Monthly Archives: January 2013

why you should (almost) never cancel your GMAT score

Suppose that you took the GMAT exam, and you felt like you got the living #$^%*&@! beaten out of you.  Maybe the quant section felt ridiculously difficult, and you had to race through the last 12 questions to finish the section before time ran out.  Maybe all of your reading comprehension passages felt completely incomprehensible.

By the time you finish the exam, your heart is pounding out of your chest, and you have two minutes to decide whether to cancel your test or view your GMAT scores.  Should you cancel your test?

Probably not.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1:  it’s almost impossible to know how well you did

Once upon a time, I worked with a skittish woman who always seemed to doubt her capacity for GMAT success, especially on the quant section.  She earned a 660 on her first attempt at the test, and then contacted me for some help.  After a couple of months of tutoring, she went back to face the beast.  And I made her promise not to cancel her score, no matter what.

The poor woman was convinced that the quant had beaten her to a bloody pulp.  The questions seemed strange, and she felt bewildered for most of the section.  She only had about 15 minutes left for the last 12 questions, so the final third of the quant section passed in a blur.  Pardon the expression, but she was convinced that she had shat the bed.

And guess what?  She got a 760, and was offered merit-based scholarships everywhere she applied.

I’ve heard this sort of story dozens—or maybe even hundreds—of times over the years.  The GMAT is a sneaky, slimy, deceptive creature.  You never know how well (or how badly) you’re doing until the score pops up.  Unless you literally wet your pants during the exam, you can’t possibly know whether you did terribly.  And if you don’t believe me, click here or here or here or here to read recent GMAT forum debriefs written by test-takers who struggled during the exam, but were somewhat surprised by their fantastic scores.

So “feeling bad” about your test is a lousy reason to cancel.  You might be canceling the GMAT score of your dreams, and that wouldn’t be cute at all.

Reason #2:  even if your GMAT score was bad this time, you’ll learn from the result

I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “No really, ninja dude:  I know when I’m getting my butt kicked by the GMAT.”  And I respectfully disagree, but let’s pretend that you do know that you had a crappy test.  Should you cancel your score?

Again, I’d argue that you shouldn’t.  While it’s maddening that you can never see exactly what you missed on the actual GMAT, the score does provide you with some feedback.  You might be surprised by how high (or how low) your score is on one or both sections.  And as you prepare for your next battle with the test, that can be an invaluable piece of information.

Let’s suppose that you were aiming for a 710, but only got a 600Now you know exactly what it feels like to get 600, and as you replay the test in your mind, you’ll almost certainly learn from it.  Even a disappointing exam can be a great learning experience, and the score provides you with some feedback that can help you move forward.

Reason #3:  why waste $250?

This might sound silly, but I always feel like a complete chump whenever I spend money on something I don’t use.  For example, there are a few test-prep books on my shelf that I almost never touch.  The $20 or $30 that I spent on each of the books isn’t going to destroy my bank account, but I still feel like a moron for buying them.

Couldn’t we say the same thing about a canceled GMAT test score?  If you “buy” a GMAT test for $250 and never actually get a score from the experience, wouldn’t it feel like a complete waste of money?  You’ll basically spend $250 for some frayed nerves and an unsatisfying, blank line on your GMAT score report.

The GMAT is already sodomizing your wallet for $250 whenever you take the test; personally, I would feel even worse if I didn’t at least get something back from them in return.  A bad score at least counts as something.

So don’t feel like a chump with a sodomized wallet:  take a good look at your score, even if you’re pretty sure it’s going to be crappy.  At worst, you’ll have a rallying cry for your future studies.  And at best, you’ll be surprised with a 760, even if you felt terrible during the exam.

One last thing:  if you’re worried about having a crappy result on your GMAT score report, don’t be.  An upward score trajectory always looks great, and MBA programs are being completely honest when they say that they consider your highest score.

