GMAT 800

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 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.

my quest for 800... er, 790

I was just thinking about my previous entry about how hard it is to score an 800 on the GMAT, and realized that I was arguably being a little bit too impersonal about it. For what it's worth, I'm definitely gunning for an 800 next time I take the test. Is that a realistic goal? Probably not--I'm a precise test-taker, but I'm not sure that I'm quite precise enough to get an 800 on the GMAT. But I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't going to try. (Though I might screw myself over in a small way if I manage to get an 800. Test-takers who earn an 800 are banned from taking the GMAT for five years, which means that I'd miss out on my annual visits to the testing room. Boy, that would suck.)

And just to recap, my GMAT tutoring career began with a subpar practice test when I worked for a large test-prep company, and I slowly have worked my way through the 700s. My most recent GMAT score was a 780 (51Q/47V). If there's room for me to improve, it's probably in the verbal section. I would love to hit a 51 in verbal, but I've been humbled enough times already, and I don't think that I'm the guy who can pull that off.

So what would a GMAT tutor do to improve on his own verbal score of 47? The same things, basically, that I ask my students to do once they've ripped through all of the GMAT official guides. Lots and lots of LSAT practice to build skills and stamina for the hardest critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions, and then some polishing of my grammar and usage, based largely on (fun!) resources such as style guides and grammar manuals. It never hurts to go back through official SC questions with a fine-toothed comb, but I think we all agree that the hardest stuff in the official guides and GMATPrep tests do not even begin to prepare you for the real thing... especially not if you're shooting for an insanely high GMAT score.

My schedule is still funky as I adjust to my new lifestyle in NYC, so I don't know when I'll have the time to re-take the test. Last year, I took it on about 24 hours' notice, and I'll probably do something similar this time around: when the mood strikes (and my schedule allows), I'll jump on the first GMAT appointment I can find. As soon as I do that, I'll post a few entries and share my experiences.

how hard is 800?

Before I started to tutor in NYC, one of my old students asked me how long she would have to study to get an 800 on the GMAT.  I told her that she would be crazy to even think about trying. I meant her no disrespect at all.  She is about to start her MBA program at the University of Chicago, so it's safe to say that she's an extremely talented woman.  But achieving an 800 on the GMAT is ridiculously tough.

Let's start with some stats from the official GMAT site:  fewer than 50 students (out of roughly 250,000) score an 800 each year.  If you're keeping score at home, this means than an 800 score would fall somewhere above the 99.98th percentile.  And that's assuming that there are close to 50 people who get a perfect GMAT score--the figure could, in reality, be much smaller.

Now, let's talk about the torture that GMAT will put you through if you start to get close to a score of 800.  (For the sake of illustration, I'm going to talk mostly about the quantitative section here.  The same ideas apply to verbal, but are trickier to explain.)  On the GMAT math section, formulas are of limited value on difficult questions.  You obviously need to know all of the fundamentals, but it's easy enough for GMAT writers to cook up an evil question that defies formulaic thinking.

At the highest levels, there are some extremely wicked questions.  Last time I took the GMAT, I ran into an absolutely brutal series notation question that destroyed me.  I spent eight minutes on it, and I still had no idea how to solve the stupid thing.  It was so complex that I couldn't even remember the question after the test.  And believe me, I was trying like crazy to wrap my head around it, so that I could study it later. Nope.

So basically, the GMAT writers are brilliant enough to lay waste to almost everybody (including arrogant, Stanford-educated GMAT tutors with nearly 10 years of experience), at least some of the time.  I might have gotten 35 questions correct on the quant section last time around (though I'm sure that I made some dumb mistakes somewhere... I can say that I was confident in 35 of my answers, and definitely missed at least two questions), and I scored a 51.  But the GMAT test can still stump me whenever it wants to, apparently.

And let's talk about that raw quantitative score of 51.  I've never heard of anybody getting higher than a 51, and I've been stuck on that score for a long time.  Strangely, it's theoretically possible to get a raw GMAT quant score of 60. (Visit for an unsatisfying discussion of this topic.)  But I'm pretty sure that I understand what it means to get something higher than a 51:  you need to get those evil questions right, somehow.  I suspect that the impossibly hard GMAT quant questions would have kept coming last year, even if I'd managed to get that series notation beast right.

I'll go back in to take the test again in the next few months, but the odds that I'll ever get to 800 remain slim.  There's absolutely no room for silly errors, and I would have to somehow slug my way through the dirtiest of GMAT questions.  You won't, of course, find any truly brual, 800-level questions in any official GMAT material, including the GMATPrep and GMAT Focus tests.  So there's no way to practice, really, once you're beyond a certain level.

I'm sure that very few of you are really gunning for an 800 (it won't, in all honesty, really help you get into an MBA program), but I find it fascinating that the writers of the GMAT make it so tough to get a perfect score.