Brian Galvin, GMAT Expert

Brian GalvinBrian Galvin is the Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep and a veteran GMAT prep instructor.  He's taught more than 500 students and oversees the GMAT curriculum development at Veritas Prep. Brian graduated from the University of Michigan with a BBA and went on to receive a MA in Education from Michigan as well.

After teaching high school history and economics for several years, Brian's passion for education eventually brought him to Veritas Prep where he continually helps students to achieve their potential on the GMAT.

What do admissions officers want to see from a GMAT score? How does it affect a prospective student's total application?

The GMAT is a crucial component of an MBA application in large part because the applicant pool is so diverse, and the GMAT is the only element that all applicants will have exactly in common. How does an admissions officer weigh GPAs between a literature major from Dartmouth and an engineering major from the Indian Institute of Technology? Or work experience between an assistant brand manager in the consumer goods industry and a Peace Corps volunteer? Business school admissions offers very few apples-to-apples comparisons outside of the GMAT, so if only for that reason the test is a pretty important measuring tool.

Add to that the fact that the GMAT is a very well-written test for its aims. It seeks to determine who has the types of skills that will make applicants successful beyond -- not just in -- business school: logical decision making, efficient use of resources, problem solving skills, etc. So to more directly answer the question, I'd advise test-takers to look at what the GMAT is really testing. Sure, it tests, among other things, the ability to perform calculations without a calculator and to make grammatical corrections to sentences. But when you get to school, you'll have a calculator and Microsoft Excel for calculations and Microsoft Word's grammar check (the green underline has not yet made an appearance as I'm writing this article!) for your papers, so the pure academic skills are only part of what the GMAT tests. Even more importantly, it tests your ability to think, reason, and problem-solve when you're facing time pressure, high-stakes pressure, fatigue, and distraction. Those are the skills that business schools need to see from you, and the GMAT tests those quite effectively.

What is the biggest mistake that students make before taking the GMAT?

Students tend to overvalue "knowledge" and undervalue the thought process related to the test. What I mean by that is that students often try to memorize as many concepts as possible and do as many practice problems as possible, but in doing so they fail to take a step above the content and ask the question "why." It's great to understand that, say, "A" is the correct answer choice, but why is "C" incorrect? More importantly, why did you like "C" better than "A"? In education the term for that is metacognitive thinking, or learning about the way you think.

The authors of the GMAT are incredibly well-versed in cognitive psychology; they know the mistakes you're going to make well before you make them, and they set traps accordingly. The GMAT's primary aim -- and I've discussed this with the leaders of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, so it's the official goal that's been set by the member schools -- is to assess your higher-order thinking skills. It's not a test you can simply "study for" and recite back knowledge; rather, you need to be aware of the assumptions you're prone to making under pressure, the possibilities (e.g., what if x=0?) that you tend to overlook when thinking quickly, and the types of proactive strategies that will allow you to cut through the distraction of, say, a 45-word sentence about immunological reactions to get to the operable portion of the question where you can make a difference (such as the agreement of the subject with the verb).

So, to summarize, the content on the test is important -- they have to test you about "something" -- but the thought process is what's really at issue, and test-takers need to prepare to be conscious of how they think to really succeed on this test.

How much time should students spend preparing for the exam before test day?

Every student is different, but we at Veritas Prep recommend that our students plan on preparing for about 2-3 months before taking the exam. I'd say the average recommended time is in the neighborhood of 10 weeks of spending around 10-12 hours per week going through a class and working through practice exercises and practice tests.

Probably more important than the duration of this time, however, is how it's spent. Because of the nature of GMAT content -- largely skills that you learned and mastered in high school and even junior high, and have since forgotten -- you should spend the first third or so of your time just mastering (or remastering) the content on the test. Then, knowing the types of errors you tend to make, you can be more aware of them, and then build toward more challenging problems and problems undertaken with a timed component (practice tests are essential for this). Simply spending 120 hours "doing problems" will help, but minimally. Focusing on mastering the concepts, then fully understanding how to approach the question types, then being able to do so under timed pressure, will allow you to use your time most effectively, and to identify and correct mistakes and problem areas in short order.

