Monthly Archives: November 2016

Don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT, part II: critical reasoning

 

In an old GMAT blog post featuring an incredible woman who answered more than 4,000 CR and RC practice questions, I wrote some decidedly unsexy stuff about the reality of improving your GMAT CR and RC results: unfortunately, if your fundamental reading precision isn’t very good, it can take a lot of work to move the needle on your GMAT verbal score.

“Fine,” you might be thinking, “but I’m not an imprecise reader. I swear – I’m not! My GMAT RC is going fine. So why am I bad at GMAT CR?”

I’ve heard that question from perhaps hundreds of GMAT test-takers over the years. There are plenty of possible answers, but I’ll focus on just one here: you might be letting reality get in the way of your GMAT critical reasoning.

That might sound snarky, and I suppose that it is: I’m not really a big fan of what the GMAT tests. I would argue that GMAT verbal questions require you to read with an unrealistic sort of intensity: if somebody plops a report on your desk tomorrow, you’re going to skim it for key takeaways, facts, and quotable bits of data. If you’re dissecting the author’s tone or carefully determining what might weaken the author’s argument on page 23 of that work report, you’re probably wasting time that could be better spent… I don’t know, maybe doing your job or something?

More importantly: in real life, you’re expected to, um, know stuff. For example, if your boss asks you to evaluate a one-paragraph plan to replace your firm’s incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs, then it’s a good thing if you know something about light bulbs, right? And if you know about a third type of light bulb – say, a cutting-edge titanium bulb that consumes even less energy than an LED – then your boss would be impressed with your useful, outside knowledge, right?

But on GMAT critical reasoning questions, if you start thinking beyond that one paragraph, you’re screwed. As soon as you let reality – in the form of outside knowledge or ideas – enter your mind, you’re much more likely to miss the question. (And yes, the light bulb example refers to a real GMAT CR question, albeit a not terribly difficult one: see OG 2017 edition, #553.)

Here’s another example, loosely adapted from a retired test question:

In the nation of Pelmenistan, 20% of 18-year-olds are left-handed, while just 10% of 45-year-olds and 2% of 70-year-olds are left-handed. But the percentage of children born left-handed has never changed in Pelmenistan, nor have societal attitudes toward left-handedness.

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

Before we get to the answer choices: when I first saw the official version of this question in 2008, I got it wrong. Why? I let reality get in the way of my test-taking. You see, I totally thought that I knew the answer immediately: left-handers are more likely to perish in accidents in factories or while operating heavy machinery, since most industrial machines are designed for right-handers. I actually learned this in an economics class in Chile as an undergraduate.

So I was certain that the answer had to have something to do with accidents or machinery or something. But I was wrong.

Back to our show:

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

A) A substantial number of Pelmenistani men are born with only one arm.
B) In Pelmenistan, left-handers are no more likely to perish in accidents than right-handers.
C) In Pelmenistan, ambidexterity is considered a gift from God.
D) In Pelmenistan, women have a lower life expectancy than men, and they are more likely to be born left-handed.
E) Pelmenistan was named after a type of dumpling that is traditionally eaten with the right hand only.

“Easy,” I thought, “the answer is clearly B. This is all about the accidents. My Chilean economics professor told me so!” So I picked B and moved on.

Do you see my error? I cherry-picked the answer choices, looking for an answer that mentioned factories or industrial accidents or something like that. I “found” what I was looking for – but then misread it. It says that lefties are no more likely to perish in accidents. But I subconsciously refused to read it correctly, because I “knew the truth.”

And once I misread answer choice B, I compounded my mistake by not paying much attention to the other answer choices – A, C, and E are irrelevant, but if I’d thought about D a little bit more, maybe I would have questioned my love for B.

But I didn’t. I was too jacked up about my outside knowledge, and as a result, I did a sh**ty job of reading what was right in front of me.

