Why Adderall, Ritalin, and other PEDs won’t help your GMAT score

 

If you attended an undergraduate program in the United States, you probably know that academic performance-enhancing drugs (let’s call them academic PEDs for short) are a mainstay among university students. I know dozens of students who have popped a few pills – typically ADD medications such as Adderall or Ritalin, obtained through a friend, a law-bending physician, or a black-market dealer – to help them focus while studying.

These drugs are basically legal versions of amphetamines (though their “off-label” use without a prescription is, of course, illegal) that can provide energy and help you hyper-focus while you cram for a test or write a paper. Sounds great, right?

(And just to be clear: I’m NOT talking about anybody who has an actual prescription because of a diagnosed medical condition. I’m referring to off-label use only – and there are plenty of reasons why such use is dangerous, but that’s another story for a different, non-GMAT blog.)

Anyway, I’m not here to moralize about drug use – after all, I guzzled many gallons of performance-enhancing bourbon during my years as a bartender. I’m just here to offer an honest answer to a frequently asked GMAT-related question: can academic PEDs like Adderall and Ritalin help you conquer the GMAT and GRE exams, assuming that you’re willing to ignore the potential health and legal consequences?

The short answer: I don’t think so.

First of all, the whole idea behind academic PEDs is that they help you hyper-focus. Imagine, for example, that you need to spend 14 hours memorizing organic chemistry formulas. Stimulants can help, at least in the short run. Gotta grind your way through some repetitive calculus problems? Well, that takes some short-term energy and focus, and academic PEDs might help with that, too.

But hyper-focusing is actually a bad thing if you’re trying to improve your GMAT score. The GMAT – especially the quant section – requires you to think logically through different solution paths, and then choose the best option. In general, if you’re hopped up on amphetamines, you’ll speedily pick the first solution path that comes to mind – even if it’s an inefficient path or a complete dead-end. Basically, academic PEDs cause cognitive tunnel-vision – and that’s a good way to ruin your GMAT score.

The second reason why I’m skeptical of academic PEDs is that a few of my students have used them while studying for the GMAT, and they haven’t had much success. In every case, my GMAT students were accustomed to taking Ritalin, Adderall, or a similar drug during their undergraduate studies – and in every case, the academic PEDs didn’t seem to help their GMAT prep. They would stubbornly obsess over unnecessary details of GMAT RC passages, crunch through dozens of lines of algebra when quicker solutions were available, and make score-destroying careless errors because they were moving too quickly.

In a different context, maybe the academic PEDs would have helped these very same students. But the GMAT requires a flexible mindset and a solid approach to time management. Drugs that cause you to energetically develop tunnel vision are exactly the wrong prescription for success on the GMAT.

So if you’re looking for quick fixes – well, you probably already know that you’ve come to the wrong GMAT tutor’s blog if you’re looking for gimmicky shortcuts. To be honest, if I thought that academic PEDs could help your GMAT score, I would (probably very quietly) admit it. But the truth is that they don’t seem to do much to improve your GMAT or GRE scores.

I do, however, have plenty to say about another GMAT performance-enhancing substance: food.

Go ahead, roll your eyes… but it’s GMAT quantitative reasoning, not GMAT math

 

If you’ve struggled with the GMAT quant section more than you think you should, this blog post is for you. If you’ve ever said, “I’ve always been a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT quant is so hard for me!” – then this post is definitely for you.

In my former life as a PhD student, I spent far too much time learning about the statistical science underneath standardized testing, known as psychometrics. My nearly three-year PhD odyssey didn’t result in much other than some grey hairs and a “thank you for playing!” Master’s degree in education, but I did experience a few things that probably helped me become a better GMAT and GRE tutor.

This is a story about one of those things – and at the time, I never would have guessed that it would be useful for my GMAT and GRE students.

