4,000 verbal questions: a (painful) GMAT success story

Everybody loves a good, hyper-dramatic GMAT success story. That’s why our friends at Beat the GMAT have so many dedicated readers and contributors: we’re all addicted to the “I went from a 460 to a 740 in just one month!!!” stories. The faster somebody improves, the more excited we get in the GMAT world.

I certainly love to watch a student (or a perfect stranger) jump 100 points in a few weeks, but I love it even more when a GMAT student succeeds after fighting like crazy to improve. Put another way, I admire plucky test-taking persistence more than I admire pure test-taking talent. And today’s story features the amazing Ms. HP, who is probably the most incredibly dedicated GMAT student I’ve ever met.

(Before I tell you about Ms. HP, a quick note for anybody who might be wondering about my long absence from my GMAT blog: during the years that have passed since my last post, I’ve traveled to eight countries, taught three courses in a NYC public school, moved cross-country to Colorado, written over 170 (!!) articles for an odd mix of food and plastic surgery websites, and proposed to my lovely soon-to-be-wife… all while maintaining a completely full schedule of GMAT students and MBA applicants. Life is calmer now. Please forgive my absence, and brace yourself for a small flurry of pent-up GMAT blog posts before I get too busy again.)

And now, back to Ms. HP. When I first met Ms. HP (not her real name, of course– “HP” refers to Chinese hot pot, which is one of her favorite meals), she had just earned a string of 640s on her MGMAT practice tests, with equally erratic performances on quant and verbal. After a session or two, I realized that Ms. HP had excellent math skills; once she learned to consistently check her work to avoid unforced errors, I wasn’t really worried about her GMAT quant score at all.

Verbal was a different story. After Ms. HP completed some critical reasoning and reading comprehension diagnostic tests from my favorite LSAT book, I discovered that she had some legitimate weaknesses. She had a tendency to rush through questions, she would occasionally over-think CR passages, and she simply didn’t feel confident battling through the dense language of CR and RC texts. Her GMAT score goal was a 720, but her error rate was easily twice as high as it needed to be to achieve her goals.

If you’re struggling with CR or RC, you won’t like what I’m about to tell you: for certain students—including Ms. HP—the only reliable cure for GMAT verbal ailments is tons and tons of practice.

Sure, a good GMAT (or LSAT) tutor can help you to conquer difficulties with particular question types. If you’re disproportionately bad at, say, inference questions or assumption questions or main idea questions, we can fix that. If you have some bad note-taking habits—such as taking too many or too few notes, or focusing on the wrong details—a good GMAT tutor can help with that. And a good GMAT tutor can help you organize your time, and help you organize the information in the passage.

But if your reading skills are fundamentally flawed or if you consistently misunderstand the passages, there’s really only one (unappealing) cure: craploads of practice. Sure, some occasional guidance from a GMAT tutor can help you to focus on the right details, but there are no GMAT test-prep gimmicks that can make you a better reader. You simply have to work hard at improving your skills, often over a long period of time.

Ms. HP, for better or worse, really didn’t have many bad habits with CR or RC, and her errors were evenly distributed among the question types. The bottom line was that she wasn’t great at reading the passages and answer choices. So I told her to do as much practice as she could: three or four 25-question practice sets per week, at the very least.

To make a long story short, Ms. HP proceeded to work like crazy, and consistently did far more homework than I assigned each week. Her CR and RC results improved dramatically, and she ultimately earned a 750/49Q/42V. If we use Ms. HP’s original MGMAT scores as a baseline, she improved by 110 points. Awesome, right?

Here’s the truly incredibly part: Ms. HP completed a total of roughly 4,000 CR and RC questions before her GMAT exam. Yes, you read that correctly: 4,000 questions, give or take a few. In addition to completing every official GMAT verbal question ever published—most of them at least twice—she also completed every CR and RC question from 43 full LSAT exams, for an approximate total of 3,225 LSAT questions. If we include her work in GMAT books and on practice GMAT tests, she did somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 CR and RC questions—in just a few months.

At the risk of jinxing poor Ms. HP, I’ll call my shot right now: WHEN she gets into a top-ten MBA program, she will richly deserve it. I’ve seen plenty of students work hard for their (often dramatic) GMAT score improvements, but I’ve never seen anybody work as mind-blowingly hard as Ms. HP. The qualities that made her an incredible GMAT student are exactly the qualities which make her great at everything she does: she has a positive attitude, an incredible work ethic, a laser-like focus on her goals, and—pardon the expression—cajones of steel. (Not literally, of course.)  She’ll be an outstanding MBA student, wherever she ultimately ends up.

If you’re completely terrified by the thought of completing 4,000 CR and RC questions, don’t worry: Ms. HP is clearly an extreme character (in a good way), and I suspect that she could have achieved an amazing GMAT score with a less-heroic quantity of verbal exercises. And if you’re studying for the GMAT right now, odds are good that you’ll be able to reach your peak with substantially fewer questions.

But next time you sit down in front of a GMAT book and dread the thought of doing another few dozen CR questions, think of Ms. HP. Hopefully, her story will provide a little bit of inspiration… or at least remind you that this GMAT verbal crap isn’t always as easy as we’d like it to be.

