The online GMAT currently offers two options for note-taking during the exam: a virtual whiteboard that is accessible throughout the exam via the notepad icon at the top of your computer screen; and an erasable physical whiteboard that you can purchase on your own before your exam.
The virtual whiteboard allows you to type text and draw shapes and lines, providing a space on your computer screen to do, essentially, any of the scratch work you could do with a physical notepad. The physical whiteboard offers an experience very similar to that of using the dry-erase pad and marker provided during the in-person GMAT.
Importantly, you have the option of using just a physical whiteboard, just the virtual whiteboard, or both during your online GMAT. So, how do you decide which option is right for you? In this article, we’ll review requirements and recommendations for the physical GMAT Online whiteboard, discuss the functionality and features of the virtual version, give you 7 tips for how and when to use each whiteboard type, and go over some pros and cons of using both whiteboards in tandem.
The online GMAT gives test-takers the option of doing scratch work on just a physical whiteboard, just a virtual whiteboard, or both.
Before we get into best practices for your GMAT Online whiteboard use, let’s cover the basics of both whiteboard types, starting with the physical whiteboard.
- Physical Whiteboard Requirements for the GMAT Online
- Functionality and Features of the Virtual Whiteboard
- Making a Plan of Action for Your Whiteboard Use
- Tip #1: Use a Large Monitor and External Mouse
- Tip #2: Stick With the Default Whiteboard Settings
- Tip #3: Avoid Constant Tool Switching
- Tip #4: Consider Typing Your Notes for Verbal Questions
- Tip #5: Try Shape Creation Tools for Geometry and Diagrams
- Tip #6: Panning is Faster Than Erasing or Zooming
- Tip #7: Do What Works For You
Physical Whiteboard Requirements for the GMAT Online
As of June 11, 2020, GMAC began giving test-takers the option of using an erasable physical whiteboard instead of, or in addition to, the virtual whiteboard that was originally released with the online version of the GMAT. Test-takers can use 1 erasable whiteboard that is no larger than 12×20 inches with up to 2 dry-erase markers and 1 whiteboard eraser. A double-sided whiteboard is permitted, but both sides must be completely blank; grid lines, background colors, and other markings on the whiteboard are not permitted. Note also that a laminated, dry-erase notepad and non-permanent marker like those provided at test centers during in-person GMATs are not allowed during the GMAT Online.
Here are some examples of whiteboards and supplies that are acceptable for the GMAT Online:
We recommend that you select a whiteboard that has thin framing or no framing at all, as thicker framing may make writing on the whiteboard, which will be placed flat on your desk, somewhat uncomfortable. Additionally, many test-takers have found ultra-thin markers easier to write than markers with thick tips. Since you will erase the notes on your whiteboard numerous times during the test, opt for a larger block-style eraser, which will enable you to erase more notes in a shorter amount of time. You cannot use napkins or any implements other than a whiteboard eraser to erase your whiteboard, nor can you write on the whiteboard using pens, permanent markers, or anything but a dry-erase marker.
If you plan to use a physical whiteboard, you should purchase your supplies as soon as possible, not only so you can begin practicing with the whiteboard, but also because in-stock items and shipping times may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, you may find that the supplies you initially purchase are not quite right for your needs — perhaps you’d be more comfortable writing on a smaller surface or using a thicker marker. The last thing you want is to be scrambling to find appropriate supplies just days before your exam!
TTP PRO TIP:
Purchase your whiteboard supplies as soon as possible, so you can have more time to practice with them and avoid any COVID-related delays or difficulties finding what you need.
Now that we’ve covered the requirements for the physical whiteboard, let’s take a look at how the virtual whiteboard functions.
Functionality and Features of the Virtual Whiteboard
Using the virtual whiteboard, a GMAT Online test-taker can write out equations or notes, draw shapes and lines — basically do all of the same types of scratch work a test-taker would do using a dry-erase pad. You can open and close the whiteboard at any time during the online GMAT by clicking on the notepad icon in the navigation bar at the top of the screen. With the whiteboard open, you can resize it and position it wherever you want on your screen as you work, so you can view just the whiteboard or both the whiteboard and a GMAT question side by side.
