Category Archives: GRE

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.

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

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


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

Choosing between an independent GMAT tutor and a large GMAT test-prep firm


In a crusty old GMAT blog post, I discussed the most important characteristics you should look for in an independent GMAT (or GRE) tutor. In this post, I’ll take a step back, and look at a broader decision: should you hire an independent GMAT tutor in the first place, or are you better off looking for a GMAT tutor from one of the established GMAT test-prep juggernauts?

As with many decisions in life, there’s no foolproof, one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few ways to think about the tradeoffs between hiring an independent GMAT tutor vs. a tutor from a large GMAT test-prep firm:

Tradeoff #1: Quality control vs. potential genius

Imagine that you’re trying to choose between two restaurants for dinner tonight. One restaurant is a national chain that you’d find in every major city. You know exactly what you’re going to get from that national chain: consistent food and a consistent overall experience. Will you have your mind blown by something new, innovative, and incredibly delicious at that chain restaurant? Probably not. But if you enjoyed your last experience at that chain restaurant, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it again tonight.

But what will happen if you walk into an independent restaurant you’ve never tried before? Well, there’s some chance that you’ll enjoy one of the most unique and delicious meals you’ve ever eaten – and it may be far better than anything you’d eat at the chain restaurant. Or there’s a chance that you’ll get a terrible bellyache. Who knows?

To be fair, no GMAT or GRE tutor will ever give you a bad case of food poisoning… but, well, some independent tutors aren’t great. And others are absolute geniuses who will teach you far more than any one-size-fits-most test-prep company ever could. And that’s arguably the biggest tradeoff: are you interested in risking a few dollars in search of a GMAT or GRE virtuoso, or would you rather play it safe?

There’s obviously no right answer, but that’s arguably the heart of the decision you face if you’re thinking about hiring a GRE or GMAT test-prep tutor.

Tradeoff #2: One-size-fits-most vs. individualized solutions

I started my GMAT and GRE tutoring career at a large test-prep firm about 15 years ago. Our training was, of course, standardized: every test-prep tutor and classroom teacher learned the same processes, and taught from the same scripts. And that makes perfect sense: when you walk into the company’s test-prep center in Denver, you would expect to receive exactly the same GMAT pedagogy as you would in New York City.

That standardized approach to test-prep instruction works really, really well… unless it doesn’t. For some test-takers, the curriculum at, say, Manhattan GMAT or Economist GMAT is absolutely perfect. For some people, it’s pretty good. For others, it’s a mild disaster. But GMAT and GRE tutors at large test-prep firms are generally required to stick to their individual firm’s teaching methods. Their training is 100% rooted in those methods, and their managers expect tutors to adhere to them.

So if those standardized teaching methods don’t work for a particular GMAT or GRE student, the tutor may not be able to do much about it – either because they don’t have the freedom to select different teaching methods, or because they simply don’t know about them.

As independent GRE and GMAT tutors, we’re free to explore the wide world of test-prep pedagogy, tailoring our methods and materials to each individual student. That sounds great, but there’s a catch: it’s easier for a tutor to follow a single test-prep teaching methodology than to try to synthesize dozens of them – and of course, not all independent tutors truly understand a broad range of pedagogical techniques. But the best GMAT and GRE tutors are constantly learning, and constantly expanding their teaching toolkits. And that’s something that even the best of the GMAT test-prep giants will never be able to offer.

Tradeoff #3: Free materials vs. freedom

One of the biggest reasons GMAT and GRE test-takers often prefer large test-prep companies is that they offer plenty of test-prep materials: books, worksheets, online trackers, and practice tests, all of which are included in the price of a private GMAT or GRE tutoring package. Sure, I’d argue that those goodies from test-prep companies can never be as good as official GMAT materials, but free materials are still better than no materials. Many independent GMAT and GRE tutors – myself included – do offer some free materials, but they’re obviously nowhere near as flashy as the ones produced by GMAT and GRE test-prep behemoths.

