GMAT Success Stories – Get Inspired!

Occasionally, I like to post some “GMAT Success Stories” — cool, first-person accounts of how others have rocked their GMAT. One of my favorite sayings is that success leaves footprints, and it’s 100% true! Most of these “success stories” come from the awesome site Beat the GMAT. I’ll try to post some of my favorites! Today’s is reposted here from Brett, a former student of mine.

Hope you enjoy!

My 700 & awesome tips to make it happen. You’re welcome

I officially started my GMAT preparation in November of ’11. Here is a little background about me I’m a white male 27 years old. I’m originally from Boston but have lived everywhere from Barcelona, to South Beach, to my current residence in Las Vegas, Nevada. I have a very friendly and outgoing personality and have held very unconventional jobs such as being a professional online poker player, a personal trainer/model, etc.

Since I was not carrying a job at the moment I studied for the GMAT around the clock for a month, I viewed it kind of like a poker game always searching for that advantage, that edge. Poker will be a theme throughout this post because I come from a high-stakes poker background and I brought a lot of those transferable skills to my GMAT preparation. I had the Official Guide, the blue and green books (Math/Verbal Review). On my 1st attempt I strolled into my testing center which was hilariously right on the Strip in Las Vegas and crashed out with a mediocre 590. I was not happy. What does a smart person do after a setback? He/she continues to work hard but also examines their approach/strategy.

Strategy Tips: Sentence Correction

The key to the Verbal Section revolves around Sentence Correction. If you want to have a great Verbal score your sentence correction has to be just lights out. You need to lean off of this section to support you throughout the entire verbal section and try to eliminate the potential for strings of incorrect answers. This is the most important part of the GMAT to make flashcards on. It is the area most largely represented on the Verbal Section and a spot you really need to be looking to actively bank time.

On another note, don’t be one of those fools who tries to memorize every idiom, that is completely useless and a waste of time. The idioms aren’t tested very often and unfortunately you have to kind of feel it out based on the meaning of the sentence. If you do miss an idiom however make sure to make a note of it on your own personal “IDIOMS” flashcard.

Here is the optimal way to approach sentence correction. As the Verbal tutorial ticks down (1 minute) as you prepare to begin this section, write ABCDE horizontally on the right side of you pad 4x on each of the 1st four pages you are going to use. Make them neat with slight spacing between the letters and leave space so the 4 aren’t clustered on top of each other. It is optimal to write these keys on the right side because your Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension notes will naturally flow from left to right as you write, so keeping these sentence correction on the right will help keep you more organized and you won’t become flustered, where as you might if you do each question on a random part of the page. The key to success is being calm and organized and your scratch pad strategy should be no different. This move will save you time and keep you organized on the Verbal section which equals points.

Once you see an SC read A, you do the standard stuff look for errors. If you see one you snap cross it off and look for that error repeated in other answer choices. You only job when you read choice A is to do one of 3 things. You either cross it off if you’re sure it’s wrong and can identify a grammatical rule violation that proves it. You put a – (a minus sign) if you don’t really like choice A but you can’t see anything to eliminate it, and you right a + on top of answer choice A if you like it, and the sentence seems correct and clear. This move really takes the pressure off and allows you to find the worst choices first instead of having to make a strict yes/no judgment call on choice A Then a standard elimination strategy occurs, as you reach tougher SC questions this +/- system increases in value because it allows you to identify whether you kind of liked or didn’t like an answer. Trust me in a pressured time situation you will basically instantly the forget the choice you just read and having that helpful +/- reminder can keep you on track as you approach the final couple of choices.

Stop doing sentence correction on feel. How committed are you to the GMAT? To the Verbal Section? To Sentence Correction? You can scrape by with knowing some subject verb agreement and avoiding the word “being” right? Wrong answer buddy, you need to build this thing from the ground up. If you can’t tell me what the difference is between a gerund and participle right now or when it is correct to use “would + verb root tense”, you’re just flat out not that serious about sentence correction. I’m giving a shout out right now to fellow Bostonians Dave and Jen who’s 4-part SC lesson on Knewton Prep is the best I’ve seen and really teaches you the underlying grammar structure of what you need to know. So stop just doing a bunch of SCs because even when you do ok and think you’re “improving” as your time to completion decreases. I can assure you when test days comes and you use a little too much “feel” on your practice tests when nothing was on the line, you will start breaking down on the real thing under the pressure. You will second guess yourself, you will spend time you can’t afford to be spending which will prevent you from crushing. Trust me, I know this from experience. As a final note I was rather furious when I took my test yesterday to find 4 SC’s that incorporated the use of dashes in the middle of the sentence, sometimes intertwined with the underlined portion. I had no formal training in how exactly to operate with all these dashed portions and this hurt my score a bit. Kinda feel like writing the GMAC a letter cursing them out, hah.