Here is a quick rundown of the most important tools available in the virtual whiteboard:
- Pan: The “pan” icon looks like a basic compass rose, with arrows pointing in the cardinal directions. Use this to drag the whiteboard surface (which is endless) with your mouse, so you can view and work in different parts of the whiteboard.
- Text Box: When you click on the symbol for text [Aa], a white text box will pop up on your whiteboard, allowing you to type inside it using your keyboard. You can expand the text box by dragging the corners of it horizontally using your mouse and by pressing enter to expand the box vertically. Note that you CANNOT cut and paste parts of a GMAT question into a text box.
- Pen: Clicking on the pencil icon turns your mouse into a pen, allowing you to draw shapes and lines or write out letters and numbers without using your keyboard.
- Line: Create straight lines at any angle.
- Circle / Rectangle / Free Shape: These three, separate functions allow you to — you guessed it — create circles, boxes or grids, and free-form shapes or polygons, without using the pen.
- Undo: Undo your last action with the undo arrow. This function works even if you’ve cleared the whiteboard (as long as Clear was your last action). However, the Undo function does not undo your moving the whiteboard surface using the “Pan” function. If you panned to a different area of the whiteboard, hitting “Undo” will not snap the whiteboard back to its previous position.
- Redo: Bring back the last thing you deleted or undid using the Redo arrow.
- Clear: Make the entire whiteboard blank again. Note that clearing the board maintains your settings (font size, line thickness, etc.).
Now that we’ve reviewed the most important tools available in the virtual whiteboard, let’s dive into how and when to use the virtual and physical whiteboards during the online GMAT.
Making a Plan of Action for Your Whiteboard Use
Some test-takers have found the virtual whiteboard cumbersome to use, and certainly if you have taken the in-person GMAT before or have been practicing using a dry-erase pad, a physical whiteboard may feel more comfortable for note-taking and scratch work during your online GMAT. However, although the virtual whiteboard is not a perfect tool for tasks such as performing calculations and crossing off answer choices, you may find it quite useful for certain types of questions. For instance, some students find that for note-taking during the verbal section, typing on the virtual whiteboard is quicker and neater than taking notes with a marker on a physical whiteboard. You also may find the shape creation tools in the virtual whiteboard useful and efficient when, for instance, creating triangles when working through geometry questions.
The point is, even if you have taken the in-person GMAT before and are somewhat accustomed to doing scratch work with a dry-erase marker and pad, you shouldn’t immediately rule out any use of the virtual whiteboard. Each note-taking method has its weaknesses and strengths, even if you end up preferring one over the other, there is no reason not to take full advantage of the flexibility that the online GMAT offers and explore all of your options. You want to make an informed decision about what works best for your note-taking style. So, it’s important that you test each option to figure out what you’re most comfortable with. In fact, you should test out the whiteboard options for specific question types to see whether your note-taking is more efficient with a particular whiteboard. Of course, if you choose to use both types of whiteboard during your exam, you’ll want to map out a strategy beforehand for which types of questions you’ll do on each whiteboard. Note that the virtual whiteboard is now available for use with all 6 official GMAT practice exams from mba.com. You can also practice with a virtual whiteboard here.
Overall, a physical whiteboard will likely feel most comfortable for the majority of your scratch work during your online GMAT, so purchase one as soon as you decide you’ll be taking the online GMAT and begin practicing with it (the marker takes some getting used to). Don’t assume that you will be perfectly comfortable using a dry-erase board and that the virtual whiteboard is the only one that requires a bit of practice.
TTP PRO TIP:
A physical whiteboard will likely feel most comfortable for the majority of your scratch work, but you should test out the virtual whiteboard for various question types before you rule out using it.
