Monthly Archives: March 2013

Does the GMAT matter?

If you either know me personally or are a regular reader of my GMAT blog, you know that I’m not always fond of the GMAT.  I honestly enjoy some of the intellectual and psychological challenges presented by the exam, but I often cringe at the actual content of the test.  I’m simply not convinced that your knowledge of number properties or modifier placement will ever help you to become the CEO of a successful company.

And that brings us to a (somewhat unanswerable) question:  what is the GMAT good for, anyway?  And can we prove that the GMAT is a useful measure of… something?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post about the new Integrated Reasoning section, the writers of the GMAT spend a lot of time proving that the GMAT is “valid,” and their official GMAT blog often goes to great lengths to remind us of the GMAT’s value.  GMAC’s definition of the word “valid” is interesting, though:  most GMAT validity studies simply examine the correlation between GMAT scores and students’ grades during the first year of business school.

By this measure, the GMAT is an outstanding exam, and it does an excellent job of predicting test-takers’ academic performance upon entering business school. If you feel like geeking out on some of the numbers, you can check out a classic GMAT validity study here.

But the GMAT isn’t really designed to predict anything else.  Yes, the GMAT correlates strongly to your grades during your first year of business school.  But your grades in an MBA program don’t correlate strongly to success in the business world—and neither do your GMAT scores.  According to a recent article in Forbes, the GMAT doesn’t seem to predict to post-MBA salaries at all, despite the fact that a handful of high-paying finance and consulting firms still use business school grades during the hiring process.

Many of us have an unfortunate habit of blowing the GMAT way out of proportion, and we act as though it’s a measure of general intelligence or business acumen.  It isn’t either of those things.  The GMAT is a fantastic measure of a specific set of quantitative and verbal reasoning skills, and validity studies have proven that those reasoning skills will help you get good grades in business school.  Beyond that, the GMAT isn’t a great indicator of success.

So next time you get your butt kicked by some GMAT questions, don’t take it personally.  The GMAT isn’t telling you that you’re stupid, or that you won’t succeed in business.  It’s just telling you that you might not have the specific skills required to get a high score on a very specific standardized test.  And even if you’re getting your butt kicked by number properties or modifier placement rules, you might still be an absolutely spectacular business mind, destined for a lifetime of financial success.

don’t half-ass your GMAT practice

I rarely mention this part of my life on my GMAT blog, but I used to be a junior member of a professional aerial modern dance company.  There were a grand total of six dancers in the company—seven, including the director—and we did a lot of trapeze-based movement, usually mixed with some vaguely acrobatic modern dance.  Our two-hour performances were unbelievably exhausting: since we had so few dancers, nearly all of us were on stage for most of the performance, jumping from flying birdcages perched 20 feet above the stage or swinging on giant metal sleds.

We did plenty of crazy stuff on various flying apparatuses, but my favorite piece of choreography was this insane mess:  I would throw myself into the air as forcefully as I could, and another dancer would catch me in mid-leap, and then throw me right back into the air.  I would fly across the stage and try to roll gracefully onto my back; meanwhile, the other dancer would chase me across the stage and fall over backwards as soon as I rolled onto my back.  And then I would hurl him right back into the air before he could land on top of me.  Tons of fun!

My director was pretty much a complete lunatic, but I learned a ton from her.  The choreography was absolutely brutal, and the director used to scream at us at the top of her lungs:  “Don’t half-ass the choreography in rehearsal!  Dance with 100% energy all the time when you practice, or else you’ll get hurt during the performances!”  The dancers got sick of hearing it, and we would whine about how crazy and annoying she was.

But the crazy director was right.  During our first performance, three out of the seven dancers got hurt—badly.  Two dancers collided on stage, and both of them cracked their ribs.  The director proved her own point by popping a hernia on stage during the performance; I watched with horror as she pushed the hernia back in—on stage—and kept dancing.  Since she usually watched the rehearsals instead of participating in them, she wasn’t quite ready for the performances, either.

By now, you might be wondering what this silly dance story is doing on a GMAT blog.  Well, my director’s screams (“don’t half-ass the choreography in rehearsal!”) ring in my ears every time I prepare for an exam, or every time I see one of my GMAT students “half-ass” a practice set.

The GMAT, more than most standardized tests, requires you to be 100% focused during every single second of the test.  If you lose concentration for even a moment, you might misread a word or bungle some simple arithmetic, and then you’ll miss questions that you shouldn’t miss.  And on an adaptive test, those “unforced” errors can absolutely destroy your score, especially if the errors occur early in a section.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, the key to a great GMAT score is your ability to avoid those unforced errors.

To make things worse, the GMAT is a really long, painful test, and the verbal section appears at the end of the four-hour marathon.  That’s one reason why so many test-takers receive unpleasant surprises when they see their GMAT verbal score:  they’re exhausted, and they start to lose their ability to concentrate.

There’s only one thing that you can do to prevent verbal meltdowns and “unforced” errors:  do every practice set as if your hair is on fire.  If you’re going to do two hours of GMAT practice every night after work, throw every ounce of your energy into those two hours.  Convince yourself that each set really matters.  If it helps, pretend that an insane dance director is screaming at you at the top of her lungs.