So when you answer GMAT CR questions, always stay inside the narrow constructs of the passage. If the passage tells you that mix-handed GMAT tutors enhance their pedagogical genius by eating Namibian caterpillars, then you have to believe them. If the passage tells you that the sky in Pelmenistan is a nice shade of Denver Broncos orange, then you have to believe them. Read what’s on the page, and ignore anything else that pops into your head.

Remember: the GMAT is just a standardized test. It’s not reality. Stay inside the GMAT’s meticulously-drawn lines on critical reasoning, and good things will happen.

How low GMAT scores might help your MBA application

 

Almost every week, I hear from somebody who’s worried about a low GMAT or GRE score on their score report. The question usually sounds something like this: “If I got a 500 on my first test but eventually get a 740 on my fourth GMAT exam, will MBA admissions committees think that I’m stupid because of the 500?”

The quick answer: no, they won’t think you’re stupid. And no, the 500 won’t hurt your odds of admission at all. If anything, I think an upward trajectory could help your chances, just a little bit – at least under the right circumstances.

You’ll hear this from plenty of MBA admissions committee members, but MBA programs really do want to evaluate your application based on your best GMAT score – and there are plenty of reasons why. First, using your highest GMAT score is better for the school’s overall average (which, of course, is an important part of MBA rankings). And just as importantly, most human beings understand that other human beings might have a bad GMAT test day once in a while – and the MBA programs want to see how you perform on your best day. That just seems fair, right?

So at worst, I’m convinced that your old, low GMAT scores are irrelevant to your chances of admission to a top MBA program. And at best, I think that a poor start to your GMAT test-taking career can actually help your chances.

Here’s a completely real example, with some details omitted to protect the MBA applicant’s identity. A number of years ago, I worked with an amazing guy who had started his career as an insurance salesman – let’s call him Mr. G, even though he didn’t work at Geico. Mr. G came from a troubled working-class family in a Rust Belt city; his father had addiction problems, and his mom supported the kids on her own.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. G’s youth wasn’t glamorous, and he wasn’t destined for Ivy League undergraduate programs or glitzy investment banking jobs. Instead, he worked in a grocery store when he was in high school, and then continued working in the same grocery store while he attended a state university that you’ve probably never heard of. Mr. G dreamed of a post-undergraduate job in “finance” – and he did, in fact, major in finance. But he attended a no-name university, and nobody ever told him how, exactly, you could land a job on Wall Street. After all, his Rust Belt city was – both spiritually and geographically – a long way from Wall Street, and his grocery store job left him little time for internships, anyway.

Mr. G worked his butt off, and got a 4.0 GPA as an undergrad. But since he attended the University of You’ve Never Heard of It, the only “finance” job he could get afterward was as an insurance salesman. He broke sales records in his first year, but was deeply unsatisfied. So he decided to move to New York City to try to find a job on Wall Street. Of course, no high-falutin’ Wall Street firm would hire the insurance salesman from a no-name university, so he ended up in another sales job – and, since he’s such a hard-working S.O.B., Mr. G again kicked all sorts of butt in that job, unglamorous as it was.

Then Mr. G decided that a top-tier MBA was his best path out of his career slump – and probably his only path to an actual Wall Street finance job.

So he took the GMAT, and got a 580. That obviously wasn’t good enough, especially with the lack of pedigree on his resume. So he called a GMAT tutor (*cough*), got a 660 after about a month of studying, then got a 710 after another month or so of studying. Not bad!

But Mr. G’s MBA application was in big trouble from the start, since he lacked prestigious “MBA-feeder job” experience and had attended a non-selective university. So Mr. G and his MBA admissions consultant (*cough*) decided that the best strategy was to emphasize his working-class roots, highlight his epic work ethic, plainly state that he had no idea how to “play the game” as an undergraduate, and hope that a great MBA program would give him a chance.

And here’s the GMAT-related punchline: Mr. G’s GMAT score trajectory fit right into that narrative. In his MBA applications, we pounded away at a simple message: Mr. G wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he will absolutely outwork everybody else in the room. A 710 on his very first attempt at the GMAT wouldn’t have done anything to support our message. But with his 580-660-710 GMAT scores, he looked like a guy who was willing to work his ass off to achieve his dreams. Which, of course, he was.