While how and when you use either whiteboard is largely a matter of personal preference, there are some best practices that have begun to emerge as more and more students have taken the online GMAT. So, let’s get into our 7 tips for effective whiteboard use during the online GMAT.
Tip #1: Use a Large Monitor and External Mouse
This advice goes for taking the online GMAT in general, but if you’re planning to use the virtual whiteboard in any capacity during your exam, a large monitor and an external mouse will make navigating an on-screen whiteboard much easier.
A large monitor provides you with more usable space for the virtual whiteboard, so if possible, take your exam using a computer with a high-resolution or HD monitor that is 20 inches or larger. A desktop computer will likely be easiest, but if you need to use a laptop for your exam, use one that has a screen that is at least 15 inches (preferably larger). Whether you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, you CANNOT use two monitors during your GMAT, so don’t expect to hook up a large external monitor just for the whiteboard while using your computer’s monitor to view test questions.
Furthermore, if you’re using a laptop that has touchscreen functionality, you will not be able to use the touchscreen for the whiteboard. That means no using your finger or a stylus to draw shapes on the whiteboard. All of your access to the virtual whiteboard will be through your keyboard and mouse. Luckily, you can use an external mouse with a laptop, and we recommend you do so; a trackpad mouse is not a very practical way to navigate the exam, much less the virtual whiteboard. There have been conflicting reports as to whether GMAC allows bluetooth mice for the GMAT Online, so to be on the safe side, make sure your mouse is wired. Doing so will also eliminate any worry about a wireless mouse running low on batteries or losing its charge during your exam. You can purchase a wired external mouse for less than $10 USD on websites such as Amazon.
TTP PRO TIP:
A 20-inch or larger computer screen and external mouse will provide more usable space and easier navigation in the virtual whiteboard.
One important thing to note is that if you plan on using the Pen tool in the virtual whiteboard (say, for labeling shapes), you may want to experiment with setting your mouse speed slightly slower than the normal setting; this may provide you with greater control of the pen. Test out different speeds on a practice whiteboard, so you can see what feels most natural for you and allows you the greatest precision.
Tip #2: Stick With the Default Whiteboard Settings
There are numerous “aesthetic” options within the virtual GMAT Online whiteboard that have the potential to become very distracting if a test-taker isn’t careful. In fact, with the exception of the Eraser tool (we’ll talk more about that later), in most cases, the default settings in the virtual whiteboard are perfectly acceptable for scratch work. Making your virtual whiteboard “ultra-customized” is not going to give you any special advantage on the GMAT and could end up slowing your workflow. So, do what you need to do to make your notes easily readable and the whiteboard tools more user-friendly for you, but in general, keep it simple. There is no magical combination of settings that will turn the virtual whiteboard into an extension of your brain, and you’re unlikely to get a return on the investment of time you’ll make switching fonts or changing the fill color for shapes.
Furthermore, since you will probably rely on the physical whiteboard for most of the exam, and use the virtual whiteboard only for a few specific types of questions, many of the online settings won’t pertain to your scratch work. So, unless you find the defaults difficult to work with, your best bet is to ignore the settings for the most part, and save yourself the time you would spend tweaking them.
Making your virtual whiteboard ‘ultra-customized’ is not going to give you any special advantage on the GMAT and could end up slowing your workflow.
If you are truly particular about certain settings, you should configure them at the start of your exam, so that you can concentrate on more important things (such as getting correct answers to tough questions) for the rest of your exam.
Some options you may decide to configure at the start of your GMAT include:
- Eraser: Unfortunately, the eraser does not default to the largest setting, but if you use the eraser at all, that is the setting you’ll need.
- Type: You have several options to choose from when it comes to font size and type. The whiteboard defaults to Helvetica 18px, which is about 13.5-point font.
- Pen: The pen ranges from razor-thin to highlighter-thick. The default setting is the second to thinnest, which should be readable on most screens. The settings at either extreme seem pretty impractical.
