GMAT official guide

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.

 

 

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.

GMAT percentile rankings, part III: the 80th percentile myth

One of my favorite GMAT students recently called me with some great news: he got a 710 on his first attempt at the test (47 quant, 40 verbal). But despite the great composite score, the poor man was disappointed that he only scored in the 73rd percentile on the quant section, since he had heard that MBA admissions committees prefer to see scores above the 80th percentile on both sections of the GMAT. Don’t worry, Mr. 710. You’ll be fine.

I say that for two reasons. The first reason is that MBA admissions committees simply aren’t all that rigid about the so-called “80th percentile rule.” Sure, successful applicants usually have somewhat balanced GMAT scores, but no elite MBA admissions committee blindly applies GMAT score “cutoffs” during its evaluation process. When I look through the my list of former students who were admitted to top ten MBA programs over the past five years, barely one-third of them actually scored above the 80th percentile on both the quant and the verbal sections. The 80th percentile clearly isn’t a magic number anymore—if it ever was.

But there’s a second reason why you shouldn’t worry about hitting the 80th percentile on both sections: GMAT quant scores have changed substantially in recent years. If you had taken the GMAT back in 2007—when the percentile ranking charts in the 11th edition of the GMAT Official Guide were published—a quant score of 47 would have put you in the 81st percentile. Just six years later, a 47 lands you “only” in the 73rd percentile. Similarly, quant scores of 48 and 49 would have put you in the 85th and 89th percentiles in 2007; today, you’d only be in the 78th and 83rd percentiles with those scores.

So if you’re trying to earn a score above the 80th percentile on the GMAT quant section, a 47 would have done the trick back in 2007. You would need a 49 now—and that’s a terrifyingly high quant score for many test-takers.

As I discussed in a pair of old GMAT blog posts (available here and here if you’re curious), the pool of GMAT test-takers includes an ever-growing supply of quant studs, largely from Asian countries. I admiringly call this the “Asian effect”: percentile scores on the quant section are changing quickly, simply as a result of the stronger test-taking pool. Interestingly, percentile rankings on the GMAT verbal section have stayed pretty much constant during the past decade, and that’s probably also a byproduct of the “internationalization” of the MBA applicant pool.

The bottom line? Percentile rankings are disturbingly fluid, and you shouldn’t stress too much about them, especially on the quant section. 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.

So if you’re worried about the strength of a 47 on the quant section, don’t be. If you’re north of a 700 with a quant score of 47 or 48, put your GMAT books away. Be proud, be confident, and focus your energy on writing a spectacular MBA application instead. The extra handful of percentile points mean far less to MBA admissions committees than a strong work history and a clear, compelling vision for your post-MBA career.

 

Hootie and the (very old) GMAT Paper Tests

Q: What are the GMAT Paper Tests, and why don’t I hear about them very often? A: Back in the Dark Ages before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates conquered the world, the GMAT was a paper-based test. The GMAT Paper Tests are basically old, retired exams from way back in the day. Each test contains approximately 110 questions, divided into one data sufficiency section, two quant problem solving sections, one sentence correction section, one critical reasoning section, and one reading comprehension section.

You don’t hear about them terribly often because they aren’t very popular. GMAC has sold the GMAT Paper Tests on their website for a long time, but I don’t get the impression that they sell many copies, largely because test-takers have newer and sexier options available, including the GMAT Official Guide, the GMAT Quant Review guide and Verbal Review Guide, the GMATPrep Question Pack, and tons of materials from test-prep companies.

Considering all of the other options out there, the old GMAT Paper Tests—somewhat understandably—don’t seem to register on most test-takers’ radar screens.

Q: How old are the GMAT Paper Tests?

A: Pretty old. Most of them have a publication date of 1995, and a few were initially published even earlier.

In case you don’t remember 1995 very well: back then, a BlackBerry was just a type of fruit, Google didn’t exist yet, and hits by Coolio, Real McCoy (!!), Alanis Morissette (ouch!), Seal, and Hootie & The Blowfish topped the U.S. music charts. Yup, Hootie & The Blowfish.

Back in 1995, the average GMAT score for entering students at Wharton was 650. The median score is 720 now. In 1995, the GMAT was written and administered by ETS; today, the questions are written by the wise Iowans at ACT, and the test is administered by Pearson VUE, which loves palm vein scanners.

In 1995, palm vein scanners didn’t exist.

So yeah: the GMAT Paper Tests are old.

Q: Wait a minute… what the heck is Hootie & The Blowfish?

A: If you have to ask, you probably don’t want to know. Can we get back to the GMAT now, please?

Q: OK, fine. So the GMAT Paper Tests are old. But have GMAT questions changed that much since the 1990s?

A: GMAT questions haven’t actually changed all that much since the 1990s. The old GMAT Paper Tests still include problem solving, data sufficiency, sentence correction, critical reasoning, and reading comprehension, just like the current version of the GMAT. The only major difference is that the GMAT now includes Integrated Reasoning, which may or may not be very important to your MBA goals.

