Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Business: April 29th

The Business returns this week with its full cast and a warm-up performance by San Francisco Regional Air Guitar Champion "The Awesome." Fresh and smart meets loud and sweaty tonight at 8pm.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

HBS Round 2 Admit weekend

I attended Round 2 Admit weekend this past week. Definitely a great experience and the first time my wife has seen the area. Overall very enjoyable, but also quite exhausting. The weekend reaffirmed one thing most b-school applicants already know; that you choose what you want to get out of the experience between the three major themes of academic, social, and professional resources. In other words, how much you will care about your classes, how much you will be partying, and how much you will be searching for a job. It is obvious that most people will prioritize their personal objectives quite differently. Many of the students are at different stages of their lives, so it's natural to have different priorities. Older married students will not come in to school with the same mindset as many of the younger single students. International students may also view their objectives differently (as a pattern, not as a stereotype).

I also saw a common theme of "I've worked 100+ hours a week for the past 2 years and now I'm going to enjoy my two years." With an unspoken caveat that the person expects to return to a 100+ work week after school. Given these circumstances, it's no wonder 2 years at business school is seen as a break for some. Obviously these were just some of the students, and does not represent the whole class. But coming from the military, I found these kinds of circumstances rather intriguing.

I also met a few HBS/Stanford admits trying to decide between schools. So far of the two I've kept in touch with, they have split their decision. The two schools offer such a different lifestyle and fit that it really comes down to the one's personality and goals. But then again, this is the case with most schools.

One final note I've learned... finding housing near campus that allows a dog appears more difficult than getting into HBS in the first place!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The 30 most important minutes of your life?

The 30 most important minutes of your life may just be your dream business school interview. Some might say that's a crazy statement. Some may say that their wedding, or being at the birth of their first child is more important... and with that I can't argue. So perhaps I should say "the 30 most consequential minutes of your life." Perhaps no other half hour will ever have a greater impact on the rest of your life. If you completely mess up your wedding vows and stumble through the ceremony, your marriage will probably still end up the same in the long run. If you pass out during childbirth, your kid will turn out the same as well. If you mess up on a significant job interview, promotion board, or major business pitch, there can always be another just down the road. There are opportunities to recover. But if you mess up on your interview at a place like (insert dream school of your choice) there really isn't a second chance for most of us. Furthermore, the difference between getting admitted to a place like (insert dream school of your choice) or not can have cascading and hugely consequential effects on the rest of your life such as your business network, personal and professional development, lifelong career partners, even choice of career fields, and of course, career success.

It's no wonder many are extremely nervous before their interview. On the other hand, if you're not a little nervous, you are probably not taking it seriously enough.

I took my HBS interview extremely seriously. Or at least it was serious for a guy like me, as I have very little formal interview experience. I'm used to proving myself by my actions, not by my words. I spent three days in Cambridge, talked to many students, visited four classes, and rehearsed for many many hours. This was on top of several weeks of preparation. It was also the last interview I did, which proved extremely helpful. Of course, I don't know if any of this helped, but I certainly would not have risked doing any less in retrospect. There are two things you must be for your interview: confident AND prepared, which are two states that don't always come together.

I'm not revealing some great insight here, but rather relating the seriousness with which I took my HBS interview. If you are fortunate enough to be invited, consider it if nothing else, among the 30 most consequential minutes of your life. There are no second chances.

The Business: April 22nd

Sean Keane returns to The Business. Please come witness this amazing spectacle of mother natures richest pageantry, and BYOB.

The Business: April 15th

Sean Keane will not be with us on April 15th, but in his place will be:

Special guest for April 15: NATO GREEN!

Nato Green continues the great tradition of smart, biting, Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Joe Lieberman. Nato is the mastermind of Iron Comic, Laugh Out the Vote, Laughing Liberally Local 415, and the New Jew Revue. He's appeared in the Progressive Reading Series and SF Sketchfest 2008.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Harvard age curve

A reputation that business schools project is that they value work experience more than some institutions such as law or medical school. While this is certainly the case, not all business schools weigh work experience equally. The bias towards younger candidates at Harvard and Stanford in particular is very strong. HBS posted in their admissions blog the undergraduate year of completion for their MBA Class of 2010:

To really relate to these figures, I’ve converted the data into ages under the assumption that the average undergraduate student completed school at age 22. While there may have been those that worked for a couple of years first or took longer to finish school, there are certainly also those who finished in three years. Regardless, taking the average to be 22 I think is a pretty fair assumption. Furthermore, I changed the age from age at matriculation to age at time of application. Since nearly all applicants hit the submit button 8-10 months before matriculation, it is also fair to say that the average applicant will have hit a birthday in between the time he submits his application and the time he matriculates. Taking these considerations into account, we come up with the following results:

Out of 900 successful applicants (at time of application)

  • 1.2% were 30 years or older
  • 11.3% were 27 or older
  • 71% were 25 or younger
  • The “sweet spot” to apply is between 24 and 26; representing over 3 of 4 admitted students

While this could theoretically result from a skewed applicant pool, consider that Wharton reports 40% of its matriculating students have 7+ years of work experience, versus 5.4% at HBS.

