I took the online GMAT today, in order to better understand how this new test format works. Unfortunately, I found the process to be a very frustrating experience. If you aren’t already familiar with the mechanics of the online GMAT, you should read my prior blog post on that topic before continuing.
Online GMAT Check-In
Last week, after registering for the exam, I went through the system test to ensure system compatibility. Although the system check hung a couple times, I ultimately got the system check to work and was therefore confident that my computer setup was fine. I spent some time yesterday cleaning up my home office, removing barred items such as papers / pens, and disconnecting my second monitor. So I was ready to go this morning.
I started the check-in process 15 minutes before my scheduled test time, completing the check-in procedure in 12 minutes. Everything proceeded smoothly, replicating what I experienced during the system check. On the last check-in screen, the OnVue browser informed me that a proctor will start the exam soon, within 10 minutes for most test takers.
Where’s the Proctor?
After waiting 15 minutes, I started waiving and speaking into my webcam, hoping to get someone’s attention. After 20 minutes, still nothing. And after 25 minutes, still nothing. At this point, I informed my webcam that I need to contact someone for help and so would use my cell phone.
The Pearson system does not provide any way to get in touch with someone for help. The chat dialog was not yet present, nor was there any phone number or other contact information. I looked up the number for GMAC Customer Service. I tried calling twice, but both times just received a busy signal; the phone lines were probably overwhelmed.
So I decided to close the OnVue browser open on my computer and try again. I went back to my MBA.com account to restart the test, and fortunately I was able to do so. I had to go through the entire check-in procedure from scratch before again reaching the “proctor will be with you within 10 minutes” screen.
After 10 minutes of patiently waiting, there was no proctor. After 15 minutes, still no proctor. Once again, I started waiving and speaking into my webcam, hoping to get someone’s attention. After 20 minutes, just as I was about to close the OnVue browser again, a proctor finally announced her presence by placing a chat box on my screen.
The proctor asked me to show (in my webcam) both the front and back of my eyeglasses and both the front and back of my wrists. Surprisingly, the proctor did not ask me to use my webcam to give her a 360-degree view of my room, as I was expecting. My online test then officially started.
During the exam itself, I could see that the system was recording me. But after a couple minutes, I was so focused on the exam questions that the monitoring was out-of-mind. Towards the middle of the Quant section, the proctor popped up the chat dialog to warn me that she heard me saying part of a question out loud. I think that I had faintly whispered a Data Sufficiency fact to myself, something along the lines of “x is an integer.” Apparently this was enough to receive a warning from the proctor. From that point onward, I had to ensure that I was completely silent; doing so made it harder to concentrate on the test questions.
In the online GMAT, the Quantitative section comes first. I was most curious to evaluate the functionality of the online whiteboard. Since I conduct online tutoring with GMAT Genius clients, I am accustomed to using an online whiteboard. But I found the Pearson whiteboard challenging to use.
The text tool was clunky at best. It kept defaulting to 18 point Helvetica text, which I found quite large. Whenever I reduced the text size to a more manageable 12 or 14 point, it defaulted back to 18 point with the next text entry. I could not set the size of a text box, and at times the text box automatically word-wrapped, to my chagrin. Since the whiteboard lacks math notation, I had to use my own shorthand for math notation, such as r(3) for square root of 3 and x^2 for x squared.
If I made the whiteboard too big, the whiteboard covered up the Answer Confirm dialog box that appears after submitting an answer to each question. So I had to reduce the size of the whiteboard, limiting how much I could type in. The whiteboard had a tendency to keep zooming in on its own, further limiting the viewable whiteboard area. To counteract this, I often had to use the zoom out tool to see what I had placed on the whiteboard.
I was lucky in that I didn’t face many complex geometry questions. I tried to recreate one complex geometry diagram in order to work through the relationships, but it was very challenging to do so with the online whiteboard. The whiteboard does have a rectangle, a circle, and a free form shape tool. But these were useless with the more complex diagram that I had to recreate.
I cannot share actual test content, but I can share some broad observations. In terms of the content tested, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I was surprised that (as I recall) my first 5 to 6 Quant questions were all Data Sufficiency. I was quite relieved to finally see a Problem Solving question. Although there were a few challenging Quant questions, I was surprised that several Quant questions seemed very straightforward and easy. I hope that this doesn’t foreshadow a Quant score below my regular Quant 51 score.
I also found the Verbal and IR sections to be more straightforward than my prior GMAT attempts. One very complex Reading Comprehension passage (science, of course) and a couple tricky Critical Reasoning questions arose. But overall I was surprised that the test content wasn’t as difficult as I was expecting. I was concerned that perhaps I missed a few questions and scored lower than typical, but ultimately I received a 770 score (IR 8, Quant 50, Verbal 46). I do think that Quant was lower than the 51 that I usually get because of the challenges in using the online whiteboard and my frustration level after the miserable check-in experience.
Two other issues are worth noting. The lack of a break between Quant and Verbal was challenging. About halfway through the Verbal section, I felt the need to use the restroom. This urge distracted me a bit during the second half of Verbal. So I was very relieved when I finally got a five minute break before Integrated Reasoning. This urge was probably exacerbated by my very lengthy (over one hour!) check-in and waiting time. If my exam had properly started within 10 minutes of checking-in the first time, this would have been less of an issue.
Second, it was very anti-climatic after finishing the exam. The OnVue browser said that I will receive my results via email within two weeks, not the seven business days that the GMAC has advertised. Then my OnVue browser closed, officially ending the exam. It really would have been nice to have the instant gratification (or pain, as the case may be) of seeing the unofficial results immediately.
On the Plus Side
The online GMAT experience wasn’t all bad. It was far more comfortable to take the exam on my computer at my own desk. I didn’t have to drive to a test center and hassle with the test center check-in procedures. It would also have been more stressful to take the test at a workstation on an unfamiliar computer at the test center. It was much less distracting to not have others in the same room as me. At a test center, there are typically 10+ other test takers who are taking various exams, and the proctor comes in and out of the testing room to assist everyone. Finally, although I would dress comfortably for a test center appointment, I could be even more comfortable at home – no shoes required!
Overall, the online GMAT was a very frustrating experience for me. I certainly hope that my situation was an aberration. No one should have to endure over one hour waiting time from starting check-in procedures to starting the exam, with 45 minutes spent staring at my computer screen, hoping that a proctor will show up. The OnVue browser states that a proctor will start the exam within 10 minutes. So it is simply unacceptable that I had to wait 25 minutes before giving up and starting over, only to wait an additional 20 minutes for a proctor. At minimum, the OnVue browser should provide a method to contact someone for help. Ideally there should also be a real-time countdown timer that states “a proctor will be with you in X minutes.” Perhaps these “opening day” kinks will be fixed over time.
Putting aside what I hope is an aberration, the online whiteboard was very clunky and challenging to use. I think that I would have been able to complete the Quant section about 10 minutes earlier if I had the regular written whiteboard instead of the online whiteboard. This may be worse for most test takers, because I am accustomed to using a (more robust) online whiteboard. To minimize further pain, I did not use the whiteboard whatsoever during Verbal and made only minimal usage during IR. I am very surprised that Pearson couldn’t have designed a more robust and user-friendly online whiteboard.
Without the problematic check-in experience that I faced and with a more functional online whiteboard (or better yet – a physical whiteboard), I may actually prefer the online GMAT, despite the other drawbacks. But I would not want to go through today’s painful online GMAT experience again any time soon.