7 reasons why your practice test scores don’t match your actual GMAT scores

 

One of the most painful things in the GMAT world is a massive test-day letdown. If you spend time on any of the GMAT forums, you’ll see tons of anguished posts that share a similar trait: a huge discrepancy between test-takers’ practice test scores and their actual GMAT scores.

In the geeky spirit of GMAT CR, our goal in this article is to help you resolve that discrepancy. So here are seven reasons why your test-day scores might be lower than your practice test scores:

Reason #1: you’ve been taking inaccurate, non-official tests

If you’re a regular reader of our little GMAT blog, you’ve heard this story before: the GMAT spends somewhere between $1500 and $3000 developing every official test question, and even the best test-prep companies can’t possibly compete with that.

Of course, it’s even harder for test-prep companies to combine those (inevitably somewhat flawed) questions into a realistic practice test. For example, test-prep companies struggle to mimic the GMAT’s use of experimental questions, or the exact mix of, say, geometry and probability questions.

To make things worse, if you’ve relied heavily on the materials written by a particular test-prep company, then you’ll probably do disproportionately well on that company’s practice exams. It stands to reason that the methods taught by Company X would be more effective on the questions written by that same company.

Sure, some of the higher-quality “knockoff” tests can still be good practice, at least for quant. But you’ll always want to take the scores with a huge grain of salt, and if you’re relying particularly heavily on one company’s GMAT practice tests, then you might want to be especially skeptical of those results.

Reason #2: you’re repeating the GMATPrep practice tests

In a perfect world, we’d all rely exclusively on official GMATPrep tests. The problem, of course, is that the GMATPrep software only offers six adaptive exams, and that might not be enough for you. (Check out this article for an inexpensive way to stretch your supply of semi-official tests.)

Plenty of people choose to retake the GMATPrep exams, and that’s not a bad idea: you’ll always learn something from the GMATPrep tests, and you’ll always see at least some new questions. The only problem is that you’ll also see some familiar questions, and that will bias your score upwards.

Whenever I say that, I hear the same objection: “Yeah, but I don’t really remember the questions, so the scores are probably accurate, right?” Sorry, but no. Even if you don’t consciously remember the questions, you’ll be able to answer them much, much faster if you’ve seen them before. Try reading a novel that you read 10 years ago, but don’t consciously remember. I promise that you’ll read it much faster – and you’ll absorb much more detail – than you did the first time around.

The bottom line: even a few repeated questions can completely change your experience on the GMATPrep tests, because you’ll feel less time-pressured, and your score will certainly inflate at least a little bit.

So please be really, really thoughtful about how you use those GMATPrep tests. If you need to repeat them, that’s OK – but don’t trick yourself into thinking that your scores on repeated GMATPrep tests are accurate. Because they probably aren’t.

Reason #3: you’re repeating the GMATPrep questions

This one is sneaky: if you’re a regular consumer of questions from the GMAT forums or other free sources, there’s a very good chance that you’re inflating your GMAT scores every day, without even noticing.

The internet is filled with official GMAT questions from all sorts of sources – including the GMATPrep exams. And even if you don’t repeat the GMATPrep tests themselves, your scores will also be inflated if you’ve seen the questions somewhere online.

So if you’re using one of the GMAT forums such as GMAT Club (which features two stunningly beautiful competent verbal forum experts), keep a close eye on the question tags. If you notice that a question comes from the GMATPrep tests, you might want to skip it, unless you’ve already thoroughly exhausted the GMATPrep exams.

Reason #4: all test-prep materials are based on GMATPrep questions

You’re not going to like this one.

When test-prep companies develop their own resources – guides, practice tests, practice questions – we have to draw inspiration from official GMAT sources. And since the GMATPrep tests are the closest thing to actual GMAT exams, we have to rely particularly heavily on the GMATPrep tests.

So there’s no way around it: every test-prep company writes their own “knockoffs” of GMATPrep questions. The best GMAT test-prep companies will artfully make their versions look drastically different from the originals; the lazier firms will just swap out a few details.

So if you’re ever had the feeling that the actual GMAT exam “feels weird” compared to the GMATPrep tests, this is one potential reason: you’ve seen tons of questions that resemble the GMATPrep questions, before you ever even touch the GMATPrep software. If this is the case for you, the GMAT questions on your actual exam might feel strange – and your score might drop as a result.

Reason #5: you’re fundamentally inconsistent

You won’t like this story very much, either.

I recently received an inquiry from a long-suffering GMAT test-taker who couldn’t figure out why his actual GMAT scores — ranging from 580 to 640 on six attempts — were so much lower than his “best GMATPrep test score of 720.”

Well, here are the scores from his first attempt at each of the GMATPrep exams:

  • GMATPrep #1: 620
  • GMATPrep #2: 720
  • GMATPrep #3: 580
  • GMATPrep #4: 660
  • GMATPrep #5: 590
  • GMATPrep #6: 600

When you average these six scores, you get 630 – and that’s really close to his top score on the actual exam.

So there are two takeaways here. First, don’t trick yourself into thinking that your best score is somehow your “real score.” Based on his GMATPrep scores, this test-taker should have expected to score in the low 600s – and that’s pretty much what happened. Praying for “a good test day” is never a winning strategy on the GMAT, and that’s basically what he was doing, without realizing it.