So if you need practice with the core GMAT quant and verbal question types, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use the GMAT Paper Tests. Sure, these questions are old, but they’re not radically different from, say, current GMAT Official Guide questions. And for whatever it’s worth, many of the questions in the GMAT Official Guide are from the 1980s and 1990s, and have appeared in several consecutive editions of the book.

The GMAT is constantly evolving in subtle ways, it would be ridiculous to suggest that 20-year-old GMAT questions are exactly the same as new ones. But if you’re just looking for some extra practice materials, the age of the GMAT Paper Test questions isn’t really a huge problem. They aren’t all that different from the questions you’ll find in the GMAT Official Guide.

Q: If I buy the GMAT Paper Tests, will I recognize some of the questions from the GMAT Official Guide or other GMAT resources?

A: This is where things get a little bit tricky. There is substantial overlap between the GMAT Paper Tests and other GMAT resources, and my best guess is that somewhere around 40% of the GMAT Paper Test questions have appeared elsewhere at some point in the last 20 years.

But “elsewhere” is a funny place when we’re talking about GMAT questions. Since 1995, GMAC has released six different editions of the GMAT Official Guide, and some of the GMAT Paper Test questions have appeared in each edition. GMAT Paper Test questions also pop up in both editions of the Quant Review Guide and both editions of the Verbal Review Guide, as well as the GMATPrep tests and the now-obsolete GMAT PowerPrep tests. So yes, the GMAT Paper Test questions are scattered all over the place.

Even if 40% of the GMAT Paper Test questions appear in other resources, you probably won’t recognize nearly that many, since many of questions appeared only in older editions of the Official Guide or in the thoroughly ancient GMAT PowerPrep tests. My best guess is that only 15-20% of the GMAT Paper Test questions appear in the newest versions of the GMAT Official Guide, GMAT quant and verbal supplements, and the GMATPrep exams.

So the bottom line is that you’ll see an overwhelming number of repeats if you’re a connoisseur of obsolete GMAT resources, but you’ll see only a moderate number of repeats if you’re sticking with the newest versions of the official GMAT books and software.

Q: Is the scoring on the GMAT Paper Tests accurate?

A: The GMAT Paper Tests were very accurate back in 1995, when the test was actually administered on paper. But in the 21st century, the scoring on the GMAT Paper Tests is pretty much irrelevant.

Think about it this way: one of the biggest challenges of the modern GMAT is time management. You can’t go back to review the questions you already answered on the GMAT, so you constantly face a difficult choice: do I keep grappling with a particular question, or should I guess and move on? I would argue that the GMAT timing conundrum is one of the single biggest determinants of your score on the exam.

But on the GMAT Paper Tests, you can move around within each section as much as you want. If you want to change an answer, great. If you want to skip a question and come back to it later, that’s no problem at all.

So the testing experience is completely different. Yes, the GMAT Paper Tests will generate scores on the familiar 200-800 scale, but they don’t mean very much. Despite the name, it’s best to think of the GMAT Paper Tests as practice questions, not as practice exams.

Q: Are the GMAT Paper Tests hard?

A: Because the test wasn’t adaptive back in 1995, the GMAT Paper Tests include an incredibly broad cross-section of questions, ranging from insanely easy to insanely difficult. In theory, the GMAT Paper Tests are much like the GMAT Official Guide: they contain a little bit of everything, and many of the questions will be of limited value to you if you’re either a very weak GMAT student or a very strong one.

If you’re scoring above a 650 on the GMAT, you’ll probably be bored by the majority of GMAT Paper Test questions. Sure, some of the questions will offer you a good challenge, but plenty of them won’t. That doesn’t mean that the GMAT Paper Tests aren’t useful; it just means that high-scoring students will get a thorough workout from perhaps 20-40% of the questions. And that’s probably better than nothing, though you could easily argue that it’s not worth spending the money on the GMAT Paper Tests if you’re a relatively advanced GMAT student.

Speaking of which…

Q: Are the GMAT Paper Tests worth the money?

A: Well, I suppose it depends on your skill level and how much you value $29.99. For that price, GMAC will send you a set of three GMAT Paper Tests, each of which contains roughly 110 questions, give or take a few. So you’re paying a little bit less than a dime per question.

That’s pretty cheap compared to GMAT Focus (which costs more than $1 per question), but a little bit more expensive than the GMATPrep Question Pack (roughly six cents per question), and much more expensive than the GMAT Official Guide and Quant Review Guide (around three or four cents per question, depending on the exact price you pay for the books).

So if we’re talking about an either/or proposition, the GMAT Paper Tests pale in comparison to the newer, cheaper GMAT Official Guides or the GMATPrep Question Pack.

But if you simply need more practice questions—either because you’ve already burned through the newer resources, or because you want to save them for later—then the GMAT Paper Tests aren’t a terrible option. Advanced GMAT students might get less mileage out of the tests, since so many of the questions are relatively easy, but you’ll still get something out of the GMAT Paper Tests.

I don’t know whether you’ll get $29.99 worth of GMAT awesomeness from the tests, but official GMAT questions are never exactly bad for you. So if you have the money and the time to do the GMAT Paper Tests, go for it. But keep in mind that they’re not a particularly good substitute for the Official Guide or the quant/verbal supplements or the GMATPrep Question Pack.