I Took The GMAT Online. Here’s What Happened.

Have you heard? You can take the GMAT online! And my colleague Eric Garthoffner and I did just that on Monday, April 20th. Are you ready? I have a lot to tell you. 

First a little housekeeping: The online exam will be available until (at least) Monday June 15th; GMAC, the organization that makes the GMAT, will reevaluate the timeline as we get closer to June. Depending upon your location, it may be the case that you’ll have the option to take the GMAT in a testing center or to take the GMAT Online.

So…How was it???

I was super nervous when Quant started. But after I took some deep breaths, worked my way through a few problems, and finally calmed down, the GMAT Online was actually fine—for me. (Eric’s experience was frustrating, unfortunately. More on that in a bit.)

Afterwards, I kept thinking all the way back to 1997, when the GMAT first moved from paper to computer. This whole situation feels very similar to me. We all freaked out back then, too, because the whole point of a standardized test is that you know exactly what to expect…and we didn’t know what to expect. That makes an already stressful experience even more stressful.

But we just needed some time to get used to the new format, some brainstorming to figure out how best to take the exam given the new features and constraints, and some practice to make those strategies our new habits. I think the same is true now. In fact, I can imagine a world where we actually have the choice to take the exam in a testing center or at home, and we all just have to decide which pros and cons we prefer in making our choice. Once I get fully used to this online whiteboard (a lot more on that later), I think my biggest con for the online version is going to be that someone’s watching me on a webcam in my home, not the fact that I have to do math on screen.

So my first big takeaway is really just this: You can do this—but you definitely do need some time and practice to get used to it.

Which leads us to takeaway number two: You’ve got to practice with the online whiteboard. A lot. If I hadn’t been able to practice in advance of the test, I have no doubt that my score would have dropped significantly—easily 100 points, if not more. So if you are going to take the GMAT Online or even just think you might, you need to start practicing today with the online whiteboard.

I’m really happy to report that the Manhattan Prep version built by our amazing dev team functions pretty much exactly like the real thing. We’ve made it available to everyone for free and you can use it with any prep materials—ours, official materials, or anything from any other test prep company.

We’ve added the whiteboard to all of our Atlas syllabi, including our free GMAT Starter Kit syllabus. If you’ve got any type of Atlas syllabus, the Manhattan Prep Online Whiteboard is already waiting for you on the CAT exam page. Note: You have to be logged in already for that link to work. (If you don’t yet have an Atlas account, sign up for a free account and you’ll get access to both the online whiteboard and a free practice CAT exam.)

How’d you do?

I don’t know yet—we don’t get our scores at the end of the GMAT Online. We’re supposed to get them within 7 business days. So I’ll update this as soon as I know, but here’s my gut feeling. I think there’s a decent chance that I still scored in the 99th percentile overall, but I might have missed it by a little. (To be fair, I always feel this way at the end of a test, before I see my scores.)

I think my Verbal score will be in my usual range. I’m not sure about my Quant score—I might have been fine, but it might have dropped a little. (More on this later.)

I might have lost a point or two on Integrated Reasoning; I didn’t understand one problem and I think I messed up another. But neither of those had anything to do with taking the test from home or using an online whiteboard to do my work.

How does the GMAT Online work?

A few logistical things before I tell you about my experience and that of my colleague. 

  • The GMAT Online is available April 20th to June 15th, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Accommodations for extended time (1.5x or 2x) or extended breaks will be available in a few weeks (exact date still to be announced).
  • At this time, you can take the GMAT Online only once. This exam will not count toward the maximum-5-tests-in-12-months limit or the 8-test lifetime limit. If the GMAT Online continues past June 15th, it’s possible that GMAC will revisit the only-once restriction.
  • You’ll pay $200 (a $75 discount from the regular price in the US). Your fee also allows you to report your scores to up to 5 schools. For the GMAT Online, you do not have to choose those 5 schools in advance of your test; you can choose them after you see your scores (about 7 days after the test).
  • You can take the test on a Mac or PC. You can use a mouse or trackpad to do your scratch work on the online whiteboard; you can’t use a stylus or any kind of writing tool. It’s still not clear whether you can use your finger on a touchscreen laptop; once we get clarity, we’ll let you know. Here’s a full list of the system requirements.