But again, there’s a price tag to those free materials: they limit the pedagogical freedom of the big companies’ GMAT and GRE tutors. If you work for, say, Kaplan, your bosses probably wouldn’t want you to recommend materials from Veritas – and certainly not from some wacko contrarian independent GMAT tutor guy. But independent GMAT tutors can maintain flexibility: if we think that you’re going to benefit from a GMAT or GRE test-prep guide written by another company, we’ll tell you to buy it.

In other words: large test-prep companies rely on just one set of materials. Independent GMAT and GRE tutors can draw on every available set of materials to optimize a student’s progress. We just can’t give you many of them for free.

And when you think about the overall cost of the MBA investment or the cost of private GMAT tutoring, maybe the price of a few books isn’t terribly meaningful, anyway?

Tradeoff #4: Personalization vs. potential clock-punching

There are some fantastic GMAT and GRE tutors working for some of the large test-prep firms – I’ve met plenty of them over the years. Many of them are very passionate about helping their students succeed. But others think of it as “just a job.” And maybe that’s the one risk to hiring a GMAT or GRE tutor from one of the large test-prep companies: you might be getting a smart but passionless person who’s just punching the proverbial clock.

Independent GMAT and GRE tutors – or at least the ones with staying power – are much more likely to be a different breed, with a unique perspective and some fire in their bellies for teaching. Independent tutors aren’t just cogs in a larger machine – we’re our own machines. It’s just that we’re very tiny machines, with less flash and fewer freebies — and far less standardization.


GRE vs. GMAT, part VI: what is a good GRE score, anyway?


In the fifth installment of my (apparently never-ending?) GRE vs. GMAT blog series, I suggested that the GRE might offer an advantage if your GMAT score is on the low side, since the GRE doesn’t yet appear in the MBA rankings. So now you might be wondering: what sort of GRE score could be considered “good enough” for top MBA programs?

Unfortunately, MBA admissions committees aren’t exactly open about their handling of the GRE. The good folks at Poets & Quants recently published a few trickles of GRE data from top MBA programs, but the data is still lamentably limited.

So how might MBA admissions committees define a “good” GRE score, and what sort of GRE score should you be aiming for? Let’s start by laying out the three main ways that MBA programs could evaluate GRE scores.

Option #1: the GMAT-GRE conversion chart

As the GRE made its push for acceptance in the MBA world, it published a handy little GMAT-GRE conversion chart, so that you can take any GRE score and turn it into an “equivalent” GMAT score. Sounds great, right?

Trouble is, conversion charts that compare two different tests are on shaky scientific ground. In theory, the GRE and GMAT are designed to measure subtly different skills, and they’re on completely different score scales. Few, if any, independent psychometricians (experts in the statistical science underneath standardized testing) would suggest that these conversion charts should ever be used. They simply aren’t very accurate, even under the best of conditions.

The GMAT-GRE conversion chart was, of course, published by the creators of the GRE, who have made an aggressive attempt to seize market share from the GMAT. You won’t be surprised to hear that the GMAT responded with an anti-conversion-chart article in an old GMAT newsletter from 2009.

More detail is available on the GMAT website, but here’s the bottom line: GRE and GMAT scores are correlated, but they aren’t perfectly correlated. If you’re trying to convert GRE scores into GMAT scores, the standard error of prediction is 67.4 points, according to GMAC. In other words: if MBA programs try to use your GRE score to predict what you would have gotten if you’d taken the GMAT instead – the conversion chart is likely to be off by an average of 67.4 points in one direction or another.

And in case you’re new to the (painful) reality of MBA admissions: 67.4 points on the GMAT is a really, really big deal these days.

So if MBA admissions committees are using the GMAT-GRE conversion chart… well, they shouldn’t be.

Option #2: GRE percentiles

GRE percentile scores would, on the surface, appear to be a fairer way to evaluate MBA applicants who have taken the GRE. Why wouldn’t MBA programs just look at applicants’ quant and verbal percentiles on the GRE, and then compare them to the equivalent GMAT percentile scores?

