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.

 

 

That official GMAT question might cost $3000

 

I spend a lot of time telling GMAT students that no GMAT practice problems can ever be as good as real, retired questions from official GMAT tests and publications. And if you read a bunch of GMAT blog posts written by other GMAT test-prep “experts”, you’ll find that many of them seem to disagree with me – since they’re trying to sell you a nice bundle of non-official GMAT questions and exams.

Sometimes, even my own GMAT students object when I tell them to avoid using knockoff GMAT tests from, say, Manhattan GMAT or Veritas: “How terrible could those materials be? There are smart people working at those GMAT test-prep companies, right?”

Yes, of course there are smart people working at GMAT test-prep companies – though some test-prep firms clearly employ smarter GMAT question-writers than others. But even at their best, no GMAT test-prep company can possibly compete with the precision of real, official GMAT questions. Part of the reason is that copying the style of an intricate standardized test is inherently challenging, but the bigger reason is basic economics.

If you’re reading a GMAT blog, you’re probably a business-savvy future MBA student, and you probably have some intuition for the business models of companies like Kaplan or Manhattan GMAT. So take a guess: how much do you think those test-prep companies spend developing each individual question on their GMAT practice tests or in their GMAT books? Go ahead and think of a number.

OK, got something in mind? Great. Personally, I would imagine that GMAT test-prep companies spend something in the range of $5-30 per “knockoff” GMAT question if they actually want to make a profit, but I could be wrong.

Now let’s ask Dr. Lawrence Rudner, former GMAT Chief Psychometrician, how much the GMAT’s developers spend on each practice question:

Test items are costly to develop, often in the range of US$1,500 to US$2,500 per item.

This comes straight from a paper that Rudner presented at the GMAC Conference on Computer Adaptive Testing way back in 2007. If question development costs have kept pace with inflation, then each GMAT question would cost somewhere between $1,700 to $3,000 per question in 2016, though that figure could be even higher if shortages of trained psychometricians continue to inflate GMAT development costs.

(Incidentally, I got halfway through a PhD in education policy and psychometrics – the statistical science behind standardized testing – before I came to my senses and realized that I’m much happier as a GMAT tutor than as an academic or psychometrician. If you’re interested in a career in psychometrics, send me an email, and I’ll do my best to help out.)

So yeah: that GMAT question you saw on the latest version of the exam? It might have cost $3000 or more to develop – perhaps 100 times more than a GMAT test-prep company could reasonably spend on each question.

And if that sounds batsh*t crazy – or at least wildly inefficient – it probably isn’t. Actual GMAT test items go through a painstaking cycle of editing, testing (often as “experimental questions” on actual GMAT tests), re-editing, and re-testing before they actually become part of a real GMAT exam. For every question that actually makes its way onto the GMAT, countless others are discarded for any number of reasons. For example, there might be evidence that the discarded GMAT questions were phrased badly, that they don’t seem to capture the skills the GMAT promises to measure, or that they (accidentally) discriminate against GMAT test-takers from certain demographic groups. Much of this testing requires substantial skill and training – and employees with these skills certainly aren’t inexpensive.

You probably know that I’m not particularly impressed by the GMAT’s ability to identify the most talented business leaders, but the GMAT’s creators deserve credit for producing subtle and meticulously phrased questions. How could any GMAT test-prep company possibly produce anything of comparable quality or precision, given test-prep firms’ economic limitations?

So whenever you work through practice tests from major GMAT test-prep companies – or GMAT practice worksheets from an obscure little GMAT tutor dude in Colorado – remember to take your results with a huge grain of salt. Sure, our “knockoff” GMAT questions can probably help you build skills, but none of us can ever give you a truly accurate GMAT practice test – simply because none of us will ever be able to afford to do so if we actually want to keep our doors open.

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!

 

In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.

 

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 series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a “good” GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.

 

Inflated GMAT scores… and deflated quant percentiles

 

In the most-commented GMAT blog post I’ve ever written, I argued that the so-called “80th percentile rule” – the idea that top-tier MBA applicants need to score above the 80th percentile on both the GMAT quant and the GMAT verbal section – is mostly a myth.

Why? Well, the unfortunate truth is that GMAT quant scores have increased dramatically in recent years, and you’d now need to earn a 50 (!) on the GMAT quant section to score above the 80th percentile, according to the most recent GMAT data. Here, check this out:

From mba.com. http://www.mba.com/us/the-gmat-exam/gmat-exam-scoring/your-score-report/what-percentile-rankings-mean.aspx#tab4. Retrieved October 3, 2016.

