I recently received an email from a lovely mother of three who has done an absolutely heroic job of raising her GMAT quantitative score from 18 to 36 in just a few months. That’s an amazing jump, and her math tutor deserves a cookie. Unfortunately, the poor woman has seen her GMAT verbal score move in the opposite direction in the past few months: she’s gone from a 33 to a 26 to a 24. If you were her, you’d probably be pretty upset, too.
Believe it or not, she’s absolutely not alone. I think that about 20-30% of the people I meet have experienced some sort of inexplicable verbal calamity on the GMAT. By “calamity,” I just mean that their official GMAT scores don’t match their practice test scores—and unfortunately, the scores sometimes aren’t even close. This seems to happen much more often on the verbal than on the math section, and it took me quite a few years to figure out why that might be the case.
First of all, I really don't think that the GMAT official guides necessarily give you a good sense of what “real” verbal questions feel like. Very few of the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions in the official guide seem to be much tougher than, say, 650-level questions. I've seen plenty of actual GMAT passages that are nearly incomprehensible, but there are very few such passages in the official guides. (Many of my students--especially those who scored above a 35 on the verbal section--seem to share my opinion on this.) The bottom line is that students who rely primarily on the GMAT OGs might be thrown off by the surprisingly difficult critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages on the real test.
Worse yet, some students rely far too heavily on "knockoff" test-prep material, and you know how I feel about that. It's outrageously difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to accurately copy the nuanced style of the verbal section of the GMAT, and non-official practice questions are inevitably very different from the real thing. In a lot of cases, using these materials can actually do more harm than good, unfortunately. Students grow accustomed to the question-writing style of their chosen test-prep firm, and then suffer mightily when they take the actual GMAT exam. The best test-prep firms offer some good techniques for tackling the verbal, but I think it’s a mistake to rely too heavily on their practice tests. There is no replacement for official GMAT and LSAT materials, and most students will do best if they use “knockoff” tests sparingly.
But I think the most important reason for verbal underperformance has nothing to do with study habits: many test-takers are simply way too “amped” when they start the verbal section. For pretty much everybody, the quant section of GMAT is an intense experience--you're racing against the clock, the adrenaline starts to flow, and you push yourself as hard as you possibly can. You take your little eight-minute break, and then you go back in to the testing room, foaming at the mouth, ready to rip the verbal to shreds.
And in your haste to power your way through the verbal, you get a little bit too intense, and maybe you skip a word here or there. You finish with a few minutes to spare, or maybe more. And then your score sucks. Why? If you're not reading very, very carefully, you'll get GMATed by every verbal question type. Even if you miss just one key word on every other question, you'll do massive, massive damage to your overall GMAT score.
Case in point: an unusually brilliant JD/MBA applicant hired me for two weeks of fast-paced, balls-to-the-wall GMAT lessons. This guy is at an Ivy League law school, and he's ridiculously smart, even when compared to other Ivy League lawyer types. He hired a GMAT tutor just to help him to shake off some math rust, and he needed basically no help on verbal. On the GMATPrep test that he took before his first tutoring session with me, Mr. Ivy League Law scored a 37 on math, and somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s on verbal. So we focused on math, and brought his actual GMAT quant score up to a 47 after just a couple of weeks.
Awesome, right? But hold on: Mr. Ivy League Law was so amped after the math that he raced through the GMAT verbal section at breakneck speed, and finished with 20 minutes (!!) to spare. His verbal score dropped to a 41. That's still enough for a 710 composite, but if he'd taken a few more deep breaths, he could have easily gotten a 750. (Not that it really matters--a 710 is high enough, and Mr. Ivy League Law will soon be Mr. Ivy League JD/MBA. But he’s a great illustration of how an overaggressive approach to verbal can sabotage your score.)
So I’m convinced that stress, exhaustion, and haste are the biggest culprit for almost everybody whose real GMAT verbal score doesn’t seem to match their practice test scores. If you have a tendency to race too much on the verbal, taking a few deep breaths might be more important than any studying you could possibly do. When you finish the quant, use your eight-minute break to re-orient yourself. Grab a snack or a drink or a smoke or whatever makes you happy, and relax a little bit. Focus on being precise and thorough and alert on the verbal. Even if you're a slow reader, you'll gain much more from being calm, focused, and accurate than you'll lose from having to guess on a small handful of the 41 verbal questions.