Monthly Archives: April 2013

When do GMAT “crash courses” actually work?

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, you’ve probably had the following fantasy: wouldn’t it be great if you could contact a GMAT tutor, study like crazy for two weeks, and then be finished with the whole mess?

Well, a few lucky souls have managed to do exactly that. Consider the following stories:

  • Lucky GMAT Student #1 scored a 640 on a GMATPrep test, attended five GMAT tutoring sessions in two weeks, and scored 720 on his actual test.
  • Lucky GMAT Student #2 had never taken the GMAT before, and she met with her tutor with dizzying frequency over a three-week period. Soon thereafter, she scored a 720 on her first attempt at the actual exam.
  • Lucky GMAT Student #3 was scoring in the low 600s on his practice tests. He then attended tutoring sessions on six consecutive days, and took the GMAT on the seventh day. His final score was a 710.

These GMAT “crash course” success stories sound awfully tantalizing, right? Trouble is, GMAT crash courses can only work under specific conditions. If you’re fortunate enough to be a fast learner, some of your GMAT weaknesses can be fixed really quickly. Other GMAT weaknesses? Not so much.

There are never any guarantees when it comes to short-term GMAT prep, but you might be able to succeed in a GMAT crash course if all of the following apply to you:

your underlying GMAT algebra and arithmetic skills are strong

There are plenty of things that a good GMAT tutor can teach you quickly. If, for example, you need help tackling basic overlapping sets problems, turning ratio questions into clean equations, or applying a systematic approach to percents questions, then a GMAT tutor can probably help you with those things quickly. But if you have a shaky grasp on algebra and arithmetic, you’ll need a lot more than two weeks to achieve your GMAT score goals.

The bad news is that it simply takes time to develop your algebra and arithmetic fundamentals. Think of it this way: you spent the first 10 or 12 years of your math education focused primarily on basic arithmetic and algebra skills; if you failed to develop those skills over the course of a decade, it’s unlikely that you’ll suddenly become an algebra master after two weeks of GMAT tutoring.

But if you’re generally sharp with basic equations and arithmetic, then you can worry about developing GMAT-specific skills such as trap avoidance or your ability to decipher some of the GMAT’s twisted word problems. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to develop those particular GMAT skills in just a couple of weeks.

your timing isn’t perfect

While it’s unrealistic to suggest that you can make a huge leap in your algebra fundamentals in a two-week crash course, it might be possible to quickly improve your time management on the GMAT exam, particularly on the quant section.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know that time management is arguably the single biggest determinant of your GMAT quant score. You can be pretty mediocre at math and get a composite GMAT score in the 700s (click here or here for examples). You can be somewhat terrible at math and score a 40 or above on the quant section (click here for another example). The key is to painstakingly avoid careless errors on easier questions, while having the guts to quickly guess on comparatively difficult questions.

So while a GMAT tutor might not be able to radically improve your fundamental math skills over the course of a few sessions, you might be able to improve your timing quickly. And depending on your exact situation, that could make an enormous difference in your final score.

your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills are strong

Here’s the unglamorous truth about reading comprehension and critical reasoning: if your underlying reading skills are weak, it can take a long time to make a substantial score improvement. Can a GMAT test-prep tutor help you to improve at reading comprehension and critical reasoning? Sure. Can a GMAT tutor make you wildly better at CR and RC in just a few days or weeks? Probably not, unless there are some unusually easy-to-fix flaws in your approach.

At the heart of most critical reasoning and reading comprehension errors is a very simple issue: you probably misread or misinterpreted something in the passage, the question, or the answer choices. If you read with mind-numbing precision, you’ll probably do well on CR and RC; if you tend to miss details and nuances when you read, you’ll probably do poorly. You can memorize as many GMAT test-prep books as you want, but if you lack precision in your reading, your verbal score will remain lamentably low.

Are there ways that a tutor can help you improve your reading skills? Absolutely. Could a GMAT tutor help you to strengthen your logical skills, or your understanding of specific critical reasoning question types? Yes, definitely.

But these things take time. If your GMAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension mistakes are primarily the result of imprecise reading, then you’ll need more than a few days to make a substantial improvement. Just ask the legendary Ms. HP.

you have room for improvement on sentence correction

While it can be difficult to improve your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills in a short timeframe, the opposite is often true on sentence correction. I would argue that sentence correction is the single most “improvable” part of the GMAT for many students. GMAT sentence correction questions emphasize a finite set of grammar and usage fundamentals; if you can learn to apply those fundamentals with 100% consistency, you’ll do at least reasonably well on sentence correction.

Sure, logic and meaning play a major role on GMAT sentence correction questions, and it can be difficult to improve your basic reasoning skills during a few hours of GMAT tutoring. But a good GMAT crash course can definitely help you to become better at quickly recognizing the GMAT’s favorite SC grammar and usage issues.  If sentence correction is your biggest hurdle, then there might be a chance that you can substantially improve your GMAT score in just a few weeks.

Let’s face it: no GMAT tutor can honestly guarantee results in two weeks, no matter how intelligent a prospective student may sound over the phone. A short GMAT crash course doesn’t really offer you an opportunity to improve your fundamental reading skills or your basic math skills, and for some students, those fundamentals are the primary culprit for disappointing GMAT scores. If this applies to you, then be patient, and prepare yourself for a long, steady assault on the GMAT.

But if you need help on sentence correction, some of the finer points of GMAT quantitative questions, or your GMAT time management skills, then you might have a shot at making a substantial score jump in a short period of time. There are never any guarantees, but you’ll at least have a puncher’s chance to break through your ceiling in a few days or weeks. Your odds of success might not be fantastic, but if you manage to achieve your score goal quickly, you’ll have far more time to battle the next beast: your MBA applications.