From mba.com, based on 2013-15 GMAT data. Retrieved on October 3, 2016.

Plenty of things are alarming here. When the GMAT score scale was originally designed, the average quant score was supposed to be 30. Now a quant score of 30 is just the 20th percentile (!!), and the mean GMAT quant score is a 39 – a whopping nine points higher than it “should be” if the GMAT score distribution were actually a bell curve, as originally intended.

Even worse: if you want to score above the 80th percentile, you’ll need a 50 on the quant section. Since a 50 is one heck of a high GMAT score (a 51, of course, is a perfect GMAT quant score), I would still argue that no MBA admissions person in their right minds should actually expect it of you. So if anything, the “80th percentile rule” is more of a myth than ever.

But here’s the part of my original GMAT blog post that may not be true anymore, just a few years later:

A 710/47Q/40V is still an outstanding score that eliminates all rational doubt about your academic abilities. For the vast majority of MBA applicants, a GMAT quant score in the 73rd percentile is enough to placate MBA admissions officers, and your odds of admission will depend almost entirely on other elements of your profile.

Let’s pull this apart a little bit. Would a 710/47Q/40V eliminate all rational doubt about your academic abilities? Yes, definitely. If you can get a GMAT score that high, there’s no good reason to question your ability to handle MBA-level coursework. But is that GMAT score enough to “placate MBA admissions officers”? Probably not anymore, depending on which MBA programs you’re applying to — and, of course, on the rest of your MBA profile.

Here’s the problem: GMAT score averages for top-tier MBA programs have continued to shoot through the roof in the past few years. At Kellogg, for example, average GMAT scores have risen from 712 to 728 in just six years. Stanford’s incoming class of 2018 had an average GMAT score of 737.

I’m sorry, but those GMAT scores are ridiculous. Clearly, the GMAT arms race has gotten absolutely out of control – and I say that as a test-prep tutor who profits from that very same GMAT arms race. It’s as if MBA admissions committees have zero understanding of how standardized tests such as the GMAT actually work: the GMAT’s creators would tell you that the difference between a 710 and a 740 may be nothing more than measurement error.

And that’s before we get into the fact that there’s little evidence that the GMAT is predictive of post-MBA success. But that’s another topic entirely.

To be fair, I can’t blame MBA admissions committees for allowing GMAT score averages to spiral upward. Frankly, it’s much quicker and easier for admissions committees to whittle down a stack of applications based on GMAT scores than it is to ponder the non-quantitative aspects of each MBA applicant’s profile. Plus, MBA programs are forced to play the rankings game – and average GMAT scores are part of those MBA rankings, whether we like it or not.

Unsurprisingly, MBA admissions consultants are advising their clients to chase GMAT scores in the mid-700s – and applicants to elite MBA programs are working harder than ever to raise their GMAT scores. It’s a vicious cycle, and I’d bet that GMAT scores will continue to creep upward.

In any case, if you’re reading this little GMAT blog, you probably can’t do a damned thing about the way things work: you probably just want to get into a good MBA program. So what should you do if an MBA admissions consultant – or worse, an MBA admissions committee member – tells you that you need a GMAT score in the mid-700s?

Well, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. And if you think it’s unreasonable that you might need a 750 on the GMAT exam, take solace in the fact that you’re probably right.

And then join the rest of the herd. If you have a profile that will allow you to get away with a lower GMAT score, then consider yourself lucky. But if you’re like most people, all you can do is work as hard – and as smart – as you can for as long as you can.

And if you’re already scoring in the low-to-mid 700s but don’t have time to continue studying, maybe it’s worth taking an extra couple of shots at the GMAT, just to see if dumb luck (or measurement error, if you want to be technical about it) might hand you an extra few points next time around. And if you’re a really long way from the GMAT score you want, then maybe it’s time to think about the GRE — but that’s another topic entirely.

Then, please graduate from your top MBA program, become a bigshot in the MBA world, and change the way that the GMAT is handled by MBA admissions committees – because I think that the GMAT arms race encourages even more great business talents to slip through the MBA cracks.