What are the tech setup and security check like?

The day before my exam, I completed the security and tech check; it took maybe 10 minutes and I didn’t have any issues. Eric first tried a few days before but wasn’t able to get the tech check to work successfully. He tried again the day before and it worked fine, so we’re thinking he just jumped the gun a little.

About 10 minutes before my appointed start time, I logged into my mba.com account and navigated to start the exam. My mic failed the test the first time—I think because I didn’t say anything…but then, the screen didn’t tell me to. I ran the test again and made sure to talk when I saw the mic icon come up on the screen and it worked. I had to take pictures of my ID and my room (all directions); I had a choice to use my webcam or my phone.

I then waited about 5 to 10 minutes until the proctor arrived. She talked me through everything, answered all of my questions, and actually told me good luck (and I felt like she meant it!). She was patient and didn’t seem rushed or like she wanted to get done with me and move on to the next person. Eric started a little over an hour after me, but he waited about 35 minutes for his proctor. (He actually grabbed his phone to call in because he thought the screen must have frozen, but they came on as he was about to call.) He also said his proctor was nice and competent.

From here, Eric and I continued to have quite different experiences, unfortunately. I was taking the exam within 5 minutes of the proctor’s arrival. Eric had tech issues and didn’t start for about 60 to 90 minutes (he’d had to put his phone away and his computer showed only the test software, so he’s not sure exactly how long it took). We both took the test on 15-inch Macbook Pros; Eric’s was the new version (oversized trackpad and touch bar) while mine was old school (regular trackpad, no touch bar).

They did offer to allow Eric to reschedule so that they could troubleshoot without him having to wait, but he wanted to take the exam, so he said he’d stick it out. Given that the exam can be easily scheduled any time, some students might prefer to come back later the same day or the next day; others, though, are going to want to get it done when they’d planned to get it done. Tech issues are going to hit some percentage of the testing population, so we recommend thinking a little in advance about what you’d prefer to do if something unexpected happens during your test. (This was unfortunately not the end of Eric’s tech problems—more later.)

For Mac users, just in case: Eric’s machine was running something called Screen Shot; they asked him to shut it down, but it wasn’t an app, just some sort of background process, so he couldn’t shut it down from the Force Quit window (which they told him how to navigate to). After an hour or so of (attempted) troubleshooting, he asked the proctors to give him back control of his machine. He found the offending process in Activity Monitor and shut it down. That worked and he was finally able to start his exam. If you’re on a Mac, we recommend checking your Activity Monitor just before the exam and shutting down this process if you see it. (And toss a thank you to Eric for being your guinea pig to figure this out. 🙂

How was the Quant section?

Finally: The Exam. You have a few minutes of instructions at the beginning. You do have to click through about 7 screens, but you likely already know everything they say. You also have to say “I agree” to the statement that they normally make you physically sign in the testing center. It says that you won’t cheat or tell other people about the test problems you see, among other things.

At this time, you’ll also see a little toolbar window pop up at the top of the screen. It shows your own video. (Eric found this distracting enough to drag it off of the screen. I didn’t realize we could drag it so left it sitting there the whole time.) The toolbar also has a Chat icon to get the proctor’s attention and a Whiteboard icon to pull up the whiteboard. If you don’t want to see your video, drag it to the left so that your video is offscreen but you can still access these two buttons easily.

I found it really hard to concentrate for the first few problems of the Quant section. I was distracted by myself on the video, by the fact that I knew someone was watching me through my webcam, and by the fact that I was annoyed that I hadn’t noticed that I could have opened the whiteboard earlier, while going through the instructions. I didn’t open it until just shortly before I started the section. So learn from me: Open up the whiteboard as soon as you see that toolbar. You can play with it a little and set up your page for quant.

You can resize it and move it wherever you want on screen. If you close and reopen it, your work will still be there. (In fact, your work stays even when you switch sections.) There’s a bit of work to be done to figure out the right size and placement on screen for you; figure that out before your exam (again, learn from me not figuring this out in advance). I’ll shoot a video to show you what I did and discuss various options.

