How to Prepare for the Executive Assessment
Looking to take the Executive Assessment (EA) exam? The Executive Assessment, launched in 2016, is a very streamlined cousin of the GMAT. It was designed with Executive MBA (EMBA) candidates in mind—but the EA has broadened its reach and you can now take it for many regular MBA and other business Master’s programs.
First, if you’re not already familiar with the basics about the Executive Assessment—go take a look at that post now and then come back here. No worries; I can wait.
Next, if you are already familiar with the GMAT, then you can jump-start your understanding of the EA by taking a look at a separate post that covers the differences between the GMAT and the EA. There aren’t many differences, but they are important. (If you aren’t already familiar with the GMAT, you don’t need to read that other post; just keep reading here.)
Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:
- What you need to learn for the Executive Assessment
- What Executive Assessment study materials are available?
- How much time do you need to study?
- Setting up your Executive Assessment studies
- Time management on the Executive Assessment
What do I need to learn for the Executive Assessment?
How long has it been since you were in school? Overall, I’d really view your test preparation as your first grad school course. You have to learn actual content, of course, but also use this time to get yourself back into a strong study routine before school starts. Figure out how to prioritize your studies and set up a study plan that works for your strengths and weaknesses.
Many of the concepts you’ll learn will actually help you in grad school. You’ll need to relearn certain math formulas, concepts, principles you learned in school. You’ll also need to learn some grammar and logical reasoning skills.
You’ll need to understand the EA works, including the different question types—and the best strategies for approaching them. And you’ll need to master the best practices for managing your time during the test and making strong executive decisions to get you to the score you want.
One more thing: You’re mostly going to need to study from materials that were built for the GMAT, since very few EA-specific study materials exist. (Does that seem odd to you? Here’s the business case: At the moment, fewer than 10,000 EA exams are given every year, compared to a couple of hundred thousand GMAT exams. Until the EA market gets a lot bigger, companies aren’t going to invest a ton in making EA-specific materials. Even the official test makers have yet to publish a physical book—all official study materials are available only in digital form.)
But you can use GMAT materials because 100% of the problem types and the vast majority of the content areas are identical; we’ll talk about this more later on.
What Executive Assessment study materials are available?
Let’s start with free resources. The official test makers (GMAC) make a small number of official practice problems available for free on their site—create an account to gain access. Manhattan Prep offers a free EA Starter Kit; again, just create a free account to get started.
If you take a course, that course should include study materials and a syllabus with specific homework assignments (we have our own course here at Manhattan Prep). If you study on your own or with friends, take some time at the start to gather your study resources and develop your own syllabus.
GMAC also sells a variety of official study tools. I definitely recommend getting the 4 practice exams and I’m also a fan of the online bank of 300 practice problems—100 problems for each of the three exam sections: Integrated Reasoning (IR), Quant, and Verbal. They also have a product that contains 50 IR problems (but not Q or V).
I wouldn’t buy the extra IR-only tool to start, but if you want more IR practice later, it’s there. (Note: If you are familiar with Official Guide books from the GMAT or other grad school exams: There is no equivalent book for the EA.)
The official materials have the best practice problems, but you don’t learn how to get better just by doing a ton of problems. To improve, you’re going to need some materials from test prep companies—that is, the people who are actually in the business of teaching you how to improve your score. I’ll tell you about Manhattan Prep’s study resources, but I’m obviously biased, so please also do your own research.
- Integrated Reasoning & Essay guide (published September 2019). Covers the IR section for both the EA and the GMAT. This is the only print book available that does directly address the EA (as of right now, when I’m writing this); we cover full strategies for both of the exams. (Ignore the essay chapter; that applies only to the GMAT.)
- All the Quant and All the Verbal. These two guides are GMAT-focused. You just need to be aware of certain differences—but the vast majority of the content applies to both exams. (If you want all three guides, buy them as a set—you’ll pay less, and the set comes with some additional online resources that you’ll likely want to use.)
The EA and the GMAT have all the same problem types, and almost all of the content is identical. Here are the two big differences between the exams:
- Quant: No* geometry! (*The EA does test Coordinate Plane, so do that chapter in the geometry unit; ignore all of the other geometry chapters. Yay!)
