Are you figuring out how to study for the Executive Assessment (EA) exam? The Executive Assessment was launched in March 2016 to provide a more streamlined version of the GMAT for Executive MBA (EMBA) candidates—but it has grown and is now used for some regular MBAs and other business Master’s programs.
In part 1 (this part!), we’ll talk about study materials and timeline. In part 2, we’ll take a look at the Integrated Reasoning and Verbal sections of the exam. We’ll devote part 3 to the Quant section, as well as more on planning your studies. And part 4 will dive into time management on the exam itself—a crucial component of taking these kinds of exams.
First, I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the basics about the Executive Assessment—if not, go read that post now and then come back. 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.)
What do I need to learn for the Executive Assessment?
You’ll need to learn a decent number of things—many of which will actually be useful in grad school. You’ll need to learn (relearn, really) certain math concepts, principles, and formulas. You’ll also need to learn some grammar (but it’s not too bad).
Of course, you’ll need to learn how the EA works, including the different question types (as well as the best ways to approach them) and how to manage your time during the test and make the best executive decisions you can to get the score you need.
And you’ll also need to know how to prioritize your studies and set up a good study plan for yourself. Overall, I’d really view your test preparation as your first grad school course. Use this time to get yourself back into a study routine and work out all of the kinks before school starts.
Also, just FYI: A majority of your study materials will actually be built for the GMAT, since very few EA-specific study materials exist. (Why? Business case: Right now, only about 5,000 exams are given every year. There’s just not enough of a market yet for companies to spend a ton of development money making EA-specific materials. Even the official test makers have not yet published any physical books—all official study materials are digital only.) It’s fine to use GMAT materials because all of the question types and the vast majority of the content areas are identical (more on this later and in Part 2).
What Executive Assessment study materials are available?
There are a number of really good resources that you’ll want to use as you get ready for this test. First, the official test makers (GMAC) have a small number of free official practice problems available on their site—just create a (free) account to get access. We also have a free EA Starter Kit study syllabus; again, you just need to create a free account to get access.
If you take a course, that course should include study materials and a syllabus with specific homework assignments (we do run courses here at Manhattan Prep). If you study on your own, make sure to take time, in the beginning, to put together your own syllabus and gather your study resources.
GMAC sells a variety of official study tools, including 4 practice exams (sold in packs of 2), as well as an online bank of 300 practice problems—100 problems for each of the three sections of the exam: Integrated Reasoning (IR), Quant, and Verbal. They also sell an extra tool with 50 IR problems (but not Q or V). If you are familiar with Official Guide books from the GMAT or other grad school exams: There is no equivalent book for the EA.
I would definitely get at least 2 practice exams and I’d say most people will want all 4. The 300-problem online bank is also excellent—I highly recommend it. I think most people will be fine with those 300 problems, so I wouldn’t buy the extra IR-only tool to start. But it’s nice to know that it’s there if you want more IR practice.
Your official materials will be great practice, but that won’t typically be how you’ll learn to get better. For that, you’re going to need some materials from test prep companies. I’m obviously biased, so you’ll need to do some research yourself, but I’ll tell you what we’ve got.
The latest edition (published September 2019) of our Integrated Reasoning & Essay guide actually does cover the IR section for both the GMAT and the EA—in fact, it’s the only printed book on the market that covers the EA (as of right now, when I’m writing this). The book covers full strategies for both the GMAT and the EA. (You can ignore the chapter on the essay; the EA doesn’t have an essay section.)
We also have two GMAT guides that you can use: All the Quant and All the Verbal. These two guides are GMAT-focused, so you just need to know certain things in order to adapt them for your EA studies. (If you want all three guides, make sure to buy them as a set—it’s less expensive that way, plus the set comes with some additional online resources.)
The question types are identical across both exams, 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 series; for now, just know that how you manage time is different on the two exams.
There are no content differences for either the Verbal or IR sections.
How much time do I need to study?
This is going to take some effort; the exam is not easy. Neither is grad school, though—and getting ready for this exam will help prepare you for school, too.
