It has now been two weeks since prospective students have been able to take the GMAT exam in their own homes. The early debriefs by test-takers, both would-be students and professional tutors, provides little comfort for those who register to take the at-home exam.
Interviews with test-takers by Poets&Quants and reviews posted at online forums report technical glitches, software bugs and poorly trained proctors for the exam. In at least one case, a proctor accidentally canceled a test on a student after he had completed both the quant and verbal sections of the exam. Many but not all of the complaints focus on a virtual whiteboard that GMAT test-takers must use in liew of either a physical whiteboard or scratch paper and pen for notetaking during the exam. Not only is the online tool compromised by occasional technical glitches, according to several test-takers. It is also time-consuming and difficult to use, a consequence that costs test-takers valuable time and points on their overall GMAT scores.
Even before test-takers sat down to take the GMAT, there had been an outpouring of criticism over the test. It didn’t help that GMAC released its at-home test without either a tutorial for the whiteboard feature or a practice tool, elements that have since been remedied after the outcry. The ban on a physical whiteboard or notes also stands in contrast to what Educational Testing Service is allowing on its at-home GRE. Those who take the GRE option are allowed a physical whiteboard with an erasable marker or paper with a transparent sheet protector and erasable marker. Shortly after the announcement of the at-home GMAT on April 14th, would-be test-takers launched an online petition demanding that test-takers be allowed to use paper and pen to take the online test. It now has more than 2,000 signatures on it (see Petition Launched For Pen-Paper Usage On At-Home GMAT).
‘THE ONLINE WHITEBOARD IS TRASH’
“The online whiteboard is trash, wrote one test-taker who had taken the at-home test this week. “If you need to use it, become as good as it as you are with a pen. Use it to do your taxes, write your vows. Otherwise, do what you can to take it in person.” In a Reddit post, he described the whiteboard tool as “rough at (the) best of times, a real impediment at the worst of times. Writing out a single equation now takes twice as long (if not more) and takes 100x more brain power.”
Yet another test-taker, also reporting his experience on Reddit, says he scored a 730 on his last official practice exambut just received his at-home result this week. Much to his chagrin, it was 100 points lower, at 630.
Another test-taker who contacted Poets&Quants after taking the exam in the living room of his San Francisco apartment called the experience “a nightmare.” He had already invested roughly 100 hours to prep for the GMAT, including 10 to 15 hours of practice with the exam’s virtual whiteboard. While using the tool during the test this week, however, his fingers accidentally touch the Z key on his keyboard and it copletely wiped the whiteboard clean. Five minutes of notetaking–four entire paragraphs–were deleted on the verbal section of the test. “And when I hit the undo button, it just went to the screen before everything disappeared,” he told Poets&Quants.
ONE TEST-TAKER WAS ACCUSED OF VIOLATING THE EXAM’S RULES AFTER TAKING THE ALLOWED TEST BREAK
But that wasn’t the only problem he discovered with the tool. During his practice sessions, using the tool released by GMAC, he noticed that text boxes began to only write vertically, not horizontally, after five to ten minutes of use. “I figured this was a glitch with the trial version,” he says. “However, it turns out the whiteboard on the exam did the exact same thing which makes it borderline impossible to take notes. I attempted to chat with the proctor about this, but it takes a few minutes for them to respond to you and the entire time your timer is running so I gave up and proceeded without notetaking. I have seen it every single time on all my practice so I knew it was an ongoing glitch and not an aberration.”
Yet, the test-taker who is hoping to take advantage of the extended application deadlines due to the pandemic, had to confront an even more serious issue during the test. Once he completed the quant and verbal sections of the test, he wanted to take the optional five-minute break allowed by GMAC before sitting for the final 30-minute Integrated Reasoning portion of the test.
“When the page specifying I was on break appeared, I quickly used the bathroom and returned to my seat within 45 seconds to begin the IR section,” he recalls. “The IR question 1 on my screen went blank and the proctor chat appeared noting that I had violated the rules by leaving the screen. I was on my break and this was categorically false, which I mentioned to the proctor who responded with, ‘oh were you on your break when you went to the bathroom?’ He then said, ‘Let me refresh the page.’
‘INSTEAD OF HITTING A PAUSE BUTTON, THE PROCTOR HIT THE CANCEL BUTTON ON THE TEST’
“But instead of hitting a pause button, he hit the cancel button and I couldn’t finish my test. Now I will hear back in 72 hours into an ‘investigation’ into my case. There is no case. I hadn’t broken a rule. The fact that the proctor responded to me saying, ‘Let me restart this’ proves it. He didn’t even know the button he pressed was cancel null and void. The fact that the proctor didn’t even know that he was cancelling my entire test is insane. The whole thing was a bit of a nightmare and I will probably have to take the whole thing again on Monday. It is not ideal.”
His frustrations are certainly understandable. He had intended to apply to several prominent business schools in the next admissions cycle but was laid off by a Bay Area startup due to the pandemic three weeks ago. As a result, he took the at-home test, hoping to take advantage of the extended application deadlines so he could begin his MBA studies this fall. Standardized test scores loom large in MBA admission decisions, often over-indexed by business schools seeking to either maintain or enhance their performance in rankings such as U.S. News & World Report, which would significant weight on average class scores.