More importantly, these test scores clearly belong to a wildly inconsistent test-taker, and that’s a huge problem. The key to the GMAT isn’t cramming tons of knowledge into your head; it’s figuring out how to apply CONSISTENT techniques and reasoning habits every single time you see a particular type of question.

If your GMATPrep test scores are all over the place, they’re trying to tell you something: you fundamentally lack consistency and you’re applying different techniques at different moments, depending on your mood or the direction of the wind. Until your performance is consistent, there’s no reason to expect a great GMAT score – and it shouldn’t surprise you if your test-day performance is much lower than your best GMATPrep practice tests.

So be honest with yourself: until your practice results are CONSISTENTLY in your target range, it’s unlikely that you’ll earn the score you want on the actual GMAT.

Reason #6: you’re fatigued on test day

In a perfect world, you’ll feel exactly the same in the GMAT exam room as you do when you’re taking a GMATPrep exam in the comfort of your own home. But that’s not realistic: you’ll likely be amped on your test day, and your adrenaline will probably be flowing.

And maybe you’ll run out of gas as a result of all of that excitement. Every once in a while, I hear from somebody who simply got fatigued at the end of their exam – particularly if they chose the “conventional” section order, with verbal at the very end.

If fatigue was an issue for you on test day, maybe you need to do more full practice tests, or it might help to practice with some extra-hard LSAT materials, just to build up your stamina. Or maybe more sleep or a better test-day diet would help. Or you could always choose a different section order, so that the least-important sections come at the end of your exam. But test-day fatigue is definitely a very fixable problem.

Reason #7: you’re nervous

This is the elephant in the room: most people get a little bit nervous when they’re taking a high-stakes test like the GMAT. And some people – perhaps around 20%, according to studies conducted here in the United States – get so nervous that their cognitive functions are impaired.

A full discussion of test anxiety could easily fill an entire book, so I won’t say much about it here. But if your GMAT scores suddenly drop on test day, there’s a pretty good chance that nerves are playing a role – even if you aren’t consciously jittery.

If this is the case for you, you might consider trying some of the techniques mentioned in this article or this article or this article. But whatever you do, don’t sweep your test-day anxiety under the rug, and pretend that it didn’t happen. Be honest with yourself – or else you’ll have zero chance of overcoming the problem. 

Still not sure what happened? Get your ESR.

I’m a little bit cynical about the motivations behind the GMAT’s ever-increasing menu of products, but if you’re not sure why your real GMAT score was so low, the GMAT Enhanced Score Report (ESR) is probably worth the price ($24.95). And even if you’ve already canceled the score, GMAC will happily sell you an ESR.

The ESR can’t tell you everything, but it can give you some idea of what happened. For example, the ESR might tell you that you made a bunch of mistakes on easy questions, or that your time management was erratic. Or maybe it’ll tell you that you had a meltdown on one specific question type.

Of course, the ESR can’t tell you why you made those mistakes. But it can at least point you in the right direction if you’re not sure which of our seven reasons explains why your score dropped on test day.

And if you need advice, feel free to leave a comment below, and we’ll do our best to help.

 

Why Adderall, Ritalin, and other PEDs won’t help your GMAT score

 

If you attended an undergraduate program in the United States, you probably know that academic performance-enhancing drugs (let’s call them academic PEDs for short) are a mainstay among university students. I know dozens of students who have popped a few pills – typically ADD medications such as Adderall or Ritalin, obtained through a friend, a law-bending physician, or a black-market dealer – to help them focus while studying.

These drugs are basically legal versions of amphetamines (though their “off-label” use without a prescription is, of course, illegal) that can provide energy and help you hyper-focus while you cram for a test or write a paper. Sounds great, right?

(And just to be clear: I’m NOT talking about anybody who has an actual prescription because of a diagnosed medical condition. I’m referring to off-label use only – and there are plenty of reasons why such use is dangerous, but that’s another story for a different, non-GMAT blog.)

Anyway, I’m not here to moralize about drug use – after all, I guzzled many gallons of performance-enhancing bourbon during my years as a bartender. I’m just here to offer an honest answer to a frequently asked GMAT-related question: can academic PEDs like Adderall and Ritalin help you conquer the GMAT and GRE exams, assuming that you’re willing to ignore the potential health and legal consequences?

The short answer: I don’t think so.

First of all, the whole idea behind academic PEDs is that they help you hyper-focus. Imagine, for example, that you need to spend 14 hours memorizing organic chemistry formulas. Stimulants can help, at least in the short run. Gotta grind your way through some repetitive calculus problems? Well, that takes some short-term energy and focus, and academic PEDs might help with that, too.

But hyper-focusing is actually a bad thing if you’re trying to improve your GMAT score. The GMAT – especially the quant section – requires you to think logically through different solution paths, and then choose the best option. In general, if you’re hopped up on amphetamines, you’ll speedily pick the first solution path that comes to mind – even if it’s an inefficient path or a complete dead-end. Basically, academic PEDs cause cognitive tunnel-vision – and that’s a good way to ruin your GMAT score.