But there’s a huge problem here, too: percentile rankings compare you with other people who took the same test. So if, for example, MBA admissions committees started using the dreaded 80th-percentile rule for GRE scores, that would be unfair: your GRE percentile rankings would be based on the scores of the 700,000+ GRE test-takers – only a small percentage of whom are applying to MBA programs. That’s not cool: you’ll face a completely different horde of competitors for the GRE vs. the GMAT.

And of course, percentiles are out of whack on the GMAT quant section, anyway. If you want to score in the 80th percentile on the GMAT, you’ll need a 49 – which requires some serious skill. On the GRE, all you’ll need to hit the 80th percentile on quant is a 162 – and that’s nowhere near as difficult as getting a 49 on the GMAT.

In other words, GRE percentiles absolutely cannot be compared fairly to GMAT percentiles. It’s a terrible idea to do so, and I desperately hope that no MBA admissions committees have gone down this road.

Option #3: Round numbers, human nature, and the GRE 160 sniff-test

Here’s where we get into the interesting stuff. I’m sure that some MBA admissions committees are making the mistake of using the GRE-GMAT conversion chart, and others might be (mis-)using GRE percentile scores. But my hunch is that most MBA admissions committees probably just use a “sniff test” for GRE scores – and I’m guessing that a 160 on both GRE sections is probably enough to make MBA adcoms move on to other aspects of your MBA application.

Let’s face it: people are naturally drawn to nice, round numbers. For a long time, a 700 was considered a key threshold on the GMAT, partly because it’s a nice round number, but also because the creators of the GMAT were thoughtful about that round number: if 500 was supposed to be the mean score on the test, a 700 was supposed to be roughly two standard deviations above the mean – and well above the 90th percentile.

GMAT scores and percentiles have become pretty warped, of course, but the GMAT score scale was originally designed wisely: a 700 wasn’t just a nice, round number. It was also a meaningful dividing line between high scorers and ridiculously high scorers. And the same score scale was used on both the SAT and the pre-2011 version of the GRE – so the GMAT’s 200-800 scale is a familiar friend that has been part of American education culture for decades.

But our intuition goes out the window with the GRE’s new score scale, which ranges from 130 to 170 for each section. If 150 is the average GRE score, then what’s our instinctual dividing line between “very good” and “elite”? I suspect that MBA admissions officers struggle to understand the difference between, say, a 157 and a 159, but a 160 sounds nice and round, right? So I think that adcoms tend to feel OK about an applicant’s ability once they’re above the 160 mark on both the quant and verbal sections. No other implicit “cut score” would seem to make much sense.

So if you’re not much of a GMAT-slayer, my advice is to try to crack 160 on both the quant and verbal sections of the GRE. Unless you have an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses, it’s much, much easier to get a pair of 160s on the GRE than it is to get, say, a 700 on the GMAT – and of course, a 700 on the GMAT might not be enough anymore, anyway.

For whatever it’s worth, the few GRE averages that have leaked out might support the idea that MBA programs are using the GRE as a “way around” the GMAT/MBA rankings game – and it might also support the idea that a 160 could be enough to make your test score a non-issue at top-tier MBA programs.

For example, Michigan, Cornell, and UCLA all had average GRE verbal scores of 162 and average quant scores of 159; Duke’s averages were 160 on both the quant and verbal GRE sections. That’s certainly not conclusive, but it suggests that MBA admissions committees might be using 160 as a loose GRE benchmark score — even though the GMAT-GRE score conversion chart says that a pair of GRE 160s is equivalent to a not-terribly-competitive GMAT composite score of 640.

The GRE score data remains limited, so take it – and my interpretation of it – with a grain of salt. But if you’re OK with a test score that makes your MBA application “GMAT-neutral”, then the latest GRE data offers some interesting food for thought.


GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!


In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.


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 series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a “good” GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.