Ok, back to my journey. So after this score I wrote an email describing my experience to my family and a few close friends. Some people supported me, especially two of my closest friends. However my dad wrote me a vicious e-mail screaming at me about getting my life on track. I wonder if he would have wrote that had I came back with a great score? As we say in the poker community, it was a pretty “results oriented” e-mail. After that I envisioned the day I could write a victorious and sarcastic e-mail with a great score and thanking everyone who supported me. So things were looking up, I studied hard night and day for the next month, and I purchased the Verbal Section of the GMAT Pill. The RC was great, the SC was good. The CR was some questions with random diagrams you’d never actually have time to draw on the actual test and just wasn’t very good (get POWERSCORE book for CR). When trying to improve at something it’s never a bad idea to model/learn from the people who are the best. So I decided to book a coach, her name is Vivian Kerr (Grockit) she’s a Cali girl who’s a flat out stud at standardized tests so I decided to sign her to a long term deal.

Strategy Tips – Tutoring:

Provided you can afford it, it’s never a bad idea to have a superstar in your corner to spot things you can improve and keep you real sharp. While its obviously important to attack your weak areas, its also important to note how a tutor approaches questions stylistically. Sometimes a tutor can help you find the best way for you to approach a question type, but sometimes figuring out what doesn’t work for you is just as helpful. I talked to my tutor about specific areas but also strategies of what to study, and how to study most effectively. It was definitely helpful and got me thinking about things the right way.

So momentum really seemed to be on my side as I approached the next exam – it was on January 3rd so I even decided to do the unthinkable, take a pass on New Years in Las Vegas, and study that night. O M G My phone was ringing off the hook cuz I’m pretty much an awesome guy to hang out with but I had to bail. If that’s not commitment I really don’t know what is. So after my second test…I did worse. I got a 580 – devastation ensued. I was just so broken I really felt like I had improved and had absolutely nothing to show for it. When the score came up I literally sat in my share shocked, thinking maybe this was the score for the experimental section I took or something. They proctors literally had to pull me out of the testing room. I had to lie to my friends and family to keep from crying and it was just too embarrassing. A whole month of studying, (that’s literally all I did because I’m not carrying a job at the moment) and I had fallen down again. There were kids studying for the GMAT while holding down full time jobs. I couldn’t break 600 with all the time in the world. So again, I went back to the drawing board and decided I needed some kind of course/structure to fall back on, and perhaps I had been trying to do too much on my own. I purchased the Knewton Course which I thought was very good and diligently watched the lessons, did homework, and took a lot of notes on flashcards. At this point I was into my job search and had some trading companies interested in my because of my poker background. My friend suggested I take one last crack at the GMAT as a free-roll in case I did well, I could throw it on my resume etc. I had been studying about 3-4 hours a day for the past month which was down from my usual 12. So I said fk it, I’m going to pick myself back off the ground for one last shot. For 12 days I reviewed and noted and practiced, and on March 2 I took another crack at it

Test Day Recap: I woke up at 8am and had a real chill morning, I flipped thru my flashcards I ate some cheerios and I watched a tennis match on TV. My roommate woke up at 12 like the tool that he is and we went to eat breakfast together at a diner. After this late breakfast I texted a few of my closest friends who had been supporting me through these hard times. Here’s a txt convo with me and one of my closest buddies.

Brett: Wake up George, it’s judgment day
George: the bell tolls for thee
Brett: Haha, light a candle for me, I’ll call you at 8pst after it ends no matter what the score, love you baby, my time to shine
George: Fly like an angel Brett, it’s too beautiful

Haha yeah we’re pretty weird. After that I went to my desk and did 3 problems of each type just to warm up a bit. And since I’m being completely honest in this review at this risk of sounding like a lunatic… for 10 minutes I paced around our house yelling things like “Lets fkn ball, I’m bout to wreck shop, lets fkn go” or some combination of rallying phrases to psych myself up. It’s was like the 8 mile soundtrack “if you had…one shot” This was my last shot.

I left for the test center at 2:45pm for my 4pm start giving myself plenty of time to hang out. Usually it takes 15 minutes to get to this testing center. There was a huge accident on the highway and I was forced to exit and enter the strip on the opposite side of where I needed to be I fought thru immense traffic and arrived at the testing center at 4:10pm. The guy informed me there was a 15 minute grace period and if I was 5 minutes later the appointment would have been cancelled, whew. Then there was some problem where these clowns on copied down my birthday as 5-5 instead of 5-10 so they had to call in and get the green light.