The second reason why I’m skeptical of academic PEDs is that a few of my students have used them while studying for the GMAT, and they haven’t had much success. In every case, my GMAT students were accustomed to taking Ritalin, Adderall, or a similar drug during their undergraduate studies – and in every case, the academic PEDs didn’t seem to help their GMAT prep. They would stubbornly obsess over unnecessary details of GMAT RC passages, crunch through dozens of lines of algebra when quicker solutions were available, and make score-destroying careless errors because they were moving too quickly.

In a different context, maybe the academic PEDs would have helped these very same students. But the GMAT requires a flexible mindset and a solid approach to time management. Drugs that cause you to energetically develop tunnel vision are exactly the wrong prescription for success on the GMAT.

So if you’re looking for quick fixes – well, you probably already know that you’ve come to the wrong GMAT tutor’s blog if you’re looking for gimmicky shortcuts. To be honest, if I thought that academic PEDs could help your GMAT score, I would (probably very quietly) admit it. But the truth is that they don’t seem to do much to improve your GMAT or GRE scores.

I do, however, have plenty to say about another GMAT performance-enhancing substance: food.

Go ahead, roll your eyes… but it’s GMAT quantitative reasoning, not GMAT math

 

If you’ve struggled with the GMAT quant section more than you think you should, this blog post is for you. If you’ve ever said, “I’ve always been a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT quant is so hard for me!” – then this post is definitely for you.

In my former life as a PhD student, I spent far too much time learning about the statistical science underneath standardized testing, known as psychometrics. My nearly three-year PhD odyssey didn’t result in much other than some grey hairs and a “thank you for playing!” Master’s degree in education, but I did experience a few things that probably helped me become a better GMAT and GRE tutor.

This is a story about one of those things – and at the time, I never would have guessed that it would be useful for my GMAT and GRE students.

In my first year as a PhD student, I went to a psychometrics conference, populated by academics and employees of major standardized testing organizations, including ETS (makers of the GRE and TOEFL) and GMAC (creators of your beloved GMAT). I attended a presentation by a high-ranking GMAT psychometrician, who discussed… well, nevermind that part, I’ll put you right to sleep if I start talking about it.

Anyway, here’s the useful bit: somebody in the audience asked a question about the “math section of the GMAT.” The GMAT psychometrician interrupted him politely: “Excuse me,” he said, “there is no math section on the GMAT. There’s only quantitative reasoning.”

I probably rolled my eyes. “What a dick,” I thought, “why would he make a big deal out of that? It’s math. S#!t, I’ve been teaching it for a decade. Whatever, dude.”

Sure, maybe the GMAT psychometrician wasn’t picking the best moment to make a big deal out of it, but he absolutely had a point. In the few years since I attended that conference, I’ve realized that my students – particularly Americans – actually perform better on the quant section of the GMAT when they stop thinking of it as “math” and start thinking of it as “quantitative reasoning.”

Here’s the thing: in the United States, “math” knowledge – at least through the high school level – is typically taught as sequences of mechanical steps that you need to memorize and follow. Throughout much of my public school education, our daily homework would consist of 10 or 20 nearly identical math problems. The problems were usually so similar that there was no reason to think about what any of it meant. If you could follow instructions, you’d get an A – even if you had absolutely zero understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts.

As a result, most Americans think that the word “math” just refers to a boring series of steps that you follow. Sadly, we don’t think of mathematics as a way of thinking, or as a set of useful tools for reasoning our way through useful problems. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have learned math in a way that strips it of its logic, meaning, and intuition.

So it’s no surprise that I hear this over and over from GMAT test-takers, especially Americans: “I’m a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT is so hard for me!”

Obviously, there are a ton of reasons why somebody might struggle with the GMAT quant section, but plenty of GMAT test-takers make the subtle mistake of trying to learn too many formulas, memorize too many steps, and drill too many mechanical aspects of mathematics. The GMAT, for all of its flaws, brilliantly twists 10th-grade math into a hard-to-penetrate – or at least a hard-to-quickly-penetrate – tangle of logic.

In other words: if you’re trying to blindly apply mechanical techniques to GMAT quant questions above the 500 or 600 level, the exam will eat you for breakfast.

Let’s look at an example (with apologies for the blurry fractions):

Which of the following is greatest?

GMAT blog example quantitative reasoning

If you think of this as a mechanical “math question,” you’ll follow some well-worn steps here: find some common denominators, add the fractions, and THEN compare the sums.

Go ahead and try it if you’d like. If you can correctly solve the question that way in two minutes or less, I’ll give you a cookie.

But if you’re thinking of the GMAT as “quantitative reasoning” – with or without the eye-roll – then maybe you’ll try something quicker, smarter, and less arithmetic-intensive. In this case, we’re just looking for the greatest value – and we don’t care what that value actually is, as long as we know that it’s larger than the other four answer choices.

So since the question is just asking for the greatest of the five answer choices, you can just compare pairs of answer choices, and knock off anything that’s the smaller of the two. Let’s start with D and E. It’s easy to see why E is larger than D once you notice that 1 – ½ = ½, so D is gone.