The point is not that applicants in their late 20s or early 30s can’t get into HBS; but it is extremely competitive since they are essentially competing for a sub-set of 50 seats out of 900. Applicants that have made career choices that naturally postponed matriculation are probably in the best position to compete for these few coveted slots. These I assume would include those with a PhD, MDs, military, athletes, and others with very non-traditional careers.

Please note that this is my personal conclusion based on published data, not the expressed position of the Admissions Office.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Business school rankings

Business school rankings carry a lot of weight. Both students and schools compete for the prestige. However, few people agree on different rankings, and more importantly, many wisely see beyond them. However, rankings do serve a purpose. You just have to filter through them with some common sense and context. Here are some interesting statistics that go beyond the basic US News rankings. For the purposes of this blog, I will try to put things in historical perspective.

1. Average US News Rankings since 1990

The following is a list of the top schools as represented by their average US News rankings from 1990-2008. I can't confirm these numbers with 100% certainty, but they are based off historical US News rankings which continue to appear on the internet from time to time. Note that these rankings look very close to the 2008 rankings; most schools, especially towards the top, do not change very much. The fact that these rankings represent 18 years is a great starting point.

Rank School Average (USN)
1 Stanford University 1.42
2 Harvard University 1.84
3 University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 2.95
4 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) 4.00
5 Northwestern University (Kellogg) 4.37
6 University of Chicago (Booth) 6.47
7 Columbia University 7.79
8 Dartmouth College (Tuck) 8.63
9 Duke University (Fuqua) 8.95
10 University of Michigan--Ann Arbor (Ross) 9.79
11 University of California--Berkeley (Haas) 10.28
12 University of Virginia (Darden) 11.50
13 University of California--Los Angeles (Anderson) 12.72
14 New York University (Stern) 14.39
15 Cornell University (Johnson) 14.94
16 Yale University 15.07
17 Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) 15.38
18 University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) 17.63
19 University of Texas--Austin (McCombs) 18.44
20 Indiana University--Bloomington (Kelley) 20.31
21 Emory University (Goizueta) 21.42
22 University of Southern California (Marshall) 22.64
23 Purdue University--West Lafayette (Krannert) 23.06

2. Business Week "MBA Pay Through the Year"

In early 2009 Business Week published an estimated "lifetime" median compensation that graduates of top business schools reported. They also published starting pay, pay at 5, 10, 15, and 20 years. The full report can be found here. Most school rankings use starting salary out of school in their calculations, and many refer to that number as a benchmark to compare rate of return for your business school investment. This indeed is a great benchmark, because how successful you are after 20 years is much more a function of your personal will, skill, and luck than it is what school you attended. Additionally, these numbers may reflect the quality of the schools as they were 20 years ago, not as they are today, since they evaluate the career compensation of graduates from relatively long ago. Yet, I found these numbers to be rather telling, and definitely worth sharing, as career salary should be a metric for consideration. A lot of factors can go into this... for example, why do some schools with lower initial salaries achieve greater lifetime compensation? As you narrow down what schools are you applying to, this is something for you to answer.

1 Harvard3,889,880
2 Pennsylvania (Wharton)3,541,110
3 Columbia3,368,440
4 Stanford3,315,940
5 Dartmouth (Tuck)3,181,610
6 Northwestern (Kellogg)3,078,850
7 MIT (Sloan)3,049,280
8 UC-Berkeley (Haas)2,958,750
9 Chicago (Booth)2,939,060
10 NYU (Stern)2,920,840
11 Virginia (Darden)2,905,130
12 Duke (Fuqua)2,868,020
13 Cornell (Johnson)2,865,130
14 UCLA (Anderson)2,827,160
15 Yale2,788,300
16 Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)2,637,720
17 North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)2,626,050
18 Texas-Austin (McCombs)2,577,870
19 Emory (Goizueta)2,564,980
20 Georgetown (McDonough)2,558,950
21 Vanderbilt (Owen)2,543,490
22 Michigan (Ross)2,525,280
23 Notre Dame (Mendoza)2,501,550
24 Babson (Olin)2,453,170
25 USC (Marshall)2,451,060

3. Business Week post-MBA starting salary

So you may think that one's career salary is too heavily weighted by variables not directly connected to the school itself. For this reason, a very important measure is the immediate post-MBA salary, which has significantly more direct relevance to the brand of your school. Yet, some may wonder why so much focus on salary at all. Isn't the quality of education the most important? To this I would say: 1) Yes, the quality of education is extremely important, 2) It is not easy to quantify such numbers and 3) If you are going to accept $100,000 or more in debt for a two year degree, you do want to make sure you are making a sound investment in your future. The list below shows average starting salary for schools based on Business Week reporting. I would note though that if you look up individual schools, these numbers can be slightly off. I believe this is because some schools report bonuses and other compensation differently from each other, and maybe differently over the years. So always consult the individual school's employment and career reports (normally available on their web site) for the most accurate information.

