Sunday, June 22, 2008

Locker #12: HBS 2+2 and the GMAT

Abandoned School Desk

warning: this post will be pretty long, and possibly full of adjectives. probably verbs, too.

Yesterday, I sat in a room full of cameras, and took the GMAT. The room sat behind an imposing door, redolent of office parks and rendered in falsely cozy wood. The door sat behind a fingerprint scanner, and a lobby full of numbered lockers.

I left many things at the door. These things included: a locket, some chapstick, and my composure. I left a little less than three hours later.

I know I’m making it sound like a very brief prison visit. It was not like prison. It was, in fact, not so bad at all. But it was definitely weird, and the process of taking the exam felt a little bit like stepping into an alternate universe: one populated by computer graphics straight out of the 1990s, ineffectual earplugs, and the muffled mass anxiety/solidarity of 15-some students, each clicking away in a gray-walled cubicle.

Before I forget what it was like, I wanted to record some aspects of the experience, in the hopes that others bound for this alternate universe can bask nervously in some of that solidarity ahead of time.

* * *
A Miniature History

But first, a miniature history is in order. I’ve kept pretty quiet about this, but quite a few people know by now that I’m in the process of applying to business school. Business school! Weird. I wouldn’t have expected to end up there, either; even now, whether or not I end up there will depend on a series of upcoming contingencies.

As usual, though, the internet changed everything for me. I’m not so much interested in accounting and optimization and mergers and acquisitions, it’s true. But I’m incredibly interested in the ways that the internet upends those things, and everything. A few of my friends have recently realized that they want to go to law school: not so much because being a lawyer is so awesome, but because copyright law is a crazy and exciting place to be right now. Business school is like that for me.

Also, I’ve been covertly reading the Marketplace section of the Wall Street Journal most mornings, over cereal and sometimes oatmeal, since I was about 9 years old. (It was on the kitchen table! What was I supposed to do?) So maybe, secretly, this isn’t such a surprise after all.

* * *
An Unsimple Equation

Back in November, I wrote two articles about a mysterious program called HBS 2+2. And then never wrote anything about it ever again. But steadily, those posts have continued to surface in the search engines when people go looking for information about this strange new program—a fast-track to Harvard Business School for juniors with liberal arts degrees.


Update 5/20/2010: HBS recently changed its 2+2 FAQ to read:

My undergraduate concentration is in a business-related field, and I have had a lot of business exposure. Is 2+2 the right program for me?

When the 2+2 Program was originally created it primarily targeted students who are not already on a business track (i.e. students studying the liberal arts, sciences, engineering, etc.). However, we are now encouraging students from all undergraduate majors to apply (that includes those with concentrations and experiences in business-related fields).

And now, back to the original blog post—written in the summer of 2008, months before a beautiful day that September when I found out I would be part of the first 2+2 cohort.


This has lent those articles a sheen of authority that they may or may not deserve: after all, no one really knows what the program will look like or what it’s all about, since it’s never been done before. Even the people behind the program itself will have to do a certain about of figuring it out as they go along: it’s the first year of a new initiative, and it’s filled with possibility and uncertainty. Anyway, I’ve known for a little while that I wanted to apply, but the prospect of taking the GMAT seemed very confronting.

* * *
Combinations and Permutations

It goes like this: in order to apply to business school, you have to take the GMAT. But in order to take the GMAT, you have to temporarily suspend your awareness that the test is almost 100% inane.

The GMAT, I quickly discovered, is very much like the SAT on steroids. Except I’m not 16 anymore, and it’s been an extremely long time since I thought about the angles of pentagons and the vagaries of combinations and permutations.

In general, I’ve never really believed in test prep. Learning how to excel at a bland standardized test always seemed distinctly unnecessary in comparison to learning about really interesting things. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to approach the GMAT; I bought a few books full of previous test questions and basic strategies, but spent the entire four months of January through May assiduously avoiding them. If I’d kept going like that, I imagine that at some point I would have panicked, spent a few weekends taking practice tests, and approached test day itself with trepidation and reluctance.

* * *
Sprints and Stops

But then, something interesting happened: someone from Veritas Test Prep wrote me an email, out of the blue, and offered me the opportunity to try out their test prep & admissions consulting program.