Asked if GMAC has received any reports of problems with its at-home test, a GMAT spokesperson responded with the following statement: “It’s helpful to receive market feedback as GMAC continues to enhance the quality of the GMAT Online experience. Our goal is always to ensure every test taker has a positive experience. When that doesn’t happen, our customer service and technical teams are standing by 24/7 to appropriately address candidate concerns in a timely manner.”
Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the non-profit The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, believes the online versions of the exams were pushed out too quickly before the technical bugs could be resolved. “They were rushed to market before they were ready for the prime time,” he says. “I can’t imagine they are valid in the same way.”
NOT PRACTICING THE USE OF THE WHITEBOARD TOOL COULD COST A TEST-TAKER 100 OR MORE POINTS
From the very start, however, test-takers have reported problems with the use of the virtual whiteboard along with technical glitches in taking the at-home exam. On the very first day it was available on April 20th, one of the foremost professional test-takers in the world told Poets&Quants she believed that using GMAC’s virtual whiteboard tool without practice would have cost her 100 or more points on the exam. Stacey Koprince, content and curriculum lead at Manhattan Prep, ultimately concluded that a test-taker would need to spend at minimum a week, possibly two, to practice with the tool for it not to hurt their ultimate score on the test. After five to seven hours of practice with a similar whiteboard tool, she scored 30 points below her last GMAT exam taken at a test center, though she says it wasn’t the fault of the whiteboard but rather for other reasons.
She also encountered some slightly buggy issues with the virtual whiteboard. A zoom-in, zoom-out function can freeze and “pop you to a place where all your work is gone which is very freaky,” she said. “But you have to zoom-in and zoom-out many times to make that happen. So you need to be judicious with that feature.” The text box in the tool also could prove buggy. On at least three occasions during the exam, it was only four or five characters wide. “You have to stretch it or it will start wrapping automatically,” says Koprince. “But even then, it will go back to four of five characters.”
There is almost universal agreement that the online whiteboard is a time-suck. “That is the most significant downside of the test,” agrees Noodle Pro GMAT expert Dan Edmonds. “That is something I would practice pretty significantly. Their online whiteboard allows you to do shapes and texts and that is going to make solving math problems a little more difficult. Mouse drawing is terrible. It is slower and it is just not as satisfying. It is harder to do than writing by hand by a significant margin.”
‘THE WHITEBOARD IS TACKY AND DIFFICULT TO USE’
Even test-takers who have done well on the at-home test have some misgivings. Saigokul Kannan found out this week that he got a 740 on the exam he took in Dubai on April 20th. Yet, Kannan concedes he was a bit disappointed. “The score was the bottom of my perceived range, and I believe the whiteboard prevented me from a potential Q51,” he says. “But the interesting thing to note is that the whiteboard only marginally affected my Quant score. I don’t believe it had a perceivable impact on my Verbal score.” However, Kannan took two official GMATs using an online whiteboard tool before sitting for the test, spending about three days practicing with the device.
“When I first heard that GMAC was introducing the online GMAT, I was very excited,” he says. “Test centers in Dubai were indefinitely closed because of the pandemic, and I was tired of my multiple physical test center cancellations. I was glad to be presented with the opportunity to take the cheaper and shorter online version of the test to allow me to meet some R3 deadlines potentially. But,when the announcement finally came through, and I noticed that you wouldn’t be allowed to use scratch paper. I was devastated. I remember being extremely upset because I felt that this would cause a massive dent in my Quant score – my strongest section.”
His conclusion after taking the test and scoring as well as he did: “The whiteboard is tacky and difficult to use. I would highly recommend spending enough hours practicing before jumping into a test environment. My background in abacus and mental math helped me out quite a bit, but if you struggle with mental math, it will be a nightmare using the board.”
‘ZERO DISADVANTAGE WITH THE GMAT ONLINE WHITEBOARD’ BUT YOU NEED TO PRACTICE UP TO 15 HOURS FOR THE TOOL ALONE
Not everyone has had a bad experience with the new at-home exam. Andrew Geller, a well-known GMAT tutor and the founder of AtlanticGMAT.com, recently wrote an essay entitled Zero Disadvantage with the GMAT Online Whiteboard. But even he believes that most test-takers should devote between ten and 15 hours over seven to ten days just to get acclimated to the tool. “The Online GMAT and the unloved whiteboard have been skewered in the GMAT forums,” notes Geller. “There is an outpouring of spite for this test and for its maker, GMAC. Yes, GMAC can be tone deaf. Yes, learning a new tool after you’ve already crushed yourself with GMAT studying over the past year is frustrating. No, I wouldn’t choose to do math with a mouse over paper. Still, considering in person testing is still far off I would strongly suggest giving the online whiteboard and GMAT Online a fair shake.”
It’s not clear how long test centers around the world will remain closed. From the beginning, GMAC termed its at-home version of the GMAT a temporary solution until June 15th, at which time the need for it will be reevaluated. In an interview with Poets&Quants, Vineet Chhabra, senior director and head of the GMAT product, called the online test “an interim, short-term solution that we have put in place to meet the needs of our stakeholders which are the test takers and the schools at a time when they are impacted by the COVID-19 virus. The current situation needed a solution and we wanted to be there to deliver it as quickly as possible. These are uncertain times that we are all facing.”
To rush the at-home option to market, GMAC also eliminated the test’s analytical writing assessment. That change shortened the time of the test by 30 minutes to two hours and 37 minutes, though GMAC recommends that users come online 15 minutes before the scheduled start of their exams for security checks.
GMAT AT-HOME TEST DEBRIEFS