3. The G-what? The GMAT? Or the G-CAT?!


3.      The G-what? The GMAT? Or the G-CAT?!

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) is a standardized test used specifically for admission into graduate level business programs. It is hence a required test for the application process to HBS[1]. A lot of people consider the GMAT to be an intelligence test – that is just a rumor spread by those with high GMAT scores. In reality, the GMAT is closer to testing a student’s level of dedication and discipline to the test. Sure, a basic level of intelligence is required – as is having some fluency with numbers. I am convinced though that one is not born with the skills to do well on the GMAT, but that one learns how to take this test successfully. It is all about spending the right amount of time and energy.

The type of questions found on the GMAT often require the test-taker to know which framework to use to answer a question. As an example, let’s start off by looking at a typical GMAT question:

The total number of black cats is 25% greater than the number of black male cats, and the number of all female cats is 5 times the number of black female cats. If the male cats are 50% of all cats, then what percent of male cats are black? Choose between the following answers: 10, 20, 40, 50, 80[2].

Got it? Great! Just to make sure, double-check your answer with the solution provided at the end of this chapter. What framework did you use to come to that answer? Or did you just know how to calculate this based on prior knowledge?

The origin of the GMAT dates back to the early fifties. Questions relating to black cats have been administered for more than 60 years! It began with only nine business schools (including Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Columbia and HBS) discussing the possibility of defining a standardized entry test for their graduate programs. In 1954, the first tests were taken. It took only 25 years (in 1981) before 200,000 tests would be conducted on an annual basis – an amazing number considering that only U.S. based schools used the GMAT up until 1995. In recent years, 250,000 take the GMAT annually.

A good GMAT score does not guarantee an entry ticket to HBS – but it sure helps. 50% of the HBS MBA class of 2014 had a GMAT of 730[3] or more (out of a maximum of 800), i.e. the 96th percentile and above. With 90% of successful applicants having scores of 670 (or 85th percentile) or more, any score below 670 might dramatically reduce your chances of making it into HBS.

So how did I do? Well, I studied for the GMAT for about two months. This meant reading up on theory during weekdays after long days at work and doing practice GMAT tests over the weekends. Theory reviews are long and painful, and require diving into some basic math and grammar rules. Remember the Pythagoras theorem? And how to measure the diameter of a circle? To be more effective during the test, it is also important to remember the basic rules of multiplication, as calculators are not allowed during the test. It may seem a little silly, but I actually reviewed my multiplication tables.

I found the practice tests to be very important. I set aside about five hours for a full practice GMAT exam – this would include the time of taking the test and, more importantly so, the time to review my answers and to understand where I went wrong. I did one test a week for the first couple of weeks, then one test on Saturday and one on Sunday in the five weeks prior to the exam.

My practice exam test scores… all 14 of them…

Accepted - getting in and fitting in at Harvard Business School - GMAT exam

I completed about 14 full-scale test exams in the nine weeks leading up to the exam. Only once did I manage to beat the 700-point barrier – a target I had set for myself. In the first couple of weeks, I had seen a gradual improvement in my test score results. Then in week 8, disaster struck in the form of a very low score of 610. The next day, I had my all-time high with 710! But in the end, none of those scores were of importance – only my performance on the final exam would matter.

I still have a vivid memory of the whole GMAT test-taking experience. First, I had to register online with GMAC[4]. There are GMAT test centers all over the world – there are even on-base test centers for the military community. For most people, accessibility should not be a problem. After registering for the test in my preferred location, I had to decide on a date. As I was aiming for late August (just a couple of weeks before the first-round application deadlines of most business schools), I knew I wouldn’t have much room for error. I wouldn’t have time to retake the test before round 1 application deadlines at the top business schools. However, I decided to take more time to prepare for the test than to take multiple tests half prepared.

And then there was test day. The test was held in a small office in downtown Brussels, Belgium. After some thorough identity checks, I was guided into a room with just two computers. The computer on the right had a young woman working on it. The other one would be mine. For the next 3-4 hours, it would just be me with the computer… or not? As I had a camera continuously pointing at me throughout the test (to check up on cheaters?), I didn’t feel quite as lonely during the test as I expected…

The test started off with the essay-writing part – not something I had spent a lot of time practicing for and not something that is considered in the aggregate GMAT score. The essay score is reflected separately on the GMAT results sheet and would only be communicated weeks after the test itself, unlike the GMAT score which you receive straight after the test[5]. Once the essays were out of the way, I started digging into a labyrinth of math and grammar questions.