14 responses to “4,000 verbal questions: a (painful) GMAT success story

  1. It is really inspiring.Ms. HP really worked hard and she deserved the success. Congratulations to teacher also!

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  3. It is very inspiring. Practicing 4000 questions is awesome. It needs lot of patience, dedication, trust etc. I will admire her for my preparation. Thanks for the article

  4. Oh gosh. I’m going through the exact same problem now with CR. I rush. I daze out. Misinterpret questions and ultimately settle on one I’m not confident about. Just ordered a couple more prep books specifically for CR and now I’m hoping it’ll be enough. Where do you get 4,000 questions!?!

    • Charles Bibilos

      Thank you for the comment, Jo! Test-prep books can help you with the logic behind CR questions, but the best way to improve your focus and interpretation is to stick with official questions. You can squeeze a few hundred from the GMAT Official Guide, GMAT Verbal Review, GMATPrep Question Pack, and the (ancient) GMAT Paper Tests, but most of the 4,000 would come from retired LSAT tests. Visit the test-prep section of any bookstore, and you’ll see plenty of publications from LSAC, the guys who write the LSAT.

      Any official LSAT book is fine, but for a list of titles, check out the comments on this post: http://gmatninja.wpengine.com/2012/11/12/lsat-vs-gmat-for-gmat-critical-reasoning-and-reading-comprehension/.

      Good luck with your studies!

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  7. Ninja,
    amazing post. . what was ms hp’s baseline score which she got when she took the mock for the first time..
    how much can somebody improve from the baseline score?

    • Thank you, Sachin! Glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Ms. HP hadn’t taken the real test before we started working together, but she was consistently getting 640s on her MGMAT tests before we met. So if we take the MGMAT scores seriously, then she improved by somewhere around 100 points.

      On her first few LSAT sections (completed without time constraints–the LSAT’s 35-minute limit is absolutely insane, and should be ignored if you’re preparing for the GMAT) she would typically get around 70% correct, and she brought her LSAT accuracy rate to around 90% (or maybe a little bit higher) by the time she took the GMAT. And that’s really, really tough to do.

      How much can somebody improve from the baseline score on the GMAT? Great question. There’s no good answer, unfortunately–it depends on how much effort you’re willing to put into it, and how quickly you’re able to improve some of these skills. I once worked with a guy from Thailand who started with a 380, and eventually improved to a 670… and his verbal score was a 40! He had a bad quant day when he got the 670. But it took him a really long time, and he’s a pretty special guy.

      So is a 100- or 200- or 300-point improvement possible, depending on your starting point? Of course! Is it easy? Of course not. But almost anything is possible with a ridiculous amount of time and effort–it’s just a question of how much time you can reasonably spend working on this stuff.

  8. ok.. thanks for your reply charles..
    I took my gmat yesterday. my quant score dropped to 43 from 47 which I had got in my gmat prep tests.
    and I have no idea whatsoever as to why the score dropped.

    I remember having scored 560 after a month’s study and after 8.5 months of effort, I got a 640 on the real deal. So I was just wondering how much more I can improve,

    • Charles Bibilos

      I’ll bet you anything that you made a handful of careless errors on your quant section yesterday, Sachin… and it doesn’t take too many of those to cause a pretty serious score collapse. A 43 on quant isn’t bad, but it sounds like you’re capable of much better. A 47 quant probably would have landed you somewhere in the neighborhood of a 670, and I’ll wager that most of the lost points came from questions that you basically understood, but flubbed for one reason or another.

      It’s clear that you have the capacity for a higher quant score, but I have no idea how much you can improve on verbal, especially after all of the hard work you’ve already done. Your verbal score was already decent, and it’s possible that you’re mostly being held back by your reading skills at this point. There’s no shame in that, but further gains might come slowly.

      Would LSAT help? Yeah, sort of. It’s pretty nasty language, and you’ll get stronger as you go through them. Trouble is, you might get stronger very, very slowly. Can you continue to improve? Yes. Can you improve measurably in a reasonable amount of time? I don’t honestly know–it just depends on what, exactly, is going wrong, and how quickly you can push your reading skills forward.

  9. Thank you Charles for pinpointing the issue with what might have happened in Quant. Yes, I have always been making a few careless mistakes even while I was practicing. To counter the careless mistakes, I tried to inculcate good habits but it seems nervousness got the better of me and I ended up committing careless mistakes.
    It is soothing to hear I have a decent Verbal score-I got a 34. Trust me when I say that SCs were very very strange compared to what I have seen in OGs and GMATPrep Questions compilations. I guess being strong in SC is the only reason why I have got 34. I do have problems in reading skills. Nervousness again caused me to read the prompt once, twice , thrice.. I ended up throwing 3 questions (not consecutively) to get back on track.

    I will try to get a 49 in Quant on the real deal in a month or 45 days from now and I guess reading Economist thinking of it’s articles as RC passages will help in bolstering my reading abilities.

    Major problem is that I come from the IIM pool of candidates: IIM-Indian IT Male and even a 670 won’t probably help me get into Tier 1 schools.

    Also, what is your opinion about the Aristotle DS Booster?

    Thanks again for your kind replies. You have been a great moral support.

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