The bad news is that, for most of us, that was a good long while ago! You can reconnect with the content of algebra, arithmetic, geometry, statistics, and number properties in just a few weeks, but you also need to train for the tight GMAT section timing.

True confession time: On my first practice GMAT I got almost all of the Quantitative questions that I answered correct, but I only got to  twenty of the thirty-seven questions.That was quite a wake-up call! I was leaving a huge number of points on the table. My preparation for the GMAT Quantitative section was a blend of math content review, even more important GMAT-specific Quant section strategy, and pacing for speed and endurance. That’s the winning mix.

CAROLINE: The GMAT exam is a computer adaptive test (CAT)? Can you explain what this means?

ALYSON: It means that the reward of success is more hard work, but also more points. You start the respective Quant and Verbal sections with a medium difficulty question, what we could call a 550-level question. If you answer that first question in the section correctly, you earn a question rated at a much higher level, but if you answer that first question incorrectly you earn a question rated at a much lower level. You aren’t getting points for answering correctly or losing points for answering incorrectly; what you’re getting is more like the serve in volleyball or tennis. You’re earning the opportunity to play for more points. Between the second and third questions the swing up or down is smaller, then even smaller between the third and fourth questions, the swing ever decreasing as you work through the section. This means that your score can go up or down very steeply and quickly in the first third of the Verbal and Quant sections, but by the final third your score moves up and down within a narrow range. You want to earn questions that place you in the highest possible range by that final third, then maintain that high level. It’s your question level at the end of the section that that determines your score for that section.

Of course as you earn harder questions, you still have the same time constraints. This means that in addition to focusing on timing for the individual questions in a section, you’re playing a larger pacing game to get the best possible score out of both sets of seventy-five minutes. It takes at least four practice tests to get your pacing under control, and usually five to eight practice tests total to optimize that pacing.

CAROLINE: The Integrated Reasoning section (IR) was recently added to the GMAT exam; and I know there are still a lot of questions about this section. What does this section cover?

ALYSON: Let’s talk about what the new section appears to be, and what it actually is. The Integrated Reasoning section is not a math section with some verbal attached. It is a complex data management section, and as in the Quantitative section, math is just one of several tools needed to strategically wrangle all that data. Quick stats: The IR section has been live on the GMAT since June of last year, and contains 12 multi-part multiple-choice questions answered in thirty minutes. It is scored on a scale of 1-8, and this score does not affect your 200-800 Quant/Verbal score.

The most important thing to know about the IR section is that it is designed to be nearly impossible to complete in thirty minutes. There is a crashing wave of information to evaluate, and more questions to answer than one can reasonably address before the clock runs out. That sounds discouraging, but only if we take the IR section at face value. You can make an excellent IR score by not falling into the trap of doing more work at a more frantic pace, but by instead doing the same amount of work in a much smarter way. Getting a top Integrated Reasoning score is the ultimate GMAT high wire act of test format knowledge, strategy, and time management, and I’ve seen students go from a score of 2 to a score of 7 in a single test just by allotting time and efforts more tactically. The section looks insurmountable, then it just topples before you.

CAROLINE: Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to applicants preparing for the GMAT, what would it be?

ALYSON: Start now. You can’t cram for the GMAT. To get you started, we have an exclusive event coming up soon. For details and registration, click the register button below. Space is limited; sign up now!

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GMAT Challenge Webinar: Tips and Strategies for Success
Tuesday, December 3, from 12:00pm-1:00pm CST