- Stroke: This is the text color, which applies to both typed and pen-written text. The default is black, but you can choose from a rainbow of colors.
- Line: Again, the line sizes range from pencil-thin to Sharpie-thick. The default setting (second to thinnest) seems practical for most, if not all, purposes.
- Fill: This is the color that appears inside shapes. The default is white.
- Background: The default background of the whiteboard is gray. Note that if you change your background color to white, you’ll also want to change your fill color from white.
Remember, you want your note-taking to be as legible, organized, and clutter-free as possible. Moreover, you want to get your notes down quickly. So, don’t feel obligated to use a variety of lines, arrows, text, and colors just because the virtual whiteboard offers those bells and whistles. A busy notepad is a confusing one!
TTP PRO TIP:
If you must make any adjustments to the default whiteboard settings, “set ‘em and forget ‘em” at the start of your exam.
Tip #3: Avoid Constant Tool Switching
The fewer whiteboard tools (or whiteboards) you need to solve a problem, the quicker you’ll probably get that problem solved. You want the note-taking process to be as seamless as possible so you can focus on the problem in front of you. Switching back and forth unnecessarily between tools as you’re taking notes not only adds seconds to your time, but also interrupts the flow of your thinking.
Of course, sometimes you’ll need to use more than one tool when doing scratch work for a particular problem. If you’re using the virtual whiteboard for certain geometry problems, for instance, you might use the Free Shape tool to draw a triangle, and then label your triangle using the Pen tool. So, no one is saying you must use only one tool for each GMAT problem you solve. The point is to not switch between tools so often that doing so becomes a distraction. Nor would you want to switch randomly back and forth between using the physical and virtual whiteboards for a single GMAT question, such that you lose track of what notes you have where.
With that in mind, if you find that you need to use multiple tools to do scratch work for a certain type of problem, perhaps the virtual whiteboard is not the best option for solving that problem, and you should do your scratch work for questions of that type on the physical whiteboard alone. There is a certain element of trial and error involved in figuring out when it makes sense to use the virtual whiteboard and when it doesn’t. For example, perhaps you thought the shape creation tools would be a clean, efficient way to draw shapes when solving geometry problems, but then you realized that labeling your shapes with the virtual pen was a cumbersome process that negated any time savings you realized from not having to hand-draw shapes. In that case, it might make more sense for you to “go the old-fashioned route” and just use the physical whiteboard for such geometry questions. Just remember, these sorts of judgment calls are definitely ones that you want to work through before test day, so your plan of action is firmly in place.
TTP PRO TIP:
If you need to use more than 1 or 2 virtual whiteboard tools to do scratch work for a certain type of problem, try doing scratch work for questions of that type on a physical whiteboard instead.
Tip #4: Consider Typing Your Notes for Verbal Questions
If you are even a reasonably fast typist, typing likely will be a more efficient, neater, and more organized way for you to write out notes for Verbal questions than using an erasable marker on a physical whiteboard will be. In fact, you could consider the ability to type notes an advantage of taking the online GMAT as opposed to the in-person exam. After all, writing Verbal notes by hand using a marker on a dry-erase pad, as test-takers must do for the in-person GMAT, can eat up time and doesn’t always produce the most legible results. So, even if you plan to do all of your Quant scratch work using a physical whiteboard, consider incorporating the virtual whiteboard into your note-taking strategy for the Verbal section.
TTP PRO TIP:
If you are even a reasonably fast typist, using the virtual whiteboard to type your notes for Verbal questions could save you valuable time and eliminate the problem of messy handwriting.
Tip #5: Try Shape Creation Tools for Geometry and Diagrams
You’ll soon realize when practicing with the virtual whiteboard that shape creation is relatively fast, easy, and precise using the Rectangle, Circle, and Free Form tools, particularly for drawing inscribed shapes and triangles and for creating grids and Venn diagrams.