Speaking of setting up your page, I recreated a version of our Yellow Pad time management strategy for the Quant section. It works the same way it does on the actual yellow pad, with a slightly different flow; I’ll record a video showing exactly how to set it up and use it.

I’d practiced with our white board for about five to seven hours before my exam, and I felt…well, I did feel a lot more comfortable than I did when I was one hour into my practice, but I didn’t feel totally comfortable. I bailed on two Quant problems that I think I would have done on regular scratch paper, and I didn’t test some cases on three Data Sufficiency problems as thoroughly as I normally would have done—I basically made the call earlier than I usually would. So this is why I’m thinking my quant score might have dropped a bit. (I did end up finishing the section about three minutes early, by the way, so I could have taken a little more time on one or two of those problems.)

But I also think that, with maybe a week’s worth of figuring out how to adjust my working style, I’ll be able to do anything on the online whiteboard. It’s interesting—back in 1997, we all screamed bloody murder because we had to go from writing right next to the problem to writing on a piece of paper while the problem was up on the screen. We were all convinced that we’d be slowed down way too much and that this would never work…until we practiced enough to figure out how to make the appropriate adjustments.

And we’ve come full circle in one way: I can write immediately next to the problem again. Multiple times, I caught myself writing too much—I’m used to having to really carefully transcribe a given equation before I start working on it, for example, but now I can just position the whiteboard immediately below the given equation on screen and start working from there.

Eric didn’t practice with the whiteboard in advance and he found it too hard to figure out in the moment, so he decided to see how far he could get with mental math. That’s right: He took the entire quant section without writing anything down. (He told me he’s been practicing mental visualization / a mental whiteboard for some time now, so he used that. I could never do this; I’d break down crying and abandon my exam within 10 minutes. More power to Eric. 😊)

My real takeaway here is what I said earlier: You must practice—a lot—with the online whiteboard before you get in there.

How Was Verbal?

Verbal is my stronger section and I had no problems with it. I was used to how everything worked by now and I also don’t write nearly as much as I do for the quant section, so the whiteboard was easier to use. I actually found it faster to type my notes for RC than to handwrite them—but then I type quickly and my handwriting is really messy. I usually finish Verbal early and I did so this time, as well.

It was also easy to set up a little grid to keep track of my answer eliminations. I wrote ABCDE vertically four times and did 9 questions per grid (I’ll show this in the video, too). The whiteboard stayed up between sections and still had all my writing from the Quant section. I cleared it before I started in on Verbal. I did have to reposition the whiteboard a bit when doing an RC passage, but other than that, the whiteboard was fine for Verbal.

The main issue I had was due to the fact that there was no break between Quant and Verbal. Partway through, I started to get some pain in my neck and shoulders and I realized it was because I’d spent more than an hour staring down at my laptop screen in a very fixed position. I had to massage my neck and shoulders and roll my head around multiple times throughout the rest of that section.

I also experienced a bug that I’d noticed with our own version of the online whiteboard: Sometimes, the text box tool wraps around with just a word per line and you get this tall column of text. Don’t hit enter if this happens! Leave the box open and just resize it—stretch it out to the right. This happened to me quite a bit when using our own version of the tool, but it only happened maybe 3 or 4 times on the real thing. I’m not sure whether I just got lucky on the real thing or whether our version is less stable for some reason.

And IR?

A screen came up saying that IR was the next section. It also said that I could take an optional, 5-minute break after reading the IR instructions. The bottom of this screen said to click Next to start the IR section, so I didn’t, because I wanted to take that break first…but I wasn’t sure what to do next.

I clicked on the chat button to call the proctor. I waited about 15 seconds before someone replied—not the same person who’d helped me at the beginning. I only used chat to talk to this second person. I asked whether I could leave my desk to take a break and she gave me permission. While I was chatting to her, I saw the screen change and start counting down 1 minute. 

I didn’t fully read it because the chat box was in the way, but I saw that it said to click to take the break. I’m assuming that, if I hadn’t clicked within that minute, it would have automatically gone ahead to the IR section. So now you know: You can click on the first IR screen to go to the next screen and it will ask you to confirm that you want to take the break. (Do take the break! You’ll need it.)