Pennsylvania (Wharton)145,000
Dartmouth (Tuck)134,000
MIT (Sloan)123,000
Northwestern (Kellogg)117,000
Virginia (Darden)113,000
UC-Berkeley (Haas)112,000
Chicago (Booth)110,000
Michigan (Ross)109,000
Duke (Fuqua)108,000
NYU (Stern)107,000
Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)106,000
Cornell (Johnson)104,000
UCLA (Anderson)102,000
Texas-Austin (McCombs)95,800
North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)93,600
Emory (Goizueta)89,500
Georgetown (McDonough)88,700
USC (Marshall)88,200
Minnestoa (Carlson)86,700
Babson (Olin)85,300

4. Business school yields

Yield measures the percentage of students matriculating from the pool of students who were accepted by the school. For example, Harvard's yield is around 90%. They accept around 1000 students a year and 900 choose to attend. The other 100 go to other schools or decide that attending school was not in their best interest after all. In addition to rankings (i.e. reputation) and compensation, I believe a school's yield is a very telling figure. It's the "how much do people want to go to this school" factor. While I'm not advocating following the herd and just going to schools that others want to attend, a school's yield reflects how much desire it carries, which you can interpret as you choose. Yields don't change significantly through the years, and the following represents 2007 figures. It is borrowed from Adam Markus, which is another blog full of application knowledge. Conveniently listed are also the acceptance rates. Note that this is the first list on this blog which takes non-American schools into consideration.

5. In conclusion...

There are many metrics that people can use to measure the quality of a business school. Several commonly cited criteria are the reputation, compensation, and selectivity/yield. I hope the figures above will help in your school selections.

Application strategy

One of the most important yet simple decisions you can make to support your application goals is the order you submit your applications and the order of your interviews. Let's assume you are applying to five schools: 2 dream schools, 2 core schools, and 1 safety school. I would recommend the following for consideration...

1. Begin your dream school application first, but turn it in last.

Your first application will be the toughest because everything will be new. Subsequent applications will inevitably be a variance of your original. By the time you get to your fourth or fifth application, they may only require a slight alteration of your existing investment. Your dream school should be your main effort... assuming you have a decent chance (20%) of getting in. Work on your main effort first. This will set the tone and increase your chances elsewhere, since you will be much more excited about your dream school application anyway.

You also don't want your dream school application to just be a shadow of your safety school application; it should be the other way around. But there is a second part to this rule. Turn in your dream school application last. As you go through applications two, three, and four, you will learn more about yourself, and more about how to relate your story. You will also have more time to reflect on your essays and improve your style. So my suggestion is to complete your main effort school choice first, and then put it down. Submit it last. As you go through your other applications, occasionally pick up your first school choice application and re-read it. You will see that there are always improvements to make.

2. Submit your applications in reverse order of priority

If you submit for your safety school and a core school in round one, you will be much better prepared to submit for your dream schools in round two. First, you will have an additional 10 weeks to reflect on your essays, receive feedback from current students and alumni as you continue to network, and you should also hopefully have an interview experience at least from your safety school. All these experiences should improve your main effort, and if you really want to get into your dream school, this will help those odds. The flipside is that of course you incur more risk by applying to your safety school first, because by my own logic, it will be your weakest application. That said, I don't think many people get into any dream schools without incurring some risk in their approach.

3. Apply to your safety school in round one; dream school in round two

Having one acceptance under your belt will give you a lot more confidence and alleviate the inevitable anxiety that will accompany waiting for second round decisions. This is only true if of course you will be satisfied attending your safety school. Never apply to a school that you will not be satisfied attending. It's a waste of time for everybody. The extra 3 months between rounds will also give you more opportunity to improve your essays and prepare for your interviews.

4. Interview in reverse order of priority

There are many ways to practice for your interviews... practice with friends, practice in front of the mirror or on video, brainstorm anecdotes, mock interviews, etc. But the best way to improve your interviewing skills is to actually interview. You will get better and better with each interview, as there is nothing that replicates game day like getting out on the field itself. It might fall outside of your control, but if you can, schedule your interviews in reverse order of priority. Safety school first, core schools second, and dream school last. If you are fortunate enough to receive multiple interview invitations, you will be highly polished for your main show... your dream school finale. Given the mediocre performance of my first interview (a full 3 months before HBS), there would have been little chance of acceptance at HBS.

5. In conclusion

If you are willing to incur some risk to gain admission at your dream school, consider a strategy as described above. Never apply to a school you are not willing to attend. I've read from many people posting "I only got into my safety school. I'm going to reapply next year." Don't bother applying anywhere if you are not truly willing to attend. Some people only apply to Harvard, though I don't recommend applying to only one school because you learn so much by going through the application process.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MBA Application resources

I wanted to write a blog giving advice on the MBA admissions process but soon realized the enormity of such a project. I decided it would be far more useful is to list the resources I used instead. While applying, it unfortunately felt like I was randomly finding resources as I stumbled along blindly applying. Hopefully some of the following ideas will help consolidate your knowledge base as you go through your applications. Please note that these resources will help you no matter where you are in the process; some of the books I found just before my interviews and they were still of great benefit.