In my first year as a PhD student, I went to a psychometrics conference, populated by academics and employees of major standardized testing organizations, including ETS (makers of the GRE and TOEFL) and GMAC (creators of your beloved GMAT). I attended a presentation by a high-ranking GMAT psychometrician, who discussed… well, nevermind that part, I’ll put you right to sleep if I start talking about it.

Anyway, here’s the useful bit: somebody in the audience asked a question about the “math section of the GMAT.” The GMAT psychometrician interrupted him politely: “Excuse me,” he said, “there is no math section on the GMAT. There’s only quantitative reasoning.”

I probably rolled my eyes. “What a dick,” I thought, “why would he make a big deal out of that? It’s math. S#!t, I’ve been teaching it for a decade. Whatever, dude.”

Sure, maybe the GMAT psychometrician wasn’t picking the best moment to make a big deal out of it, but he absolutely had a point. In the few years since I attended that conference, I’ve realized that my students – particularly Americans – actually perform better on the quant section of the GMAT when they stop thinking of it as “math” and start thinking of it as “quantitative reasoning.”

Here’s the thing: in the United States, “math” knowledge – at least through the high school level – is typically taught as sequences of mechanical steps that you need to memorize and follow. Throughout much of my public school education, our daily homework would consist of 10 or 20 nearly identical math problems. The problems were usually so similar that there was no reason to think about what any of it meant. If you could follow instructions, you’d get an A – even if you had absolutely zero understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts.

As a result, most Americans think that the word “math” just refers to a boring series of steps that you follow. Sadly, we don’t think of mathematics as a way of thinking, or as a set of useful tools for reasoning our way through useful problems. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have learned math in a way that strips it of its logic, meaning, and intuition.

So it’s no surprise that I hear this over and over from GMAT test-takers, especially Americans: “I’m a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT is so hard for me!”

Obviously, there are a ton of reasons why somebody might struggle with the GMAT quant section, but plenty of GMAT test-takers make the subtle mistake of trying to learn too many formulas, memorize too many steps, and drill too many mechanical aspects of mathematics. The GMAT, for all of its flaws, brilliantly twists 10th-grade math into a hard-to-penetrate – or at least a hard-to-quickly-penetrate – tangle of logic.

In other words: if you’re trying to blindly apply mechanical techniques to GMAT quant questions above the 500 or 600 level, the exam will eat you for breakfast.

Let’s look at an example (with apologies for the blurry fractions):

Which of the following is greatest?

GMAT blog example quantitative reasoning

If you think of this as a mechanical “math question,” you’ll follow some well-worn steps here: find some common denominators, add the fractions, and THEN compare the sums.

Go ahead and try it if you’d like. If you can correctly solve the question that way in two minutes or less, I’ll give you a cookie.

But if you’re thinking of the GMAT as “quantitative reasoning” – with or without the eye-roll – then maybe you’ll try something quicker, smarter, and less arithmetic-intensive. In this case, we’re just looking for the greatest value – and we don’t care what that value actually is, as long as we know that it’s larger than the other four answer choices.

So since the question is just asking for the greatest of the five answer choices, you can just compare pairs of answer choices, and knock off anything that’s the smaller of the two. Let’s start with D and E. It’s easy to see why E is larger than D once you notice that 1 – ½ = ½, so D is gone.

Similarly, B looks a lot like E, except that the denominators in B are squared – and since larger denominators mean that the fractions must be smaller, we can cross off B. The same argument holds for C – it’s clearly smaller than E as well. And then A has smaller denominators than E – so A is your answer.

No computation required, right? If you’re approaching this wisely, you barely need to lift your pen.

So if you’re thinking of the GMAT quant section as a set of narrow mathematical tasks – formulas that need to be memorized, or boring-ass steps that need to be followed – then you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least if you want an elite GMAT quant score. Once you start looking for opportunities to apply flexible logic and identify multiple solution paths, then you’re on the right track.

If any of this strikes a nerve, then it might not be a bad idea to stop yourself whenever you start thinking about the GMAT “math section.” Roll your eyes at yourself if you’d like, but thinking of the GMAT quant section as “quantitative reasoning” might help you embrace the flexibility and logic you’ll need for a top GMAT quant score.