Plan to spend somewhere between 1 and 4 months getting ready for this exam, depending upon (a) how many hours a week you can devote to your studies, (b) how long it has been since you were last in school (and, in particular, since you last took a math class), and (c) what kind of score you hope to get on the exam.
(a) How many hours a week can you devote to your studies?
- Ideally, plan to spend between 5 and 15 hours a week studying. (Fewer than 5 and you’ll struggle to build momentum.)
- Your study needs to be effective—you can’t do all of your studying in 5-10 minute* bursts the entire week or studying while also trying to sit in a meeting at work or have dinner with the family.
- *Note: It’s great to take 5-10 minute bursts to review flashcards or try a couple of problems; you’ll just also need some longer study sessions.
(b) How long has it been since you were last in school?
- If you’re going for an Executive MBA, chances are it has been at least 10 years. The good news: You also don’t need as high of a score on the exam; your longer work experience counts for more.
- If you’re going for a regular MBA or a specialized master’s, then your last math class may have been in the more recent past. But be aware that you may need a higher score on the exam due to the type of program you want to attend.
(c) What kind of score do you hope to get on the exam?
- As of this writing, EMBA programs are saying they want to see a 150 or higher; a 150 is around the 50th percentile. It’s usually not the case that “higher is better” (as has happened with the GMAT). Most schools just want to see that you have at least met the 150 threshold—then they’ll use the rest of your application to make the real decision.
- Some regular MBA programs have started using the EA, too. Most seem to be asking for a higher score—in the 155 range.
- You can (and should!) contact your desired schools directly to ask them what kind of EA score they’d like to see.
If you’re able to manage a solid 10 to 15 hours a week of effective study, and you haven’t been out of school for so long that you’ve forgotten how to do any math on paper, and you aren’t looking for a score on the higher end of the scale, then you may be able to get your studies done in about 4 to 8 weeks. If you have less time to study each week, or it’s been a long time since school, or you do want a higher-than-average score, then you may need more time.
In the next installment, we’ll dive more deeply into the question types and content areas for the Integrated Reasoning and Verbal sections of the exam.
Setting up your studies
Big picture, most people will need to do more work on quant than on verbal or IR to start—just remember that you are going to have to build all three skillsets. I’m going to recommend the same general structure that we use in our courses.
Begin by gaining a good grounding in the foundational-level material, particularly math topics that you learned when you were 11. Does PEMDAS, aka order of operations, ring a vague bell? Do you remember how to add fractions or solve an equation? It’s deep in your brain somewhere—you just have to remind yourself and do some practice to get the skills back.
Give yourself a couple of weeks for this level. (If you take one of our courses, we do build this into the program—but I would recommend signing up for a course that doesn’t start for ~2-3 weeks and then working through as much of the Foundations of Math material as you can before the course starts.)
When you need a break from the quant stuff, familiarize yourself with the different verbal and IR question types and how they work. When you feel okay about your ability to do math on paper again (you don’t have to feel great—just okay), start diving in earnest into the three main strategy guides (IR & Essay, All the Quant, and All the Verbal). Use my earlier guidelines to decide what to prioritize and in what order you want to do things.
I don’t recommend doing all of one section of the exam and only then moving on to another section. Your brain actually learns better when you’re moving among topics. (It feels harder that way—but that’s a sign that your brain is actually learning better. It’s like physical activity—you know it was a good workout or game when it actually tires you out or makes your muscles sore.)
Plan to study multiple days a week (ideally 4 to 6 days)—it’s far better to do a little every day than to do nothing all week and then try to cram in 6 hours of study on Sunday. Your brain can only learn so much in a day; then it needs to go to sleep and make good memories of everything you learned before you can start to layer more information on top.
Set up a study calendar that goes something like this:
Day 1: 1 hour Quant (Fractions and Ratios); 30 minutes Verbal (Critical Reasoning)
Day 2: 45m Quant (Data Sufficiency); 45m IR (Tables)
Day 3: 30m Quant (Percents); 1h Verbal (Sentence Correction)
Day 4: Break
Day 5: 2h Review and practice the Quant and IR topics studied on days 1-3
Day 6: 2h Review and practice the Verbal and IR topics studied on days 1-3
Day 7: 45m What went well and what needs more work? Set up a plan for next week.