1. Books

The bible of MBA applications is "How to get into the top MBA programs" by Richard Montauk. I didn't discover this book until after I submitted my applications but I still used it for interview prep and it will also help in pre-matriculation. It is really the start-to-finish authority on the MBA application process. There is a lot of advice and wisdom I could pass on in this blog about the process, but it's nearly all captured in this book. I recommend this book no matter where you are in the process.

The Best Book on HBS Admissions is the best guide I've seen specifically for Harvard Business School. The book was written by a recent graduate and I highly recommend it. It's full of insightful information  and can serve as an A-to-Z expert guide for all things to do with HBS admissions. It covers everything from the application approach and strategy, to tactical advice on the essays and resume, to life on campus, post-MBA career opportunities, and even  how to fund your HBS education. This is a real must-have for serious HBS applicants.

A secondary book is "The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets" by Chioma Isiadinso. I didn't find this book to actually reveal any "secrets," but it is good for somebody who wants to be exposed to as much detail as possible about every step of the process. If you read Montauk's book first, as you should, this book might fill in a few gaps and give you more to do if you like to obsess over every little detail. But definitely not a requirement.

Another useful book, cleverly titled "65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays" may also help. One might say that these are not 65 spectacular applications essays, but rather 65 mediocre essays written by 65 applicants. Nonetheless, they are a great starting point to tackle the most comprehensive part of the MBA application, the essays.

2. Alumni and current students

After (and during) reading through the above books, the best source to bounce ideas off and to make sure you are on the right track is the alumni and current students of your target school. Ideally, they will be able to give you feedback on your essays or at least discuss how well your background and post-MBA plans fit with their program, which in turn, will also help you complete your application and make sure you are applying to the best programs for you. As a non-traditional candidate, I started not knowing a single MBA student or alumni. After several weeks of networking, I was able to find over a dozen MBA students scattered throughout my target schools. First, speak to co-workers, family, and friends to see who they know at your schools of choice. Second, reach out to various student clubs and introduce yourself. I suggest reaching out to non-professional clubs. Begin with social and "interest" clubs such as the Veterans Club, Wine Club, Athletic Clubs, or perhaps clubs aligned with your areas of geographic interest. It will be a lot easier to relate to them and it might be easier for you to establish fresh connections.

3. Online resources

There are hundreds of web sites centered around MBA admissions and applications. However, here are a few of the ones I found most useful:

  • GMAT Club - This is a fairly complete web site for people in all stages of the process, from GMAT studying to pre-matriculation. Most of the members are very collaborative and supportive, and this community has a very positive vibe.
  • Business Week Forums - By far the most active and addictive MBA related discussion forum. It's far more active than GMAT club, but don't expect a very collaborative environment. It's very rude, crude, and full of arrogant posters who make you doubt if you should still go to business school. But fear not, as the trolls on this forum will not be your classmates. So why am I mentioning this site? Because it is the most high volume discussion forum, and therefore even if only 10% of the posters are informative and helpful, it is still more than any other web site. If you want to compare programs or ask direct questions about school, this is one possible outlet; just take the responses with a grain of salt. This is also the best place to go if you want to obsess over when interview invitations, acceptance letters, and rejections are sent out; down to the minute, by city, and by applicant background. Luckily I didn't find this web site until AFTER I finished my applications because it becomes quite addictive and doesn't help your essays... but it can be good place to help the time go by as you wait for decisions.
  • ClearAdmitWiki - This is the best place to read about people's interview experiences and school visits.
  • Admissions411- A great source of data to help remove the veil of mystery behind business school acceptance rates and applicant profiles.
  • Finally, other business school and MBA application blogs. It's always great to read about somebody else going through the same things as you, and there is a lot to learn in the process.

4. Admission consultants

I didn't know that consulting others on how to get into business school would be such a thriving industry. There are many businesses which attempt to help MBA applicants get into business schools. Their services range from complete start-to-finish ethically questionable application-in-a-box solution to a la carte services such as resume polishing or interview prep. I can't recommend this kind of service nor can I recommend against it. I've read of people who paid over $15,000 for service and didn't get into a single school. Then again, there are many people who feel indebted to the service they received. This is a very personal decision that you should make. I would caution though not to ever let anybody else write you essays or application for you, put words in your mouth, or otherwise misrepresent you. Do some thorough research on the background of these consultants and make sure they will be able to properly represent your interests and understand the experience you bring to the table.

Monday, April 6, 2009

First step: Defeat the GMAT

It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.
-- Winston Churchill

Anybody can score high on the GMAT. It's just a matter of effort and strategy. This is a recommended GMAT study program to help you achieve that top GMAT score. It's a one-stop solution for anybody who is asking "how should I study for this exam?" Feel free to follow the whole program or to pick and choose what you like and incorporate it into your personal strategy.