This was pretty extremely nice of them; there’s really no way to get around that. As much as I’m a skeptic about test prep, I can’t deny that I was secretly terrified about the GMAT. Their email forced me not only to confront the reality of my upcoming trial-by-computer-adaptive-fire, but also handed me some really kind people who were willing to help me through it, to boot.

Anyway, here was the deal: they would let me try out all their services, (for the low cost of free), and I would write about them however I saw fit: good, bad, whatever. “So you mean I can say whatever I want?,” I asked. “Yes,” they answered. “Okay,” I replied. And then spent three weeks feverishly plowing through test prep, in sprints and stops, culminating in the aforementioned alternate universe of yesterday.

Here goes, then: Veritas was nothing but excellent. I’ll save the details, since this post is already getting unmanageably long, but if you’d like those details—maybe you’re trying to figure out whether test prep makes sense at all, or what type to go with—please feel free to email me, anytime, at diana (dot) kimball (at) gmail (dot) com. I don’t know everything, by any means, but I’d be happy to tell you whatever I do know. Veritas's program was extremely professional and engaging from start to finish, and I feel really lucky to have gotten the chance to use it, just in the nick of time.

* * *
Back to the Future

Anyway. Back to the alternate universe! I woke up at 5:30am on Saturday morning, ready to make a somewhat-nutritious breakfast with trembling hands. I drove to a no-man’s land north of Seattle, where the shopping malls roam free. I sat in the parking lot, drinking lemonade and trying to stay calm.

When I finally made it up to the test center, I was told repeatedly that I should empty my pockets of all their contents. “Aha!,” I thought. “I am sure that chapstick doesn’t count.” I have a slight problem with chapstick, which is to say that I need to have it on me at all times. (I have heard that chapstick manufacturers make it addictive on purpose. This is probably true. I am sunk.)

As I approached the vestibule that held the surveillance computer and the fingerprint scanner, I started to get the feeling that I was probably wrong. The attendant looked me and another student up and down, saying in a sweet but ominous tone of voice, “You should make sure you don’t have anything in your pockets. You’ve been videotaped ever since you set foot in this room.” I think she probably says that to everyone. But I slunk away, and retreated to my tiny locker (number 12, which came right before the cleverly evasive 12B. Imagine confronting a locker #13 on test day! Superstition is nerve-wracking, even when unnecessary.) I put the chapstick away. Okay. I was ready.

* * *
A Blur

The test itself was a high-velocity blur. The introduction contained a screen insisting that we not reveal any of the test’s contents to friends, teachers, or “on Internet ‘chat rooms.’” It was just like that, too: Internet “chat rooms,” with “chat rooms” in scare quotes. Like the test makers weren’t really sure they believed in chat rooms, and possibly weren’t really sure what they were, but definitely knew they were a threat. Kids today—always fooling around on zany “chat rooms” and that newfangled Internet SuperHighway! So. This isn’t a “chat room,” but I’ll do my best to hold up my end of that agreement. I do, though, have a few observations on the test overall.

And now that you know my entire life history, I will finally get to the useful part!

* * *

* * *
1) The GMAT = The SAT on steroids.


Okay, yes, I used this one already. But it deserves at least a tiny bit of explanation. The GMAT doesn’t really test anything you didn’t know in high school. However, it does test quite a few things you’ve probably forgotten since high school. Like geometry. And long division. Also, reading comprehension.

(Well, hopefully you haven’t actually forgotten reading comprehension.)

I found that the verbal section of the test was pretty manageable: after all, I read at least a little bit every day. Most of the time, I read a lot. The verbal section was full of idioms and vague, arcane grammatical rules, but those are all things I like.

The quantitative section wasn’t full of things I hated, or anything, but it provided different challenges. Like not having a calculator. If there’s one thing I’m happy about, it’s that I haven’t owned a useful day-to-day calculator in years. Out of a combination of stubbornness and forgetfulness, I’ve managed to spend most of college doing addition, subtraction, and simple multiplication in my head. (As you might suspect, these skills have been almost exclusively employed in tip calculation.)