Similarly, B looks a lot like E, except that the denominators in B are squared – and since larger denominators mean that the fractions must be smaller, we can cross off B. The same argument holds for C – it’s clearly smaller than E as well. And then A has smaller denominators than E – so A is your answer.

No computation required, right? If you’re approaching this wisely, you barely need to lift your pen.

So if you’re thinking of the GMAT quant section as a set of narrow mathematical tasks – formulas that need to be memorized, or boring-ass steps that need to be followed – then you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least if you want an elite GMAT quant score. Once you start looking for opportunities to apply flexible logic and identify multiple solution paths, then you’re on the right track.

If any of this strikes a nerve, then it might not be a bad idea to stop yourself whenever you start thinking about the GMAT “math section.” Roll your eyes at yourself if you’d like, but thinking of the GMAT quant section as “quantitative reasoning” might help you embrace the flexibility and logic you’ll need for a top GMAT quant score.

An unfortunate story about GMAT testing irregularities

 

I’m reasonably confident that the GMAT does its honest best to ensure that the GMAT testing experience is the same for every GMAT test-taker. But unfortunately, stuff happens in life – even in the tightly controlled environment of a GMAT testing center. I documented a few minor GMAT testing center horror stories on my GMAT blog a bunch of years ago: basically, a few GMAT test-takers encountered computer glitches that torpedoed their tests, or had shorter breaks because the proctor failed to release them promptly from the testing room – that sort of thing.

Since then, my GMAT students have occasionally experienced computer failures, GMAT test-center power outages, and even a haunting or two — though the latter might have happened only in a GMAT student’s (literal) nightmares. In each of the real-world cases, the folks at the GMAT have done the right thing: they’ve at least offered a free retake of the GMAT.

Sadly, it sounds like the GMAT has modified its behavior toward testing irregularities lately, and that’s pretty frustrating. The circumstances of the latest GMAT testing center horror story aren’t terribly interesting: as one of my GMAT students returned from his post-Integrated Reasoning break, the proctor botched the password when he tried to log back into the computer. He apparently botched it several times, and my poor GMAT student – let’s call him Mr. B, since he apparently makes a mean bhindi masala – lost about two minutes from his GMAT quant section.

In theory, losing two minutes shouldn’t have affected Mr. B’s quant score much – after all, that’s only the equivalent of one GMAT question, right? But let’s be realistic: since we all know that you need every possible advantage on the GMAT these days, wouldn’t you freak out just a little bit if you lost two minutes from the test? And wouldn’t that affect your performance?

Unfortunately, Mr. B badly underperformed on his GMAT that day – particularly on his slightly shortened quant section – and he chose to cancel the score. We can’t completely blame his GMAT quant score on the proctor’s error, but it certainly didn’t help.

Regardless of the effects of the proctor’s error, it’s still true that the GMAT is supposed to be a standardized test. “Standardized” means that every test-taker should be given the same, fair testing experience. The GMAT quant section is 75 minutes – not 73 minutes. What happened to Mr. B is pretty much the textbook definition of a testing irregularity.

In this situation, the GMAT should have apologized, wiped the score off Mr. B’s score report, and offered him a free retake. After all, that’s what they’ve done in the past – plus, it just seems like the right thing to do. Mr. B didn’t have the same testing experience as his competitors for coveted MBA slots, and that’s not fair – even if the disadvantage was relatively small.

Mr. B is not a particularly shy man, and he pushed the GMAT for a fair resolution. There was a paper trail – the proctor filed a report indicating that there had been a testing irregularity. What did the GMAT do after several phone calls and a few emails? Nothing. They told Mr. B that he “didn’t have to cancel his score” and refused to offer a retake.

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Mr. B earns a good living, and the $250 he paid for his next GMAT exam did not bankrupt him. But it seems unfair – and it definitely represents a departure from the GMAT’s behavior in the past.

Here’s my rather cynical theory about the GMAT’s decision: perhaps due to increasing competition from the GRE exam, the number of GMAT exams has fallen recently, and the GMAT’s revenue has presumably fallen accordingly. But if each GMAT question costs somewhere between $1500 and $3000 to develop, the GMAT can’t really afford a loss of revenue.

So it looks like they’re making up that revenue however they can. Since 2012 – when the number of GMAT tests dropped – the GMAT has begun to offer plenty of pricey (and often very useful) products, as I mentioned in an earlier GRE vs. GMAT blog post: enhanced score reports ($24.95), the ability to cancel ($25) or “un-cancel” ($50) your score after test day, the worth-every-penny GMAT Exam Packs ($49.99 each), and new GMAT OGs, released every year instead of every few years ($85 for the latest bundle on the GMAC website).

And we can apparently add a new revenue source to the list: a refusal to compensate GMAT test-takers when minor testing irregularities occur.

I’m obviously not impressed by the GMAT’s behavior in this case, but if you’re just a reader of this little GMAT blog, the good news is that these sorts of things don’t happen very often. But if you’re truly paranoid about the GMAT’s increasing miserliness, then maybe you have another reason to think about taking the GRE instead of the GMAT?