Plan out specific study appointments (with assignments / topics) for the upcoming week. Have an idea of what you want to during the week after this week, but don’t actually plan out the day-to-day until you see how this week goes. You may have to go back over a certain area again—or you may discover that you’re already good at something and can go faster or reallocate some time to a different area.
After about a week or two, take a practice test (GMAC sells 4 official practice tests). Spend a couple of days analyzing it after. Pay more attention to the areas you’ve already studied—how did they go? What did you learn well and what needs a review?
For the areas you haven’t studied yet, does your test performance indicate any areas you should prioritize—or de-prioritize? (There are two areas to de-prioritize: The things you’re already good at and the things that you’re really not good at. Don’t spend time learning the hardest material—first, learn the material that’s not as hard for you. You may discover that you get to your goal score without ever having to learn the hardest-for-you stuff!)
Then, go set up next week’s study plan taking your practice test analysis into account. As you go, continue to take a practice test every two to four weeks—both to gauge how you’re progressing and to help you diagnose your strengths and weaknesses so you can set up an effective study plan for the coming weeks.
Practice under timed conditions
It’s critically important to do practice problems under test-like conditions, including timing. At heart, the EA is an executive reasoning / decision-making test, even while it tests you on math, logic, and grammar. As you do every day at work, you’re going to have to distinguish between good, mediocre, and bad opportunities and decide how to spend your limited time and mental energy accordingly.
You can try problems again for as long as you want after you’re done trying them the first time, but when you first do them, time yourself and hold yourself to standard timing conditions. If you have to make a guess in order to stay on reasonable time, make that guess. That’s what you’ll have to do on the real test, and you need to practice under test conditions. (Also: Use your prioritization analysis to figure out what you don’t want to do, so you know when you want to guess / bail.)
Each section is 30 minutes long and has either 12 or 14 questions, so you have a bit over 2 minutes, on average, to answer each question.
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t want to try to answer everything. An average of 2 minutes is just not enough time! I’m actually going to recommend that you plan to bail on 2 or 3 questions per section—guess within the first 15-30 seconds—and go spend that precious time elsewhere. If you follow this recommendation, then you can average 2.5 minutes per Quant and Verbal question and a whopping 3 minutes per Integrated Reasoning question.
The questions will be split into two panels per test section, so you’ll have six or seven problems in each panel. Plan to bail on one question per panel; if you hit a second really annoying problem in one of the panels, give yourself the freedom to bail on one extra question (for a total of three across both panels).
Before you go in, have a list of Bail Categories—things you hate and know that you’re not very good at. In my case, I bail instantly on combinatorics and I’m also going to bail on what I call Too Annoying To Do problems. An example of the latter: A Roman numeral problem (3 questions for the price of 1!) that has 4+ variables (ugh) plus some other annoying feature, such as absolute value symbols on both sides of an equation. Basically, know what annoys you and, when you see too many annoying details in a single question, get out fast.
Marking questions for later
What if you’re not sure whether you want to bail? Or maybe you see something that you can do, but you think it will take you longer than average. As you work through any one panel, you’ll be given the option to mark questions to return to later (as long as you are still on that panel). At the end of that panel, you can see a list of any questions you marked and then jump right back to a particular question. This is a great feature as long as you know when and how to use it—and when and how not to use it.
First, note that you do need to make a distinction between marking and bailing. When you decide that something isn’t worth doing ever, don’t mark it for later “just in case.” Make the executive decision, put in a random answer, and move on forever. (Do put in an answer—there’s no penalty for getting something wrong.)
Next, when you do decide to mark something, still put in a random answer right now. It’s possible that you might not make it back later, and you don’t want to waste a chance to get lucky.
Let’s see how this all plays out section by section.
