When MBA applicants reach out to MBA Crystal Ball and ask, “What GMAT score should I aim for?” our general response is “Why aim for anything less than 800?”
And while some might look at it as an elusive response, we do mean it.
Thankfully we found someone who proves that with the right combination of talent, technique, practice and [will]power…you can not only crack it, but also blow it up to smithereens!
But what is the secret to getting a perfect 800 on the GMAT? Is it just a matter of using the best GMAT preparation books / courses and following a dedicated GMAT study plan? Or is there more to it?
Karthik Iyer, an engineer from BITS Pilani managed to accomplish this feat. He shares his experience and some GMAT preparation tips to get the highest score possible on the GMAT.
Make sure you read the full article to understand the background, circumstances and failure that helped him, along with the test preparation.
How I scored 800 on the GMAT
by Karthik Iyer
Back when I was in school and college, if anyone suggested doing an MBA in the future, I would laugh it off.
In fact, I once placed a bet with a friend that if I joined an MBA program within 5 years of completing my engineering, I would pay him some money. I don’t remember how much money I was supposed to pay, and thankfully he never called me about it after I started my MBA just 4 years after completing my engineering!
That is a long way of saying that I was an unlikely MBA candidate, both in my own view and that of my closest friends.
I was very studious as a kid, my childhood dream was to become a scientist, and my favorite subject in 11th and 12th standard was Physics – which I would have surely pursued had I been more courageous.
As it turns out, I was very risk averse and chose the safe path of engineering.
Even then, going into engineering, I hoped to do a Masters and a PhD and work as a researcher, which in hindsight may have been a better career for me. Either that or the grass just seems greener on the other side!
Anyway, after a series of questionable decisions at BITS, Pilani – picking EEE over Computer Science, joining the Mime Club to get some extracurricular activity and improve my ‘personality’, and having no clear plan of what I would do after college – I ended up, almost accidentally, joining a leading US credit card company at their Bangalore office.
I had only taken their aptitude test because a friend was taking it and convinced me it was a good idea. Then one thing led to another and I signed an offer with them, thus quite randomly giving up on my initial dream of becoming a scientist.
A word of advice: when you only have vague dreams but no clear plans, you often leave yourself at the mercy of chance events, as I did.
Thankfully, it was a good place to work in 2012, and I got to work at a very good team. However, they had to work with a not-so-good employee, i.e., me. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I was a below-par performer there.
Moreover, the company was undergoing major reorganizations which were turning the India office from a sourcing hub of great talent to just a backend office focused on automation. Poor performance record plus lack of quality work in the office is a very bad combination, so I did not see any future for myself there.
There were two benefits of this job though.
First, I got a US trip – I almost fell in love with the US on that trip and decided that I had to do my higher education there.
Second, I had lots of free time, which I used to prepare exhaustively for GRE and GMAT.
That became a turning point in my life. I had been a pretty sharp student all the way until 12th standard, but in college and my first job, I felt like I had let my life rust away.
I do well in academic settings, so I believed a higher degree would help me salvage my failing career.
Thus, GRE and GMAT were going to be the start of my redemption. If I blew these opportunities, I didn’t know what I would do. Thankfully, I didn’t blow either of them, and they (especially the GMAT) changed the trajectory of my life.
Why did I give this long introduction, especially focusing on the failures?
I want to be clear that I looked like anything but a winner when I started preparing for the GMAT. When the results came in, it became clear that nobody from my college or office expected me to do so well.
I had some leftover confidence from my school and IIT-JEE coaching days, but I didn’t anticipate things going so well either. So, the overall message I want to give is
- Hope: if things aren’t looking good for you right now
- A Growth Mindset: a big part of good performance is the effort; with the right quantity and type of effort, you can surprise yourself with how much you learn and score
My GMAT prep story
1. The Role of my background
This may sound unlikely, but I partly owe my GMAT score to my IIT-JEE coaching days.