In case you’re wondering, Mr. G is doing wonderfully now. He attended an Ivy League MBA program, and finally landed a job with a prestigious Wall Street firm as soon as he graduated. He was a superstar in his MBA program, too – and he really did outwork everybody else in the room.

Your profile may not look anything like Mr. G’s, but if you’re nervous about flashing some low scores in the fine print of your GMAT score report – well, don’t be. At worst, MBA admissions committees don’t really notice if you retake the GMAT several times. And if they notice at all, your willingness to improve your GMAT score might show that you’re also willing to outwork everybody else in the room – and that can only help your chances of admission.

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part VI: what is a good GRE score, anyway?

 

In the fifth installment of my (apparently never-ending?) GRE vs. GMAT blog series, I suggested that the GRE might offer an advantage if your GMAT score is on the low side, since the GRE doesn’t yet appear in the MBA rankings. So now you might be wondering: what sort of GRE score could be considered “good enough” for top MBA programs?

Unfortunately, MBA admissions committees aren’t exactly open about their handling of the GRE. The good folks at Poets & Quants recently published a few trickles of GRE data from top MBA programs, but the data is still lamentably limited.

So how might MBA admissions committees define a “good” GRE score, and what sort of GRE score should you be aiming for? Let’s start by laying out the three main ways that MBA programs could evaluate GRE scores.

Option #1: the GMAT-GRE conversion chart

As the GRE made its push for acceptance in the MBA world, it published a handy little GMAT-GRE conversion chart, so that you can take any GRE score and turn it into an “equivalent” GMAT score. Sounds great, right?

Trouble is, conversion charts that compare two different tests are on shaky scientific ground. In theory, the GRE and GMAT are designed to measure subtly different skills, and they’re on completely different score scales. Few, if any, independent psychometricians (experts in the statistical science underneath standardized testing) would suggest that these conversion charts should ever be used. They simply aren’t very accurate, even under the best of conditions.

The GMAT-GRE conversion chart was, of course, published by the creators of the GRE, who have made an aggressive attempt to seize market share from the GMAT. You won’t be surprised to hear that the GMAT responded with an anti-conversion-chart article in an old GMAT newsletter from 2009.

More detail is available on the GMAT website, but here’s the bottom line: GRE and GMAT scores are correlated, but they aren’t perfectly correlated. If you’re trying to convert GRE scores into GMAT scores, the standard error of prediction is 67.4 points, according to GMAC. In other words: if MBA programs try to use your GRE score to predict what you would have gotten if you’d taken the GMAT instead – the conversion chart is likely to be off by an average of 67.4 points in one direction or another.

And in case you’re new to the (painful) reality of MBA admissions: 67.4 points on the GMAT is a really, really big deal these days.

So if MBA admissions committees are using the GMAT-GRE conversion chart… well, they shouldn’t be.

Option #2: GRE percentiles

GRE percentile scores would, on the surface, appear to be a fairer way to evaluate MBA applicants who have taken the GRE. Why wouldn’t MBA programs just look at applicants’ quant and verbal percentiles on the GRE, and then compare them to the equivalent GMAT percentile scores?

But there’s a huge problem here, too: percentile rankings compare you with other people who took the same test. So if, for example, MBA admissions committees started using the dreaded 80th-percentile rule for GRE scores, that would be unfair: your GRE percentile rankings would be based on the scores of the 700,000+ GRE test-takers – only a small percentage of whom are applying to MBA programs. That’s not cool: you’ll face a completely different horde of competitors for the GRE vs. the GMAT.

And of course, percentiles are out of whack on the GMAT quant section, anyway. If you want to score in the 80th percentile on the GMAT, you’ll need a 49 – which requires some serious skill. On the GRE, all you’ll need to hit the 80th percentile on quant is a 162 – and that’s nowhere near as difficult as getting a 49 on the GMAT.