What the eff does “top 10 MBA” mean, anyway?

Here’s a painfully rigid phrase that I hear far too often:  “I’m only interested in an MBA if I can go to a top 10 program.”  But what the eff does the term “top 10 MBA program” mean, anyway?

For most of you, a certain set of schools immediately leaps to mind whenever you hear the words “top 10 MBA program.”  You’re all thinking of Wharton and Harvard and Stanford, right?  But if I asked each of you to write down the names of the other seven schools on your “top 10” MBA list, you’d all write slightly different lists.  And some of you would be very rigid in your refusal to apply to MBA programs outside of the “top 10,” despite the fact that there’s no real consensus on what the term “top 10” means.

Sometimes we forget that the MBA ranking systems are all somewhat arbitrary, and they inevitably come to different conclusions about MBA programs.  You might notice that Kellogg is ranked #4 according to US News and World Report, but #13 in The Economist.  Yale ranges from #10 in US News and World Report to #21 in Businessweek.  And Darden is #3 according to The Economist, but only #17 on the Financial Times list.

So, yeah:  what, exactly, do you mean when you say that you only want to go to a “top 10” MBA program?  Kellogg doesn’t count if you look at The Economist, but Darden does.  Columbia isn’t in the top 10 according to Businessweek, but Michigan, Cornell, and Duke are.  Was that what you meant when you started thinking about “top 10” schools?

I’ve often argued that MBA rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt, but if you insist on basing your MBA application decisions on rankings, please take a look at the 2012 composite MBA rankings compiled by the always-amazing John Byrne at Poets and Quants.  These rankings accumulate data from all five major rankings systems (Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Businessweek, and US News and World Report), and the results offer some interesting food for thought.

Unsurprisingly, 15 different MBA programs appear in the top 10 of at least one ranking system; only five schools appear in the top 10 of every ranking system.  In other words, there are only five MBA programs that are “consensus” top 10 schools: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, and Booth.  But we can argue about 10 other MBA programs, each of which appears in the top 10 of at least one major MBA ranking:  Columbia, Stern, Yale, Kellogg, Cornell, Duke, Haas, Darden, Ross, and Tuck.

Here’s my point:  sometimes, MBA applicants take the rankings way too seriously, even though the rankings are incredibly inconsistent.  If five respected rankings systems come up with substantially different results, then why would it make sense for you be rigid with your definitions of “top” schools?

If you’re really serious about maximizing your career prospects, I would encourage you to discard your obsession with the rankings, and take a good, hard look at a variety of MBA programs.  (Interestingly, the official GMAT blog has been nagging readers to do the same thing for the past few years; click here or here or here or here for examples.)  Be open-minded as you do your research, and try not to base your decisions on rumors of “prestige.”

Visit as many campuses as you possibly can.  Talk to strangers who have the job you want post-MBA, and ask them if there’s really that much of a disadvantage if you attend the “15th-ranked” MBA program… whatever that means.  You might be surprised by their answers.

an easy way to improve your GMAT score: eat

If you know me personally, you probably know that I’m obsessed with food.  If you ever want to torment me, watch this video for inspiration.  And if you ever want to get on my good side, take me to one of the interesting places on this crazyass NYC food website.

So when somebody asks me how I managed to get a perfect score on the GMAT, I sometimes point to my stomach and grin stupidly.  And I’m only half-joking when I do that.

As you already know, the GMAT is a brutal, four-hour marathon, and the worst part is that the verbal section appears at the end of the GMAT, when you’re completely exhausted.  And fatigue is one of the primary reasons why unfortunate GMAT test-takers experience GMAT verbal underperformance.

There are plenty of ways to improve your GMAT verbal score—such as completing 4,000 GMAT CR and RC questions if you’re into that sort of thing—but I would argue that a thoughtful approach to your test-day food and drink intake is a simple and often underappreciated way to maximize your performance on the GMAT.

Your brain is a hungry little bugger, and studies suggest that your brain uses 20% of your caloric intake.  Your brain tends to run best when it has a steady supply of carbohydrates, and if you starve your brain of energy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to perform badly on the GMAT.

Your gastronomic goal on test day is to keep your blood sugar as stable as possible, so that you don’t suffer through a sugar crash or a food coma while you’re taking the test.  Ideally, you want to eat a solid—but not gut-busting—meal an hour or two before your test.  And during each of your breaks, you want to make sure that eat some sort of snack to help keep your brain moving.

And here comes the important part:  you definitely want to avoid consuming overly sugary snacks (M&Ms, Skittles, chocolate, etc.) during your breaks, since they’re likely to lead to a blood-sugar crash before the GMAT verbal section is over.  Stick with something a little bit healthier, ideally with a lower glycemic index:  energy bars, a mix of nuts and dried fruit, or a light sandwich on whole wheat bread.

Pure sugar might work for a short-term boost, but it can hurt you during a four-hour GMAT marathon.  A number of years ago, one of my high school students loaded up on Skittles before the SAT, was a brilliant ball of energy for the first 45 minutes of the test, and then literally fell asleep.  I swear that I’m not making this up.

So don’t mess around.  Plan out your meals and your snacks well before you take the real GMAT, and think carefully about the nutritional value of your snacks.  When you do full practice tests, be conscious of your food and caffeine intake; experiment with different meals and snacks and drinks to see what works best for you.

You might end up choosing snacks that aren’t particularly tasty, like chalky energy bars.  But even though some energy bars aren’t particularly delicious, they always taste better than a subpar GMAT score.