An unfortunate story about GMAT testing irregularities

 

I’m reasonably confident that the GMAT does its honest best to ensure that the GMAT testing experience is the same for every GMAT test-taker. But unfortunately, stuff happens in life – even in the tightly controlled environment of a GMAT testing center. I documented a few minor GMAT testing center horror stories on my GMAT blog a bunch of years ago: basically, a few GMAT test-takers encountered computer glitches that torpedoed their tests, or had shorter breaks because the proctor failed to release them promptly from the testing room – that sort of thing.

Since then, my GMAT students have occasionally experienced computer failures, GMAT test-center power outages, and even a haunting or two — though the latter might have happened only in a GMAT student’s (literal) nightmares. In each of the real-world cases, the folks at the GMAT have done the right thing: they’ve at least offered a free retake of the GMAT.

Sadly, it sounds like the GMAT has modified its behavior toward testing irregularities lately, and that’s pretty frustrating. The circumstances of the latest GMAT testing center horror story aren’t terribly interesting: as one of my GMAT students returned from his post-Integrated Reasoning break, the proctor botched the password when he tried to log back into the computer. He apparently botched it several times, and my poor GMAT student – let’s call him Mr. B, since he apparently makes a mean bhindi masala – lost about two minutes from his GMAT quant section.

In theory, losing two minutes shouldn’t have affected Mr. B’s quant score much – after all, that’s only the equivalent of one GMAT question, right? But let’s be realistic: since we all know that you need every possible advantage on the GMAT these days, wouldn’t you freak out just a little bit if you lost two minutes from the test? And wouldn’t that affect your performance?

Unfortunately, Mr. B badly underperformed on his GMAT that day – particularly on his slightly shortened quant section – and he chose to cancel the score. We can’t completely blame his GMAT quant score on the proctor’s error, but it certainly didn’t help.

Regardless of the effects of the proctor’s error, it’s still true that the GMAT is supposed to be a standardized test. “Standardized” means that every test-taker should be given the same, fair testing experience. The GMAT quant section is 75 minutes – not 73 minutes. What happened to Mr. B is pretty much the textbook definition of a testing irregularity.

In this situation, the GMAT should have apologized, wiped the score off Mr. B’s score report, and offered him a free retake. After all, that’s what they’ve done in the past – plus, it just seems like the right thing to do. Mr. B didn’t have the same testing experience as his competitors for coveted MBA slots, and that’s not fair – even if the disadvantage was relatively small.

Mr. B is not a particularly shy man, and he pushed the GMAT for a fair resolution. There was a paper trail – the proctor filed a report indicating that there had been a testing irregularity. What did the GMAT do after several phone calls and a few emails? Nothing. They told Mr. B that he “didn’t have to cancel his score” and refused to offer a retake.

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Mr. B earns a good living, and the $250 he paid for his next GMAT exam did not bankrupt him. But it seems unfair – and it definitely represents a departure from the GMAT’s behavior in the past.

Here’s my rather cynical theory about the GMAT’s decision: perhaps due to increasing competition from the GRE exam, the number of GMAT exams has fallen recently, and the GMAT’s revenue has presumably fallen accordingly. But if each GMAT question costs somewhere between $1500 and $3000 to develop, the GMAT can’t really afford a loss of revenue.

So it looks like they’re making up that revenue however they can. Since 2012 – when the number of GMAT tests dropped – the GMAT has begun to offer plenty of pricey (and often very useful) products, as I mentioned in an earlier GRE vs. GMAT blog post: enhanced score reports ($24.95), the ability to cancel ($25) or “un-cancel” ($50) your score after test day, the worth-every-penny GMAT Exam Packs ($49.99 each), and new GMAT OGs, released every year instead of every few years ($85 for the latest bundle on the GMAC website).

And we can apparently add a new revenue source to the list: a refusal to compensate GMAT test-takers when minor testing irregularities occur.