In other words, GRE percentiles absolutely cannot be compared fairly to GMAT percentiles. It’s a terrible idea to do so, and I desperately hope that no MBA admissions committees have gone down this road.

Option #3: Round numbers, human nature, and the GRE 160 sniff-test

Here’s where we get into the interesting stuff. I’m sure that some MBA admissions committees are making the mistake of using the GRE-GMAT conversion chart, and others might be (mis-)using GRE percentile scores. But my hunch is that most MBA admissions committees probably just use a “sniff test” for GRE scores – and I’m guessing that a 160 on both GRE sections is probably enough to make MBA adcoms move on to other aspects of your MBA application.

Let’s face it: people are naturally drawn to nice, round numbers. For a long time, a 700 was considered a key threshold on the GMAT, partly because it’s a nice round number, but also because the creators of the GMAT were thoughtful about that round number: if 500 was supposed to be the mean score on the test, a 700 was supposed to be roughly two standard deviations above the mean – and well above the 90th percentile.

GMAT scores and percentiles have become pretty warped, of course, but the GMAT score scale was originally designed wisely: a 700 wasn’t just a nice, round number. It was also a meaningful dividing line between high scorers and ridiculously high scorers. And the same score scale was used on both the SAT and the pre-2011 version of the GRE – so the GMAT’s 200-800 scale is a familiar friend that has been part of American education culture for decades.

But our intuition goes out the window with the GRE’s new score scale, which ranges from 130 to 170 for each section. If 150 is the average GRE score, then what’s our instinctual dividing line between “very good” and “elite”? I suspect that MBA admissions officers struggle to understand the difference between, say, a 157 and a 159, but a 160 sounds nice and round, right? So I think that adcoms tend to feel OK about an applicant’s ability once they’re above the 160 mark on both the quant and verbal sections. No other implicit “cut score” would seem to make much sense.

So if you’re not much of a GMAT-slayer, my advice is to try to crack 160 on both the quant and verbal sections of the GRE. Unless you have an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses, it’s much, much easier to get a pair of 160s on the GRE than it is to get, say, a 700 on the GMAT – and of course, a 700 on the GMAT might not be enough anymore, anyway.

For whatever it’s worth, the few GRE averages that have leaked out might support the idea that MBA programs are using the GRE as a “way around” the GMAT/MBA rankings game – and it might also support the idea that a 160 could be enough to make your test score a non-issue at top-tier MBA programs.

For example, Michigan, Cornell, and UCLA all had average GRE verbal scores of 162 and average quant scores of 159; Duke’s averages were 160 on both the quant and verbal GRE sections. That’s certainly not conclusive, but it suggests that MBA admissions committees might be using 160 as a loose GRE benchmark score — even though the GMAT-GRE score conversion chart says that a pair of GRE 160s is equivalent to a not-terribly-competitive GMAT composite score of 640.

The GRE score data remains limited, so take it – and my interpretation of it – with a grain of salt. But if you’re OK with a test score that makes your MBA application “GMAT-neutral”, then the latest GRE data offers some interesting food for thought.

 

Don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT, part 1: sentence correction

 

A few months ago, one of my favorite former GMAT students in Germany read an article about the United States presidential election in The Economist. She found the article alarming, and sent it over to me. I won’t comment on the content here, since I try to keep my little GMAT blog purely apolitical. But for whatever it’s worth, I thought that the article was wonderfully well-written – as is usually the case in The Economist, which is one of my favorite magazines.

And then I started thinking: you know, this article contains a bunch of phrases that would count as “errors” on GMAT sentence correction questions. A few examples:

Economist GMAT SC error #1

This was a transformative moment in the history of one of the world’s great political parties, but it hardly seemed so to those enjoying Cleveland’s evening sunshine while the roll call of state delegates concluded inside.