- Time management: I’ll talk more about time management strategies later in this post; for now, just know that how you manage time is different on the two exams.
The Verbal and IR sections are 100% identical in terms of both problem types and content tested.
How much time do I need to study?
The EA is not an easy exam; you are going to have to work for it. But grad school isn’t easy either—and preparing for the EA will help you get ready to be back in school.
Most people are going to need between 2 and 5 months to prepare for the EA. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you make your plan:
(a) How many hours a week can you (realistically) study?
- If possible, spend about 5 to 15 hours a week. (Fewer than about 5 and you’ll struggle to build momentum; more than about 15 and you’ll start to burn out.)
- Have some shorter and some longer study sessions. You can have 5-10 minute bursts to study flashcards, but you also need some 60 to 90 minute sessions where you really dive deep on a topic or take a full-length practice test. And you can have some 30 to 60 minute sessions in which you complete a discrete assignment—read a chapter, do some practice problems, and so on.
- Your study needs to be effective—no studying while also trying to sit in a meeting or have dinner with the family. Mute your phone. Focus on your homework.
(b) How long has it been since you were last in school?
- Aiming for an Executive MBA? It’s probably been at least 10 years. The good news: Your longer work experience counts for more, so you don’t need as high of a score on the EA.
- Aiming for a regular MBA or a specialized master’s? Your last math class may have been more recent—but be aware that you likely need a higher score on the exam due to the type of program you want to attend. (Still, you likely don’t need as high of a score as you would if you took the GMAT or GRE.)
(c) What kind of score do you hope to get on the exam?
- As of this writing, EMBA programs are typically asking for a 150 or higher; a 150 is around the 50th percentile. For these types of programs, it’s usually the case that you just need to hit that target—that is, you don’t have to aim for a 155 or 160 to be more “competitive.” Meet the 150 threshold and then they’ll use the rest of your application to make the real admissions decision.
- A number of specialized Master’s and regular MBA programs also accept the EA now. These programs typically want to see something higher, in the 155 range. Many of these programs also want to see a 12 or higher on the Quant section of the exam, specifically.
- Do contact your desired schools to ask about their EA requirements; they’re happy to tell you.
If you can stick to a consistent 12 to 15 hours a week of effective study, and you haven’t completely forgotten how to do any math on paper, and you aren’t looking for an especially high score, then you might be able to aim for about 6 to 8 weeks of study. Most people are going to have at least one sticking point though—less time to study each week, you’ve forgotten all the math you ever learned, you do want a higher-than-average score, etc. In that case, plan for more like 2 to 5 months.
Setting Up Your Studies
Most people who are just starting out focus more of their time on getting up to speed on the math. It’s probably been a while since you last did math on paper but you haven’t forgotten how to read English, so the Verbal section doesn’t seem as daunting. And you need the quant concepts for both the Quant and Integrated Reasoning sections of the exam.
That’s fine. But remember that your Verbal score is equally weighted in your Total score, so you are going to want to do some good study in that area as well. Don’t leave those points on the table.
I’m going to recommend the same general structure that we use in our courses. Start with Quant foundations, particularly all those math topics that you learned when you were 12 (and promptly forgot). Do you remember how to add fractions or solve an equation? Does PEMDAS, aka order of operations, ring a vague bell? These topics are living deep in your brain—you just have to do some work to bring them back to your working memory.
Give yourself at least a couple of weeks to work through the foundations. You’ll be really rusty at first but you’ll speed up as you get further down the path. (If you’re in our course, we’ve already built this foundational work into your syllabus. If you haven’t started yet, ideally, choose a class that doesn’t start a few weeks from now so you can get a head start on this work. Once you sign up, you get access to all of the study materials right away.)
When your brain is sick of math, dive into Verbal or IR. First, study how the different verbal and IR problem types function. When you feel like you can actually do math on paper again (you don’t have to feel great—it just has to mostly work), dive into the three main strategy guides (IR & Essay, All the Quant, and All the Verbal). At this point, take a practice test and use the results to decide what to prioritize from now until your next practice test (in a few weeks or a month).