Time management: Integrated Reasoning
In IR, bailing on 2 or 3 questions will leave you just 9 or 10 questions to do, so you’ll be answering 4 or 5 questions per panel. You’ll have 30 minutes to do those problems and your goal is to use approximately half the time (15 minutes) for each of the two panels.
First, let’s define “bail” questions. Don’t try to do it. Don’t try to make an educated guess. Don’t even mark it to come back later. Just pick randomly, move on, and forget about this one forever.
Bail on these kinds of questions:
- This is a big weakness of yours
- You’ve read the problem and don’t understand what they’re asking or telling you—or you have no idea what to do with that information
- You think you might know how to do it, but it would take you way too long (>4 minutes)
Now, let’s talk about the ones you do want to mark for a possible later return. First, be stingy. Generally speaking, mark only one per panel; at the most, mark two. You’re not going to have a ton of time left to come back; the last thing you want to do is spend a minute trying to figure out which of 3 marked problems you should actually return to…and then run out of time before you can try any of them.
When you mark a question for a possible later return, also put in a random answer right now. You may not actually make it back to this problem later, so it’s better to have a guess locked in, just in case. There’s no penalty for getting something wrong.
Mark these kinds of questions:
- You know how to do this but it will take somewhat longer than average (3.5 to 4 minutes)
- You’re thinking, “I know how to do this! I just did it last week! But I’m blanking right now.”
For the first category, you just want to make sure that you don’t prevent yourself from getting to the last two questions because you spent extra time on one long one earlier. Save that long one for last, just in case.
The second category is something that is in your brain somewhere, but you’re having trouble pulling up the memory right now. Sometimes, if we set the thing aside for 5 or 10 minutes, our brains will continue trying to figure it out subconsciously and then, when we look at it again, we’ll retrieve the memory: Oh, yeah! This is how to do this problem!
So if you run into one of those, “But I know how to do this!” problems, don’t waste time trying to retrieve the memory right now. Let it percolate in the back of your brain while you do other stuff—then come back at the end (if you have time) to see whether you can pull up the memory now.
How does this play out? The first panel pops up. On your first run through the problems, you’re going to bail fast on one (and never come back to it) and let’s say you mark another to come back to later. So on your first pass, you’re going to answer four problems.
When you get to the end of the first panel, the test is going to ask whether you’re ready to move to the next one. Glance at the timer, which will be counting down from 30 minutes. How far are you from 15 minutes left?
IR questions typically require 2-3 minutes, so we’re going to be pretty strict about timing. If the number is 16 or higher, notice how much time you still have before you get to 15, then go to your marked question and get to work. When you’re done, glance at the timer again and decide from there whether to do anything else in this panel or whether to close out this panel and move to the next panel.
If you have fewer than 16 minutes left, however, don’t go to your marked question. Instead, it’s time to move to the next panel.
Time management: Verbal and Quant
Quant and Verbal will work very similarly, except that you’ll be answering 7 questions per panel rather than 6—so you’ll have a little bit less time per problem, on average. (But Q and V problems are also not as complicated as IR problems.)
You’re still going to bail on one problem per panel (and you can bail on one extra in one of the panels). Still mark one problem to come back to (or maybe two).
Some Quant and Verbal problems can be answered in 1-2 minutes, so you’ve got a judgment call to make:
- 14 or fewer minutes left? Go to the second panel; don’t go back to any marked questions from the first panel.
- More than 14 minutes left? You have a decision to make: Should you return to a marked question in the first panel or move on to the second panel?
If you’re in the second situation, it will depend both on how much time you have and what your marked problem looks like.
If you have between 14 and 15 minutes left, give yourself 10 seconds to look at your marked problem. If it falls in the category, “Oh yeah, I remember how to do this now, and it’s something I can do in a minute!” then go for it. Otherwise, move on.
If you have more than 15 minutes left, still take a look at your marked problem. If you know how to do it but it’s going to take 2+ minutes, only move ahead if you still have the time to do it and move to the second panel with 15 (or more) minutes left.
If you’re blanking on it or you find yourself thinking any variation of, “But I should know how to do this…” forget about it. Move to the next panel now.
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 brainpower on test day.
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, EA, 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.