 

The International House of Pancakes test for MBA application essays

In an earlier blog post, I argued that many MBA applicants—often with the help of MBA admissions consultants—have “over-managed” their MBA essays and sucked much of the soul out of their applications.  If you know anything about human nature (or the insane workload of MBA admissions committees) you probably realize that soulless MBA essays will probably get you nowhere, unless you’re an otherwise perfect MBA candidate.

(But if you’re pretty much a perfect MBA candidate, why are you wasting your time reading this blog?  Shouldn’t you be doing something completely perfectly amazing and superhuman right now?)

For those of you who aren’t superhuman, I’m convinced that it’s absolutely critical to sound passionate about your business pursuits in your MBA applications, regardless of whether you’re writing about past successes or future goals.  Fundamentally, MBA applications are a test of your ability to market the product you presumably know best:  yourself.  If you can’t convince an MBA admissions committee that your career will reach exciting new heights post-MBA, why should anybody offer you a coveted spot at an elite business school?

This is particularly true for aspiring entrepreneurs or anybody who runs a family business.  If you can’t get us excited about your future plans in a 400-word MBA essay “elevator pitch,” it’s hard to believe that you’ll ever succeed in getting investors or customers excited about your company.  If you plan to start a business—or want to continue running your existing business—you’ll be doomed to failure if you can’t get investors, employees, and customers to buy into your product.  And why would any elite MBA program want to admit a passionless, unconvincing wannabe entrepreneur?

So if you’re an entrepreneurial sort and you’ve already written drafts of your essays, you’re probably wondering:  are your essays convincing and passionate, or generic and soulless?  And how can you tell?

As luck would have it, I’ve developed a simple, high-calorie tool for determining whether your business ideas are compelling enough for your MBA application.  I call it the International House of Pancakes test, because I really like breakfast.

Here’s how it works:  if you’ve already used the name of your company in your essays, replace the name with “International House of Pancakes.”  If the essay still makes sense, you’ve probably written an essay turd.  Your essay needs to capture your excitement for your specific industry and your particular company; if you replace the name of the company with a restaurant name, you should get complete nonsense.  (Unless, of course, you’re actually planning to run a restaurant.  In that case, I know a guy who is really, really great at testing menu items.)

To illustrate the International House of Pancakes test, here’s a real draft of an essay written by one of my favorite students (let’s call her Ms. ERP, since that’s the best-sounding word in the excerpt below), with the name of the school removed to protect her privacy:

Upon graduation from [an MBA program], my short-term goal is to manage operations for the International House of Pancakes Group – the $16 million chain wholly owned by my family.  With our proprietary SMARTE training program, internally built ERP software, and strong reputation in Canada, I am excited about helping the International House of Pancakes reach its full growth potential.  As the COO, my initial priorities would be to improve International House of Pancakes’ day-to-day operations and to expand our presence in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.  Since the profitability of our Canadian locations is declining due to rising costs resulting from government intervention, I need to streamline our organizational infrastructure so our company can grow internationally and with measured risk.  I would continue to identify potential areas for investment, lead negotiations with potential partners and suppliers, and manage new initiatives.

The paragraph is dry and clinical, but it still makes sense, right?  And that’s a huge problem.  The essay was supposed to be about her family’s business in the education industry.  Honestly, it really is an innovative, interesting firm that could plausibly be wildly successful on several continents.  But you definitely wouldn’t know that from reading this essay.  There’s no life to it, no vivid description of her work, and absolutely no hint of passion for her company or industry.

Right now, you might be chuckling at poor Ms. ERP:  “Ha ha ha!  That silly Ms. ERP!  I would never do that in my own essays!  I love what I do, and it shows in my MBA essays!”

Oh yeah?  Try swapping out the company name in your essays, and see if it still works.  You might be surprised:  it’s shockingly easy to let your MBA application essays devolve into generic, vapid corporate-speak, no matter how geeked up you actually are about your career.

The story ends well for Ms. ERP.  After I sent her the International House of Pancakes version of her essay, she cursed loudly and showed my handiwork to her father, who laughed and said that I was a jerk and that he really liked me.  Ms. ERP then revised her essay to paint a vivid, energetic picture of her family business, and she now attends a super-elite U.S. business school, despite a GMAT score in the mid-600s.  But she has, unfortunately, maintained an aversion to pancakes to this day.

 

How lucky was Mr. Fat Pants?

