Monthly Archives: June 2009

scary story about letters of recommendation

This isn’t the sort of post that will really help you get into an MBA program, but I thought this was an interesting story, and wanted to share.

Once upon a time, one of my all-time favorite GMAT students applied to about five schools during the first round.  She had a solid profile, with great work experience and interesting essays.  Her GMAT score was unspectacular, but should have been enough to get an interview or two.  Plus, she’s female, and that never hurts.

And guess what? She didn’t even get an interview from any of her first five target MBA programs.  Ouch.  (Both of us were wondering whether she’d hired the wrong GMAT tutor and admissions consultant.)

She tried again:  four schools this time, with three applications heading out in time for the second round deadline.  The fourth application, if I remember correctly, arrived for the third round.  This time, she scored interviews from three of the four schools, and was admitted to two.  One of them even offered a partial scholarship.  And I wouldn’t say that this second fleet of schools was much less prestigious than the first.

What happened?  We’ll never know for sure, but the only thing that changed was her recommenders.  Most notably, her boss (at the time) wrote recommendations for the first five schools, but not for the last four.  As luck would have it, my student was up for a performance review at work, sometime between her first five rejections and her subsequent acceptance to a top-tier MBA program.

And guess what?  It turned out that her boss absolutely hated her.  Again, we’ll never know for sure, but we strongly suspect that the boss wrote scathing (or at least indifferent) recommendations to the first five schools, effectively sabotaging her candidacy.

There’s no moral to this story, really.  You already knew that you should only ask trusted colleagues to write your recommendations, right?

Um, right?

why you shouldn’t worry (too much) about percentile rankings

I’ve already met some brilliant MBA candidates in my first few weeks here in New York, but the most gifted GMAT student I ever tutored was probably a young woman I met in DC, before my Manhattan days.  She was a cum laude graduate of Duke University’s economics program, and she had already earned a ridiculously high score on the GRE.  She was solidly scoring in the 700s on her GMAT practice tests, and just wanted help getting her math score “as close to perfect as possible.”

I’ll be honest:  there’s a pretty good chance that this particular GMAT student (let’s call her Susan) was smarter than I am, and that’s a beautiful and intimidating situation to be in as a GMAT tutor.  I suspected (correctly) from the start that she didn’t have any fundamental GMAT math weaknesses; all I could offer was some practice questions designed to help her make connections on the hardest GMAT math questions.  (Basically, math formulas are of limited value on hard GMAT questions, and you need to be able to “see” a connection before you’ll have any prayer of getting the right answer.  I’ll expand on this in a future blog post.)

Basically, tutoring Susan meant spending two hours inventing the hardest GMAT-style questions I could possibly come up with.  I loved it, and I probably learned more from the experience than she did.  Occasionally, I’d manage to stump her, and that was great.  After about eight or ten GMAT tutoring sessions, we decided that she had probably “worked her GMAT math muscles” as much as was reasonable, and she went to take the test.

And she was bitterly disappointed when she looked at her percentile ranking on the GMAT.  She scored in the 99th percentile on the verbal, and her composite score was also in the 99th percentile.  Her quantitative score, however, was only in the 84th percentile.  How could this be true?  She scored a 760 on the GMAT, but somehow wasn’t even in the top 10% in math? WTF?

If you have any experience with the GMAT, you surely realize that a score of 48 on the quant section is pretty darned impressive.  (Frankly, anything above a 45 should, in theory, be good enough to allay any legitimate fears that an MBA admissions committee might have about your quant skills, but that’s another topic entirely.)  For whatever reason, however, there are lots of impressive math whizzes taking the GMAT.  A full 20% of GMAT test-takers earn a score between 47 and 51.  The score distribution, then, is not a bell curve at all for the quantitative section–it basically looks like a slowly increasing function, with an extra little jump at the end.

I admiringly call this the “Asian effect.”  Based on anecdotal evidence, I’m convinced that most of the people who achieve quantitative scores in this range are not products of the United States education system.  (News flash:  by global standards, we Americans are generally pretty lousy at math.)  Basically, there are a ton of people in Asia who demolish the quantitative section of the GMAT, and they make a whole lot of GMAT-takers feel inadequate when they see their percentile score.

Interestingly, the GMAT verbal score distribution is almost a perfect bell curve.  Similarly, the GMAT composite score distribution is also a fairly non-skewed bell curve.  This suggests that most of the GMAT “quant ninjas” are not particularly great at verbal.

The bottom line?  If you’re trying to get into top MBA programs, it’s probably OK to have a math score “only” in, say, the 70th or 75th percentile.  Don’t let the percentile score mess with you:  if your raw GMAT quant score is well into the 40s, it probably won’t, by itself, sabotage your MBA dreams.

nobody reads your essays, part I

If you’ve ever attempted to write a really good essay for an MBA application (or for any other graduate or undergraduate program), you know how hard it is.  It’s not like crapping out a financial report or a blog post or an essay on the use of soliloquys in Hamlet.  These essays take a whole lot of thought and effort, especially if you’re trying to flatter yourself in 400 words without sounding like a raging egomaniac.