How to get a perfect 800 score on the GMAT… sort of

 

More than five years ago, I earned a perfect 800 on the GMAT. I don’t really think of it as much of an achievement, to be honest – and I definitely don’t think that it’s an important qualification for the best GMAT tutors.

But I’ve been asked about it literally hundreds of times over the years – by GMAT students, prospective GMAT students, random people in the GMAT forums, strangers who’ve encountered my little GMAT blog, and plenty of others. So here are a few answers to the 800-related questions that keep coming my way.

Did you get every question right? 

No, I’m 99% sure that I didn’t. GMAT enhanced score reports didn’t exist back in 2011, so I can’t actually see if I missed any questions, but as soon as I finished the exam, I worked through every quant question I could remember – and I’m pretty certain that I missed at least one. Maybe more.

The bottom line, for whatever it’s worth: you can miss a bunch of questions and still get a “perfect” GMAT quant score of 51.

But you got every verbal question right? 

I think so. But it was mostly due to dumb luck.

In all of my previous GMAT exams – including the GMATPrep practice tests the first time I took each of them – I always fell short of a perfect verbal score. I inevitably missed a few questions, partly because I tend to lose focus at the end of the GMAT, but mostly because I screw stuff up sometimes, just like every other human.

And if you’ve ever taken the GMAT or the GRE or the LSAT, I’m sure that this part will sound familiar: I inevitably face a few “coin tosses” on verbal – questions where I’m down to two answer choices, but I’m not terribly confident in the final selection. (Incidentally, if you’re down to two choices on a GMAT verbal question and you select the wrong one, that’s not necessarily a sign that you were “close” – it’s usually a sign that you misread something in the passage.)

But when I finally scored an 800 on the GMAT, that didn’t happen at all – I was pretty much 100% confident on every verbal question. That has never happened to me on any GMAT, LSAT, or GRE exam before or since – including the day when I got a perfect GRE score. That test felt freaking brutal, and I was shocked that my GRE score wasn’t lower in the end.

Most importantly, all four of my GMAT reading comprehension passages were bizarrely interesting when I got that 800. I still remember one of them – it was about a type of plant called dodder that apparently has a sense of smell. Amazing. Again, that’s never happened before or since: when have you ever had four interesting GMAT reading comprehension passages on the same exam?

So there you go: yes, I’m pretty good at the GMAT, but those last 10 or 20 points were dumb luck – or measurement error, if you prefer the technical term.

Were you banned from taking the GMAT ever again? 

Yup. I received a nice letter from the GMAT Office of Test Security, informing me that I would need a damned good reason if I ever wanted to take it again. And I don’t have a damned good reason. “I want to help my GMAT students beat your stinking exam” isn’t going to fly with the GMAT test security folks.

My MBA.com account is suspended too, though the GMAT will still happily accept my money whenever I want to buy GMAT practice tests or the GMATPrep Question Pack from them.

Did you study for the GMAT before you got the perfect score?

Well, I earned the perfect score in 2011. I started working as a GRE and GMAT test-prep tutor in 2001, starting with a gig at a large test-prep company before I became an independent tutor a few years later. So in some sense, I “studied” for 10 years before I got a perfect GMAT score – and I’m still “studying,” since I work with GMAT students almost every day.

You probably don’t want to do that. Unless you want to become a GMAT tutor yourself, “studying” for more than a decade is an epic waste of your time.

Are there certain GMAT test-prep materials that would help somebody get a perfect GMAT score?

It’s funny, I read a GMAT blog post from another test-prep company that recommended its own materials for anybody who wants a perfect GMAT score. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, partly because knockoff GMAT materials can never be as good as official GMAT materials – and partly because that particular GMAT test-prep firm writes especially lousy materials, in my opinion.

So, no: other than the official GMAT materials, there aren’t magical GMAT test-prep resources that will get you to a perfect 800 on the GMAT.

And more importantly: there’s absolutely no practical reason for you to want a perfect GMAT score, anyway. An 800 will not help you get into a great business school, and I wouldn’t even argue that it’s a necessary quality for the best GMAT tutors.

So if you’re wondering how to get an 800 on the GMAT, don’t waste your time thinking about that. Go write an interesting MBA essay instead, or better still: go eat a tasty snack.

GRE vs. GMAT, part VII: has the GMAT lost its edge?

 

My graph-making skills are admittedly a bit rusty these days, but check this out:

now you know why they call me the GMAT Ninja, not the Line Graph Ninja; data from mba.com

Now you know why nobody calls me the Line Graph Ninja; data from mba.com

 

You probably see what I see: the number of GMAT test-takers took a dive in 2013, and it hasn’t recovered completely — particularly here in the United States.

So what else happened in 2013? Well, my Boston Red Sox won the World Series – wait, no, that has nothing to do with it. But in 2013, the GRE was pushing hard for acceptance in the MBA admissions world. By the end of 2013, the GRE was accepted by nearly every major MBA program in the United States.

(As part of its marketing push, the GRE tried some odd stuff. They contacted a number of GMAT bloggers and tutors, and urged us to tell our students to take the GRE instead of the GMAT, since the GRE makes it easier to change your answers during the exam. They invited me to speak personally with one of their psychometricians – but sadly, she was a narrow-minded fool who had zero understanding of what it’s actually like to take the GRE exam. Marketing fail, GRE.)

