Monthly Archives: November 2012

GMAT reading comprehension, sentence correction, and a monkey…?

The fine folks who produce the GMAT exam aren’t usually known for their sense of humor, but they decided to release a series of “test tips” on their official GMAT facebook page.  And one of their GMAT test tips ended up being pretty funny… though perhaps not intentionally.

An astute member of the GMAT Club forum managed to post a screenshot of the flawed “test tip” before it was removed  from the official GMAT facebook page.  Thanks to his quick internet trigger finger, we’re blessed with the following (slightly goofy) GMAT test-taking advice:

GMAT Test Tips: Reading Comprehension

Agreement is Key.

Subject-verb, verb tense, and pronoun to noun/pronoun agreement are essential to a proper sentence.

Yes, you definitely need to pay very close attention to “pronoun to noun/pronoun agreement” on… GMAT reading comprehension??

But that’s not the funny part.  Check out the original GMAT Club post for a portrait of the banana-munching scholar who might have written this text.


How to find a good private GMAT tutor

Let’s suppose that you live in a city large enough to have a decent population of private GMAT tutors, and let’s suppose that you’ve collected a list of tutors from Craigslist or or Google or some other website. (And let’s suppose that you’re not looking for an online GMAT tutor, otherwise you would have called the number on the sidebar, right?) So how, exactly, should you go about figuring out which private GMAT tutors actually know what they’re talking about?

Before I continue, let me be painfully honest about my own history as a private tutor: when I first started teaching GMAT lessons at a major test-prep firm more than a decade ago, I barely knew what I was doing. I was always a lively teacher, but you really shouldn’t have hired the 2001 version of GMAT Ninja; the GMAT is an incredibly nuanced exam, and it took some time for me to truly understand how to help my GMAT students succeed. I worked hard at my craft from the very start, but I know—with the benefit of hindsight—that I wasn’t the world’s best GMAT tutor when I first started out.

So if you’re looking for a great private GMAT tutor, you want to avoid shoddy, inexperienced teachers (such as the 2001 version of GMAT Ninja) and find a veteran instructor who can really help you achieve your goals.

To help you in your quest, here are a six ways to help you separate the best private GMAT tutors from the rest of the crowd… with the caveat that this is probably the longest GMAT blog post I’ve ever written. Consider yourself warned.

Hire a GMAT specialist, not a math generalist

Once upon a time, I placed general advertisements that offered my tutoring services for every major standardized test, including the GMAT, SAT, ACT and GRE. You shouldn’t have hired me back then, at least not for the GMAT.

Here’s the problem: the GMAT has shockingly little in common with most other standardized tests. The GMAT is a frustrating experience for many students exactly because its questions are unusually twisted; the quant section of the GMAT tests your ability to read convoluted math questions and make tricky logical connections. Sure, a general math/GRE/SAT tutor can help you polish your algebra and geometry basics, but an ideal tutor will help you to understand the bizarre quirks that are unique to the GMAT.

So if you find a general math tutor who claims to teach the GMAT well, make absolutely certain that the tutor can tell you exactly what makes the GMAT different from other standardized tests. Ask the tutor to talk about the difference between the GMAT and the GRE or the SAT. If he tells you that the tests are basically the same, then you’re better off finding another private GMAT tutor.

Ask if the tutor has taken the GMAT

As you undoubtedly know, the GMAT is a strange little creature that features a painfully broad variety of questions. Sometimes, it feels like the GMAT is a test of psychological strength, not just a test of verbal and math skills.

Any great GMAT tutor understands what it feels like to struggle through the GMAT, and completely understands the physical and psychological stresses unique to the exam. If your tutor hasn’t taken the exam often enough, it’s unlikely that he truly understands how to help you succeed on the test. So make sure that your GMAT tutor can have an intelligent, detailed conversation about his experiences in the testing room before you hire him for a tutoring session.

Hire a teacher, not just a test-taking wizard

Although you definitely want to make sure that you hire a GMAT tutor who regularly takes the exam, you should never hire a private tutor based solely on a high GMAT score. Just because somebody got a high score doesn’t mean that he is a great GMAT teacher.