Or pretend that your GMAT tutor is screaming at you.  Whichever you prefer.

Sometimes we forget that the GMAT isn’t really a content-based test; it’s mostly a test of reading and reasoning, and it’s an outstanding test of your ability to stay sharp for four full hours.  You can memorize all of the formulas you want, but if you aren’t accustomed to answering 91 questions at full intensity, your score will suffer enormously.

So don’t just “go through the motions” when you do your practice sets.  Do each question as if your MBA life hangs in the balance—because in the long run, it does.

don’t let the GMAT forums fool you

If you poke through popular GMAT forums like Beat the GMAT or GMAT Club, you’ll quickly encounter dozens of tales of GMAT glory.  You’ll read about people who improved from 580 to 710 or from 440 to 630.  You might even encounter the amazing story of the guy who got a 420 on his first practice test, and eventually made it to Harvard.  These “I just beat the GMAT!” stories seem to be everywhere, and some of them make beating the GMAT sound awfully easy.

Almost every week, somebody contacts me about GMAT tutoring, and asks me why they haven’t been able to crush the GMAT like everybody in the GMAT forums.  And the first part of my answer is always the same:  there really aren’t that many forum participants crushing the GMAT.  It just looks like it.

The triumphant tales of GMAT success receive tons of comments, and end up getting bumped to the top of the forums.  But for every loud “I just clobbered the GMAT!” story with 40 comments, there are at least five (mostly unnoticed) GMAT forum posts that begin or end with “please help!!!” And I’m sure that there are exponentially more GMAT forum “lurkers” who have been demoralized by the GMAT, but choose not to post anything online.  The people who get ripped to shreds by the GMAT either post a very quiet “um, how do I improve?” query on the boards, or they don’t say anything at all.

So whatever else you do over the course of your GMAT preparations, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you suck because “everybody else is beating the GMAT.”  They aren’t.  Only a very small percentage of people who retake the GMAT actually improve their scores substantially.  Most GMAT test-takers are suffering, just like you.  And most of the guys who made huge GMAT score improvements also suffered, just like you.

So while the GMAT success stories are absolutely wonderful if you’re looking for some inspiration, keep them in perspective: we read these stories because they’re relatively rare.  That’s why they get all of the attention on the GMAT forums.

If you’re having a hard time with the GMAT, you’re definitely not alone.  Spend some time in the darker corners of the GMAT forums, and you’ll find plenty of people just like yourself, who are working their butts off to achieve their goals.  The GMAT may be easy for a very small handful of people, but if you want to improve by 100 points or more, you’ll have to work like crazy.  But at least you’ll have plenty of company.

Hootie and the (very old) GMAT Paper Tests

Q: What are the GMAT Paper Tests, and why don’t I hear about them very often?

A: Back in the Dark Ages before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates conquered the world, the GMAT was a paper-based test. The GMAT Paper Tests are basically old, retired exams from way back in the day. Each test contains approximately 110 questions, divided into one data sufficiency section, two quant problem solving sections, one sentence correction section, one critical reasoning section, and one reading comprehension section.

You don’t hear about them terribly often because they aren’t very popular. GMAC has sold the GMAT Paper Tests on their website for a long time, but I don’t get the impression that they sell many copies, largely because test-takers have newer and sexier options available, including the GMAT Official Guide, the GMAT Quant Review guide and Verbal Review Guide, the GMATPrep Question Pack, and tons of materials from test-prep companies.

Considering all of the other options out there, the old GMAT Paper Tests—somewhat understandably—don’t seem to register on most test-takers’ radar screens.

Q: How old are the GMAT Paper Tests?

A: Pretty old. Most of them have a publication date of 1995, and a few were initially published even earlier.

In case you don’t remember 1995 very well: back then, a BlackBerry was just a type of fruit, Google didn’t exist yet, and hits by Coolio, Real McCoy (!!), Alanis Morissette (ouch!), Seal, and Hootie & The Blowfish topped the U.S. music charts. Yup, Hootie & The Blowfish.

Back in 1995, the average GMAT score for entering students at Wharton was 650. The median score is 720 now. In 1995, the GMAT was written and administered by ETS; today, the questions are written by the wise Iowans at ACT, and the test is administered by Pearson VUE, which loves palm vein scanners.

In 1995, palm vein scanners didn’t exist.

So yeah: the GMAT Paper Tests are old.

Q: Wait a minute… what the heck is Hootie & The Blowfish?

A: If you have to ask, you probably don’t want to know. Can we get back to the GMAT now, please?

Q: OK, fine. So the GMAT Paper Tests are old. But have GMAT questions changed that much since the 1990s?

A: GMAT questions haven’t actually changed all that much since the 1990s. The old GMAT Paper Tests still include problem solving, data sufficiency, sentence correction, critical reasoning, and reading comprehension, just like the current version of the GMAT. The only major difference is that the GMAT now includes Integrated Reasoning, which may or may not be very important to your MBA goals.