Anyway, back to the GMAT data. We obviously can’t be sure that the drop in GMAT tests was solely a consequence of competition from the GRE – after all, the world economy was still doing weird stuff back then, and the number of youngish professionals with “MBA-feeder” jobs probably dropped during the Great Recession. But I suspect that the GRE played at least some role in the GMAT’s decline, and if I’m correct, there are two major consequences.

First, the GMAT’s potential loss of market share to the GRE has forced the GMAT to adapt in quite a few ways, partly to try to win back test-takers, and partly to recoup lost revenue in other ways. (After all, it costs a fortune to produce good, official GMAT questions.) Since 2013, the GMAT has introduced all of the following products:

  • Enhanced GMAT score reports ($24.95)
  • The ability to completely remove canceled scores from your GMAT score report; this is free at the testing center, but now you can also cancel a score up to 72 hours after leaving the exam ($25)
  • The ability to reinstate canceled scores ($50)
  • New editions of the GMAT official guides released every year, instead of every 3-5 years ($85 for the bundle of three 2017 official guides on the GMAC website)
  • A reduction in the wait time between exams from 31 days to 16 days
  • Release of additional, full practice tests ($49.99 for a set of two GMATPrep exams); the GMAT now offers 6 official practice tests, while the GRE has only released two

Some of these things are clearly money-grabs, but most are wonderful for GMAT test-takers. Apparently, competition is good, even when the competitors are two supposedly not-for-profit standardized testing companies.

But for whatever it’s worth, there’s a second reason why GMAT’s drop in market share might be relevant to you as an MBA applicant: perhaps it’s a sign that the GRE really is gaining traction in MBA admissions.

In an earlier blog post, I argued that the GRE’s absence from the MBA rankings might be the biggest reason why taking the GRE can be a good idea. But once the GRE becomes commonplace in MBA admissions, won’t it be just a matter of time before the GRE weasels its way into MBA rankings schemes? And if that happens — and it might not — then maybe the GRE advantage will evaporate.

So enjoy the GRE vs. GMAT competition while it lasts – and before it accidentally creates unintended consequences that aren’t so MBA applicant-friendly.

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 starting from the beginning of this now seven-part series on the GRE vs. the GMAT

Choosing between an independent GMAT tutor and a large GMAT test-prep firm

 

In a crusty old GMAT blog post, I discussed the most important characteristics you should look for in an independent GMAT (or GRE) tutor. In this post, I’ll take a step back, and look at a broader decision: should you hire an independent GMAT tutor in the first place, or are you better off looking for a GMAT tutor from one of the established GMAT test-prep juggernauts?

As with many decisions in life, there’s no foolproof, one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few ways to think about the tradeoffs between hiring an independent GMAT tutor vs. a tutor from a large GMAT test-prep firm:

Tradeoff #1: Quality control vs. potential genius

Imagine that you’re trying to choose between two restaurants for dinner tonight. One restaurant is a national chain that you’d find in every major city. You know exactly what you’re going to get from that national chain: consistent food and a consistent overall experience. Will you have your mind blown by something new, innovative, and incredibly delicious at that chain restaurant? Probably not. But if you enjoyed your last experience at that chain restaurant, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it again tonight.

But what will happen if you walk into an independent restaurant you’ve never tried before? Well, there’s some chance that you’ll enjoy one of the most unique and delicious meals you’ve ever eaten – and it may be far better than anything you’d eat at the chain restaurant. Or there’s a chance that you’ll get a terrible bellyache. Who knows?

To be fair, no GMAT or GRE tutor will ever give you a bad case of food poisoning… but, well, some independent tutors aren’t great. And others are absolute geniuses who will teach you far more than any one-size-fits-most test-prep company ever could. And that’s arguably the biggest tradeoff: are you interested in risking a few dollars in search of a GMAT or GRE virtuoso, or would you rather play it safe?

There’s obviously no right answer, but that’s arguably the heart of the decision you face if you’re thinking about hiring a GRE or GMAT test-prep tutor.

Tradeoff #2: One-size-fits-most vs. individualized solutions

I started my GMAT and GRE tutoring career at a large test-prep firm about 15 years ago. Our training was, of course, standardized: every test-prep tutor and classroom teacher learned the same processes, and taught from the same scripts. And that makes perfect sense: when you walk into the company’s test-prep center in Denver, you would expect to receive exactly the same GMAT pedagogy as you would in New York City.

That standardized approach to test-prep instruction works really, really well… unless it doesn’t. For some test-takers, the curriculum at, say, Manhattan GMAT or Economist GMAT is absolutely perfect. For some people, it’s pretty good. For others, it’s a mild disaster. But GMAT and GRE tutors at large test-prep firms are generally required to stick to their individual firm’s teaching methods. Their training is 100% rooted in those methods, and their managers expect tutors to adhere to them.

So if those standardized teaching methods don’t work for a particular GMAT or GRE student, the tutor may not be able to do much about it – either because they don’t have the freedom to select different teaching methods, or because they simply don’t know about them.