Think of it this way: many people who get extremely high GMAT scores actually think that the test is pretty easy. If somebody doesn’t struggle with the test, it’s possible (or probable) that he would be incapable of figuring out why somebody else might find the GMAT difficult. And if a GMAT tutor can’t understand why the GMAT is difficult for you, you’ll probably waste your money by hiring him.

Obviously, you want to make sure that your GMAT tutor knows the test well enough to earn a high score, but don’t fall in love with a tutor just because he scored a 780 or an 800. Make sure that your GMAT tutor is an experienced, dedicated teacher who can have an intelligent conversation about his teaching strategies.

Listen for adaptability and flexibility

If you’re interested in hiring a private GMAT tutor, you probably decided that a one-size-fits-all GMAT prep course isn’t the best thing for you. You probably understand that your challenges and strengths and weaknesses are different from those of your test-prep classmates. You know that everybody has a different way of learning… but does your GMAT tutor know that?

If you speak with a GMAT tutor and he offers a rigid “plan” or “program” that he uses for all of his GMAT students, you might be wasting your money. The point of private tutoring is to receive a customized program designed specifically for your needs. If you speak with a tutor and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in adapting his teaching to suit your specific needs, you might want to look elsewhere.

The bottom line: make sure that the GMAT tutor is willing to have a detailed, engaging conversation about your specific needs. He definitely shouldn’t have all of the answers based on a phone call, but he should be able to broadly outline a unique GMAT tutoring program tailored specifically to your goals, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t let the tutor’s price fool you — in either direction

Many people make the mistake of thinking that high prices and high quality always go hand-in-hand. In the wonderful world of private GMAT tutoring, I don’t think that this is necessarily the case.

During my years as a private tutor, I’ve met some spectacular teachers who massively undercharge for their services, and I’ve met some great teachers who charge a small fortune. I’ve also met crappy teachers who charge $20/hour, and crappy teachers who charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

To be honest, tutoring prices have very little to do with the quality of the teacher. Don’t assume that a high-priced GMAT tutor is necessarily good at what he does, and don’t assume that an inexpensive tutor is an unseasoned rookie. Some people are simply more aggressive than others from a pricing and marketing perspective—and that often has nothing to do with the quality of their teaching.

In the strange world of private tutoring, you don’t always get what you pay for. Ask the right questions, and you might be able to find a great GMAT tutor at a reasonable price.

Don’t hire a GMAT miracle salesman

Improving your GMAT score inevitably involves lots of hard work, and any great GMAT tutor will acknowledge that fact. If your GMAT goals are ambitious, and you hope to gain 100 or more points on the test, you should probably be prepared for a long, hard battle. The best GMAT tutors will always make that battle much easier, but if you call a private tutor and he says that you’ll be able to gain 200 points in a few weeks, you should definitely call somebody else.

Also, be very careful with score improvement statistics, which are frequently manipulated by test-prep firms. If a GMAT tutor claims to have an average score improvement of, say, 120 points, you need to look more closely at his claims. Many GMAT tutors and test-prep firms use questionable GMAT diagnostic test data as the “before” scores, and truth is that we rarely have truly accurate data on our students when they begin working with us.

Think of it this way: if a student has never taken the real GMAT test before hiring me as his tutor, how can I possibly take credit for a specific score improvement? If a student took the GMAT, then took a mass-market GMAT prep course, and then contacted me for tutoring, how do I know how much of her score improvement was due to my efforts, and how much of the improvement was a result of the GMAT prep course?

The bottom line is that statistics simply aren’t all that useful in the wonderful world of GMAT tutoring. Hire an honest person who willingly shares stories and references, and you’ll be much less likely to get burned by an ineffective GMAT tutor.

5 reasons why the LSAT can help your GMAT score

In an earlier post, I profiled the amazing Ms. HP, who completed a mind-blowing quantity of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions before earning a 750 on the GMAT.  Astute readers might have noticed that most of her practice questions—roughly 3,225 out of the 4,000 that she completed—came from the LSAT, not the GMAT.

And you might be wondering:  is it really worthwhile to use LSAT materials, when you have absolutely no intention of suffering through law school?  Does the LSAT really help you to succeed on the GMAT?