So unless you really do have a bladder malfunction during your test, please don’t cancel your score.  At the very least, you’ll have a data point to work with as you continue your GMAT studies.  And if you’re really fortunate, your score might surprise you.

yes, GMAT scoring is weird

Let’s play a little GMAT guessing game. Take a look at the two GMATPrep screenshots below, and see if you can guess the quant score for each of these tests. (Sorry, the screenshots aren’t beautiful, but I did my best to make them legible.)  Keep in mind that the GMATPrep software uses exactly the same algorithm as the real GMAT test.

On GMATPrep test #1, the student missed a total of 7 quant questions out of 37 (81% correct):

strange GMAT Prep 51

And on GMATPrep test #2, the test-taker missed a total of 21 questions out of 37 (43% correct):

strange GMATPrep quant 44

Go ahead, take a guess. What quant score do you think these two students received on their GMATPrep tests? The lucky student who got 81% correct probably got a solid but imperfect score, right? And the poor schmuck who got 43% correct must have been vaguely suicidal after that GMAT quant disaster, yes?

Well, the first student got a perfect 51 on her quant section, and the second student earned a 44.  (For what it’s worth, he paired the 44 quant with a 41 verbal, for a grand total of 710, and he earned a very similar score on the real GMAT.)

Surprised? It turns out that a “perfect” GMAT quant score doesn’t necessarily require complete perfection, and you can miss a ton of questions on the GMAT quant section without endangering your chance at a 700.

I discussed the GMAT scoring system in both a recent GMAT blog post (which profiled a mediocre math student who still earned a 720) and in an ancient, crusty GMAT blog post (which explored the fundamentals of the GMAT scoring algorithm), but I’ll say it here again: your GMAT quant score doesn’t really depend on how many questions you miss.  It depends on which questions you miss.

As you probably already know, the GMAT exam “adapts” to your performance, selecting each question based on your answers to previous questions.  Your final score is based primarily on the difficulty level of the questions you see on the test. If you see tons of hard questions, your score will be higher than if you see nothing but GMAT cream puffs.

By the time you reach, say, question #29, the GMAT scoring system already has 28 data points about your skills.  If you get 27 of the first 28 questions correct–as student #1 did–you’ll convince the GMAT scoring algorithm that you’re pretty awesome. And it will spit out the hardest question it can find.  Even if you miss that question, you’ll still have missed only two out of the first 29, and the computer will spit out another really tough question.

So as you look at the student who earned a quant score of 51 while missing seven questions, you shouldn’t be too shocked:  six of her seven mistakes came at the end of the test, once the GMAT scoring system had “already made up its mind about her.” All of the seven questions that she missed were unbelievably difficult, and the GMAT algorithm doesn’t really punish test-takers for missing hard questions.  Just ask Ms. A from this GMAT blog post.

Student #2 is admittedly an even more extreme case.  He missed 21 questions and still scored above 700; that’s not normal, but it’s obviously possible under the right circumstances.  In his case, he had a reasonably strong start to the test, missed only the toughest questions that the GMATPrep software threw at him, and managed to get just enough questions right to prevent a score meltdown.  Again, this is a great illustration of the GMAT scoring system:  you can miss piles of questions and still do well on the GMAT.  You just can’t afford to miss the easier questions, since those errors will send your GMAT score into a tailspin.

The bottom line is that a 51 isn’t necessarily “perfect” on the GMAT, and a 700 doesn’t necessarily require a high rate of accuracy.  You can miss tons of hard questions and still do incredibly well on the GMAT, as long as you don’t miss the questions that are relatively easy.   And when you see impossibly difficult questions on your GMAT exam, just smile, and accept the fact that you can miss them without torpedoing your GMAT score.

 

 

Looking ahead to fall admissions season? Start in January.

It’s the dead of winter right now, and 2013 first-round MBA deadlines won’t be here for another eight months or so. That’s almost enough time to bring a baby to term, so if you’re looking ahead to the next admissions cycle, then you still have plenty of time to worry about the GMAT and your MBA applications, right?

As crazy as it may sound, I would argue that you should probably think about starting your GMAT prep before the snow starts to melt. If your goal is to produce the best MBA applications you possibly can—without turning your life into a stressed-out nightmare right before the application deadlines—then summer might be too late to start your GMAT studies.