I got up and went into my kitchen to get something to drink. This was the only time that I noticed how nice it was to be taking the test at home. Up until this point, I might as well have been in the testing center; I wasn’t aware of anything outside of my screen. I also spent a couple of minutes leaning against a wall with a tennis ball between my shoulders and the wall to try to loosen them up. That actually made me late for the next section of the test—I ended up losing about 30 seconds of the IR section.

Eric had a much bigger problem at this point. When he came back from his break, there was an error message on the screen. He could still communicate with the proctor, but the test itself had frozen or something. He stayed on with them for between 60 and 90 minutes as they tried to troubleshoot, but they were unable to get the test to start again. 

They offered to allow him to reschedule at several points along the way; he asked whether he’d be able to keep his Q and V performance and just do IR, but they didn’t know. So he asked them to keep troubleshooting because he wanted to finish, but after this dragged on for a while and they didn’t seem to be getting any closer to a solution, he finally pulled the plug.

I’ll update this post once we find out whether he has to do the whole test again or whether he can do just the IR section. And if this sounds like your worst (test-related) nightmare—yes, this is seriously Not Good. But, while rare, technical failures do sometimes happen in the regular testing center as well. That’s no comfort to Eric—this was a seriously frustrating experience for him—but you’re more likely to have an experience like mine than like his.

We speculated afterwards as to why this may have happened. This might have nothing to do with it, but Eric’s been having an issue lately with his wifi spontaneously switching to a different network and we’re wondering whether this could have happened mid-test and caused a security flag. We’re thinking this probably wasn’t it—he could still communicate with the proctor and tech support was working on the case for at least an hour and didn’t say anything about this. But possibly this explanation wasn’t something they were looking for specifically, since it’s such an unusual thing.

Back to my IR section: I used the whiteboard for the Multi-Source Reasoning and Two-Part problems. I didn’t need to write anything down for the Tables or Graphs. (That was important for the Graphs because that was the one IR problem type for which I had to drag the whiteboard mostly off screen in order to see the whole problem at once. I do wonder whether they took that into account when choosing which Graph questions to include.)

Anything more to know about the online whiteboard?

First, I can confirm that our practice version functions just like the real thing. Shout-out to my colleagues Brian Kennedy, Sam Cross, and Irman Ahmetovic, who built a replica of the GMAT Online’s whiteboard tool in just 48 (!) hours so that I could practice in advance of my test—and so that you can, too. Create your free account and start practicing. Once you’re logged into your account on our site, you can go straight to the CAT exam page and load up the online whiteboard.

During the real test, I noticed only two differences. First, we purposely didn’t replicate the “close whiteboard” button that’s on the real thing, since ours is in a browser tab and you can just close that whenever you want. 

Second, there are a couple of potentially glitchy things going on with the tool. Our own whiteboard seemed to hit these glitches more frequently than I experienced on the real test—so that’s a good difference. But I did experience the glitches on the real thing as well and I also found ways to minimize them. I’ll shoot a video in the next couple of days to show what they are and how to avoid them.

I only had four days to practice before I took the exam—and, actually, I didn’t practice at all on one of those days. I always do nothing exam-related on the day before an official exam and I decided to stick with that policy this time, too. 

I was nervous about that decision. And even though I do think I needed probably a good week’s worth of practice to really feel good about the test, I think I made the right call in the end not to do anything the day before. The only thing I would change would be to give myself more time to practice in advance of the exam (while still giving myself the day off right before).

If you’re otherwise ready to take the GMAT soon, I’d recommend that you plan to give yourself at least two weeks of daily or almost-daily practice, starting today—and do all of your work in the whiteboard. Take two practice tests in that time as well. 

If you’re ready faster, great! But I’d give yourself at least that amount of time, just in case. And you’ll want to gather all you can about the best ways to set up your online whiteboard, keep track of your time for each section, and so on. Keep checking back here for articles and videos as my colleagues and I come to consensus over the coming days about the best practices for using the online whiteboard.