For most of my GMAT students—especially the high-achieving, hard-studying types who are aiming for at least a 650—the answer is an enthusiastic yes.  And here are five reasons why the LSAT might be a worthwhile supplement to your GMAT study materials:

Reason #1:  It’s all about reading carefully

At their core, the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions on the GMAT and the LSAT require exactly the same skills.  Success on either exam requires the ability to read complicated (and often boring) texts, carefully understand the nuances of those texts, and flawlessly evaluate the arguments in the texts, without bringing in outside information.

If you pick up a mass-market GMAT test-prep book, you’ll see plenty of lessons on the different “types” of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions.  You could learn the strategies and mapping techniques for different question types, and your score might improve as a result.   But if you can’t comprehend the nuances of the (often miserably convoluted) texts on the exam, you’re in trouble.  The key to verbal success—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—is understanding the text EXACTLY is it’s written on the page.

So sure, it’s worthwhile to think about certain ways to analyze or “map” particular question types on CR and RC; those techniques can be useful for some students.  But success on the GMAT verbal section is mostly about the precision of your reading, and your ability to battle your way through the miserable CR and RC passages that appear on the exam.  And the LSAT, with its spectacularly dense language, helps you build this skill at least as well as GMAT questions.

Reason #2:  Official GMAT RC and CR questions are in short supply

The bad news is that the total supply of official GMAT questions really isn’t all that large, even if you purchase everything you can get your hands on.  If you do every single publicly available GMAT question (by, say, purchasing GMAC’s repeat-heavy test-prep package for $263.80), you might amass a grand total of approximately 400 distinct critical reasoning questions and 400 reading comprehension questions, give or take a few dozen.  For many of you, that’s more than enough.  For others, it’s nowhere near sufficient to reach your peak performance on the GMAT.  If you’re in the latter category, you could definitely use some help from the LSAT.

But there’s another problem with the official GMAT questions: some of them are far too easy if your goal is a 650 or above.  GMAC publishes a reasonably representative cross-section of questions in their guides, ranging from the very easiest (“200-level questions,” in theory) to the very toughest (“800-level questions,” if such a thing exists).  If you’re shooting for a top-tier GMAT score, the easiest RC and CR questions might be a waste of your time.  Perhaps only the toughest 50% of GMAT Official Guide questions will give you an adequate verbal workout.

Fortunately, the supply of official LSAT questions is nearly limitless.  Last time I checked, the fine folks who produce the LSAT have, at one time or another, published more than 60 official LSAT exams, each of which contains roughly 50 critical reasoning questions (called “logical reasoning” on the LSAT) and 25 reading comprehension questions, for a grand total of more than 4500 usable questions.

The bottom line:  if you need extra critical reasoning or reading comprehension practice, you’ll never run out of LSAT questions—even if you’re as wildly ambitious as the incredible Ms. HP.

Reason #3:  official LSAT questions are far better than “knockoff” GMAT questions

In theory, you could use “non-official” GMAT questions (written by GMAT test-prep firms) instead of official LSAT questions.  But no matter what GMAT test-prep companies may tell you, official LSAT questions are far more useful than any “knockoff” questions written by GMAT test-prep companies.

Verbal questions—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—are incredibly nuanced, and it’s unbelievably difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to even begin to replicate those nuances.  Every official LSAT or GMAT test question is edited, tested, re-edited, and re-tested by small army of standardized test experts.  By the time an official question appears in an actual exam (or in the GMAT Official Guide), it will be incredibly nuanced… and 100% error-free.

Simply put, it’s impossible for test-prep companies to perfectly replicate the precision of “real” LSAT or GMAT verbal questions, and knockoffs from test-prep companies can be a dangerous substitute for the real thing.  At best, non-official verbal questions will be a benign waste of your time, since they won’t really sharpen your ability to identify the nuances of official LSAT and GMAT questions; at worst, non-official RC and CR questions will teach you to identify the wrong nuances, and your skills will actually decline.  Put another way, “knockoff” questions are often difficult in ways that do not accurately reflect the real GMAT test.