I had to dedicate some serious time to prepare for the GMAT. Recovering from a disappointing first run, I retook the exam and scored a 740 (50Q, 41V, 6.0 AWA). This isn't the best score in the world, but something I can live with considering nearly a 10 year break from any formal education. After ten years in the military, my quant skills needed a serious refresher, to say the least.

I did not take any paid prep courses, but what I did do was study from every GMAT prep book I could get my hands on. I also read many GMAT blogs and discussions, digesting everyone's various approaches. The volume of GMAT help available was enormous, but my need to find a one-stop solution still left me seeking a coherent strategy.

What I devised is a structured, self-paced program that anybody who enjoys solving complex problems with a clear analytical structure can follow, and I might say, succeed. For those who have already begun studying for the GMAT, you are aware of some of the challenges. With so many books, which should I use? How can I best use my time wisely? What kinds of questions should I focus on? How do I best record my performance to achieve maximum improvement?

The following is a one-size-fits-all GMAT study regimen that will apply to anybody who likes to systematically solve problems. This write-up will help you come up with a coherent study plan and general strategy. For more tactical information on specific problem solving, rely on the reference material and GMAT forums listed below. The tactics will vary from person to person. The most important thing is to first establish a methodical and strategic approach to beating the GMAT.

Please feel free to disseminate, change, or otherwise adapt as you wish.

The centerpiece of this study plan is the following two spreadsheets:
I borrowed the baseline for the answer sheet from Eric at Beat the GMAT. He definitely deserves the credit for starting this kind of approach.

Using the Results Tracker and Answer Sheet together is a powerful tool that will bring structure and clarity to your studying. By using thd spreadsheets, you will for instance be able to:
  • Practice only all questions you missed
  • Practice only the questions you missed because of rushing or silly mistakes
  • Practice only the questions you missed because of concept errors
  • Practice only questions you got right but had to guess on
  • Systematically record which sections you are having the most trouble with
  • Track your improvement in time spent per question
  • Track your performance on complete practice exams
  • Practice answering all questions on a computer screen and not on paper
  • Recognize which sections and questions you should repeat, and target exactly those questions
The Answer Sheet is a way to record your answers to each and every question you do during your study program. When you download it, it will be saved as a blank form. Go ahead and "save as" this form for every type of question you have to do.

Answer Sheet

At the bottom of the answer sheets you will see various tabs in short hand. They stand for the following:
  1. OG - Official guide
  2. OG Extra - Official guide for verbal/quant review
  3. Kaplan WB - Kaplan workbook
  4. PR WB - Princeton Review workbook
  5. Kaplan 800
As you answer questions in these books, record all your answers in this spreadsheet while you're solving questions. Get out of the habit of writing in a book. The spreadsheet also encourages you to mark each question if you are "slow" or "not sure." That way when you review, you can still work on questions you got correct but were slow at, or review questions you got correct but were possibly partially guessing or not in complete command of. You can also of course review only the questions you missed. When marking a question as incorrect, you will also mark whether you missed the question because of a silly mistake or a concept mistake. When it comes to repeating questions, this will allow you to focus on either learning new concepts or avoiding silly mistakes and traps.

To make use of the spreadsheet after solving problems for the first time, simply sort the spreadsheet to quickly identify the sub-set of questions you wish to repeat. Scroll the spreadsheet to the right so that your original answers are concealed, and use the next column to repeat those questions. You can repeat this process as many times as you wish. I suggest doing so until you are able to answer 100% of the questions correctly without any "not sure" or "slow" responses.

While the above will track each and every possible question available in your books, the Results Tracker will capture the bigger picture. It breaks every study material section into approximately 20 question sections, which is the size of question "chunks" I recommend you work with. Next to each of these sections, which are organized by type of question and the source of questions, fill in the date, the number incorrect, the percentage correct, and the average time. As you work through your study program and fill in every section, you will quickly see where your performance faltered. That is why there are columns 2 and 3. Repeat the sections where you need the most amount of work. Once you get each section to 95% accuracy with under 2 minutes per question, you can feel comfortable that you have reached a satisfactory proficiency for that type of question.

Results Tracker

The first tab of the Results Tracker is also a place to record complete exam results. Record not only your score but the percent you got correct, as you will see this varies significantly depending on which vendor's practice exams you are taking. Also record how much time you had left in each section and comments/notes about that particular test.

The above trackers will also tell you exactly how many total questions you have completed. A rule of thumb may be something to the effect of:

1000 questions and you are very self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses and are well on your way to achieving your goals. 2000 questions and you feel like you've done all you need to, you've seen every question type out there and feel confident. But for many of us, this is only an over-confidence. You can still do better. As you approach the 3000 question mark, you will probably be at your maximum potential. These numbers do not include repeating all the questions you missed of course. Individual results will vary, but consider these numbers as a generic benchmark to start with.

So now that the mechanism is in place, let's get down to the 7 step program.

