Applying: Part 7 (GMAT)

The GMAT. Probably the only part of applying to bschool that could match the essays for the level of fun-ness.

Now, some readers might believe that I am writing these “Applying” posts in the order these events should probably take place. That’s close but not correct. In fact, I am writing the posts in the order in which I addressed each part of the application. That is why the GMAT is coming at the end. Because I did it WRONG. Very, very wrong.

I took the GMAT just a few days before the deadline to send scores to schools. I didn’t give myself any leeway. If something had gone wrong (flat tire, broken computer, malaria, enormous earthquake, Armageddon, etc.) I would not have had enough time to retake the test. Additionally, I picked schools with only a guess at what my GMAT scores would be. By the time I took the test, my essays were written, recommendations sent in, application fees paid in full. If I had scored 100 points below the mean/median for my target schools it would have been ugly.

Don’t do what I did. A general theme of my application journey was that I got very, very lucky. Not everyone can be that lucky. Take the GMAT early. Give yourself plenty of time to retake. Try to get your scores back before you have to make a final decision on which schools to apply to. Don’t take it in September for round 1. That was STUPID.

Anyway, moving on to the actual test…

Everyone approaches the test differently. For some people it’s no big deal. For others it produces months or years of agony. A while ago there was a great article in the New York Times, Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?, that explained these differences. The article was about COMT.

What is COMT, you’re asking? The simple explanation is that it is a gene that controls the speed of dopamine uptake in your brain. And why is that important for the GMAT? Because those with fast dopamine uptake, known as “Warriors,” thrive under pressure. These are the people who study for a few weeks and then ace the test. The “Worriers” on the other hand are those with slow dopamine uptake. Members of this group generally need a lot of practice under realistic testing conditions in order to do well. About half of test takers have one of each gene, which means they fall somewhere in the middle.

If you’ve never heard of any of this dopamine or genetic stuff before, go read the article. It’s worth the time. As an added bonus, the article reveals a special sentence. When GRE-takers read this sentence before taking the GRE their scores improved by 65 points (out of 800).

So, go read the article, find the special sentence, and also take a minute to figure out which COMT genes your parents gave you. This will help you decide which GMAT study plan you need.

If you think you’re a Worrier you need to start studying now. To perform your best, you’ll want months of practice. It could also be a good idea for you to take an extensive prep course or find a really good tutor. Worriers can outperform Warriors, but only after lots and lots of training.

When I read this article it was pretty obvious to me that I had the Warrior version of the COMT gene. I always do well on tests. I don’t get worried in advance. And I usually do better on the real test than on practice tests.

If you are also Warrior you can probably use my study plan. I started about three and a half weeks before the test. I took a full practice test over the weekend and then spent the week reviewing problems I had gotten wrong. The second week I did the same. The third week I used the Official Guide and did practice problems for the topics that I had gotten wrong on both practice tests- mostly nitpicky math rules that I hadn’t seen since freshman year of high school. The last few days I took a break from studying. I relaxed, did a practice drive to the test center, and got ahead on some stuff at work.

In summary, make sure that your study plan is tailored to what you need. And when you need a study break, spend some time googling social psychology strategies that can help you do better on tests…there are couple of well-known ideas that can help you improve 10, 20, 30 or more points without any extra studying. For example, if you’re not an upper middle class white male with a blue chip background, you should really go check out “stereotype threat.”


About backinthebay2015

Stanford GSB class of 2015
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