If you’re earlier in your studies but think you might or will take the GMAT Online, then start incorporating the online whiteboard into your studies this week. To start, I think it’s fine to do maybe 20 to 30 minutes of daily work (ie, you don’t have to do all of your work in the whiteboard), but ramp up the proportion as you get closer to the exam. Do problem sets in the online whiteboard and take your practice tests the same way.

Either way, expect it to be incredibly clunky at first. In my first hour or two of using the tool, I was ready to quit. But practice really does make a big difference. I stuck it out and figured out what I needed to and I feel a lot better now (though not great, yet—I still need more practice!).

I also realized, about halfway through the exam, that I’d totally overlooked probably one of the main reasons GMAC decided to go with this online whiteboard vs. letting us do our scratch work on paper. It is a security reason, but it’s a different one than I’d been thinking before.

I spent 99% of my test time looking directly at the screen, since everything I needed was there—both the problem and my scratch work. The only time I looked away for more than a second was when I was rolling my neck around or massaging my shoulders. The AI software that’s monitoring us while we take the exam is therefore easily going to catch someone who’s spending a lot of time looking down or off to the side at notes that they’re not supposed to have in front of them. 

While it’s extremely annoying to have such a short time to learn how to use this online whiteboard, another part of me does appreciate that the testing experience is this secure. So I’m very torn on this issue. I want to just pick up a pen and write. But I’d hate for someone to take the exam now and try to use the scores in 2 years, only to have the schools discount exams taken at home because there were security breaches reported in the interim. Given the way this setup keeps your eyes on screen all the time, I think that scenario is a lot less likely to happen for the GMAT.

I’d already signed up for an in-person exam but it was canceled.

If you are currently registered for an in-person exam, you cannot directly transfer that registration to the online exam, but you can cancel your in-person exam (for a full refund) and then separately register for the GMAT Online.

Is the test itself the same?

The GMAT Online is mostly the same, but the AWA (essay) section has been dropped. The three other sections—Quant, Verbal, and Integrated Reasoning—haven’t changed at all and the scoring is also the same (though of course you won’t get an essay score).

Everyone will take the second of the three possible test orders: You’ll start with Quant, then go straight into Verbal. Then, you’ll get a 5 minute break and finish up with Integrated Reasoning. The total test time will be about 2 hours 45 minutes, including the break. GMAC also says to expect about 10 to 30 minutes for the check-in and test security process at the beginning, so plan for a 3-ish hour testing experience.

Any other tech stuff to know?

Except for the break, you have to stay within the webcam’s field of view for the entire exam. If you leave the field of view, your test will be ended and your score canceled.

If you do have a tech issue during the exam, like Eric did, you can talk or chat to your proctor at any time. GMAC has said that there is some resilience built into the platform; if you are briefly disconnected or your machine freezes, for example, your exam will be able to continue from the point at which you were interrupted. If a continuation is not possible (e.g., you lose power for an extended time), GMAC’s security team will review the recording; assuming that the tech issue is verified, the test-taker will be allowed to test again for free. (In this case, you will have to start again from the beginning—this is no different than the test center losing power and you having to come back on a different day.)

Eric’s issue is definitely verified. The question now is whether he’ll be able to finish his existing exam or whether he’ll have to start again. (And we’ll let you know when we know.)

A Future Case Study Coming to a B-School Near You?

Big picture: GMAC is very clearly calling this an interim, temporary measure. Some of the restrictions in fact seem designed to encourage most people to wait until they can get back into a regular testing center.

You would expect a company that is losing lots of revenue to this pandemic to want everyone to start using the service and paying money immediately. Right? But that is really not the approach that GMAC seems to be taking. If anything, they appear to want only those who truly need to take the exam right now to take it. I respect that they’re not willing to loosen test security, even though I am torn because there is a definite learning curve to get used to the online whiteboard.

So let us be your guinea pigs. We’ll have more for you in the coming days as we process our test experiences and as more of our teachers take the exam.

And I’ll say it one more time: If you think that you will or may take the GMAT Online, start practicing with the whiteboard tool, a little bit every day (reminder: log into your Atlas syllabus to make that link work). Make today your first day.

Good luck and happy studying!

RELATED: How to Use the GMAT Online Whiteboard Tool for the GMAT Online  

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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.

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I Took The GMAT Online. Here’s What Happened.