Unless you’ve already been humbled by the GMAT, you’re probably thinking, “Come on, you stupid ninja dude! If I start in June, I’ll still have TONS of time for applications.”

You might be right. And you might be desperately wrong. In an effort to scare the poop out of you, here are two stories about guys who started their GMAT prep in June, but still didn’t have enough time to produce their best MBA applications the following January.

In May 2011, I received a phone call from a gentleman—let’s call him Mr. U, since he’s from upstate New York—who planned to quit his (thoroughly unsatisfying) job so that he could focus exclusively on the GMAT beginning in early June. He intended to spend the summer pounding the GMAT into submission, and then he would spend the fall writing amazing MBA application essays.

And guess what? Stuff happened. His arithmetic and algebra skills were an utter disaster, and he needed far more study time than he’d hoped. He needed an extra couple of weeks to fully transition out of his job. He ended up having some unexpected family obligations as the summer and fall wore on. He got distracted by some home repair projects. Some unavoidable trips—mostly for out-of-town weddings—interrupted his GMAT studies. And because his math skills were so crappy, Mr. U battled burnout after a couple of months of studying, and had to take the GMAT twice to get his target score.

Between the GMAT struggles and the non-GMAT distractions, Mr. U didn’t start writing his MBA application essays until late December, and he pulled a few late nights in early January to get everything done. His applications weren’t very polished, and he definitely suffered through some unnecessary MBA essay agony.

It all worked out for him in the end—Mr. U currently attends a top-ten MBA program, and his life is pretty awesome—but he suffered through the harrowing process of receiving rejection letters from five of his six target MBA programs. If he had started earlier, Mr. U might have had some extra options, and he definitely would have saved himself some pain and stress.

The second story involves a more recent applicant—let’s call him Mr. FP, since he loves skiing in fresh powder, just like everybody else in Colorado. Mr. FP started working with me in June 2012, and earned his 730 in August. No problems there. He figured that he would have the entire autumn to work on his MBA applications.

But again, life got in the way. His boss gave him some summer evenings off to focus on the GMAT, but autumn was payback time, and Mr. FP ended up working ridiculously long hours from late August through the end of December. A few family dramas also ate some of his precious free time and, just like Mr. U, Mr. FP ended up finishing some of his second-round MBA applications at literally the last minute on January 3. In the end, his MBA applications weren’t perfectly polished, and we’ll both be sweating unnecessarily as we await decisions this spring.

Please don’t let this happen to you. You might think that the GMAT and MBA application process will take just a month or two, but all sorts of things can derail your progress: a bad GMAT test day, a sick family member, MBA essay writers’ block, a natural disaster, unexpected work issues, a marriage proposal from your significant other, or a promotion that requires extra hours. Or your underlying GMAT skills might be worse than you expected. As Mr. U painfully discovered, weak quant fundamentals or weak reading skills can substantially delay your GMAT test date.

(Incidentally, even the official GMAT blog agrees with me on this:  at the end of this post, the GMAT brass encourages you to start your prep early.)

So if you’re truly serious about your MBA goals, make sure that you give yourself enough time to weather every possible distraction. If you start in January but succeed in achieving your dream GMAT score in February, that’s wonderful—you’ll have time for some Colorado ski trips this winter, and plenty of time for b-school visits in the spring and summer. But it takes a ton of time to write great MBA applications, and if your life isn’t perfectly smooth during the course of your GMAT studies and the MBA application process, you’ll ultimately be thrilled that you started working on the GMAT early.

my best students prove that the GMAT is meaningless

On a snowy Denver afternoon, I decided to conduct an odd GMAT-related thought experiment, just for the hell of it.

Purely for entertainment, I imagined that an all-powerful being forced me to choose any 20 of my former GMAT students to run a business; if the business failed, I would die a miserable death.  In a life-or-death business situation, which of my former students would I select?

The catch is that I have no idea what the business actually is.  I just have to select the 20 ex-students who would be the most intelligent, nimble, well-rounded, effective managers.  The business would be named later.

