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No prep, no clue. How I took the GMAT cold

Ed Sweetman/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Graduate Management Admission Test, better known as the GMAT, is hard.

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) is celebrating 60 years administering the test in 2014. Nine million tests have been taken since its launch in 1954, and GMAC says test-takers spend upwards of 200 hours studying for it.

But what happens if someone doesn't study at all?

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I registered with less than 200 hours (total) before my test was going to start. Practice tests? No, thank you. Webinars? Not for me. Tutors? Not a chance.

I'm a writer, with a journalism degree, and I was going to take the world's most difficult business-school entrance exam cold – colder than a January day in Saskatchewan.

I did, however, ask a couple of questions to friends who had written the GMAT about how they were feeling leading up to it. They laughed when I told them what I was doing.

Trevor Reaske, formerly with GMAC, told me the GMAT is "designed in such a way that you cannot show up and expect to do well. You need to study."

Tracey Briggs, GMAC's director of media relations, was slightly more supportive. "This is not recommended by us," she said, chuckling. "In general, people who are taking it do prepare. But, you don't need to come from a business background in order to do well."

She ended our call by saying, "Well, God bless you."

Thankfully, Ms. Briggs also explained what the test entailed. Up to that point, I had no idea.

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There are four sections – an essay (I could do that), integrated reasoning (still not sure what that even means), quantitative (that word just scares me) and verbal (I could do that, too). Each section is timed – actually, everything is timed, including bathroom breaks – with the two beginning sections being 30 minutes and the latter two, 75 minutes. A little clock in the top right-hand corner of the computer screen on which you take the test, ticks away as each section goes by. Surprisingly, I was able to go to the bathroom unattended. You're constantly monitored, otherwise.

On a recent rainy Thursday, I was armed with just a bottle of water and a granola bar – which I ended up having to keep locked away with all my other possessions – and the existing knowledge in my head.

I walked into a small room on the fifth floor of a nondescript office building in Ottawa to set up shop for the next 3 1/2 hours.

Before even writing, there was much prep work to be done, although not of the studying variety for me. I had to have a headshot taken – "Glasses off please, sir," – and I had to scan my palms – both left and right, three times each. (The scans were done for security – any time test-takers leave the room, they are checked out and back in with palm scans.)

The test is completed on a computer in a cubicle where you must work in silence. I couldn't help but think, typing away, that the test is really getting you ready for the work environment before you even get into business school.

Regardless, there were eight cubicles occupied by my fellow test-takers (who probably studied) and I was off.

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The first section was an essay. Easy, I thought. This would not be the first time I would be wrong that day.

I had to write about (the fictional) Take Heart Fitness Centre. Turns out, the company opened a pool and increased its usage by members by 12 per cent. Now it wants to open different facilities for the next couple of years – a tennis court and a mini-golf course, for example – in order to drive memberships and revenue.

Okay. Now what?

I had to describe the argument. Explain what's missing. Talk about the business. (I think.)

One down, three to go.

The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test, meaning, as one of my friends told me, "basically the questions get easier if you get one wrong, but harder if you get one right." I was surprised "2 + 2 = x" didn't show up by the time I was finished.

Math was never my strong suit – I went to journalism school, after all. Graphs, tables, and charts … I was lost. I read questions, I reread questions, I thought about the snacks I brought, realized I needed to actually answer the questions, and basically just landed on "B" for what felt like six questions in a row.

Thankfully, it was time for a break. Eight minutes went by quickly – especially when a minute on either end of the break is used to sign you in and out with the palm scan, but I needed to shake off the first half of the test. Up next was Quantitative Reasoning and more math.

This time, it included axes, integers, fractions, rectangles inside of circles and circumferences. Lost, again.

Was this test in Chinese?

I answered quickly, because I realized if I didn't know the answer, I wasn't going to waste time reading the questions again and again. I scribbled away with reckless abandon – I think I even attempted some long division. I was impressed with my ability to remember BEDMAS (the formula for the order in which one solves a mathematical problem: brackets, exponents, division, multiplication, addition, subtraction) but it was trying.

Finally, I got to the verbal section, and was back reading English again.

I was flying. Reading and re-reading passages of fictional copy, deciphering arguments and logic and sentence correction (see: editing), and I was finished with 20 minutes to spare.

I found out later I actually didn't have to send my scores to any school, but I decided to click on my alma matter – Carleton University in Ottawa – just for laughs. Sorry, Sprott School of Business.

The results popped up instantly, and my official marks will be sent in soon.

Integrated reasoning: Two out of eight (12th percentile).

Quantitative: 14 out of 60 (fourth percentile).

Verbal: 23 out of 60 (31st percentile)

Total: 360 out of 800 (eighth percentile)

Like I said, I'm not a numbers guy, but, it looks like I failed. Having no real expectations going in, I wasn't disappointed. The test is supposed to be hard, and, considering I didn't study, it certainly was.

To put my numbers in perspective, the average GMAT score for applicants to McGill University in Montreal – the highest in the country – is 670. The average score across business schools in Canada is in the upper-500s. (Athabasca University in Alberta, and Laurentian University in Sudbury, don't require applicants to write it.)

A fellow journalism graduate who actually wrote the GMAT three times thought it certainly helped evaluate his ability to make complex decisions under pressure, but he told me he felt that's what business school itself was supposed to teach you.

"It automatically eliminates candidates who just aren't good at taking tests," he continued.

Maybe that's why my score was so low after all.

Mr. Reaske had told me that about 30 per cent of the people who take the test end up taking it again, as most schools take your highest score.

So, if anyone asks, I'll be busy brushing up on high-school math.

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