As independent GRE and GMAT tutors, we’re free to explore the wide world of test-prep pedagogy, tailoring our methods and materials to each individual student. That sounds great, but there’s a catch: it’s easier for a tutor to follow a single test-prep teaching methodology than to try to synthesize dozens of them – and of course, not all independent tutors truly understand a broad range of pedagogical techniques. But the best GMAT and GRE tutors are constantly learning, and constantly expanding their teaching toolkits. And that’s something that even the best of the GMAT test-prep giants will never be able to offer.

Tradeoff #3: Free materials vs. freedom

One of the biggest reasons GMAT and GRE test-takers often prefer large test-prep companies is that they offer plenty of test-prep materials: books, worksheets, online trackers, and practice tests, all of which are included in the price of a private GMAT or GRE tutoring package. Sure, I’d argue that those goodies from test-prep companies can never be as good as official GMAT materials, but free materials are still better than no materials. Many independent GMAT and GRE tutors – myself included – do offer some free materials, but they’re obviously nowhere near as flashy as the ones produced by GMAT and GRE test-prep behemoths.

But again, there’s a price tag to those free materials: they limit the pedagogical freedom of the big companies’ GMAT and GRE tutors. If you work for, say, Kaplan, your bosses probably wouldn’t want you to recommend materials from Veritas – and certainly not from some wacko contrarian independent GMAT tutor guy. But independent GMAT tutors can maintain flexibility: if we think that you’re going to benefit from a GMAT or GRE test-prep guide written by another company, we’ll tell you to buy it.

In other words: large test-prep companies rely on just one set of materials. Independent GMAT and GRE tutors can draw on every available set of materials to optimize a student’s progress. We just can’t give you many of them for free.

And when you think about the overall cost of the MBA investment or the cost of private GMAT tutoring, maybe the price of a few books isn’t terribly meaningful, anyway?

Tradeoff #4: Personalization vs. potential clock-punching

There are some fantastic GMAT and GRE tutors working for some of the large test-prep firms – I’ve met plenty of them over the years. Many of them are very passionate about helping their students succeed. But others think of it as “just a job.” And maybe that’s the one risk to hiring a GMAT or GRE tutor from one of the large test-prep companies: you might be getting a smart but passionless person who’s just punching the proverbial clock.

Independent GMAT and GRE tutors – or at least the ones with staying power – are much more likely to be a different breed, with a unique perspective and some fire in their bellies for teaching. Independent tutors aren’t just cogs in a larger machine – we’re our own machines. It’s just that we’re very tiny machines, with less flash and fewer freebies — and far less standardization.

 

You think your GMAT nightmares are bad?

 

(Friendly warning: this GMAT blog post is mostly useless, and will not actually help you conquer the GMAT or any other standardized test. Sorry.)

If you ask any longtime waiter or bartender, they’ll tell you that they routinely have “restaurant anxiety dreams.” Nearly a decade after my last stint as a bartender, I’m no exception: I routinely have crazyass nightmares in which I’m in an unfamiliar restaurant, working simultaneously as both the waiter and the bartender. My tables are always filled with customers who insist on ordering drinks that don’t actually exist, like Screaming Vikings (with the cucumbers slightly bruised) or Nutless Monkeys (blended, with a banana garnish) or Steel-Belted Radials (easy on the ketchup).

And then I end up literally walking uphill to return to the bar, and uphill again to deliver the drinks back to the table. Restaurants in my dreams are always like M.C. Esher paintings, which makes it really hard to not suck at waiting tables.

In another version, an old high school friend was sitting at one of my tables, and he ordered a pulled pork sandwich on whole wheat bread. (Note for anybody who isn’t from barbecue country: pulled pork on whole wheat is heresy.) When I tried to enter the order into the computer system, the computer exploded, hissing and bubbling and sending sparks flying around the dining room.

Thankfully, I no longer work in restaurants or bars, so these dreams are just plain funny – and I never have anxiety dreams about my life as a GMAT tutor, because my charming GMAT students rarely manage to stress me out. My GMAT students, on the other hand, aren’t always so fortunate.

One of my all-time favorite GMAT students (let’s call her Luke, since she calls me Yoda) also had some of my all-time favorite GMAT nightmares. If the GMAT hadn’t caused some legitimate suffering in her life, the dreams would be freaking hilarious.

In the first version of the dream, Luke was taking the GMAT exam in a dilapidated shack filled with spiders and mice, as she hunched over a dimly lit computer screen. The vermin were everywhere, crawling over the keyboard and monitor as she tried to think clearly about the proper way to conjugate the 13th verb in a 100-word GMAT sentence correction question.

As she became more fed up, Luke begged the GMAT proctor to please do something about the insects and rodents crawling all over her during the test. But instead of responding in a useful way, the proctor – a cranky, creepy old librarian type, peering at her skeptically through his dusty monocle – threatened her instead of offering help: “If you complain one more time about the testing center,” he said in an ominous tone, “I’ll take 40 points off your score.” Then he laughed maniacally, and poor Luke woke up in a cold sweat.