And guess what?  Much of the time, nobody cares.

Imagine that you’re the guy who gets to read every single application that rolls into, say, HBS.  You would read roughly 6700 applications, each of which contains at least four essays.  That’s 26,800 essays, most of which come flooding in within 72 hours of one of the deadline dates.

For a little bit of perspective, here’s a completely random story about essays…  once upon a time, I was part of a small team of “scorers” for an international academic competition.  Along with one other scorer, I was asked to rate 160 essays, giving each one a score from 1-100, and ranking the top three essays in each of two age groups.

And it was absolutely excruciating.  Not because the essays were bad, but because it took forever to read each one.  After about five essays, we figured out that it was best to just skim the introduction and the conclusion; if the essay looked good in the introduction, we would read the first sentence of each paragraph to determine whether the essay merited consideration for an award.  After skimming about 80 introductions and conclusions, we stopped even bothering with the conclusions, and started slapping on scores based on the introduction and (embarrassingly) the handwriting in each essay.

So no, we didn’t really read anything.  And we only had 160 essays.  Imagine if we were asked to read 26,800 essays, as our poor, hypothetical HBS guy does.

My point is that even the most well-intentioned reader of MBA applications will inevitably skim most of your essays.  If you’re unlucky, the reader won’t even bother to read anything beyond your introduction.  No adcom member in their right minds would ever admit to it, but it’s simply human nature to skim essays when you have a massive pile of them in front of you–especially when the essays don’t exactly start with a bang.

So what can you do about this?  Write essays that start with a bang, and write essays that are easy to read.  If you write long, verbose paragraphs, virtually any human being will be inclined to start skimming… or put the essay down entirely.  No matter how wonderful your work experiences or extracurriculars are, there’s always the risk that the reader won’t actually read your carefully crafted comments if you don’t make them seem interesting, gripping, and unique from the start.

We all know that MBA programs are looking for great potential business leaders, not great potential poets or novelists or journalists.  But they still love a good, well-written story, and a little bit of writing flair might be exactly what you need to have them notice your potential as a business leader.  If you keep your paragraphs short and write with at least a modicum of humor, it will help your essays to be worth the effort that you pour into them.

a quick acknowledgment

Most of you really don’t care, but I wanted to thank my friend (and GMAT student) Mike DeMeo for inspiring this website title.

I’ve been teaching and blogging for a long time, but never bothered to put all of my thoughts on GMAT tutoring in one place.  Mike, like many other people, gently harangued me for failing to have a concentrated web presence, and then jumped all over me (in a good way) when I accidentally used the phrase “GMAT ninja” during a lesson.  He was convinced that it should be the name for my GMAT business, GMAT blog, and GMAT website.

And I (eventually) agreed.

Thanks, Mike.  May the GMAT gods grant you a big, fat, juicy 750 on your next GMAT score report.

ignore the man behind the GMAT curtain

Pretty much all of my students have, at some point or another, seen a really easy question on the GMAT, and had a mild panic attack as a result.  We all know that the GMAT test is adaptive; if, say, question #25 seems really easy, doesn’t that mean that the test-taker is doing really really badly?

No, of course not.

Well, okay… maybe.  If you’re doing really badly, you probably will see some really easy questions, particularly on the math section of the GMAT.  But there are other possible explanations, and perhaps you’ve heard them before; based on my experience as a GMAT tutor, these explanations still don’t prevent students from freaking out a little bit.

First of all, there are plenty of experimental questions on the GMAT.  You might be kicking some serious butt, and then a complete softball comes your way.  Is it a sign that you weren’t really kicking butt?  Probably not.  You might just have received a little unscored nugget.  Answer the question as if it counts, and then put it out of your head.

I’m also convinced that the GMAT algorithms group questions by topic, and the test actually accounts for your performance on each topic.  You might have done wonderfully on the first, say, 12 questions on the GMAT, but then you miss your first geometry question.  Perhaps the test recalls that you screwed up on geometry, and then gives you an easy geometry question next time.  This is just speculation on my part, but I think it’s possible that seemingly easy GMAT questions might come at you when you’ve displayed weakness on a particular topic–even if you haven’t, in general, shown yourself to be a weak test-taker.

Most importantly, you should never worry about the difficulty level of the questions.  If a GMAT question seems easy, read it really, really carefully–it might not be as easy as you think, or you might be missing something crucial in the question.  And even if it is easy, why the hell would you want to waste your energy worrying about it?  Get the question right, and don’t worry about your GMAT score until the end of the test.