What I will never forget is that at the end of the test, I felt really bad about my performance. I didn’t have time to answer all of the questions – and I had found some of them extremely harsh and difficult. Once my time was up, the computer gave me the chance to ‘cancel’ my test results, before knowing how I did. I believe this feature is built in as an option for people who are unwell during the test to avoid a bad test score on their record – but let me tell you that this option can mess with your mind! I hesitated for a moment, thinking about cancelling my results, but decided not to in the end. It was minutes later, when I walked out of the test room that I realized I had almost done something really stupid. Here I was with a 730 GMAT score – the median score of HBS grads. The guy running the test center told me he hadn’t seen this kind of result for a couple of years under his watch. This was the moment where I knew – game on, HBS!

Some final pointers for test takers:

  • Don’t waste too much time and energy in preparing for the essay-writing part of the exam – business schools don’t seem to care about your performance on that part and the result is not part of your final GMAT score. Again, just my personal opinion
  • Get help! And go the digital way – forget about books and other outdated tools. I used websites that guided me through all kinds of theory and exercises, and they have the added benefit of repeating more questions on the items that you tend to perform poorly on. Most of them provide excellent practice tests as well. I used MasterGMAT.com[6] at the time (meanwhile acquired by The Economist – how about that for a measure of quality!), but there are tons of other resources out there. MasterGMAT.com is not cheap, but worth the investment
  • My best piece of Belgian advice – eat a piece of chocolate before the test – it did wonders for me
  • Never ever stop working on a practice question before fully understanding the dynamics of how to answer it
  • Create a sheet with the key rules and theorems used in the GMAT
  • Don’t ever panic during the test. The GMAT questions you will get are a result of your performance on PREVIOUS questions during the test. If you answer a lot of questions correctly, the following questions will become increasingly difficult, allowing you to dramatically improve your score. So the more you struggle with the questions, the better you might actually be doing during the test! Don’t let the GMAT mess with your mind over that

Finally, before giving you the answer to the black cat mystery, find some interesting facts on the GMAT below[7]:

  • In 2011, 45% of GMAT exams were taken in the U.S. (down from 53% just four years earlier)
  • 77% of examinees of the GMAT would attend a U.S.-based school in 2011 (down from 83% in 2007)
  • 40% of GMAT tests are taken by women. However, in China, more women than men take the GMAT
  • Men tend to slightly outperform women on the test, with the median score for men totaling 554 compared to 530 for females (except in East and Southeast Asia, where they score the same).
  • The highest median score can be found in the ‘Australia and Pacific islands’ region.

As promised, find the result to the black cat mystery below. Miauw![8]


Any cat can be either male or female, and black or not black. Take x as the number of black male cats. With the information provided, and assuming that there are 100 male cats, you can build the following table:

 Now we can write the following equation: x+20=1.25x

Which we can simplify to: 20=0.25x

Or, finally: x=80

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Accepted! - Getting in and Fitting in at Harvard Business School - Book cover



ISBN 978-981-09-9168-5
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Authored by: Frederic D Mahieu

[1] Some other standardized tests are also accepted at most business schools, such as the GRE (Graduate Record Examination).

[2] As seen on MasterTheGMAT, now GMAT Tutor: http://goo.gl/jKbbY2

[3] The average score on the GMAT of HBS applicants has been steadily increasing over the years, with the average score evolving towards 750 nowadays.

[4] Find a link to GMAC’s website here: http://goo.gl/LTtk7O

[5] I only scored on the 20th percentile for the essay writing part of the exam. Not something to brag about. Not being a native English speaker might make HBS more forgiving for that part of the test.

[6] MasterGMAT.com is now part of The Economist. Find them here: http://goo.gl/jKbbY2

[7] Source: GMAC website http://goo.gl/LTtk7O

[8] Black cat language for ‘Good luck!’