So if you need practice with the core GMAT quant and verbal question types, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use the GMAT Paper Tests. Sure, these questions are old, but they’re not radically different from, say, current GMAT Official Guide questions. And for whatever it’s worth, many of the questions in the GMAT Official Guide are from the 1980s and 1990s, and have appeared in several consecutive editions of the book.

The GMAT is constantly evolving in subtle ways, it would be ridiculous to suggest that 20-year-old GMAT questions are exactly the same as new ones. But if you’re just looking for some extra practice materials, the age of the GMAT Paper Test questions isn’t really a huge problem. They aren’t all that different from the questions you’ll find in the GMAT Official Guide.

Q: If I buy the GMAT Paper Tests, will I recognize some of the questions from the GMAT Official Guide or other GMAT resources?

A: This is where things get a little bit tricky. There is substantial overlap between the GMAT Paper Tests and other GMAT resources, and my best guess is that somewhere around 40% of the GMAT Paper Test questions have appeared elsewhere at some point in the last 20 years.

But “elsewhere” is a funny place when we’re talking about GMAT questions. Since 1995, GMAC has released six different editions of the GMAT Official Guide, and some of the GMAT Paper Test questions have appeared in each edition. GMAT Paper Test questions also pop up in both editions of the Quant Review Guide and both editions of the Verbal Review Guide, as well as the GMATPrep tests and the now-obsolete GMAT PowerPrep tests. So yes, the GMAT Paper Test questions are scattered all over the place.

Even if 40% of the GMAT Paper Test questions appear in other resources, you probably won’t recognize nearly that many, since many of questions appeared only in older editions of the Official Guide or in the thoroughly ancient GMAT PowerPrep tests. My best guess is that only 15-20% of the GMAT Paper Test questions appear in the newest versions of the GMAT Official Guide, GMAT quant and verbal supplements, and the GMATPrep exams.

So the bottom line is that you’ll see an overwhelming number of repeats if you’re a connoisseur of obsolete GMAT resources, but you’ll see only a moderate number of repeats if you’re sticking with the newest versions of the official GMAT books and software.

Q: Is the scoring on the GMAT Paper Tests accurate?

A: The GMAT Paper Tests were very accurate back in 1995, when the test was actually administered on paper. But in the 21st century, the scoring on the GMAT Paper Tests is pretty much irrelevant.

Think about it this way: one of the biggest challenges of the modern GMAT is time management. You can’t go back to review the questions you already answered on the GMAT, so you constantly face a difficult choice: do I keep grappling with a particular question, or should I guess and move on? I would argue that the GMAT timing conundrum is one of the single biggest determinants of your score on the exam.

But on the GMAT Paper Tests, you can move around within each section as much as you want. If you want to change an answer, great. If you want to skip a question and come back to it later, that’s no problem at all.

So the testing experience is completely different. Yes, the GMAT Paper Tests will generate scores on the familiar 200-800 scale, but they don’t mean very much. Despite the name, it’s best to think of the GMAT Paper Tests as practice questions, not as practice exams.

Q: Are the GMAT Paper Tests hard?

A: Because the test wasn’t adaptive back in 1995, the GMAT Paper Tests include an incredibly broad cross-section of questions, ranging from insanely easy to insanely difficult. In theory, the GMAT Paper Tests are much like the GMAT Official Guide: they contain a little bit of everything, and many of the questions will be of limited value to you if you’re either a very weak GMAT student or a very strong one.

If you’re scoring above a 650 on the GMAT, you’ll probably be bored by the majority of GMAT Paper Test questions. Sure, some of the questions will offer you a good challenge, but plenty of them won’t. That doesn’t mean that the GMAT Paper Tests aren’t useful; it just means that high-scoring students will get a thorough workout from perhaps 20-40% of the questions. And that’s probably better than nothing, though you could easily argue that it’s not worth spending the money on the GMAT Paper Tests if you’re a relatively advanced GMAT student.

Speaking of which…

Q: Are the GMAT Paper Tests worth the money?

A: Well, I suppose it depends on your skill level and how much you value $29.99. For that price, GMAC will send you a set of three GMAT Paper Tests, each of which contains roughly 110 questions, give or take a few. So you’re paying a little bit less than a dime per question.

That’s pretty cheap compared to GMAT Focus (which costs more than $1 per question), but a little bit more expensive than the GMATPrep Question Pack (roughly six cents per question), and much more expensive than the GMAT Official Guide and Quant Review Guide (around three or four cents per question, depending on the exact price you pay for the books).

So if we’re talking about an either/or proposition, the GMAT Paper Tests pale in comparison to the newer, cheaper GMAT Official Guides or the GMATPrep Question Pack.

But if you simply need more practice questions—either because you’ve already burned through the newer resources, or because you want to save them for later—then the GMAT Paper Tests aren’t a terrible option. Advanced GMAT students might get less mileage out of the tests, since so many of the questions are relatively easy, but you’ll still get something out of the GMAT Paper Tests.

I don’t know whether you’ll get $29.99 worth of GMAT awesomeness from the tests, but official GMAT questions are never exactly bad for you. So if you have the money and the time to do the GMAT Paper Tests, go for it. But keep in mind that they’re not a particularly good substitute for the Official Guide or the quant/verbal supplements or the GMATPrep Question Pack.