This might seem obvious to you, and this post is obviously just a little bit of nagging.  But it’s funny how many people apparently need to be reminded that they shouldn’t waste their time thinking about the algorithm and their score during the GMAT.

stealth exponents

It’s always a little bit tricky and annoying to write math problems on a GMAT blog (there’s no way to comfortably write equations, unless you want to import images), but I’ll do my best with this topic.  I just want to make a few little comments about exponents, and about the ways in which the GMAT Official Guides (including the GMAT Quantitative Review Guide) can lull a perfectly good GMAT student into complacency on the topic.

Hopefully, you know all of the basic exponent rules.  If you’re multiplying two terms with the same base, you’ll add the exponents (example:  x^3*x^4 = x^7).  If you’re dividing, you know that you subtract the exponents, and then you might encounter something like a “power of a power” question (example:  (x^6)^2 = x^12).  If you know these rules and a few other basics (i.e. what happens if an exponent is negative, a fraction, or zero), you’ll be fine on the GMAT.  Right?

If you’re focused on the GMAT Official Guide questions… well, yes, you’ll be mostly fine.  Let’s take a quick survey of the exponent questions in the problem solving section of the 12th edition of the GMAT Official Guide:  #15, #28, #46, and #108 all contain exponents, but they’re mostly a matter of calculating (or simplifying) some numbers.  #104 and #110 look like exponent problems, but both are really about factors, not exponent properties.  #137 could be solved using exponent properties, but is just as easily done with some simple calculations and logic…

I could go on.  My point is, most of what you encounter in the GMAT Official Guides doesn’t require much knowledge of exponent properties.  And when you do need to use exponent properties, they’re just covering the basics.

Funny, I didn’t see anything basic last time I took the GMAT, and neither did most of my students who scored above 600.  I keep hearing the same refrain:  the exponent problems looked nothing like they do in the GMAT Official Guides.

I’m convinced–based on the GMATPrep, GMAT Focus, and the real thing–that the GMAT is much more likely to show you an exponent question that has something to do with factoring and/or “base conversion.”  Neither of these topics necessarily receive the attention they deserve in GMAT test-prep books.

Please accept my profuse apologies for the crappy notation, but here are a couple of examples of realistic, harder exponent problems (NOT from official GMAT materials, lest I incur the wrath of some bigshot NYC lawyer sent by the bigshots who write the GMAT):

(7^10 – 7^8)/3 = (2^x)(7^y).  If x and y are integers, then what is the value of x + y?

3^(x-1) – 3^(x+1) = -(9^5)(2^3).  What is the value of x?

I’m not going to post solutions until I’m begged repeatedly, but hopefully you see where I’m going with this.  You’re going to see GMAT exponent problems that require some factoring, as well as the ability to make some ostensibly unlikely connections.  Unless you’ve seen these problems, you might be wondering where the heck the 2’s are coming from.

Welcome to the GMAT.  If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not doing well.  Either that, or you’re way smarter than I am, and you shouldn’t be wasting your time reading a blog posting about exponents on the GMAT.

why I love the GMAT

When I first encountered the GMAT, I was working at a major test-prep firm as a GRE and SAT instructor.  At the time, I was 23 years old, and had absolutely no thoughts of business school.  For that matter, I hadn’t even finished my undergraduate degree; I was dancing professionally during an indefinite hiatus from university, and there was no reason why I would have any interest in the GMAT.

But as luck would have it, my company needed a GMAT teacher, and I was ushered into a computer lab to take a practice test.  After clobbering the ACT, SAT, and GRE, I figured that the GMAT would be basically the same deal.  For the first time in my test-taking life, I did “just okay” on the practice GMAT.  I did well enough to be initiated as a GMAT instructor, but I was nowhere near a perfect score.

And my curiosity was piqued.

Fast-forward eight or nine years, and I’m still playing with the GMAT.  I’ve worked as a private tutor for a long time now, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time tutoring the SAT and GRE and ACT–but there’s a special place in my heart (or brain?) for the GMAT.

The GMAT is, without question, the most complex and nuanced standardized test out there.  There’s absolutely no way to boil the GMAT down to a nice, simple series of tricks.  The GRE, by contrast, employs an extremely limited set of questions; once you know what to expect on the test (particularly the quantitative section), it’s just a matter of execution.  The GMAT seems almost infinite, and they seem to write questions that only the most ridiculous of geniuses are able to solve.  (When I took the GMAT last year, I spent eight minutes on a single question… and still had absolutely no idea how to solve it.  Whoever writes these questions is a bad, bad dude.)

So that’s why I’m here, all these years later.  Still playing with GMAT, still trying to figure out every little nuance and evil question, so that I can offer the most help possible for my friends and students who want to achieve their MBA goals.