If any of you are expecting a practical, useful article about GMAT tutoring, I apologize in advance:  this is going to be a pretty useless, vaguely technocratic article about standardized testing.  Consider yourself warned.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about a fellow named Mr. FP (Mr. “Fat Pants”), who once wrote a brilliant MBA application essay about his lunchtime festivities at the office.  Mr. FP deserves to be a legend simply because he actually used the phrase “fat pants” in his MBA admissions essays, but he’s also notorious (in my little GMAT world, anyway) for springing a huge test-day surprise on both himself and his GMAT tutor:  he scored a 680 and then a 640 on his only two full-length GMATPrep practice tests, then nailed a 720 on the actual GMAT—just a few days after the 640.  Mr. FP is a great guy who kicked all sorts of ass at a top-10 business school… but we agree that he got a little bit lucky.

But how lucky did he get?  And can we somehow quantify his luck?

The quick answer is that Mr. FP was pretty darned lucky.  If you dive deep into the bowels of your GMAT score report (sorry for the image; do you really want to dive “deep into the bowels” of anything?), you’ll see some mumbo-jumbo about something called the standard error of measurement, and the score report will tell you that the standard error of measurement is about 30 points on the GMAT.

To understand the idea of a standard error of measurement, imagine for a moment that you have something called a “true” GMAT score.  There are two ways to think about a “true” GMAT score.  First, you could imagine that it’s the score you would receive if the GMAT always did a 100% perfect, 100% consistent job of measuring your verbal and quantitative reasoning skills (or whatever it is that the GMAT actually measures).  If that doesn’t seem intuitive, imagine this:  you’ll take the GMAT, I’ll wipe out your memory of the exam using the “flashy thingy” from the Men in Black movies (so that you don’t remember any of the questions), then I’ll send you back to the very same GMAT test appointment using a time machine from the Back to the Future movies.  I’ll do this an infinite number of times.  Assuming that you don’t get brain damage, your average score on your infinite number of GMAT exams would be your “true score.”

Of course, you wouldn’t always get exactly the same score on every single test appointment, even if we conjure some Hollywood magic to eliminate all day-to-day variations in your test-taking behavior.  The truth is that GMAT scores are a little bit random.  Or maybe a lot random.  Even if you behaved exactly the same way every single time you took the test, you’d still get slightly different GMAT scores from one day to the next.  That’s an inevitable part of standardized testing, especially on an adaptive exam that spits out somewhat randomized questions.

Back to the technical crap:  the standard error of measurement is basically a measure of that random variation in your scores from one GMAT exam to the next, even if we assume that you’re a robotic test-taker who always behaves the same way.  If you’ve taken a few statistics courses, you could think of the standard error of measurement as the rough equivalent of a standard deviation for your GMAT score:  since the GMAT’s standard error of measurement is around 30 points, roughly 2/3 of all test-takers will score within 30 points of their “true” GMAT score, and roughly 95% of test-takers will score within 60 points of their “true” GMAT score.

In other words, your GMAT score could plausibly fluctuate by around 30 points from day to day, but you aren’t terribly likely to gain or lose 60 points simply by random chance.

With this in mind, Mr. FP seemed to be a very lucky man.  We’ll never know Mr. FP’s “true” GMAT score, but based on his homework and GMATPrep test results, I would have wagered that he was in line for a 660 or so—halfway between his two GMATPrep scores.  If we pretend that 660 really was his “true” GMAT score, then Mr. FP scored 60 points—or two standard errors of measurement—above his “true” score.

If you’re a statistics geek, you’re welcome to bust out your favorite z-chart and do the calculations yourself, but the bottom line is that there was roughly a 1 in 40 (2.5%) chance that Mr. FP would receive a random gift of 60 or more points from the GMAT gods.  And keep in mind that any random, luck-based deviation from your “true” GMAT score could work in your favor—but it’s equally likely that it will work against you:  if 1 out of every 40 test-takers will earn at least 60 “measurement error points” that they don’t “deserve”, then 1 out of every 40 test-takers will lose at least 60 points on their GMAT score, just from bad stinking luck.  The gods of random chance are sometimes very kind, but they’re also randomly very cruel.

So if you’re still 60 or so points away from your ideal GMAT score and you want to roll the dice, go for it.  But your odds of a Mr. FP-esque stroke of good luck aren’t all that good, and it’s probably better to hit the GMAT books hard and make your own luck.