I neglected to mention earlier that the one positive from my first GMAT attempt was I got 6.0 on both essays which isn’t the easiest thing to do. I had decided beforehand to spend 15 minutes on each essay, to get a bit of a warm-up but I certainly wasn’t going to expend any energy actually caring about what I wrote. The 1st question was “what has more influence in a nation or a community, a powerful business leader or a government official” My first paragraph was entirely devoted to ripping on the question, claiming that this was the worst GMAT essay question I’d ever seen. “To combine two vastly different entities such as an nation or community into a entity is downright ludicrous and makes this essay question the worst one I’ve ever laid eyes on.” I was laughing at my own essay staying really loose and calm. The second essay involved me berating a business owner and more hilarity ensued. Whoever reads my essays are definitely going to be cracking up. I wrote personal messages at the end too, like “hey have a good weekend, god bless you” just random stuff like that.

It was all business on the math section I started off ripping, it was a battle between me and the GMAT. I’m pretty sure I snapped off 9 of the first 10 and after that I could feel the test start to get angrier and angrier that I was doing well. A huge bright spot for me was an area I worked very hard on and that was data sufficiency. One of the pointers I had gotten from my tutor was to spend a bit more time trying to break-down the prompt and not sprinting directly to the statements, this definitely pays a lot of dividends.

Strategy Tips Data Sufficiency:

Here is my best data-sufficiency tip, you won’t find it in an online course, or on a forum, or from your friend who took the GMAT last year, but I’m a big believer in it. Start with the easier/shorter statement! I do this every time. This just makes your life so much easier you get insight into the problem dealing with a much more basic statement. You build momentum and confidence if you can correctly analyze it too. Sometimes if it’s sufficient you know the true answer to a value question, and although you obviously don’t want to carry-over information. Knowing the real answer will help you look at the harder statement in a more intelligent fashion

Furthermore as an aside for you advanced Data Sufficiency doers, if it’s a YES/NO question and you start with the easier statement (say A) and the answer is always YES and its sufficient. Most people then look for a YES and a NO in statement B. However the high-stakes pro play is if say you’re plugging in numbers and stumble across a NO in statement B don’t look for a YES. You’re already done the answer is A. If you know for sure that statement A was a YES, if you found a NO on statement B you will find a YES if you keep testing things! The answer to a a DS can’t be always YES for one statement and always NO for the other (because the statements are true remember!?) I hope that made sense please re-read it if you don’t understand, it’s advanced DS a little trick I found out on my own.

Timing Strategies: I used 3 check-ins for my quantitative section. I checked in at problems 11,21,and 31. With my time left of 54 minutes, 34 minutes, and 14 minutes. Don’t write them at the top of your page like you might hear, because you’re scratch pad will always be changing pages obviously. It’s important to know where you at and what to do if you’re behind. I’ve often read recaps on this site where people say things like I was horrified to learn that I had 12 minutes left and 10 questions! Listen guys that just can’t happen to you, your score is just going to nose-dive at the end with a long series of incorrect answers. You need to know where you’re at because if you’re using the neat move where you take a long time early on… sure you’re in the thick of it with a good score and tough questions, but these tough questions will weigh you down, and the joke is on you, because 30 minutes later at the end of the test, you’re going to get hurt. This leads me to a move my friends and I like to call “The 5-second chalk” (chalk meaning like chalking it up [throwing in the towel]) If you get a really hard problem especially in an area where you just aren’t that fast or proficient, I recommend the 5-second chalk. You will pick it up 20% of the time by pure luck and 5-6% of the time its an experimental question and even if you were to give it a real shot you may only improve your accuracy to getting it right between 30%-40% of the time. So basically you’re only sacrificing 5%-15% The downside is wasting 3.5 minutes on a problem you never really had much of a chance on anyway. Take the 2 minutes, for you gamers out there think of it as a power-up (BAM: +2 minutes!) Don’t sit there pretending like you’re going to try to figure out a way to solve some super difficult problem, just admit you’re beat, fold your hand and exert you energies on problems you have a reasonable shot with. “The second you know your cards can’t win throw them in” – Rounders. I had one problem in Geometry that was just so difficult it covered almost the entire screen – 5 second chalk. You also get a double power-up if you can use the 5-second chalk on a super hard problem in an area you aren’t that good at. For example say you’re god awful at Venn Diagrams and question 24 is a Venn Diagram and looks super hard. You are just shipping EV (yes another poker expression [expected value]) If you chalk this up. The GMAT has content restrictions, meaning you won’t ever see like 10 probability questions on a test, so if you see a question in your weak area that’s difficult, chances are you won’t be seeing this type again if its infrequently tested (ex Venn Diagrams). The 5-second chalk allows you to just own the GMAT super hard. As a final pointer when using the 5-second chalk quickly look for answer choices in pairs and don’t choose the odd one out. Furthermore the GMAT know some ppl try to work backwards on tougher ones by plugging in answer choices so they are less likely to make A/B correct. Also they occasionally like to put a real sucker answer choice as choice A hoping you forget the last part of the calculation. This knowledge leads us to favoring the bottom half of the answer choice column. In poker we have a term called “the run good” which is basically the amount of luck an individual has in their life and on a standardized test. Help the run good find you and shoot up a flare: guess intelligently and manage your time wisely and it just might show up to help out, like it did for me.