I never did go to an IIT, but I cannot thank the IITs enough for coming up the concept of JEE, which allowed a kid like me to get trained on logical thinking and problem solving.
Those two years of IIT-JEE preparation are the foundation on which most future successes, including my GMAT, were built.
For starters, I was not worried about the Math Section at all. IIT-JEE coaching had taken care of it already. I took one mock test with zero preparation, and I knew right away that I didn’t need much preparation for the Math Section.
Secondly, IIT-JEE preparation is where I learned to put in long hours trying to master some concept. I decided to replicate that dedication with GMAT Verbal preparation. I believe this made a big difference.
In India, I have heard a general perception that somehow Verbal cannot be learnt, that you either know it or you don’t, that you need to have great English for Verbal, that you need to read newspapers like the Hindu to have good English etc.
I ignored that and made a bet that IIT-JEE type of practice would pay off, and I am very grateful I went down that path.
In addition, I had already taken the GRE in May 2014 and scored 336/340. Having GRE prep in my background was both good for my confidence, and for solving RC questions of the GMAT, which are quite similar to RC in GRE.
2. The First Mock Test
I did not have any time pressure while preparing for the GMAT, since I started preparing in June and application deadlines were in September or later.
The pressure reduced even further after I took one mock test with zero preparation.
It was a free test by the Economist GMAT Tutor and I got a 740 -the Math from IIT-JEE and the RC practice from GRE were already showing their benefits.
Critical Reasoning and Sentence Correction were where I really needed to learn new things.
3. The Goal, Timeline, and Discipline Mechanism
Target score: 780
Prep Time: 1 month
Study Material: Official Guide, plus free online GMAT mock tests (I was quite stingy back then)
Schedule: Solve at least 20 questions from OG every weekday, and many more on weekends. Also, take one mock test per weekend to monitor progress.
The highlight of my GMAT verbal preparation was discipline.
I knew from taking the CAT earlier, that engineers tend to ‘just guess’ the answer to Verbal questions, rather than logically arriving at the answer. I didn’t want to fall into this trap.
So, I came up a mechanism for self discipline. Before I picked my answer to any practice question, I would have to convince myself, with some logic, that my answer was the right answer.
I would even imagine myself explaining this answer to a friend in Hindi – this is similar to the Feynman method of learning new things, with the added twist of explaining an English question in Hindi.
4. My GMAT Study Plan
I bought the Official Guide and committed to solving 20 questions from it every morning. I would randomly pick two Math and two Verbal sections, and solve 5 questions from each. This rotation helped to keep things less boring.
However, my Discipline Mechanism dictated that I couldn’t simply guess the answer to any question.
In Verbal, I was often tied between two options, I argued with myself in my own head until I convinced myself that one answer was correct.
This meant that there was no time limit to my prep. I studied as long as I needed to solve the 20 questions. After this, I would check my solutions and review
- The questions which I answered wrong
- The questions which I answered right, but only with great difficulty
The goal of this review was – if I ever get the same questions again in my life, I want to get them right, and also be able to explain how.
There were a few exceptions to this. There were genuinely times when I moved on without understanding something, but those times were rare because of my discipline mechanism.
My office hours during this period were usually 11 AM to 5 PM, which meant I could do some prep on weekday evenings too.
I sometimes solved OG questions on weekday evenings too, but I didn’t have any specific target like ‘20 questions’ for my evening sessions.
Evening prep was a bonus. In addition, I committed to solving 50 OG questions and taking one mock test every weekend.
All this preparation was focused on the ‘main’ sections of the GMAT. I had decided to do IR and AWA only in mock tests, and dedicate time to those sections only if my mock test performance was below my expectations.
By the end of 1 month, I had solved all the ~1000 questions in the OG. I had solved every Math question too, mainly because I didn’t want to commit silly mistakes due to lack of discipline.