Practice creating various shapes and diagrams with all three shape creation tools to see whether they will be a better option for you than drawing shapes and diagrams on a physical whiteboard. In particular, the Free Form tool may take some getting used to because you must remember to click your mouse to create a corner of your shape. In other words, the line that forms the side of a free-form shape will “follow” your cursor until you click the line into place, whereas with the Rectangle and Circle tools, you simply need to drag your shape to the appropriate size and release.
If using the virtual shape creation tools feels unnatural to you even after some practice, don’t force it; you’re not going to miss out on a “secret weapon.” The online tools are beneficial only if they are beneficial for you. If you simply work more quickly with a marker and physical whiteboard, then working that way during your GMAT will be to your advantage. Alternatively, you may find that you prefer the virtual whiteboard for certain shapes, such as circles and triangles, but the physical whiteboard for other shapes and diagrams. Do what works for you.
TTP PRO TIP:
The shape creation tools in the virtual whiteboard are particularly useful for drawing inscribed shapes and triangles and for creating grids and Venn diagrams; however, be sure to practice with these tools before you decide to use them on test day.
Tip #6: Panning is Faster Than Erasing or Zooming
There are some features of the virtual whiteboard that are redundant at best and time-draining at worst. Two such features are the Eraser and Zoom In/Out.
The Eraser tool, which turns your mouse into an eraser, is inexact in comparison to the Undo and Clear functions, which serve the same basic purpose as the Eraser. With Undo and Clear, you know precisely what you’re going to delete, but using the Eraser can be something of an artform. Do you really have the luxury of perfecting such an art? What is the ideal eraser size for the area you want to erase? How fast can you move your mouse back and forth without accidentally erasing a number or notation you need? The GMAT clock doesn’t wait for you to figure these things out.
Using the Eraser is generally slower than simply undoing your previous actions or panning to a clean section of the whiteboard. Furthermore, if you’re erasing often, you’ll eat up precious seconds by switching back and forth between different tools. As we previously discussed, constant tool switching can be a time-killer and make your work on the virtual whiteboard feel disorganized.
If you absolutely must erase something — say, a diagram or a series of shapes — but don’t want to clear your entire whiteboard, the thickest eraser setting seems to be the best option. Even using the largest eraser, however, is far more time-consuming than simply panning to a blank portion of the virtual whiteboard to continue your work. The virtual whiteboard is “infinite,” so you don’t have to worry about panning so far that you run out of blank space.
As for the Zoom tool, the standard icons of a magnifying glass with either a plus or minus sign allow you to increase or decrease your field of view in the virtual whiteboard. At first, this might seem like a useful feature — say, if you want to focus on just one portion of the whiteboard, where you have certain notes. However, why not simply use the Pan tool to move inessential notes out of view? Panning gives you more control over your field of view and is quicker than repeatedly clicking the Zoom buttons. Plus, there is no percentage indicator to let you know how much you’ve zoomed in or out (in other words, how much you’ll need to backtrack to return to the standard view).
If you’re really concerned about panning around so much that you’ll lose track of where your notes for a problem started, quickly type your initials or the word “TOP” in the upper left-hand corner of the virtual whiteboard before you start your note-taking, so you know that when that mark is back in position, you’re where you started.
TTP PRO TIP:
Panning within the virtual whiteboard is faster and gives you more control than using the Eraser or Zoom tool.
Tip #7: Do What Works for You
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to note-taking during the in-person GMAT, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for whiteboard use during the GMAT Online. Using either or both GMAT Online whiteboard options efficiently is all about what works for you. You might find the virtual whiteboard indispensable, while other test-takers find it infuriating. So, why take any tool off the table without testing it out for yourself first?
If you’re consumed with learning GMAT content and concepts and feel overwhelmed by the prospect of having to test and practice a variety of whiteboard strategies, remember, you always have the option to ignore the virtual whiteboard entirely and use a physical whiteboard for all of your scratch work. If you choose to go that route, your note-taking experience will probably be very similar to what it would be if you were taking the GMAT at a test center. Nothing wrong with that!