Did you know that your brain actually learns better when you move about among topics? That forces your brain to better encode the material—and that makes it easier for you to recall the information when you need it again later. (It feels easier to do a deep dive into just one topic, but that’s like having an easy workout. If you’re not a little sore afterwards, you didn’t really flex your muscles or push yourself hard enough.)
So plan to study a topic for 30 to 60 minutes and then move on to something else. Loop back around later to the first topic. And mix up the different sections and question types—some verbal, then some quant, and so on.
Also do some study most days of the week (ideally 4 to 6 days). On some of those days, you might study for only 30 minutes; on others, you’ll study longer. When you study for longer than an hour, give yourself a solid break (at least 15 minutes) after an hour of study.
Don’t try to cram 6 hours of study into your Saturday. Your brain can only learn so much in a day or even in one sitting. Then it needs to go do something else in order to make good memories of everything you learned before you can start to layer more information on top. The two best memory-building activities: sleep and physical movement. (That’s not anecdotal; that’s backed up by science.)
Go for a walk. Do the dishes. Stretch. Take a 20-minute nap! Then come back and study some more.
Keep yourself on track by mapping out a study calendar at the beginning of each week. I put actual appointments on my calendar. Here’s an example:
Day 1: 30 minutes Verbal (Sentence Correction); 1 hour Quant (Percents)
Day 2: 45m Quant (Data Sufficiency); 45m IR (Tables)
Day 3: 30m Quant (Fractions and Ratios); 1h Verbal (Critical Reasoning)
Day 4: Day off
Day 5: 1h morning and 1h evening: Review Quant and IR topics studied earlier
Day 6: 1h morning and 1h afternoon: Review Verbal and IR topics studied earlier
Day 7: 1.5h Do a problem set and review; 45m What went well and what needs more work? Set up plan for next week.
For the upcoming week, plan out each study appointment with specific assignments / topics. (If you’re taking our course, pull individual tasks from your syllabus. Prioritize based on your strengths and weaknesses.) If you’re making your own study plan, have a rough idea of what you may do next week, but wait to see how this week goes before you set your day-to-day plan for next week. You may have to spend more time reviewing a certain topic—or you may discover that you did better than expected in a certain area and you can do more or add in a topic that you weren’t originally planning on covering next week.
In a couple of weeks—once you know the basic question types that appear on the EA—take a practice test (GMAC sells 4 official practice tests). You won’t know a lot of the content yet. That’s okay. Take the practice test anyway.
Afterwards, dig in and analyze. What are your overall strengths and weaknesses? Where were you close—you knew how to do it but made a mistake, or you didn’t know how to do it, but you fully understand it now? Also pay more attention to any areas you’d studied before the exam—how did they go? What did you learn well and what needs a review?
This gives you a starting list of the best areas to prioritize over the next few weeks until you take your next practice test. There are also a couple of areas to de-prioritize: The things you’re already good at and the things that you’re really not good at. Don’t prioritize the hardest material—not now. Start with whatever seems easier to you to learn.
Remember, you don’t need a perfect score. In fact, you’re going to get to your target score while you still have quite a number of weaknesses. So you might as well let those weaknesses be the things that you find the hardest to learn. You’re going to discover that you never need to learn some of them, because you’ll get to your target score first!
Now that you’ve got a good idea of what to prioritize and what not to prioritize, grab your calendar and map out next week’s study plan. Take another practice test every few weeks (depending on how much you’re studying each week). Use the data as a backward and forward-looking measure: Backward to gauge how you’re progressing with what you’ve already studied and forward to continue to pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses so you can devise the most effective plan from now until your next practice test.
Practice Under Timed Conditions
The real test is timed, so it’s crucial to practice EA-format problems under test-like conditions. If you give yourself the luxury of spending twice as long on a problem when you’re “just practicing,” your brain is going to fall into the same habits on test day—and that’s really going to mess up your score. If you don’t practice the executive reasoning decisions exactly as you need to make them on test day…then you’re not going to know how best to make those decisions when it counts.