For more on the dangers of overreliance on “knockoff” GMAT questions, please visit another crusty old GMAT Ninja blog post:  Beware the Knockoffs.

Reason #4:  official LSAT questions are harder than the GMAT

This is arguably the best reason to use LSAT reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions for your GMAT studies: LSAT questions are more difficult than most GMAT questions.

If you open up an official LSAT book, you’ll immediately notice that the passages are longer and the language is more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen on the GMAT.  And that’s wonderful, especially if your goal is to score above a 700.  Even if your natural reading ability is absolutely spectacular, I promise that the hardest LSAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions will make you sweat.

Please forgive my use of a sports cliché here, but using LSAT questions for GMAT studies is comparable to a baseball player taking practice swings with a weighted bat before stepping to the plate:  by the time the batter (or the test-taker) actually swings a real bat (or takes a real GMAT), the task of swinging (or answering GMAT verbal questions) will feel at least somewhat easier.

Again, the single most important skill tested on GMAT CR and RC questions is your ability to battle your way through dense language and to understand the passage exactly as it’s written.  So if you want to work out your reading muscles, nothing in the test-prep world is better than retired LSAT exams.

 Reason #5:  the differences between LSAT and GMAT questions are mostly cosmetic

As mentioned above, the single biggest difference between LSAT and GMAT questions is that the LSAT questions are, on average, wordier and more difficult.  But if you skim through the questions in an LSAT critical reasoning section, you’ll find some question styles that rarely appear on the GMAT.

The most obvious example is the LSAT’s “parallel reasoning” questions, which ask you to identify the answer choice with the logical pattern that most closely resembles the original passage.  Parallel reasoning questions do appear occasionally on the GMAT, but they’re exceedingly rare.

We could split hairs over a few other differences between LSAT and GMAT verbal questions, but nearly all of those differences are minor.  The GMAT seems to prefer realistic-sounding critical reasoning passages about business and politics, while the LSAT often strays into philosophical discourses, abstract logic, and legal topics.  Many LSAT answer choices arguably sound like “legalese,” with plenty of mumbo-jumbo about premises and conclusions and patterns of reasoning.  And the GMAT’s “boldfaced” critical reasoning questions never appear on the LSAT, at least not exactly in the same format.

Though these differences might be off-putting if you’re not used to the LSAT, the skills required to succeed on the LSAT are exactly the same as those needed to beat the GMAT.  You need to read the critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages with pinpoint precision.  You need to have a flawless understanding of the scope of each CR passage, and you need to ensure that outside information doesn’t stray into your thought process.  The minor stylistic differences do nothing to change the core skills required for success on both exams.

I’m the first to admit that a pile of LSAT books won’t magically cure all of your GMAT verbal ailments, and I’ll happily concede that the LSAT isn’t a perfect replica of the GMAT.  But if you need a challenge on critical reasoning or if you’ve exhausted the supply of official GMAT reading comprehension questions, then a stack of LSAT books is the next-best thing.  Fresh LSAT questions will help your GMAT score more than redoing GMAT questions for a second time, and official LSAT questions are infinitely better than an endless diet of “knockoff” materials from GMAT test-prep companies.

So no, the LSAT isn’t perfect.  But if you’re dedicated to maximizing your GMAT verbal score, then the LSAT can be an outstanding complement to the official GMAT materials.

IR might be really important… in 2017

If you’re applying to MBA programs during the current (2012-13) admissions season, you’ve probably already read a few dozen articles about the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) section. As many other GMAT tutors and bloggers and forum participants have suggested, there’s little reason to think that the IR section will have any meaningful impact on your odds of admission at top business schools this year. The section is simply too new, and MBA admissions committees have absolutely no basis for evaluating the new section.

But what if you’re looking ahead, and you’re preparing to submit your MBA applications in late 2013 or beyond? Should you worry about Integrated Reasoning at all? And if so, how much of your GMAT preparation time should you devote to the IR section?