How much time should they give themselves when registering?

The GMAT is offered on an ongoing basis -- six days or more per week in most locations -- so it's unlike the LSAT in that regard, and often students can register for the test even just a day or two in advance. That said, in peak seasons (the fall, particularly) test appointments fill up quickly, and more importantly students often times need a "sense of urgency" to ramp up their study schedule. I'd recommend that students spend 2-3 weeks on a study regimen, and then from that point extrapolate forward 6-7 weeks. Are you committed to that schedule? Are you making satisfactory progress? If so, schedule your test for 6-7 weeks later. If not, push that date forward by a few weeks -- enough time to ensure that you can get on a schedule that will work for you- and schedule your test then. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, so if you can commit to a test date in the foreseeable future, you'll find it much easier to make the sacrifices necessary to study regularly.

Should students plan enough time between the test date and application deadline to take the test a second time if their scores aren't high enough?

If at all possible, students should schedule their exam early enough to build in enough time to re-take the test before the application deadline, if needed. So, at least 30 days before the deadline (since GMAC requires you to wait at least 30 days between sittings for the GMAT), and even earlier if possible, so that your GMAT preparation doesn't overlap with your work on the rest of your application. While this is good advice on face value -- you have a second chance waiting for you -- I'd argue that the ancillary benefit is even more important: if today's exam isn't an all-or-nothing proposition for you, it's much more a "chance to do well" than a "this is it" test. The confidence that you can derive from staying relaxed and having that safety net underneath you will serve you extremely well. I always tell my students that the key to my success on the exam was my naiveté; I was taking the exam to have a score on record for if/when I decided to apply, so I didn't know I was supposed to be nervous. I must have muttered to myself "that's interesting" in response to at least a dozen questions (instead of "oh, no!"). When the pressure is turned down a little bit, the test is actually a pretty neat challenge, and not an intimidating chore.

In your opinion, what is the best way for one to prepare for the GMAT? There are many books, classes, practice tests, etc., available. Is one method preferable to another? Why?

We at Veritas Prep believe that the most important elements of a study program are:

1)      It needs to be something you can commit to. If you aim to study every day for a year, you'll never keep up that pace and you'll give up. If you try to take a class that meets 90 minutes away, you'll have an awful experience fighting traffic and sacrificing that much time getting back and forth. Select a schedule that you can reasonably do, and commit yourself.

2)      You need to think of your preparation as a play in three acts. You need to fully understand the content; you have to deconstruct the question types and the ways in which they are asked; and you need to be able to apply those skills under timed conditions and minimize the under-pressure mistakes that you make. Just doing practice tests won't work if you don't address the content; just memorizing the content won't work unless you understand the pitfalls that the content creates for you under pressure. Ideally, you'll embark on a program that allows you to cover all three elements of a successful test.

3)      You should have a way to access strategies and identify/correct your mistakes. The GMAT is a standardized test, so there's no need to reinvent the wheel -- the mistakes you're making are the same mistakes that people have been making countless times before you, and there are proven methodologies for efficiently approaching problems. If you can enlist the help of experts in these areas, you'll be much more efficient in the way you improve.

I've been fortunate to be able to teach the Veritas Prep curriculum for almost seven years now, and believe that it provides all of the elements above. More recently, I've worked with a team of Veritas Prep instructors to compile the expertise we've developed from working with tens of thousands of students to ensure that we're meeting the needs of students looking to achieve top scores. I'll admit to being biased based on the time and effort that I've put in to our curriculum, but I'm also incredibly pleased with the results of the program we've developed with these essential components in mind.

What should students look for in a GMAT tutor? In a class? Workbook or study guide?

