exhausting the OGs: a case study

As a private GMAT tutor who presents himself in unconventional ways, I tend to attract unusual students. People who are "average" or "typical" tend to do well in prep classes; there's no need for them to pay for a private GMAT tutor. Often, I find that I'm the GMAT resource of last resort. I get lots of calls from people who have already done everything they can (self-study, prep courses, perhaps repeated re-takings of the GMAT) and can't think of anything else, so they call an independent tutor, hoping that I can offer some help. Usually, I immediately have an idea of what to do for a student. Some people complain about their GMAT verbal scores, but haven't had a lick of sentence correction grammar training--it's easy to see that there is, at the very least, a content issue in these cases. Some students reveal major deficiencies in their math preparations, and these are also easy enough to fix. I'm about to start working with a student who has scored 330 and 430 on her first two practice tests, and is in the middle of a prep class; at least as a starting point, she just needs a little bit of one-on-one attention to help her grasp some fundamental concepts and build her confidence. Basically, there's an obvious starting point with nearly every GMAT student I've ever worked with, and I can usually figure that out over the phone.

But when I first came to NYC last month, I met a student who might, in some ways, know more about the GMAT than I do. This guy has done every single official GMAT question (GMAT Official Guide 11th edition, GMAT Official Guide 12th edition, GMAT Verbal Review, GMAT Quant Review, GMATPrep, GMAT Focus)... twice. And he's taken all of the Manhattan GMAT tests twice. He kept a journal of all of his mistakes. And he's taken the real GMAT test twice. I couldn't ask for a more thorough course of self-study.

Strangely, the poor guy (let's call him Mr. V) is stuck with a sub-650 score, with particularly weak outcomes on the verbal section (low 40s on quant, but he was right around 30 on the verbal). Apparently, Mr. V called two other independent GMAT tutors before contacting me, and both said that they couldn't do anything to help him. And I can understand why. What can possibly be done to help this guy, when he has apparently left no stone unturned? He has a strong work background, but is aiming for a 700+ GMAT score so that he can have a shot at top MBA programs. Jumping from, say, 620 to 700 is no joke under the best of circumstances, but it's one hell of a task for a student who has already devoured every retired GMAT question that has ever been published.

I was honest with Mr. V from the start: I'm not sure how well any of this will work, but I gave him a smorgasbord of GMAT options. Ultimately, we decided to do a full run-through of all of the key grammar concepts on sentence correction, as well as a quick tour through the math content to see if we could find any holes in his understanding of the fundamentals. Beyond that, we realized that we needed to squeeze every possible drop of knowledge out of the official GMAT material, and we had to find some way to supplement the verbal content with outside sources.

For sentence correction, I'm forcing poor Mr. V to identify every single mistake in every wrong answer choice. Much of the material in the OGs is far easier than what he saw on the actual GMAT, and I realized that he probably hadn't really trained himself to find every type of error. I think this approach is driving him nuts, but seems to be helping somewhat. (I've given the same assignment to other students, with mixed results.)

On the math section, we've discovered that Mr. V is an algebra genius, but that he gets tripped up by some of the logic- and word-based material. Combinations, permutations, conditional probability, and venn diagram questions tend to make him see double. So we're working through some methods to make him more systematic in his approaches to those questions, and we're both digging around to find as many additional, 700-level problems as we can for those topics.

The other two GMAT verbal sections, as is often the case, have proven to be more problematic. I've shown Mr. V several different tactics for approaching GMAT critical reasoning, most of which involve creating some sort of visual guide for navigating the questions. I'm not sure how well the tactics themselves are working, but we decided to make him suffer through LSAT logical reasoning questions alongside the OG critical reasoning material. At worst, the LSAT material will make the GMAT seem a little bit easier and more straightforward; I hope that he'll look at the verbal section of the actual GMAT and be a little bit less intimidated by the convoluted language. At best, a steady practice diet of LSAT might actually cure him of his logical errors.

Mr. V's test date is still a few weeks away, and I'll probably be almost as nervous as he will be. I've certainly helped some unique individuals reach their MBA goals, but Mr. V has forced us to rewrite the GMAT test prep playbook. I just hope that the first draft of the new playbook is good enough to get him the points he needs to achieve his MBA goals. I'm fascinated, and will update this page with his progress, regardless of whether his result ultimately makes his GMAT tutor look good.