Although GMAC is doing its best to convince everybody that Integrated Reasoning is extremely important (click here or here or here or here to see their official GMAT blog posts about the awesomeness of Integrated Reasoning), I would argue that there’s still no good reason to spend much time studying for the Integrated Reasoning section… for now.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1: five years of GMAT fairness

GMAT scores are valid for a full five years, and a substantial percentage of applicants will submit “old” GMAT scores (taken before the IR section existed) during the next few admissions cycles. And it simply isn’t reasonable for schools to use Integrated Reasoning scores to compare applicants, when a certain percentage of applicants haven’t taken the new section at all.

In theory, MBA programs could require all applicants to submit an Integrated Reasoning score beginning with the 2013-14 admissions cycle, but this seems incredibly unlikely. We still know very little about the value of the Integrated Reasoning section (see reason #2 below), and there’s absolutely no incentive for MBA programs to aggressively require an IR score before the five-year window is over.

Reason #2: GMAC needs time to determine IR test validity

Somewhere in the bowels of GMAC headquarters, researchers are busy calculating the “validity” of various portions of the GMAT exam. Basically, those researchers are interested in determining what, exactly, the GMAT tells us about test-takers. Do GMAT scores correlate to performance in business school? Do GMAT scores correlate to success in the business world?

For what it’s worth, most of the studies I’ve read (and yes, I’m apparently dorky enough to read academic studies about the GMAT) suggest that the quant and verbal sections do an excellent job of predicting MBA students’ grades in business school, but the GMAT does a pretty lousy job of predicting post-MBA success… and the AWA isn’t really a great predictor of anything, which is why one of the AWA tasks has been replaced by Integrated Reasoning. If you’re curious and want to geek out on some old GMAT validity studies, you could start by clicking here.

Anyway, the bottom line is that researchers need time to “prove” that the GMAT’s new Integrated Reasoning section actually means something. Until that happens, why would MBA programs worry about your IR score?

Reason #3: MBA applicant information overload

By the time you submit your MBA application, business schools know a ton about you. They have your work history, academic transcripts, lists of extracurricular activities, two or three references, at least a few essays, maybe a cover letter, possibly a slide presentation, an interview, and probably some extra interactions with you from campus visits or other events. Oh yeah, and they have your GMAT quant score, your GMAT verbal score, your GMAT composite score, and your GMAT AWA score.

Really, do you think the adcom needs yet another data point? And do you think that the adcom is likely to care about a data point that doesn’t show up in any MBA rankings?

Don’t get me wrong: someday, all of this will probably change. If U.S. News and World Reports decides to include IR in its MBA program rankings, adcoms will suddenly care—a lot—about the IR section. I also believe that the GMAT validity studies will someday make the IR section look really, really good; frankly, the GMAT should be testing your ability to analyze basic data tables, and the exam should include some non-multiple choice questions. In my (probably very irrelevant) opinion, the Integrated Reasoning section has plenty of potential to be a valuable tool for evaluating MBA applicants.

And someday, the IR section really will matter. But not yet. Call me in 2016 or 2017, and maybe I’ll tell you to start worrying about it then.

In the meantime, your approach to Integrated Reasoning should be the same as your approach to the AWA section: both tasks are warmups for your quant and verbal sections, and it’s not worth burning much of your precious GMAT energy on IR or AWA. The IR section is not adaptive at all, so just answer the easy ones to avoid complete embarrassment, and let the harder ones go. It just isn’t worth spraining any brain cells for a section that has another four years of irrelevance ahead of it.

But again, call me in 2016 or 2017—the story might change by then.

GMAT timing “strategy”: how much math do you really need for a 720?

I pride myself on being a brutal realist: if I suspect that one of my GMAT students might need a ton of luck and a herculean effort to achieve her score goal, I’ll tell her… gently. A huge part of my job is establishing realistic expectations, and if I think that a student’s GMAT goals are utterly hopeless, I’ll say that, too… though I’ll usually say something far more diplomatic than “you’re hopeless.”

But sometimes my dire predictions of GMAT frustration are ridiculously wrong, and sometimes one of my students makes me feel like a complete idiot.

I love it when that happens.

Once upon a time, a warm and thoroughly loveable student (let’s call her Ms. A) came to New York for a four-week GMAT “crash course.” Like most of my GMAT students in New York, she was targeting a 700+ score; unfortunately, her math skills were pretty shaky. She wasn’t appallingly bad at math, but her academic background was in the humanities, and she hadn’t taken a math course since high school. Ms. A was clearly intelligent and competent, but I didn’t immediately see much evidence of math talent or training.