Step 1: Mentally prepare

Some people who are freshly out of school can probably just walk into a testing center and score a 700 with no preparation, while others can probably score a 700 after a little bit of review. On the other hand, many of us have been out of school for a while or are weak in math or verbal. If you fall in the latter category, be prepared for some serious work. If you can, plan on 2-3 hours every weekday and 10-15 hours each weekend for 14 weeks. If you can't give that much time per week, then you may need more weeks in the program. Obviously not everybody will need that much time, but this is designed as the best way to bring any starting level up to a maximum score.

This is a very ambitious program; up to 420 hours if you see it all the way through. I don't expect many people to actually spend that much time on their prep (nor did I), but consider this goal as a ceiling to work towards. How much time you actually spend will depend on your starting point, desired score, ability to focus, and distractions in your life. The point is that anybody can score high on the GMAT. The question is where you start, how high you want to score, and how much effort you are willing to give to bridge that gap. If you follow the rest of this program, you will at least know that you have indeed maximized your potential.

Plan on when and how you will study for this exam: whether it will be in the morning before work, after work, or a combination. Plan on where you will do it. Some people will have to go to a library or away from home to get the isolation they need. Before cracking the first book however, you need to take an honest assessment of your disposition, abilities to avoid distraction, and your level of dedication.

Step 2: Gather the necessary study materials

With so much study material out there, it is easy to get off track and waste time on inferior reference material. Luckily for you I've already gone through every book on the market and have boiled things down to what you will need:

Book materials:
  • GMAT Official Guide
  • GMAT Official Guide for Verbal Review
  • GMAT Official Guide for Quantitative Review
  • Kaplan GMAT 800
  • Kaplan GMAT Premier Program
  • Princeton Review Workbook
Other materials:
Note that you can buy the books really cheap used on eBay. It is also a place to sell them once you are done with the whole affair. I also used the Princeton Review Math/Verbal Workout and the Kaplan Math/Verbal Workout books, but found those to not be as effective. Your time will be better spent using the program prescribed here. I won't comment on all the other references/web sites available out there, but I will say that the above list is the most important and useful. Manhattan GMAT supplements are pretty good for targeting specific weaknesses. If you find that you can do every question in the above books with 100% accuracy and still want more practice, have at it.

Step 3: Plan your study schedule

This regimen is set up for 14 weeks, but you can easily adjust to fit your own timeline.

Weeks 1-2: Diagnosis and general study. Become familiar with the test and its structure. Take a GMATPrep practice test to establish a baseline. Get a thorough understanding of each type of question and determine the order of your strength and weakness for the types of problems.

Weeks 3-4: Problem Solving
Weeks 5-6: Data Sufficiency
Weeks 7-8: Sentence Correction
Weeks 9-10: Reading Comprehension
Weeks 11-12: Critical Reasoning
Weeks 13-14: Review as needed and only complete full practice exams.

Note that the above list should go in order of most difficult question type (for you) to least difficult. The above was my order and I believe is consistent with many people. Obviously if English is not your first language, then the order may be reversed.

Why focus on only one question for two weeks? Wouldn't you forget things over the weeks? Those are fair questions. What I discovered was that complete immersion will drill home the subject matter much more effectively than a cross-spebtrum approach. In order to mitigate losing skills over time, incorporate at least 10-20 questions each day from previous subjects just to stay fresh. This is why you do your strongest subjects last - you will actually be spending a lot of time reviewing previous subjects as you get further along in the program.

After studying a subject intensely for two weeks, it should become ingrained in you and not perish in a matter of weeks. The key to success here is total immersion in the question type for two weeks - you should be dreaming about it at night.

Step 4: Begin your 2 week diagnostic period

Assuming you are starting from square one, grab the Kaplan Premier and the Princeton Review workbooks. Read both from cover to cover. Unfortunately this is one of the most painful steps. However, it's necessary to become familiar with the GMAT and to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Answer the practice question sections in the Answer Sheet you downloaded here. Remember to "save as" the blank Answer Sheet for each of the separate question types.

At the end of the two weeks take a GMATPrep official practice exam. This is the only official GMAT practice exam and will provide you with the best estimate of your current scoring range. In fact, you can assume your real GMAT score will be within 20-30 points of this result. So if you are already scoring around or near 700, you can adjust the rest of your study schedule as you see fit. Perhaps you only need a little more review, or perhaps you are shooting for that 800.

Easy ways to adjust the remaining study schedule is to simply cut everything in half - allow only one week for each type of question instead of two. Alternatively, you can only redtce the time for the types of questions you are already acing.

By the end of this initial two weeks you should have a clear understanding of the exam and where you stand. Now is time to get into the heart of the program.

Step 5: GMAT Immersion

Adapt the above schedule to fit your needs. The key is practice, practice, practice. Order your weeks in order of weakest question type to strongest, and adjust the time accordingly. By absorbing yourself in each type of question vice a cross-sectional approach, you will pick up the subtleties and expertise only possible from a true mental immersion. If you are dreaming GMAT questions, your friends may find you weird, but you know that you are on the right track.