5. Mock Tests and Revision
I took 6 mock tests overall, in the following order
- Economist GMAT Tutor. Took it with zero preparation. Scored 740. Established a baseline and set my goal of 780 based on this.
- Veritas Prep. Took it after 1 week of preparation. Scored 800, but this was a somewhat easier mock test.
- Took their free 3-day trial which included 1 mock test and some practice questions. Scored 740, which indicated that the 800 on Veritas was an outlier.
- Scored 780.
- OG Test 1. Scored 780.
- OG Test 2. Scored 780.
I had taken the Manhattan test after 3 weeks of preparation. Right after I got a 780 on it, I booked a GMAT test date.
I booked the test date on June 25. My GMAT was on July 7. I decided to give myself 1 extra week of preparation in addition to the one month I had initially planned.
My GMAT was on a Monday, and I even applied for 3-4 days of holiday the week before.
In hindsight, I think this was overkill. I was doing well on the mock tests anyway. I may have been better off saving my vacation days for some other cause.
Either way, during the last 5 ‘holidays’ that I dedicated to GMAT, I took my final two mock tests. I also revised all the OG questions that I had gotten wrong during my practice.
Finally, for Sentence Correction, I dedicated an extra push. I revised Idioms using the Magoosh Idioms Flashcards app, and I solved more SC questions by borrowing a Manhattan SC book from a colleague.
To be extra careful, I took my last two mock tests at the same time of day as my actual GMAT, to simulate the test day experience as much as possible – do not discount the sleepiness induced by lunch if you are taking a boring test in the afternoon!
The Test Day
After all this effort to simulate the test day experience, my actual GMAT started 2-3 hours later than planned because the test center’s generator needed repair!
For hunger during the test, I carried Snickers bars. I had found them good for hunger during my GRE as well.
Even if you don’t get hungry, I would recommend eating some ‘treat’ like chocolate during the test breaks.
This is because the GMAT is a boring test for most people, and it can be hard to maintain mental discipline for 4 hours without some small ‘reward’ in between. If you think I just made up some nonsense, please check out the article on ‘Ego Depletion’ on Wikipedia!
At the beginning of the test, you have to pick 5 schools to which you can send your GMAT score for free.
My 5 schools were Duke Fuqua, Darden, Ross, UNC Kenan-Flagler and Kelley.
Back then, I was not confident about getting into the top schools, and was also worried about finances. So, I picked only schools ranked 10-30 in the hope of getting a scholarship at one of them.
Getting the GMAT result
When the result flashed on the screen, I momentarily thought that the User Interface was a bit stupid.
I already know that this is an 800-mark test, but what is my score?!
The mock tests always flashed my score at the end of test. In fact, even the mock tests in the OG…
Wait a minute, is this really my score?!
I raised my hand and called the invigilator. She saw the score, was a bit surprised, and I asked
Is this my score or just a screen showing the maximum possible score?
She confirmed that it was my score.
I had done it! I had the perfect GMAT score…
Until the invigilator clicked “Next”.
I had a 7/8 in IR. Aaaah! Silly IR stealing my thunder!
Anyway, I left the test center very happy, to say the least.
It took me about a month to get my official score report, because GMAC apparently reviews high scores to look for unethical behavior, but I finally had my official score report in early August.
Total: 800 (99%)
Verbal: 51 (99%)
Quantitative: 51 (97%)
AWA: 5.0 (60%)
Integrated Reasoning (81%)
[The ‘%’ sign indicated Percentile.]
After the GMAT
I completed engineering in 2012 and took the GMAT in 2014. Looking back, I felt like I was a bright student in school who then wasted away the years 2008-2014, and got a lifeline with the GMAT.
I started going for info sessions of B-Schools right away, and decided to join a start up in preparation for a US MBA.
In October 2014, I started working at Zoomcar. In September and October 2015, I put in my R1 applications to MIT Sloan, Kellogg, and Tuck – all higher ranked schools than I had initially hoped for.