To make things worse, math—or at least GMAT math—seemed to scare the poop out of her. Ms. A would make a sad, cute whining sound (imagine a frightened puppy) whenever she saw a math question that intimidated her—and that happened with disturbing frequency. After a couple of sessions, I told her that she might need more than four weeks of GMAT tutoring, and that she would probably struggle to get her quant score near the mid-40s.

She proved that I’m an idiot. But thanks to Ms. A, I’m a proud, happy idiot.

After giving her a friendly warning to keep her score goals in perspective, I asked Ms. A to do her first math practice exam, knowing that it would be a painful experience. She got a 35, which didn’t surprise me at all.

I then reiterated my standard timing rant: if you read the question twice and don’t see a clear path to the answer, just guess and move on. Use the time you save to be ridiculously accurate on the other questions; always reread each question and check your work carefully before you click “next.” And I reminded her that she would probably miss roughly 15 questions on the quant section—but that her score would be determined by which questions she missed.

Put another way: the GMAT scoring algorithm severely punishes you for missing relatively easy questions, but your score is barely harmed by missing the toughest questions. The key to success—especially on the quant section—is to be 100% bulletproof on the questions that you understand, and to waste as little time as possible on the questions that are difficult for you.

(I repeat that advice constantly to all of my GMAT students, and I’m sure that my current and former students are rolling their eyes as they read this. If you hire me as your GMAT tutor, you’ll hear me say those same lines again and again… or at least until you stop making unnecessary mistakes on your practice tests.)

Anyway, back to Ms. A. Instead of rolling her eyes, Ms. A looked relieved when I begged her to skip the hard questions and spend her time on the easier ones—I think she was genuinely thrilled that she could ignore the questions that made her whine like a homesick puppy. The very next day, her practice test score jumped to a 43. A few days later, she scored 47 on another practice quant test.

I would love to pretend that I taught Ms. A enough GMAT math to improve her quant score by 12 points, but she took all three practice tests in the same week, and I can’t honestly take much credit for improving her math skills in such a short time frame. Sure, she was working hard and her underlying quant skills were improving steadily, but the key was that she executed her timing strategy to absolute perfection. After her first test, she never wasted time on overly difficult questions, and she almost never made careless errors on questions she understood.

In the end, Ms. A kicked some GMAT ass: 720 composite, with a 47 on the quant section.

Was Ms. A special? In a way, no: she worked really hard at her math skills, but could never be mistaken for a natural math genius.

But in another way, Ms. A was truly amazing: she has an unbelievably flexible mentality, and she was able to train herself to approach the test in a completely different way. She didn’t let the GMAT clock rattle her—no matter where she was in the test, she carefully re-read each question and re-checked her work, and she understood that it was worth spending an extra 10-20 seconds to do so. (It also helped that she was naturally gifted at verbal, and could afford to spend her study time focusing almost exclusively on math.)

At the end of the day, Ms. A beat the GMAT with a insanely simple quant strategy: if she understood a question, she answered it carefully. If she didn’t immediately understand a question, she wasted very little time on it. Her approach was simple and elegant. The GMAT world is filled with a cacophony of advice about test-taking “strategy”, but you don’t really need most of that stuff: just work as hard as you can to become better at answering questions correctly, and don’t waste your time chasing the nasty questions that you still can’t easily answer.

Could you be the next Ms. A? If you have a tendency to make careless errors on your homework, you’ll need to thoroughly re-orient yourself. I constantly hear MBA aspirants say “I missed 10 questions on the homework, but they were just stupid errors—I understood all of the questions”… as if that’s a good thing! The GMAT will rip you to shreds if you make silly mistakes on easy questions, no matter how well you understand the hardest concepts covered in the GMAT Official Guide.

So take Ms. A’s simple approach: be mind-numbingly accurate on the quant questions you understand, and save time by letting the toughest questions go. If you can do that with flawless consistency, your quant score will be perfectly solid, even if your math skills aren’t exactly incredible.