The key is to use the two spreadsheets I provided at the top of this page. I recommend always starting with the OG (Official Guide) and working your way from there. Do all the problems in the OG, record all your answers, and then repeat the questions you had trouble with. Re-sort your answer sheet to list only those questions you missed. This is where you can fine tune. Perhaps re-sort only those you missed because of conceptual error or those you were slow on. Or perhaps you have time to even redo the ones you got correct but were not sure about. If you only narrowed the answers to two and guessed correctly, there is still improvement to be had! Also make sure you do the appropriate Kaplan GMAT 800 section. It's very likely you will have to redo each section several times before you can answer everything correctly.

Make sure to time all your studying and record your progress and overall results in the Results Tracker, including your complete practice exams, which is the first tab. Recording your complete exam results will not only serve as a benchmark, but also allow you to fairly compare the various sources of practice tests out there, including the Kaplan, Princeton Review, Manhattan GMAT, and GMATPrep. Record your performance and the time you had left in each section. Also record any notes about the exam that will help your future efforts, such as "spent too much time in first 10 questions" etc.

At the end of each two week program, take at least one complete Kaplan GMAT exam. You will have three available on the CD that came with the book (the fourth one didn't work for me), one online test, and one in the book itself. Kaplan is reputed to give slightly lower scores than the real GMAT, but at least this way you won't build false confidence. If you want to do extra practice exams in this phase, do some of the Princeton Review online CAT exams. Those on the other hand yield what I believe are inflated scores. Their online interface will also give you some frustrating errors. Save the six Manhattan GMAT CAT exams for the last two weeks as you focus on overall test preparation.

As your world becomes more engrossed with the GMAT, you may also find these web sites of interest:
These forums are an excellent reference for those practice questions where the answer explanation just does not cut it. You can be certain that if you come across a difficult question with an enigmatic explanation, you are not the first one to do so. This is especially true with GMATprep questions which don't even provide an explanation. The above forums will probably have a thread on those kinds of questions. They are also a good place to relate to others who are in the same boat as you. Sometimes reading other people's success stories can give you that extra motivation you need during a tough week.

Step 6: Two week review

Your last two weeks before the exam should be spent taking complete exams and reviewing areas of weakness. I suggest taking one each Saturday and Sunday for each of the the two weekends prior to the exam (approximately 7 days out and 14 days out), and one more the weekend before the exam. Use only GMATprep and Manhattan GMAT CAT exams for the last few weeks, as they are the best GMAT simulators. Use the weekdays to analyze the mistakes you made over the weekends, and to work on your weakest sections.

Manhattan GMAT CAT exams provide an outstanding analysis platform to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and they have some of the best questions and explanations. By this point in your preparation, you will be very well adept at analyzing your results, and will really apprecaite Manhattan GMAT's automation. Their 6 practice online exams will identify which questions you are missing by difficulty, while also breaking down question categories into sub-types (i.e. geometry, algebra, etc.). All these practice tests will also help you build the stamina you need for the real test day.

This is also the time to take that second GMATPrep practice test. It probably won't help your preparation, as you've already put in 95% of your effort. However, it will help to familiarize you with test interface and your score should hopefully fill you with confidence for test day. I suggest taking this test 7-10 days prior to the real test. Don't take it too close to the real test because by then it will be too late to do anything about it.

If you're wondering about the AWA - most people know it's not very important. However, you don't want to walk out of there with a low AWA score either. The Princeton Review book offers great insight into how to attack the AWA. Just develop a formula for the 5 paragraph answer and you should be fine. I suggest practicing 2-3 complete AWA essays on the side to get a sense for the timing and details. Then on each full length practice exam you take, simply write out the structure of how you would write the essay (first line of each paragraph). If you feel you need more work, write out the whole essay. If you properly grasp the formula the AWA essays need, then you should be able to master it in 2-4 hours. After all... it is graded by a computer! The AWA is just a formula expressed in words.

Step 7: Physically prepare to take the exam

Ideally, you will schedule the exam after a long weekend or even take time off work for a couple of days to ensure you have 4-5 days of no responsibility except the GMAT. If you are taking the GMAT at 8am, take your practice tests at 8am. If you will have to wake up at 5am to drive to the testing center, spend the 3-4 days before the exam getting up at that hour, and take a complete practice test precisely at 8am. Replicate your testing conditions as well as possible. This includes adjusting your sleep cycle to the exam.

There is no right answer to the question "what should I do the day before the exam?" Should you study or just relax? That's up to you, but I recommend reviewing your notes just to ease any nerves, and to definitely conduct a test drive to the testing center if it's in an unfamiliar location. Make sure you allow for traffic when you drive there for the real test. You don't need any added stress the day of the exam. Eat a good meal the night before, and a high carb breakfast the day of the exam.