Long division isn't so much a bastion of mental math—but you’d be surprised at how those fourth-grade math drills come back to you, when you’re really under the gun. The GMAT requires a certain comfort with these things, or at least the confidence to barrel through them. Thinking about the test as a sort of grown-up SAT will give you a pretty accurate sense of its difficulty level and its ultimate inanity. Which leads me to my next point:

* * *
2) GMAT = Game.

Thanksgiving board games, originally uploaded by utini.

You pretty much have to look at the GMAT as a game, in order to get past that inanity factor. It has its own rules; its own strategies; its own quirks. The GMAT does not test your excellence as a person, or even as a scholar. As my instructor at Veritas was fond of saying, “the GMAT does not reward elegant solutions.” Unfortunately, it only rewards correct solutions. And guess who gets to decide what is correct? That is right. The GMAT does.

There are two ways to react to this seeming injustice. One is to get frustrated at the absolute inanity and apparent uselessness of data sufficiency questions and inconsistent idioms. The other is to accept that the test is a game, and learn to game the system.

Part of my long-running aversion to test prep has been the belief that, if only I were just way smarter, I would own standardized tests no matter what. Sadly, this is not true. The secret goal of the GMAT is not to test your brilliance, but to test your command of the English language and your dedication to business school. It is a filtering mechanism. It is not meant to be fun, or even useful. It is a hurdle that nominally gives business schools a way to compare candidates objectively, but mostly just tells them that you must really, really want to go to business school.

Otherwise, why in the world would you have spent (wasted?) $250 and possibly months of studying, all on a test that has almost no real-world applicability? You’re proving your dedication. In the meantime, you might as well have fun.

Re-learning geometry and probability and algebra isn’t so bad when you don’t beat yourself up for having forgotten the skills in the first place. It’s okay if you’re rusty. Overcoming the rust is part of how you prove that you’re in it for real. And once you’ve passed through your own trial-by-computer-adaptive-fire, you will probably feel at least two ways: relieved and excited. Relieved, of course, because it’s over. Excited because now that it’s over, who knows where you could go next?

* * *
3) GMAT = A three-hour-long checkbox.

Love comes with choices, originally uploaded by imjustkimmie.

Ultimately, if you’re applying to business school, the GMAT is just something you’re going to have to do. If you never expected to apply to business school, (like me), you’re probably going to feel a little bit bewildered at this sudden, imposing obstacle that takes up residence in your life.

But the GMAT is just one component of any application. It is not the beginning of the world, nor is it the end. Like all standardized tests, it is just a check box to be ticked off; one more requirement on the path to something you really, truly want to do.

That is important to remember. The GMAT is not an end in itself. It is just a way to get somewhere you think you’ll love to be.

Your score may matter, but it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think it will. When I was applying to Harvard for undergrad, I got a chance to talk a bit with my interviewer about the Truth About SATs. Here’s the truth about SATs: above a certain level, it just doesn’t matter what score you got. Every school has a different loose bar that they like to see scores hover around, but if you really knock it out of the park, that’s not going to change the whole picture that much; if you don’t knock it out of the park, it’s actually not going to chance the picture that much either.

The best a standardized test score can do is provide an affirmation or counterpoint to your GPA—another one of those elusive numbers. Beyond that, it’s all very vague. If you want to go to business school, you’re almost definitely going to have to take the GMAT. But in the end, I think my original gut feeling was probably right: learning how to excel at a bland standardized test is a pale alternative to going out into the world and learning about what you really love.

If what you really love is the business of business, then maybe the GMAT is a game you’re willing to play, in order to get to the good stuff. But never forget that it’s about the good stuff. The GMAT is a means to an end. You are not stupid. You are just a novice player in a wily game, designed to test the fortitude of your dedication. And if you're that dedicated, there's not much that's going to stop you: not the GMAT, not the absence of chapstick, not anything.

* * *
With thanks again to the good people at Veritas GMAT Prep, who made this whole process much more pleasant. Check out their GMAT Prep blog—especially their post on HBS 2+2 program —and their brand-new HBS 2+2 page.


Welton Blount said...

CONGRATS on being done with the GMAT! I'm starting my LSAT prep in earnest now....ugh lol.

Mike said...

Congratulations on being done, and thanks for the write up of the adventure! Having just taken the LSAT, I've been through an experience in many ways similar though not nearly as well articulated (to myself or anyone else).