In December, I got an admit from Tuck, a wait list from Kellogg, and a reject from MIT.
In May 2016, I got an admit from Kellogg as well, but I decided to go to Tuck. The decision was purely personal. My then girlfriend, and now wife, had an admit from Tuck.
I strongly preferred Kellogg, but did not want to risk the long-distance during a time of change like an MBA program.
Plus, I had started hearing about H-1B visa related difficulties in the US, and was worried about long-distance post MBA as well. So, I picked Tuck to avoid the risk of too much long-distance.
To be clear, I think Kellogg is a better choice for most Indian applicants, because they have a much stronger brand name in India. I just took a professional hit for a personal cause.
Tips for GMAT test takers
Rather than a laundry list of oft repeated tips, I want to focus on the roles of Luck vs. Talent vs. Effort in test prep.
“Luck also plays a role” is something I commonly heard from parents and teachers when I was in school, but I also found that phrase useless, to be honest.
Platitudes like “luck also plays a role” didn’t give me any guidance on how to think about luck vs. talent vs. effort.
Ironically, I was ‘lucky’ to run into some good books in my early twenties, which (along with my life experiences) have shaped much of my thoughts on this topic.
I was the beneficiary of two kinds of luck with my GMAT.
The first is the ‘birth lottery’. I was lucky to be born to parents who were educated and valued education.
I was exposed to good English at a young age so by the time I was an adult, my English was pretty good by most Indian standards.
And, I received IIT-JEE coaching in 11th and 12th standard, the impact of which I cannot emphasize enough. All this meant that I knew I would get 700+ on the GMAT.
The second kind of luck is what took my score from ~780 to 800. In my last 3 mock tests, I scored 780, so let’s take that as my ‘fair’ score.
With good test-day-luck, that became 800. With bad test-day-luck, it may have become 760. I am grateful for this luck as well.
Talent and Effort
Taking a 700 for granted, and getting the 20-point boost from 780 to 800 were the result of luck. The rest was a result of talent and effort.
I clubbed these together because I no longer believe in ‘absolute’ talent. Much of what looks like talent in day-to-day life is just the result of historical effort.
If you find this hard to believe (as I did in my early 20s) I recommend reading Mindset by Carol Dweck (a Stanford psychologist) and Bounce by Matthew Syed (a former British No. 1 Table Tennis player).
Specifically, the effort of my IIT-JEE preparation was a ‘talent’ in 2014, the effort I put into GRE prep was my ‘talent’ for RC questions in GMAT, and the effort of my SC and CR preparation is my ‘talent’ today.
Taking this long view makes it easier to put in the effort required to master a skill set.
Practicing Verbal questions because it is required for a test can be quite mentally draining. Practicing them because you want to master the skill to do it is much easier.
In conclusion, there is only one tip I want to give.
Look at the GMAT as a way to build useful life skills, which help both your professional and personal lives. Let me give a personal example.
In April, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, our family has been reading a lot about cancer, from internet articles to research papers.
The Reading Comprehension skills are very much needed to understand any scientific paper (and to be clear about what I understood vs. what I didn’t understand), and the Critical Reasoning skills are very much needed to identify and discard pseudo-scientific claims on the internet.
If you feel that the GMAT Verbal section is useless, let this be a motivation for you – mastering the GMAT Verbal can help you make better decisions for yourself and your loved ones!
About the author: Karthik Iyer graduated from Tuck (Dartmouth) in 2018, followed by a stint in Sales Strategy at DocuSign. You can follow him on Quora, where he writes about test prep and MBA admissions, or on LinkedIn.
– How to get a perfect 800 GMAT score
– GMAT 790 scorer relied on self-study using only the Official Guide and CAT material
– GMAT 780 scorer reveals study plan to crack the exam without coaching
– How Thrishnaa thrashed it to get a 770 score
– How to score 700+ on the GMAT
Image: Bruce Lee statue (Hong Kong)