I’m obviously not impressed by the GMAT’s behavior in this case, but if you’re just a reader of this little GMAT blog, the good news is that these sorts of things don’t happen very often. But if you’re truly paranoid about the GMAT’s increasing miserliness, then maybe you have another reason to think about taking the GRE instead of the GMAT?

How to get a perfect 800 score on the GMAT… sort of

 

More than five years ago, I earned a perfect 800 on the GMAT. I don’t really think of it as much of an achievement, to be honest – and I definitely don’t think that it’s an important qualification for the best GMAT tutors.

But I’ve been asked about it literally hundreds of times over the years – by GMAT students, prospective GMAT students, random people in the GMAT forums, strangers who’ve encountered my little GMAT blog, and plenty of others. So here are a few answers to the 800-related questions that keep coming my way.

Did you get every question right? 

No, I’m 99% sure that I didn’t. GMAT enhanced score reports didn’t exist back in 2011, so I can’t actually see if I missed any questions, but as soon as I finished the exam, I worked through every quant question I could remember – and I’m pretty certain that I missed at least one. Maybe more.

The bottom line, for whatever it’s worth: you can miss a bunch of questions and still get a “perfect” GMAT quant score of 51.

But you got every verbal question right? 

I think so. But it was mostly due to dumb luck.

In all of my previous GMAT exams – including the GMATPrep practice tests the first time I took each of them – I always fell short of a perfect verbal score. I inevitably missed a few questions, partly because I tend to lose focus at the end of the GMAT, but mostly because I screw stuff up sometimes, just like every other human.

And if you’ve ever taken the GMAT or the GRE or the LSAT, I’m sure that this part will sound familiar: I inevitably face a few “coin tosses” on verbal – questions where I’m down to two answer choices, but I’m not terribly confident in the final selection. (Incidentally, if you’re down to two choices on a GMAT verbal question and you select the wrong one, that’s not necessarily a sign that you were “close” – it’s usually a sign that you misread something in the passage.)

But when I finally scored an 800 on the GMAT, that didn’t happen at all – I was pretty much 100% confident on every verbal question. That has never happened to me on any GMAT, LSAT, or GRE exam before or since – including the day when I got a perfect GRE score. That test felt freaking brutal, and I was shocked that my GRE score wasn’t lower in the end.

Most importantly, all four of my GMAT reading comprehension passages were bizarrely interesting when I got that 800. I still remember one of them – it was about a type of plant called dodder that apparently has a sense of smell. Amazing. Again, that’s never happened before or since: when have you ever had four interesting GMAT reading comprehension passages on the same exam?

So there you go: yes, I’m pretty good at the GMAT, but those last 10 or 20 points were dumb luck – or measurement error, if you prefer the technical term.

Were you banned from taking the GMAT ever again? 

Yup. I received a nice letter from the GMAT Office of Test Security, informing me that I would need a damned good reason if I ever wanted to take it again. And I don’t have a damned good reason. “I want to help my GMAT students beat your stinking exam” isn’t going to fly with the GMAT test security folks.

My MBA.com account is suspended too, though the GMAT will still happily accept my money whenever I want to buy GMAT practice tests or the GMATPrep Question Pack from them.

Did you study for the GMAT before you got the perfect score?

Well, I earned the perfect score in 2011. I started working as a GRE and GMAT test-prep tutor in 2001, starting with a gig at a large test-prep company before I became an independent tutor a few years later. So in some sense, I “studied” for 10 years before I got a perfect GMAT score – and I’m still “studying,” since I work with GMAT students almost every day.

You probably don’t want to do that. Unless you want to become a GMAT tutor yourself, “studying” for more than a decade is an epic waste of your time.

Are there certain GMAT test-prep materials that would help somebody get a perfect GMAT score?

It’s funny, I read a GMAT blog post from another test-prep company that recommended its own materials for anybody who wants a perfect GMAT score. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, partly because knockoff GMAT materials can never be as good as official GMAT materials – and partly because that particular GMAT test-prep firm writes especially lousy materials, in my opinion.