So I dug through my old spreadsheets and created a list of the most broadly talented GMAT students I’ve worked with.  Then, I selected the 20 ex-students who would be the most likely to contribute to the success of an unnamed business enterprise.  I didn’t try to balance the list (by selecting a mix of finance, consulting, and industry backgrounds, for example), and I don’t care about their resumes at all.  I was just looking for the 20 most incredible people.

After I selected the 20 best business minds, I sorted them by GMAT score.  And this may or may not surprise you, but there seems to be absolutely no correlation between GMAT scores and business acumen, at least among my (relatively small) group of students.

Out of my 20 most brilliant students ever, only half scored a 700 or above, and seven of those ten had to work their asses off to get to a 700. Every single one of those 10 test-takers studied for at least two months, five of them improved by 100 points or more, and one of them did 4,000 practice CR and RC questions.  Only a very select few of my best students are naturally gifted at taking the GMAT.  The rest of them just work incredibly hard.

The other half of the list is even more interesting.  Five of my top 20 students were stuck in the 600s, even after herculean efforts on the GMAT.  One is still going through the application process, but the other four are currently kicking all sorts of butt at super-elite, top-ten business schools.  Adcoms, it seems, are definitely willing to looking past the GMAT score when a candidate is truly special.

The other five students got absolutely clobbered by the GMAT.  Three scored in the 500s, and all three are now working for prestigious, household-name-type companies.  The other two gave up before they even took the GMAT.  One is a ludicrously talented woman with an unusual form of ADD, and another has an interesting learning disability that gets in the way of his math training; out of respect for their privacy, all I’m going to say is that both of them have been featured in New York Times articles, and one of them became a C-level executive before he hit 30.  Neither of them needed an MBA.  They’re that awesome.

Keep in mind that the majority of my students start in the high 500s or somewhere in the 600s, and most of them ultimately fall somewhere in the 680-750 range.  I just don’t get very many calls from students who would be content with a 550 or 600, and it’s interesting that such a large percentage of my lowest-scoring students are so successful.

Let’s face it:  the GMAT is an absolutely fantastic measure of how well you fill in little bubbles, and it’s a reasonable predictor of how well you’ll do in, say, a graduate-level microeconomics class.  But it’s a terrible predictor of any other sort of success.

As I look at my “dream team” of 20 former GMAT students, I see a few people who were great at filling in bubbles, a lot of people who worked hard at it and improved dramatically, and a handful who were beyond hope when it came to the GMAT.  And that shouldn’t surprise us at all.

On a guest post for somebody else’s MBA blog, I once made the case that the most successful people are “grinders”: they may or may not be naturally brilliant at filling in little bubbles, but they’ll work like hell to achieve their goals.  They’ll succeed in their professional and personal lives, even if it takes a lifetime of all-nighters to get it done.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some incredible “grinders,” and I’ve probably learned more from them than they’ve learned from me.  These are the students that make teaching worthwhile.  I can teach them number properties and GMAT grammar, but they’ve taught me a lot about what it takes to really kick ass in this world.

Now if somebody wants to invest $100 million in a business—without telling me what type of business—I have a young, energetic management team ready for you, and I guarantee that they won’t fail.  Just don’t ask them about their GMAT scores.

GRE vs. GMAT, part III: the test-day experience

As threatened in my last blog post about the differences between the GRE and the GMAT, I recently retook the GRE exam for the first time in several years, and I want to report an incredibly boring observation:  GRE and GMAT testing rooms aren’t exactly fun places.  I think I looked like a less-bloody version of this guy by the time I walked out of the exam.

If you’re thinking about applying to an MBA program sometime soon, you probably already know that standardized tests are unpleasant, but you might be wondering whether the GRE is easier to beat than the GMAT.  The answer is… maybe.

For starters, I absolutely loved a few things about the new version of the GRE.  As I mentioned in an earlier GMAT blog post, the GRE is now section-level adaptive, not question-level adaptive.  That means that you can flag questions within any given section, and come back to them later. The GRE even includes a handy little review screen, so that you can see exactly which questions you’ve flagged or skipped.  That saved my ass at least once:  I whiffed on a quant question, and completely failed to fill in the bubble.  No harm done, though:  the review screen helped me catch the omission.  Thank you, GRE.