Beware of smiling MBA admissions consultants

In an earlier blog post, I profiled the unfortunate Mr. D, who paid some well-intentioned MBA admissions consultants a buttload of money during the 2012-13 admissions season.  They proceeded to suck the soul out of his MBA application, and he was rejected everywhere he applied, despite an otherwise solid profile.

The bottom line is that it’s awfully easy to “over-manage” your MBA applications.  Dispassionate, soulless MBA applications are likely to fail, and far too many MBA admissions consultants will “polish” all of the energy and excitement out of your essays.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr. D’s admissions consultants were bad, but at the very least, Mr. D should have fought harder to keep his individual voice strong in the application.

And now, here comes a scarier story about a truly terrible MBA admissions consultant—and how you can avoid hiring a similarly crappy one.

I recently met a great guy—let’s call him Mr. K, since he enjoys a good plate of kangaroo tartare—who applied to two super-elite Ivy League MBA programs during the 2012-13 admissions season.  The poor man pretty much had no hope of getting in:  he’s a white American male with a 660 GMAT, solid-but-unspectacular experience with a financial services firm and a tech startup, an undergraduate degree from a solid-but-unheralded university, and nothing particularly special in his extracurricular life.  Unfortunately, nothing about his profile shouts “Harvard!”

To make things worse, Mr. K applied during the third round, when relatively few spots remain for solid-but-unspectacular candidates.  I hate to say that Mr. K had no hope of getting into super-elite MBA programs, but… well, he pretty much had no hope.

And guess what?  An unscrupulous MBA admissions consultant insisted that Mr. K had a great chance of getting into two of the most ridiculously prestigious MBA programs on the planet, and she proceeded to collect several thousand dollars of Mr. K’s money.  Of course, Mr. K got dinged without an interview at both schools.  He (very understandably) felt deceived by the company’s dishonestly sunny assessment of his chances; unsurprisingly, he wasn’t too pleased with other aspects of the consultant’s services, either.

My point here isn’t to criticize that particular MBA admissions consulting firm:  I’ve heard mostly excellent reviews of their work, and I have absolutely zero interest in damaging their business.  But I’ve seen a few other companies commit exactly the same sin:  blatantly overstating a semi-hopeless candidate’s chances of admission, just to increase the likelihood that the candidate will purchase MBA consulting services.

If you’re shopping for an MBA admissions consultant, the most important thing is to be skeptical of overly sunny assessments of your MBA candidacy.  Sure, many admissions consultants are good, honest people who will bluntly handicap your odds of admission—even if those odds are piss-poor.  But telling the truth is usually very much against MBA admissions consultants’ self-interest.  If they tell you that your MBA application is hopeless, they’ll never collect your money.  Can you really blame them for stretching the truth and offering an overly optimistic view of prospective clients’ profiles? (And yes, I realize that I could probably make more money if I did the same thing.)

Do yourself a huge favor:  if an MBA admissions consultant tells you that you’re a shoo-in for admission to HBS and Stanford, run in the opposite direction.  Hardly anybody is a shoo-in at those schools.  Do your research before you (metaphorically) hop into bed with any MBA admissions consultant.  If dreams of a Stanford admit are dancing through your head, here’s a reality check:  at least 60-70% of Stanford MBA applicants are talented enough to succeed there.  Fewer than 10% will get in.  So unless you’re mind-blowingly remarkable—and keep in mind that the MBA applicant pool is stuffed with remarkably successful, type-A personalities—your odds are crappy.  There, I said it.  Your odds might be better at other top-10 MBA programs (Booth and Kellogg, for example, have admissions rates above 20%), but if 60-70% of applicants have solid qualifications, your chances still aren’t all that great.

So when you kick the tires on MBA admissions consultants, make sure that they’re telling you the truth about your chances.  The mark of a scrupulous MBA admissions consultant is their willingness to walk away from a candidate who can’t realistically be helped—even if it means sacrificing a substantial paycheck.  If you’re paying thousands of dollars for MBA admissions help, make absolutely certain that you’re hiring somebody you can trust.

Just remember that getting into a super-elite MBA program is incredibly difficult.  Sure, a few of you have unbelievably perfect profiles, and an honest MBA admissions consultant would, of course, say so.  But if your profile is that unbelievably perfect, you probably don’t need an MBA admissions consultant anyway, right?