When you’re first learning certain concepts, or doing skill-drill-building type activities, you don’t need to time yourself. But when you do problems from the official EA problem set tool, time yourself the first time you do them. Hold yourself to test conditions: Pick an answer and mentally move on when you’d want to do so on the real test.
After you’ve picked your answer, feel free to try the problem again—that’s a great idea, in fact. The second time, take as long as you want. In fact, make it open book—look up anything you want. If you can figure out for yourself how the problem works, you’ll be much more likely to remember what to do if you see something similar on the real test.
Time Management on the Executive Assessment (EA)
Each of the three sections is 30 minutes long. The IR section has 12 problems and the Quant and Verbal sections have 14 problems each. On average, you’ll have a little over 2 minutes to solve each problem.
As I mentioned earlier, though, you’re not even going to try to solve everything (though you are going to put in an answer for everything). The test is literally built such that you don’t have enough time! Instead, plan to bail immediately—guess within the first 15-30 seconds—on 2 or 3 problems in each section. Then, on average, you’ll have about 2.5 minutes per Verbal and Quant problem and a whole 3 minutes per Integrated Reasoning problem. That will make a huge difference in your performance on those problems.
Each test section (IR, Verbal, Quant) is delivered in two separate panels with half of the problems in each panel—that is, you’ll have six or seven problems in each panel. Definitely bail on one problem in each panel. And what happens when you see another really annoying problem but you’ve already bailed on one in that panel? Bail again. You’re going to bail on three total in each section, so you have the luxury of an extra bail in one of the panels for that section.
Before test day, have a list of Bail Categories—the types of problems or content areas that you know in advance that you don’t want to do. I personally bail immediately on combinatorics and on what I deem Too Annoying To Consider problems. An example of the latter: A Roman numeral problem (way more work than a normal problem) that has 4+ variables (seriously?) plus some other annoying feature, such as fractions or absolute value symbols or the like. Basically, pay attention to what annoys you. When too many annoying details are piled into a single problem, bail immediately.
Marking Questions for Later
What if you see something that’s borderline—you’re not sure yet whether you want to bail? Or maybe you can do this one, but it looks like it’s going to take some extra time. As you’re working within any one panel, you’re allowed to flag questions; you can return to them as long as you are still in that same panel. You can see a list of all of the problems and just click to jump right to a flagged one. This is a fantastic feature but you need to practice to know how best to use it—and what not to do.
First, there’s an enormous difference between marking a problem and bailing on a problem. When you bail, you’re deciding that you never want to do this, so don’t flag it. You’ve made the executive call. Pick a random answer and forget about it. (Do put in an answer—there’s no penalty for answering incorrectly.)
But when you do want to come back to something later, flag it and put in a random answer right now. It’s possible that you might not make it back later; if so; you’ll already have your guess in the system.
Here’s how this works in more detail for each section of the EA.
Time Management: Integrated Reasoning
There are 12 problems total in the IR section, 6 in each panel. You’re going to bail on at least 1 and possibly 2 in each panel, leaving you 4 or 5 problems per panel to solve. You’ll have 30 minutes to finish both panels, so aim to use about half the total time (15 minutes) for each of the two panels.
First, let’s establish the bail parameters. You’re not going to try this one at all—not even an educated guess. Don’t flag it for later. Pick your favorite letter and forget about it forever.
These kinds of problems are good bail candidates:
- Big weaknesses; things that stress you out
- The text makes no sense to you or you have no idea how to approach it
- You do have an idea for what to do but it would take way too long (more than a minute longer than the average time for that problem type)
Next, let’s establish the “flag for later” parameters. First, be stingy. At the very most, mark two in one panel—and try to keep it to just one. This is not a leisurely exam; you’ll be lucky if you have time to come back even to one problem. You don’t want to spend a minute of your precious time trying to figure out which of 3 marked problems you want to try right now. Chances are, you’ll run out of time before you have a chance to finish any one of them.
And don’t forget to enter a random guess when you flag the problem. If you don’t get back to it later, at least you’ve already locked in your guess.
These kinds of problems are good flag candidates:
- You know how to do this but it looks harder than average / will take a little longer than average (30 to 60 seconds longer than average for that problem type)
- You’re thinking, “I know exactly how to do this one! It’s right on the tip of my tongue!! But I’m blanking right now.”