Kartik Sharma said...

wat was ur GMAT score Diana??an r u also aplying fior hbs 2+2??=

Democrates said...

Lovely article. I applied for the 2+2 program, but my chances of being admitted are somewhat low due to a well below-average GMAT score. Aside from that, I believe I presented a strong application, but everyone stresses the GMAT so much, it's hard to feel optimistic.

Natalie said...

Diana, this is terrifying. Mostly because I scheduled myself nine days to study and take - jetlagged - the GRE in between living in India and visiting China this summer.

Diana Kimball said...

Thank you for the comments, everyone! To those of you who are dying to know my score, or wondering why I didn't report it, there are two reasons. One is simply a privacy concern. The other is that, as you might have gathered from this post, I strongly believe that people obsess too much over GMAT scores--comparing themselves to one another, wondering if they're "good enough" on the basis of an easy-to-grasp number. Your GMAT score just a number, and in the end far less important than your application as a whole. In fact, it's far FAR less important than the totality of your education, achievements, and personality. Those are the things your application should be reflecting. That said, I do want to emphasize that Veritas's services did a great deal to improve my score. Veritas's GMAT prep course was incredibly effective, and my experience corroborates the improvement statistics that Veritas claims overall. As I wrote in the article, if you'd like to know more about my experience, or would like a third-party opinion of Veritas's GMAT prep program, you can email me anytime at diana (dot) kimball (at) gmail (dot) com . A score is only one paltry piece of information. If mine had been subpar, or done anything else but exceed my already-high expectations, I would have phrased the article differently. Hope that helps clarify things, and don't hesitate to email me if you have any questions.

Piyush said...

Hey Diana, Any idea if HBS has offered any interview calls to candidates who applied for 2+2? The interviews are scheduled to happen on campus from 18th August to 22nd August but there is no information about timeline for intimation calls for interviews. Please let me know. Thanks and Good Luck!!

Kartik Sharma said...

''...those of you dying to know my score or..''.are you serious.ohh cmon.....dats height of arrogance..mana tu ek hoshiyar chhori hai lekin auron ka mazak toh matt uda yaar :)

Diana Kimball said...

Hi Piyush,

Thanks so much for your comment! As far as I know, no interview offers have been made yet. They could start coming as early as this week, but will almost certainly start rolling out by August 1. I know that international students are getting a little bit worried about having enough time to buy tickets; I really hope HBS is sensitive to this. You may be interested in this forum thread: Lots of good discussion about the program, and some guesses for when interviews will start being offered. Best of luck!

Piyush said...

Thanks a lot for the response Diane. I do hope HBS considers time period required for tickets and visa for international applicants. Good Luck to you too !!!

Diana Kimball said...

Hi Kartik and everyone,

I just wanted to apologize for my tone in the comments a few comments back. I was not in the most excellent mood that day, and I think my words came across in a way that was not what I intended. What I meant to say was: I completely understand anxiety over scores. I had plenty of it myself. People aren't "dying" to know my score in particular, or anyone's score in general; they're just anxious about accessing a future they desperately want. I'm anxious about that, too. I was hoping to turn the conversation back to more "holistic" things, but I did so in a way that seemed dismissive. Once again, I apologize, and I wish everyone the best on their difficult progress through the process of really, really wanting something. It's an awful lot of hope, but all that hope makes the fear of disappointment even stronger. I am not immune to that fear. I hope the best for everyone.

Kartik Sharma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parul said...

Hi Kartik,

Good luck with the interview. Do you mind sharing your profile. Even I applied but got dinged :-(...Thanks a lot.

Kartik Sharma said...

hey parul..well you could mail me at and we can discuss there..i dont want to write it here.hope u understand..

Diana Kimball said...

An update: interview invitations for HBS 2+2 finally went out last week. You can track the news as it happened in this forum:

Congratulations to all, and I wish everyone the best. I'll be interviewing August 18; hope to see some of you there!

Listy said...

Hi Diana... Thank you for your interesting article.. Im an undergraduate student from Indonesia who is planning for my future in HBS 2+2... Your opinion about GMAT is motivating me... GMAT is only a game you are willng to play if you have strong desire to enter the world you are dreamed of,business school. I do agree with you!