Some specific study tips
  • Speed versus accuracy
When starting out, most will have to sacrifice either speed or accuracy in their problem solving. My suggestion is to first achieve accuracy and only later worry about speed. Always time yourself so you can monitor your performance, but don't worry about how long it takes to solve problems at first. In fact, don't worry about your time until you are getting nearly everything correct. Once you have figured out how to solve the relevant type of problem, only then begin to work work on shortcuts and ways to improve your time. I believe that this will naturally come anyway with practice. Once you practice enough, you will recognize the type of problem you are dealing with and will be able to streamline the solution.
  • Do problem sets in groups
Try to practice questions in sets of 20-30 non-stop. The Results Tracker is set up for 30 questions at a time, which should take you about an hour per round. This will help your mind focus on the study material and dig deep into the question type. As you probably noted as a theme, the ability to focus is critical in your study/practice sessions.
  • Use of Test Book Simulator
I also recommend using the Manhattan GMAT Test Book Simulator as much as possible, or at least while taking the actual full length exams. Get in a habit of quickly filling out the ABCDE answer grid on it like you will do on test day (during the time the instructions are being displayed on the screen). There's no use wasting actual test time to setup your test book. The test book is essentially dry erase graphing paper, and you should use two small vertical columns for each ABCDE column, and two horizontal rows for each question row. This sounds unimportant, but every little bit helps.
  • Scratch paper
Another small tip is to do your scratch work on graphing paper when you practice. I used regular lined paper for my first exam, and graphing paper while preparing for my second exam. I found that I was able to organize my math problem solutions much better on graphing paper, and it was also a better simulation for the actual test day. The closer your studying emulates test day conditions the better off you will be come test day.
  • 3 x 5 cards
Keep 3" x 5" note cards (or similar) to record concepts that you just learned or keep missing. On one side write the type of concept, on the reverse side write the explanation. For example, it may be a certain GMAT grammar rule, or a reminder about a trap you keep missing in the math section. Carry these cards around with you and just shuffle through them when you have a free minute (standing in line, on the subway, etc.).
  • Always use the Results and Answer Sheet trackers
You wouldn't use an investment strategy that doesn't record its results. Why should you invest so much time into studying for the GMAT without using similar methods to record and refine your own performance? Use the excel spreadsheets I provided here or create your own - but never waste time on a set of questions unless you can evaluate your performance and fit it into your overall strategy.
  • Focus on the hard questions
If your goal is a 700+ on the GMAT, focus on practicing the hard questions. Those are generally the last third of each OG section and the Kaplan 800 questions. If you are on pace for achieving a top score, you will max out the difficulty level on the real GMAT in the first 15 questions and will be coasting in the "hard questions bucket" for the rest of the test. So expect that practically all your questions on the real GMAT to be the difficult question type. Therefore, make sure you practice accordingly. The Princeton Review main GMAT study guide has questions broken by difficulty level if you want a better understanding of this idea.

Closing Thoughts

I learned a lot from others while I prepared for my GMAT, and I wanted to write about my experience to help give back to future test takers. I'll be glad to answer questions, and please feel free to comment if this program helped you or if you have any improvements to suggest.

Just remember that the GMAT does not test intelligence. It tests your commitment to practice, practice, and practice.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

About me and this blog

My military career provided me with profound fulfillment, satisfaction, and progressive growth. Sooner or later though as one advances through the military ranks, he is "developed" (i.e. forced promotion) into more senior positions - positions that may not be well aligned with one's passions. Positions that are more and more detached from the military' greatest assets: its actual troops.

The best way to explain this is through a simple analogy: a Captain is like a quarterback of a NFL football team. He is in the prime of his physical career and competing in the most prominent league of his profession. First he leads his team through intense training, and then he leads them in the field of battle to spectacular achievement and success. But like the NFL quarterback, a military officer can only lead on the field for so long. Those who decide to stay in the military enter "staff" and can progress to senior positions equivalent to offensive coordinator, head coach, and maybe even General Manager. These are critical positions with great responsibility, but few NFL quarterbacks joined the NFL to play from the sideline. And so, with my options quickly narrowing, I sought to find an alternative. Where else can I possibly replicate the kind of fulfillment and satisfaction that comes from directly leading some of the military's most elite soldiers during challenging and intense missions throughout the world? Where else can I serve as an agent of change and have the greatest possible impact? These were questions I struggled with for years as I knew the day of reckoning would eventually come - and this is something I and many others still struggle with.

Life has a very strange and unpredictable way of unfolding. Most of us will probably meet our spouse by complete coincidence. How else would our lives have looked if we never crossed paths? Perhaps one got his first big job because of a random rendezvous with old alumni. How else would his career have looked if he stayed at home that day? Like evolution, our lives often change with leaps and bounds.

In the spring of 2008 I was in Iraq, reading many books on the side as deployed soldiers commonly tend to do. One of the books particularly peeked my interest. I thought it was extremely well written and addressed topics I had never been exposed to. It excited me academically and sparked dreams I had never imagined. As I finished the book and put it back on my plywood and sandbag shelf, I noticed the small Harvard Business School Press logo on the binding and thought "hmm... if that's the kind of stuff they teach at Harvard Business School, that sounds like a pretty interesting place." And with that the seed was planted. Over the next 6 months this seed would grow into a burning desire fueled by the excitment and challenge HBS offers, and the career that it might enable. A career I hope will come close to the level of satisfaction and fulfillment that Marines and Soldiers experience leading others through adversity and making a difference in the world.