(Don’t worry: this can’t actually happen in reality. GMAT proctors don’t really have the power to take 40 points off your score, and rodent infestations are presumably rare in GMAT testing centers.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of Luke’s GMAT nightmares. The next night, she had another version of the dream. She was back in the same dilapidated shack with spiders and mice. But this time, the shack was haunted. The feeble lights on her computer would flicker on and off, and she could feel ghosts brushing against her neck as she tried to figure out whether answer choice B or C was actually more parallel. Several times, she turned around in a panic – and saw nothing. She was supposedly alone in the GMAT testing center, but she could hear thumping sounds in the attic as she tried to decipher the GMAT’s nastiest, book-length critical reasoning question – which was, of course, written in wingdings.

But poor Luke wasn’t finished with her GMAT night terrors. A few nights later, she was back in that same damned shack, but this time, the GMAT had a brand-new section: Artists from Around the World. When she complained to the proctor, he just said, “Well, miss, remember that there are some monsters lurking in the testing room, and we do expect you to keep yourself safe and focused during the GMAT exam.”

When Luke got back into the testing room, she was completely alone, and could see the shadows of ghosts lurking behind the computer screen. She got a 480 on the GMAT that night, and the proctor was absolutely disgusted with the result. “But there were ghosts in there!” Luke protested, to no avail.

So yeah: if the GMAT is keeping you up at night, I suppose that it would always be worse.

 

The #1 quality in the best MBA admissions consultants: brutal honesty

 

MBA admissions consultants are everywhere these days, and if you’re reading this little blog post, odds are good that you’ll hire one someday – despite my words of caution in this MBA blog post, this other MBA blog post, and even this MBA blog post over here.

So what’s the #1 thing you should you look for if you’re shopping for an MBA admissions consultant? Brutal honesty. Without it, you’re absolutely wasting your hard-earned money.

Let’s start with a nice game of “which applicants got into their first-choice MBA program?” Here are three candidates:

  • Candidate A: white American female, 620 GMAT, 3.8 GPA from a low-ranked public university, marketing job for a non-prestigious small company, interesting but not mind-blowing extracurriculars. Target MBA program: Stanford, Round 2.
  • Candidate B: white American male, 660 GMAT, 3.5 GPA from not-quite-elite private college, non-prestigious experience with a financial services firm and a not-terribly-successful tech startup, mediocre extracurriculars. Target MBA program: HBS, Round 3.
  • Candidate C: white American female, 770 GMAT, 4.0 GPA from a top-three Ivy League program, experience as an auction house specialist, fitness instructor, ballerina, and bodybuilder. Target MBA program: HBS, Round 1.

OK, so who do you think actually got into their first choice MBA program?

Sorry, you won’t like this. The answer is… none of them.

Here’s the reality that few of us – including the overwhelming majority of MBA admissions consultants – want to admit: it is brutally difficult to get into elite MBA programs. Candidate C sounds like a total badass, right? Well, I don’t know her personally, but she’s mentioned in this wonderful (and disturbing) Poets & Quants article by John Byrne and HBS Guru Sandy Kreisberg – and she got rejected from Harvard.

In that very same Poets & Quants article, Kreisberg offers a brutal truth: 70% of HBS applicants are qualified, but only 11% get in. That 70% estimate, for what it’s worth, sounds about right to me, and if anything the MBA applicant pool just keeps getting stronger. So for every six badasses like Candidate C, only one will be admitted.

And for what it’s worth, poor Candidate C didn’t even get an interview. Ouch.

OK, so what about Candidate A and Candidate B? Clearly, they had absolutely no hope of getting into Stanford and Harvard, right? I think we can agree on that. If Candidate C couldn’t get in, then the other two are way beyond hope – especially since Candidate B was inexplicably trying to get into HBS in Round 3.

Unfortunately, MBA admissions consultants took Candidate A and Candidate B’s money and told them they had a chance. At best, the MBA admissions consultants were being clueless and incompetent – and that’s the nicest thing I could say about them. I actually think that they were being unscrupulous, money-grubbing slimeballs. But maybe I’m wrong, and they were just being dumb.

Either way: don’t let this happen to you! If you’re looking for a great MBA admissions consultant, the first thing you should do is ask for an honest evaluation of your candidacy. If the evaluation is nothing but puppy dogs and sunshine and unicorns with rainbows pouring out of their asses, you might have an MBA admissions snake-oil salesman on your hands – unless you really think that you’re the perfect MBA candidate. But Candidate C sounded pretty perfect too, didn’t she? So if an admissions consultant says that you’ll definitely be admitted to an elite MBA program (with their help, of course) – then run in the other direction.

The very best MBA admissions consultants I know will give you the honest, brutal truth about your odds right up front. They’ll probably try to steer you toward a nice mix of elite and less-selective MBA programs. And if they think you have zero shot at the elite MBA programs, they might still help you with your MBA applications – but only after you repeat the phrase “I understand that my odds are incredibly low, and I want to pay you to optimize my MBA application anyway.”

Unfortunately, the reality of elite MBA admissions truly is brutal. Even if your application is spectacular, your odds might be lower than you think. Make sure that your MBA admissions consultant is willing to deliver that brutal truth, right up front – and please don’t ever settle for anything less.

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.