So, no: other than the official GMAT materials, there aren’t magical GMAT test-prep resources that will get you to a perfect 800 on the GMAT.

And more importantly: there’s absolutely no practical reason for you to want a perfect GMAT score, anyway. An 800 will not help you get into a great business school, and I wouldn’t even argue that it’s a necessary quality for the best GMAT tutors.

So if you’re wondering how to get an 800 on the GMAT, don’t waste your time thinking about that. Go write an interesting MBA essay instead, or better still: go eat a tasty snack.

GRE vs. GMAT, part VII: has the GMAT lost its edge?

 

My graph-making skills are admittedly a bit rusty these days, but check this out:

now you know why they call me the GMAT Ninja, not the Line Graph Ninja; data from mba.com

Now you know why nobody calls me the Line Graph Ninja; data from mba.com

 

You probably see what I see: the number of GMAT test-takers took a dive in 2013, and it hasn’t recovered completely — particularly here in the United States.

So what else happened in 2013? Well, my Boston Red Sox won the World Series – wait, no, that has nothing to do with it. But in 2013, the GRE was pushing hard for acceptance in the MBA admissions world. By the end of 2013, the GRE was accepted by nearly every major MBA program in the United States.

(As part of its marketing push, the GRE tried some odd stuff. They contacted a number of GMAT bloggers and tutors, and urged us to tell our students to take the GRE instead of the GMAT, since the GRE makes it easier to change your answers during the exam. They invited me to speak personally with one of their psychometricians – but sadly, she was a narrow-minded fool who had zero understanding of what it’s actually like to take the GRE exam. Marketing fail, GRE.)

Anyway, back to the GMAT data. We obviously can’t be sure that the drop in GMAT tests was solely a consequence of competition from the GRE – after all, the world economy was still doing weird stuff back then, and the number of youngish professionals with “MBA-feeder” jobs probably dropped during the Great Recession. But I suspect that the GRE played at least some role in the GMAT’s decline, and if I’m correct, there are two major consequences.

First, the GMAT’s potential loss of market share to the GRE has forced the GMAT to adapt in quite a few ways, partly to try to win back test-takers, and partly to recoup lost revenue in other ways. (After all, it costs a fortune to produce good, official GMAT questions.) Since 2013, the GMAT has introduced all of the following products:

  • Enhanced GMAT score reports ($24.95)
  • The ability to completely remove canceled scores from your GMAT score report; this is free at the testing center, but now you can also cancel a score up to 72 hours after leaving the exam ($25)
  • The ability to reinstate canceled scores ($50)
  • New editions of the GMAT official guides released every year, instead of every 3-5 years ($85 for the bundle of three 2017 official guides on the GMAC website)
  • A reduction in the wait time between exams from 31 days to 16 days
  • Release of additional, full practice tests ($49.99 for a set of two GMATPrep exams); the GMAT now offers 6 official practice tests, while the GRE has only released two

Some of these things are clearly money-grabs, but most are wonderful for GMAT test-takers. Apparently, competition is good, even when the competitors are two supposedly not-for-profit standardized testing companies.

But for whatever it’s worth, there’s a second reason why GMAT’s drop in market share might be relevant to you as an MBA applicant: perhaps it’s a sign that the GRE really is gaining traction in MBA admissions.

In an earlier blog post, I argued that the GRE’s absence from the MBA rankings might be the biggest reason why taking the GRE can be a good idea. But once the GRE becomes commonplace in MBA admissions, won’t it be just a matter of time before the GRE weasels its way into MBA rankings schemes? And if that happens — and it might not — then maybe the GRE advantage will evaporate.

So enjoy the GRE vs. GMAT competition while it lasts – and before it accidentally creates unintended consequences that aren’t so MBA applicant-friendly.

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try starting from the beginning of this now seven-part series on the GRE vs. the GMAT