For the “takes a little longer” category, you’re just forestalling the possibility that this one ends up taking even longer than you think and then you run out of time with one or two problems left to go. Save this one for last.
For the “Ugh, I know this!!” category, it’s sparking a memory in your brain, but you can’t recall that memory immediately. Have you ever been trying to remember something and you set it aside and, 5 minutes later, when you’re thinking about something else, it suddenly comes to you? Give yourself a chance to have that happen right now. (If it never comes, that’s fine. You’ve put in a guess. Keep going.)
Picture the whole process: The first IR panel appears on the screen. In that panel, you’re going to bail fast on one (and never come back to it). Let’s say you flag one more for later. So on your first pass through that panel, you’re actually going to solve four of the problems.
Now you’re at the end of that first panel. Something will pop up on the screen asking whether you want to review any of the problems in that panel or whether you want to move onto the next panel. Glance at the timer in the upper right screen; it’s counting down from 30 minutes, so it will tell you how much time you have left. The halfway mark is 15 minutes.
Most IR questions typically require 2-3 minutes. If the screen tells you that you have 16 or more minutes left, calculate how much extra time you have till it gets to 15 minutes. Pull up your flagged problem. Let’s say that you have exactly 2 minutes extra.
Go for it for about a minute or so. Are you getting anywhere? Think you can finish it off within another minute or so? If so, go for it. If it’s going to take a lot longer or you’re lost, guess. Glance at the timer again—how are you doing?
If you have fewer than 16 minutes left, either at this point or the first time you check the timer, don’t go back to anything else in this panel. Close out this panel and move to the second one.
Time Management: Verbal and Quant
The Verbal and Quant sections are very similar, but you’ll have 7 problems per panel this time rather than 6. You’ll still have a total of 30 minutes (or about 15 minutes per panel), so you’ll need to work a bit faster on these problems. Quant and Verbal problems are generally not as complicated as IR problems, though, so that’s okay.
Hold to the same bail and flag parameters: Bail on one per panel (with the possibility of an extra bail in one of the two panels for a section) and flag one per panel (max two).
At times, you’ll be able to solve some Quant and Verbal problems in 1.5 or 2 minutes—that is, you’ll save some time—so you don’t need to be quite as strict on your time management when deciding to move to the second panel. If you have:
- 14 or fewer minutes left…Do cut yourself off. Go straight to the next panel.
- More than 14 minutes left…You have a choice: Return to a flagged problem in the first panel or move to the second panel?
In the second scenario, you’ll need to gauge two things: How much time is left? How good of an opportunity is that flagged problem?
Take 15 seconds to examine the flagged problem. Glance at the timer again. If you have a solid plan to solve and confidently think you’ll still have more than 14 minutes left when you’re done solving, go for it.
If you’re still blanking on it or you know it’s going to take more time than you have or you find yourself thinking any variation of, “But I should know how to do this…” don’t proceed. Make a random guess and move to the next panel.
If you’re coming to the EA from the GMAT, make sure you educate yourself on the major differences between the two exams. There aren’t many—but you will need to make some adjustments, especially in the area of time management.
Plan for a minimum of 4 weeks and probably closer to 6 to 8 (since you have lots of other things going on in your life too, right?). If you need a higher-than-average score or are extra-busy and can’t study much, you may need closer to 3 to 4 months.
Study IR, Verbal, and Quant pretty equally—you’re looking to get fairly even scores across all three sections, as much as possible. If you’re going for an EMBA, your total score goal (as of this writing) is 150+, and if you’re going for a regular MBA, your score goal is 155+—but do some research yourself whenever you are reading this to make sure things haven’t changed.
You’re going to want to practice from the official EA tools available—but you’re also going to need some test-prep-company materials to teach you the underlying skills and content for the exam. And you’re going to need to set up a study plan for yourself.
Practice time management strategies during practice tests so you’re prepared to make quick decisions about where to spend your brain power on test day.
KEEP READING: What’s Tested on the Executive Assessment?
For information about our Executive Assessment Complete Course click here.
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.