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Preparing for the GMAT Verbal


Word challenged? Here are some tips for improving your score on the verbal portion of the Graduate Management Admissions Test

As a microbiologist and a native Chinese speaker, Haidong Zheng realized early on his verbal GMAT preparation might need to go beyond the traditional test prep course he had signed up for. So in September, while taking the course, Zheng started a Google group, called i-GMAT study, with 10 other non-native English speakers who were also taking the test. There members discussed the assumption-based critical reasoning questions as well as tricky reading comprehension questions.

Zheng, who lives in the New York borough of Queens, says he knew he would need a boost: In practice exams, "I would do better on logic but do poorly on verbal and sometimes you need help." And while he hasn't taken an official GMAT yet, he's confident, with the practice he's been doing, he's going to do better on the verbal portion than he would have when he started.

Clearly, non-native speakers of English are at a disadvantage when it comes to the verbal portion of the GMAT. But even people who have grown up with the language don't have it easy. Experts suggest that while even the most proficient test takers polish their verbal skills to succeed, some test takers make the mistake of relying on their gut feelings instead of studying the material.

Questions Are Slow to Change

Unlike the quantitative portion (BusinessWeek.com, 9/30/07), which has definitive answers and techniques that can be studied and learned during a review period, when it comes to verbal, cramming doesn't quite work. "It's harder to increase your reading level at this age," explains Wendy Weiss, the assistant director of MBA admissions at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, who took the exam herself several years ago. Even those verbal areas that can be studied for can take a longer time than math, Weiss says.

The approach most students take is to crack open a GMAT test book and sign up for a review course. There's no lack of material, because there are few surprises in the verbal section, explains Fanmin Guo, director of psychometric research at the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, noting, "concepts have been very stable." However, he also warns that it doesn't make the verbal part any easier; the topics just evolve in a slower fashion.

Practice Tips

Beyond books and prep courses, here are some additional ways to practice for this part of the exam.

Practice Web-Reading: Any prep book about this computer-adaptive exam will recommend that you take practice versions online. But another simple thing to do is read anything you can in an online format, says the Kaplan test prep company's GMAT Program Manager, Jennifer Kedrowski. "Reading on the computer screen is different than reading a magazine or a newspaper—you can't underline or highlight and just have to scroll through," she says. She suggests those studying for the test make a habit of reading from the computer daily.

Download a Practice Test: Starting out a study regimen with a full three-hour exam can help identify the areas you need to concentrate on right away and help tailor the rest of your study course. But there's no need to buy a book or sign up for a class just yet. Instead, take a practice exam you can download for free from sites such as mba.com. Then pay special attention to the verbal portions.

Focus on Specifics: While many prep courses offer traditional help, it's also possible to seek out extra courses on supertargeted topics such as pronouns or subject-verb agreement after a diagnostic test indicates where you need extra help. Many short tutorials are offered online and will help you practice before the exam.

Synthesize News: Because reading comprehension questions make up a third of the GMAT, Chad Troutwine, a co-founder of Veritas, a test prep and MBA consulting company, encourages his test takers to analyze anything they read in the several months before taking the exam. "Don't read it in the same casual way that you would take in a breezy novel; start reading for that critical eye," he says, and recommends test takers think about the author's arguments and main points to quickly draw a conclusion.

Brush Up on Grammar: Since the verbal section of the GMAT includes basic areas such as sentence correction, reviewing key grammar rules is always a good idea. For extra help, GMAT experts recommend looking outside the traditional prep materials. But not all information is relevant. Kedrowski recommends using the 105-page The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, as a reference, but advises test takers not to read even short texts cover-to-cover. "Don't spend time on grammar rules that the GMAT does not test," says Kedrowski. "Focus on the most-commonly tested grammar topics, such as verb usage, pronoun usage, and modifiers."

Learn the Lingo: Unlike the SAT or LSAT, the exam does not formally test on definitions, but it's a good idea to learn words often used in the GMAT, says Geoff Martz, author of Princeton Review's Cracking the GMAT. Gradually learning tough words can help get you through parts of the test such as the reading comprehension portion more quickly and leave time to answer more questions, he adds. Sign up for a free word-of-the-day service like the Business Word du Jour on princetonreview.com, and it will send terms such as "horizontal move" and "padding" that have popped up on the test to your inbox.

Join an Online Group: In addition to participating in traditional forums, organizing a group of people and signing up for a service such as Google or Yahoo! groups can help to tailor your studies as well as give you a chance for more support. Zheng created his group especially for ESL test takers who couldn't find time to meet face to face. "It's flexible and you don't need to spend time to [physically] get together," says Zheng who also says discussing strategies helped him practice his writing skills (for the analytical portion of the exam). But, he adds, it's important for GMAT takers to find a dedicated group of people who will continue to log in and provide feedback even after taking their own test.

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