In a GMAT tutor or instructor, you'll want to work with someone who is experienced with the GMAT exam and with GMAT students. Being smart is a big plus, but definitely not sufficient on its own, as the test is one that hinges on thought process, susceptibility to error, and many of those metacognitive concepts that deal much more with "how people think" than "how to solve the problem."

In my job as the Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep, I screen, hire, and train our instructors. In addition to the requisite 99th percentile, I look for:

  • Enthusiasm for the GMAT, its question types, and breaking down the way that people think about them.
  • The ability to clearly explain GMAT concepts, and to provide students with high-level takeaways that will lead them to success on the exam.
  • A knack for learning, seeking, and anticipating the mistakes that students make on questions, and a corresponding ability to correct them.
  • A genuine level of investment in student success and a desire to help people achieve lofty goals, backed up by a history of instructional experience.

Some of these qualities are innate, but almost all of them require some practice and repetition. We provide this practice through our training program in which new instructors serve as teaching assistants to learn new ways of explaining problems, determine the types of errors that students tend to commit, and practice the construction of new reinforcement problems and instructional examples. Because the GMAT is a unique test that stretches students' minds, it's difficult for even an excellent teacher to be a great GMAT instructor without the benefit of GMAT experience and the knowledge of how people react specifically to the exam.

Is there a particular test-taking strategy you recommend?

Get the questions right! Which actually sounds either simple, or condescending, or something in that realm, but I honestly don't think there's any kind of gamesmanship that can substitute for answering the questions to the best of your ability in the time allotted. A lot of people spend quite a bit of time and energy trying to determine when it's more advantageous to miss questions, or how many questions that can miss and still score at a certain level, or how they can determine if they're doing well or poorly. The problem with that thinking is that it takes time and brainpower to conduct, and it doesn't add a ton of value -- that same type of ingenuity and energy can be harnessed to learn how to solve the problems correctly and quickly, and you'll get a much higher return on your investment of time and effort by using it to better solve the problems.

Having said that, I will note that there are a few strategic tools that you can use to optimize your performance. One is to have a checklist of the 4-5 mistakes you're most likely to make on either section of the exam so that you can spend a few seconds at the end of each problem making sure that you didn't succumb to a common mistake (mine, for example, included the fact that I'd often solve for one variable and submit that answer when the test actually called for me to solve for the other -- solving for x when they wanted y -- so I just wrote down a question mark "?" on my noteboard to remind myself that I was prone to that error). When you're working quickly, you're more prone to those errors, so you should have a failsafe in place to protect against that.

Another "strategic" suggestion, as hokey as it sounds, is to smile. A positive attitude is critical to your success on a test like this, on which you're sure to see some frustrating questions and feel a little pressed for time. It's an old sales trick -- if you smile whenever you feel pressure, the endorphins that your body releases will keep you upbeat and you'll almost automatically feel more confident and proactive. If you've been saying all throughout your study that you hate astronomy-related Reading Comprehension passages, and then you see one, smile at your bad luck. If you struggle to work out an algebraic equation, laugh at the fact that it's taking you longer than it should. The short burst of positivity that comes from that action will help you maintain focus and budget your time proactively.

What else do you think is important for test candidates to consider before taking the GMAT?

The GMAT is a marathon, and not a sprint! I like to use the analogy of an endurance athletic event like a marathon or a stage of the Tour de France. At that point, you're well trained and primed for action -- you really can't improve your conditioning the day before the race, but you could certainly downgrade your performance by draining your energy or taxing your muscles. The same is true of the GMAT -- you won't get any "smarter" the night before the test by studying; you may, however, wear yourself down by staying up late to get to one more set of problems, or make yourself nervous by happening to hit a patch of ten monster questions in a row and struggling through them.

Students should really take this advice to heart the night before the GMAT or any other big exam: A full-night's sleep is far more valuable than a late-night cram session!


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