Guessing Strategies: So back to the test, I was rolling thru with a gleam in my eye as the test continued. I ran into a long word problem-ish DS with a few complicated formulas which is definitely a weak spot of mine. I practice what I preach guys I used the 5-second chalk. Obviously on DS you want a strong bias against answer choice E, especially on harder ones. This is because most people think logically and when their giving up and feel like they’re outclassed they choose E which is akin to the fold button. We need to be thinking one step ahead of the GMAT. They’re banking on us doing what the majority of test takers would do. If they’re expecting us to fold we need to call. I would have a slight bias against C as well and usually pick A or B. Ok this is advanced but listen carefully. A GMAT problem is supposed to take you 2 minutes. Therefore if it’s a long prompt and two pretty tough statements as in the aforementioned problem, probably one of the statements is going to be a bit easier to get through and the other is going to be tougher because after all if both statements were super hard…is it really solvable in 2 minutes? As a final bias I would choose whichever one looks harder because often times if you were to actually do the problem, the easier statement will pan out as insufficient way and the hard one will be sufficient in a way that’s hard for you to see or figure out. This is obviously not always going to be true but it is the percentage play.

Ok back to the test I was just in a zone and was basically right on pace effectively guessing and hanging as tough as I could. I finished just on time. As a final pointer on the math section to those of you trying to increase your score. Remember, I moved up from a 580 to a 700 so it was basically a completely different test. When I got the 580 I had racked up extra time and easily was able to finish so I spent it in the middle of the test. If you’re looking for a Q49/Q50 you have to keep the big picture in mind. Assume your talent and that the questions are going to get tough, and really try to hold on to the extra time you bank early on in the 1st 10 questions. Once the test realizes you’re a stud they’re going to try to take the hammer to you near the end and this is where you really need to try to have this time to use. So don’t needlessly waste it like I did in the early/middle of the test because double checking a problem you’re 90% sure of because that will hurt you later on down the road, those 4-5 minutes you saved up seems like a good chunk of change, but you can go broke quickly..This happened to me, the last 3 problems were really tough and to be honest on question #35 I started breaking down under the time pressure and couldn’t think straight on a problem I felt I was supposed to get. I was really wishing I had been a bit more urgent earlier on as I was forced to basically guess on 36 and run a 1/3 on #37. I probably had a Q50 going into the last 3 problems and settled for a pretty sweet Q49.

After a break and re-setting the brain to verbal mode, I began. Started off well, Verbal is my stronger section and I’ve had multiple practice tests in the 80-90% range. Same check-ins, #11, #21 #31 #37 too. 57 minutes, 39 minutes 20 minutes. As your hit question #37 you should have 9 minutes remaining and 5 questions. (think 9-5, 9 to 5) As I mentioned before SC is my lockdown section, followed by RC and I pay the most careful attention and use the most time on CR to try to hang tough. I used to struggle on RC inference questions because I always felt very uncomfortable for what exactly I was supposed to be looking for. Finally after about 3 months I realized it’s the exact same thing as a CR inference question. It’s just something that must be true. Say it with me “MUST BE TRUE” The same timing issue happened a bit at the end of the verbal section, I had to chalk up a tough bold-faced CR question on 40, which sucks because those are worth a lot of positive points. I had been a little too casual earlier on. As the computer calculated the score I said a prayer like everyone does. I was praying for something in the 600s, I just didn’t want to be embarrassed again. Here I was with no job spending all my time studying and I hadn’t broken 600. When the screen showed 700 on the dot I knew I was officially in the 700 club. It was 9pm on Friday night, I was the last kid in there and definitely felt some tears welling up thinking about how much I had sacrificed, how hard I had worked and my friends who refused to stop believing in me even when I had almost lost faith in myself. As I side note I’ve read recaps where people talk about actively shrieking with joy or celebrating in the test room. If you do that you’re basically a huge tool and incredibly inconsiderate. I would never celebrate in front of people many of which probably did not do as well, I’ve been on both sides of the coin (the tears of pain and tears of joy). If you want to go to business school show some class. I’m sorry this post is so absurdly long but I wanted to transfer as much information as possible to future GMAT test takers on this site. This is going to be my last thread on this site but I will certainly respond to any comments if people have any questions because I’m happy to help out. There is a path for everyone to a 700 guys, I wanted to share my story to show you that no matter how broken down you are it is possible to make this thing happen. I hope you have taken something away from my story or from my best tips and tricks that I have laid out here with a poker twist on them. Lastly I wanted to thank my friends, my tutor, some members of my family, basically all the people that kept helping me and believing I could shine. God bless.