The other nice thing about the GRE is that the first half of the exam is relatively gentle:  the first quant section and the first verbal section contain the approximate GRE equivalent to 500-level GMAT questions.  So the GRE starts with two 30-minute essays, followed by one non-threatening quant section and one fairly straightforward verbal section.  Then you take a 10-minute break.  And that’s good, because if you’re like me, you’ll need to pig out after two hours of testing, even if those two hours aren’t particularly intense.

But after the break, things got rougher.

I had three sections remaining:  one quant, one verbal, and one experimental section, which turned out to be quant.  The good news is that the quant sections weren’t too awful, and I’d argue that the hardest GRE quant questions are much easier than the hardest GMAT quant questions.  GRE quant questions feel substantially more formulaic:  you’ll see plenty of fairly straightforward algebra, a hearty dose of relatively orthodox geometry questions, some nonthreatening data analysis, and only a light sprinkling of number properties, overlapping sets, and probability.

The GRE does seem to test statistics (standard deviation, median, mean, range, percentiles, etc.) more deeply than the GMAT, but that’s the only quant topic that seemed as difficult on the GRE as on the GMAT.  If you’re scoring in the mid-40s on the GMAT quant section, you probably won’t have a terribly hard time on the GRE, as long as you spend some extra time on statistics and avoid silly errors.

The second verbal section, on the other hand, kicked the crap out of me.

The 20 verbal questions were a roughly even mix of reading comprehension-type stuff (including some short, critical reasoning-style passages) and vocabulary-based questions.  Out of the first 10 questions, I skipped six, because the vocabulary in them made my eyes bleed.  I also struggled through the reading comprehension, despite the fact that I’d guzzled enough Red Bull to make my wings flap uncontrollably—the passages were ludicrously convoluted and not particularly interesting.

I was sweating right up until the last second of that section, and I had to look up eight vocabulary words after I finished the test.  Not fun.  I won’t pretend that the GMAT verbal section is much more enjoyable than its GRE counterpart, but there’s a special feeling of helplessness that sets in when you can’t decipher the vocabulary in a GRE text completion or sentence equivalence question.  It hurts.

Out of the 20 questions on that last verbal section, I was completely sure that 12 of my answers were correct, but all I could do was hope for the best on my eight educated guesses.  It worked out for me in the end (my score was a perfect 340), but I definitely got lucky on some of those vocabulary questions.

So now that I’ve had the chance to suffer through the new version of the GRE, let’s talk about whether you might actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

I would argue that the GRE is a better test for you under only two circumstances:

  1. You’re better at vocabulary than grammar.  I don’t know whether I’ve ever met anybody who fits this description.  Maybe a really well-read native English speaker who lacks the discipline to do well on sentence correction?
  2. You’re comfortable with statistics and algebra and geometry, but you struggle on the toughest GMAT-style questions.  It’s possible that a test-taker with moderately strong quant skills—and relatively little propensity to make dumb errors—would have a much easier time on the GRE.

If these two characteristics apply to you, then maybe the GRE is worth a look.  After all, almost every major MBA program now accepts the GRE.  And despite the challenges of my second verbal section, I’m convinced that the GRE offers a less excruciating test-taking experience than the GMAT.  But unless you’re an unusual test-taker, the bad news is that the GRE is very unlikely to offer you any particular advantage in MBA admissions.

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, feel free to call or email to discuss your specific situation.

GRE vs. GMAT, part II: test content and structure

In my last GMAT blog post, I mentioned that it’s possible—at least in theory—to apply to nearly any major MBA program with only a GRE score.  Very few top MBA programs (hello, BYU and Haas!) stubbornly refuse to accept GRE scores, and the creators of the GRE have generously produced a handy GRE to GMAT score converter to make the GRE more appealing to MBA admissions committees.