GRE vs. GMAT, part IV: GRE study materials

Thanks in large part to MBA programs’ increasing appetite for the GRE, I’ve had a surge in GRE tutoring inquiries over the past year or so.  The GMAT is still king in the MBA admissions world—and probably will be for a long time—but a surprisingly large proportion of my time is spent on the GRE now.  Even though I actually have a longer history with the GRE than with the GMAT (and I’ll feel really really old if I tell you exactly how long that is), I’ve never seen this level of interest in the GRE among MBA applicants.  So congratulations, GRE:  you’re not winning yet, but you’re in the game now.

In a series of earlier blog posts, I did my best to figure out what types of MBA applicants might be better off taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.  If you really want to read the whole series, I would recommend starting with Part I, but here’s the oversimplified summary:  since MBA programs are more familiar with the GMAT—and since the GRE includes those annoying vocabulary questions—relatively few MBA applicants will actually gain a significant advantage by taking the GRE.  Sure, some applicants are much better off with the GRE, but it’s tough to argue that one test is unambiguously “better” than the other if you’re shooting for a top MBA program.

I did, however, accidentally leave one factor out of the discussion in those three blog posts:  the relatively limited availability of GRE test-prep materials.  If you’re choosing between the GRE and the GMAT and you think that you’ll need a lot of repetition in order to reach your score goals, then the GMAT might be a better bet.

From a test-taker’s perspective, one of the GMAT’s best qualities is that it isn’t difficult to keep yourself busy with high-quality study materials, even if you’re facing a protracted battle with the GMAT beast.  We’re blessed with four full, official GMATPrep practice tests, a beefy bank of nearly 500 additional questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack (which can be used to cobble together additional “fake tests”), and somewhere around 750 quant and 600 verbal questions in the GMAT official guides (including the official GMAT quant and verbal review guides).

If that isn’t enough, we also have the crusty old GMAT paper tests, older editions of the GMAT official guides that can yield a few hundred additional questions, the (deeply flawed) GMAT Focus tests, and a nearly limitless supply of LSAT questions if you need some extra work on CR and RC.  And of course, there’s a healthy ecosystem of GMAT test-prep firms that will happily provide additional materials and practice tests, albeit of lamentably variable quality. 

The bottom line:  it would take literally hundreds of hours of studying to exhaust the supply of worthwhile GMAT materials.  I’ve seen it happen, but it’s a rarity.

Unfortunately, we aren’t nearly as well-endowed when it comes to high-quality GRE materials.  (And yes, I really did just use the phrase “well-endowed” on a GMAT blog.  Judge if you must.)  The official GRE software includes only two full, adaptive practice tests—which means that you should use them very carefully if you’re planning to take the GRE.  There are a total of three additional paper-based GRE practice tests available in the GRE official guide and in an odd corner of the GRE website, but paper-based tests do not even begin to mimic the experience of taking an actual, computer-adaptive GRE exam, and therefore are of somewhat limited value.

The GRE looks even worse when we tally the questions that appear in the GRE official guides.  Even if we include the GRE’s new verbal and quantitative reasoning guides (in addition to the GRE Official Guide), we still have only 210 additional verbal questions and 210 additional quant questions – far fewer than are available for the GMAT.  Sure, it’s possible to supplement the official GRE materials with “knockoff” materials from test-prep firms, but these materials are rarely as useful as official GRE or GMAT questions.  The old GRE official guide (out of print, but still generally available online) is still a decent source of quant practice questions, but the vocabulary questions are completely obsolete, and the quant questions are generally easier than the ones you’ll encounter on an actual, computerized GRE.

So at best, we have maybe half as many high-quality GRE test questions as we do GMAT questions, depending on how you want to define “high-quality.”  If you’re a naturally gifted test-taker, then you probably won’t need that much practice, and the lack of good GRE materials is a non-issue.  But if you’re looking for a huge score improvement, you might have an easier time moving forward on the GMAT than on the GRE.

To be fair, the GRE just experienced a major overhaul in 2011, and because it is incredibly expensive for testing companies to develop operational exam questions, it normally takes quite a few years before retired questions are publicly released.  (The GMAT, after all, only began to sell the Exam Pack, which includes two additional adaptive practice tests, in 2013.)  I can’t blame the GRE’s creators at all:  their job is to create a valid exam, not necessarily to provide us with materials that help us clobber that exam.  But if you already know that you have a long road ahead of you and you’re not sure which test to take, the GMAT’s relative generosity with retired questions might be a decent reason to steer clear of the GRE.