The pronoun “it” should always catch your eye on the GMAT, but I think it’s OK from a GMAT sentence correction perspective in this particular sentence – “it” seems to refer to “moment”. However, the word “this” is more clearly problematic – it’s used as a pronoun here. On GMAT SC questions, “this” can generally be used only as an article – see the GMAT Official Guide 2017 edition #760 for an example, though there are obviously more important errors in the question.

Economist GMAT SC error #2

Violent crime has fallen by more than half over the past 20 years, the economy is growing at a steady, unspectacular rate, illegal border crossings are at a low level, there are signs of racial progress for those who want to see them.

Technically, this is a comma splice: there are four independent clauses in the sentence, separated only by commas. From a GMAT perspective, the sentence would be much better if the commas were replaced with semicolons, at the very least. A similar comma splice error can be found in GMAT Verbal Guide 2017 edition, SC question #204 — though again, the question contains plenty of other errors.

Economist GMAT SC error #3

Mr Wilson says that the clashes between Trump supporters and protesters in Chicago in March—when Mr Trump announced and then cancelled a rally in a heavily African-American neighbourhood—moved the Cruz campaign polls away from their candidate towards Mr Trump by ten points almost overnight.

This is a good case of a subtle GMAT SC pronoun error. Check out the phrase “moved the Cruz campaign polls away from their candidate.” “Their” always refers to a plural noun on the GMAT, and the only plural noun nearby is “polls.” So if we read the sentence strictly and literally, it’s saying “…the clashes… moved the Cruz campaign polls away from the polls’ candidate towards Mr. Trump…” And that doesn’t make sense. On the GMAT sentence correction section, this is clearly an error – even though we easily understand the author’s point in real life.

Economist GMAT SC error #4

As voters get even more fed up with this election they may decide that both candidates are as bad as each other, or merely decide to roll the dice out of boredom. If that happens, it would be the most absent-minded political revolution in American history.

In the last sentence, both “that” and “it” are, in theory, being used as singular pronouns. Trouble is, neither has a clear referent in the previous sentence – in some sense, the author is using “that” and “it” to refer to general ideas expressed earlier in the article. That definitely wouldn’t fly on GMAT SC. (And yes, I just made exactly the same “error” in the previous sentence.)

Bonus Economist GMAT SC error #5

And here’s a bonus from another Economist article:

First, she [Patricia May] intends to include a Great Repeal Act in next year’s Queen’s Speech. This will revoke the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA), the legislation that took Britain into the club and which channels European laws onto British statute books, from the point of Brexit.

The GMAT would likely argue that there are two more errors in the second sentence. “This” is used as a pronoun, and that’s a no-no on GMAT SC, as discussed above.

The second error is a little bit more subtle: “which” can only be used as a non-essential modifier, so it doesn’t really work to say “the legislation that took Britain… and which channels…” Don’t lose sleep over that one – sure, “which” is frequently tested on GMAT SC, but not generally in this format.

Anyway, here’s my point: don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT – not even on sentence correction. I love The Economist, and I think that the writers of both articles are obviously talented. But according to GMAT rules, the writers would presumably perform somewhat poorly on GMAT sentence correction questions.

So who do you think is correct: The Economist magazine, or the GMAT? I would argue that language is a vibrant, living creature, and a major international news magazine with millions of readers probably has a pretty darned good idea of what “correct” modern English is. The GMAT is arguably stuck in its ways, and the exam is still testing some of the same, arcane rules – often in a very narrow way – that it tested when GMAT sentence correction was first invented a few decades ago.

So the bad news is that the GMAT SC features (arguably) obsolete rules, often tested in a way that doesn’t reflect the realities of modern English. But the GMAT’s rigidity can be a good thing for test-takers: if you learn the GMAT’s most frequently tested rules on sentence correction, you’ll be on your way to a solid GMAT verbal score. I’d argue that sentence correction might be the most “beatable” or “learnable” part of the GMAT exam, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and work.

Just make sure that you stick with the GMAT’s narrow way of thinking about SC language – and don’t let reality or the excellent writers at The Economist throw you off track.