You could easily argue that MBA admissions committees aren’t 100% comfortable with the GRE yet, but it’s certainly possible to be admitted to most MBA programs without touching a GMAT book.  So if you’re completely convinced that you’ll do better on GRE than on the GMAT, then there’s no reason to hesitate.

Which brings us to the next question:  what are the differences between the two tests, and what are the chances that you’ll actually do better on the GRE than on the GMAT?  Although I think that most people will score similarly on the two tests, it’s conceivable that you could gain an advantage by taking the GRE, depending on whether the differences between the two tests work in your favor.

The first major difference between the GRE and the GMAT is probably irrelevant to your odds of admission to business school, at least for now.  The GRE includes two 30-minute writing assessments, instead of the GMAT’s combo meal of one AWA and one 30-minute Integrated Reasoning exercise.  But as you hopefully know already, neither the AWA nor the Integrated Reasoning is likely to have a substantial impact on your odds of admission.  So at least for the next few years, that particular difference between the GRE and the GMAT doesn’t really matter.

On the quant side, the GRE lacks the data sufficiency that all GMAT test-takers (*cough*) dearly love; instead, the GRE includes a less-tricky question type called quantitative comparisons.  The GRE also includes some numeric entry questions that require you to come up with an actual number yourself.  And the GRE also gives you data analysis questions, which aren’t terribly common on the quant section of the GMAT.  So if you hate data sufficiency and love data analysis, you might be happier taking the GRE.  (The GRE also offers a simple on-screen calculator, but I’d argue that it really doesn’t help all that much—the numbers are rarely cumbersome on either exam, especially if you’re well-trained in the art of finding intelligent quant shortcuts.)

On the verbal sections, the differences between the GRE and the GMAT are substantial.  Both exams include some sort of reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions, but the GRE has no sentence correction questions.  Instead, you’ll face some vocabulary-heavy text completion and sentence equivalence questions.  So if you have a strong vocabulary and hate GMAT sentence correction, then maybe the GRE is for you.

Structurally, there are also some major differences between the GMAT and the GRE.  The GRE has several shorter sections and only one extended break, roughly two hours into the test.  I would argue that the GRE feels like running wind sprints:  once you finish your two 30-minute AWA sections on the GRE, you’ll suffer through two scored quant sections (35 minutes each), two unscored verbal sections (30 minutes each), and one experimental section, which could be either quant or verbal.  The GMAT, of course, includes one 75-minute quant section and one 75-minute verbal section.  The total amount of test-taking pain is similar, but the heart of the GMAT consists of two long, painful marathons, instead of a set of shorter sprints.  I’m not sure which is worse, but I promise that I’ll whine about the GRE’s format in my next blog post, after I retake the GRE for the first time in several years.

And now for the most important difference between the two tests:  the GMAT is question-level adaptive, while the GRE is section-level adaptive.  If you get a few consecutive questions correct on the GMAT, you’re likely to see tougher questions almost immediately.  But the GRE only “adapts” between sections.  If you do really well on the first quant section, then your second quant section will be extremely difficult.  And it won’t matter what you do with the first few questions within each GRE section—the test doesn’t adapt until you move from the first quant section to the second quant section, or from the first verbal section to the second verbal section.

In some ways, that’s absolutely wonderful:  on the GRE, each 20-question section is “fixed” once you start the section, which means that you can go back and review the questions that you’ve already completed within that section.  It’s a completely different test-taking experience than the GMAT.  Most of us feel much more comfortable with the GRE in this respect; there’s something extremely comforting about the idea that we can skip questions and come back to them later, or revise our answers if we have extra time at the end of any given section.

So yes, the two tests are substantially different, but the bad news is that I’ve seen plenty of students take both exams, and their GRE scores tend to be very comparable to their GMAT scores.  But if you’re absolutely convinced that GRE questions will be systematically easier for you than their GMAT counterparts, then don’t hold back:  the GRE might be ideal for you.  If you’re not convinced that you’ll perform substantially better on the GRE, then stick with the GMAT:  you never know when you might fall in love with Haas or BYU, and regret your decision to abandon the GMAT in favor of the GRE.

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 reading the third part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.