GMAT tutor

Go ahead, roll your eyes… but it’s GMAT quantitative reasoning, not GMAT math

  If you’ve struggled with the GMAT quant section more than you think you should, this blog post is for you. If you’ve ever said, “I’ve always been a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT quant is so hard for me!” – then this post is definitely for you.

In my former life as a PhD student, I spent far too much time learning about the statistical science underneath standardized testing, known as psychometrics. My nearly three-year PhD odyssey didn’t result in much other than some grey hairs and a “thank you for playing!” Master’s degree in education, but I did experience a few things that probably helped me become a better GMAT and GRE tutor.

This is a story about one of those things – and at the time, I never would have guessed that it would be useful for my GMAT and GRE students.

In my first year as a PhD student, I went to a psychometrics conference, populated by academics and employees of major standardized testing organizations, including ETS (makers of the GRE and TOEFL) and GMAC (creators of your beloved GMAT). I attended a presentation by a high-ranking GMAT psychometrician, who discussed… well, nevermind that part, I’ll put you right to sleep if I start talking about it.

Anyway, here’s the useful bit: somebody in the audience asked a question about the “math section of the GMAT.” The GMAT psychometrician interrupted him politely: “Excuse me,” he said, “there is no math section on the GMAT. There’s only quantitative reasoning.”

I probably rolled my eyes. “What a dick,” I thought, “why would he make a big deal out of that? It’s math. S#!t, I’ve been teaching it for a decade. Whatever, dude.”

Sure, maybe the GMAT psychometrician wasn’t picking the best moment to make a big deal out of it, but he absolutely had a point. In the few years since I attended that conference, I’ve realized that my students – particularly Americans – actually perform better on the quant section of the GMAT when they stop thinking of it as “math” and start thinking of it as “quantitative reasoning.”

Here’s the thing: in the United States, “math” knowledge – at least through the high school level – is typically taught as sequences of mechanical steps that you need to memorize and follow. Throughout much of my public school education, our daily homework would consist of 10 or 20 nearly identical math problems. The problems were usually so similar that there was no reason to think about what any of it meant. If you could follow instructions, you’d get an A – even if you had absolutely zero understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts.

As a result, most Americans think that the word “math” just refers to a boring series of steps that you follow. Sadly, we don’t think of mathematics as a way of thinking, or as a set of useful tools for reasoning our way through useful problems. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have learned math in a way that strips it of its logic, meaning, and intuition.

So it’s no surprise that I hear this over and over from GMAT test-takers, especially Americans: “I’m a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT is so hard for me!”

Obviously, there are a ton of reasons why somebody might struggle with the GMAT quant section, but plenty of GMAT test-takers make the subtle mistake of trying to learn too many formulas, memorize too many steps, and drill too many mechanical aspects of mathematics. The GMAT, for all of its flaws, brilliantly twists 10th-grade math into a hard-to-penetrate – or at least a hard-to-quickly-penetrate – tangle of logic.

In other words: if you’re trying to blindly apply mechanical techniques to GMAT quant questions above the 500 or 600 level, the exam will eat you for breakfast.

Let’s look at an example (with apologies for the blurry fractions):

Which of the following is greatest?

GMAT blog example quantitative reasoning

If you think of this as a mechanical “math question,” you’ll follow some well-worn steps here: find some common denominators, add the fractions, and THEN compare the sums.

Go ahead and try it if you’d like. If you can correctly solve the question that way in two minutes or less, I’ll give you a cookie.

But if you’re thinking of the GMAT as “quantitative reasoning” – with or without the eye-roll – then maybe you’ll try something quicker, smarter, and less arithmetic-intensive. In this case, we’re just looking for the greatest value – and we don’t care what that value actually is, as long as we know that it’s larger than the other four answer choices.

So since the question is just asking for the greatest of the five answer choices, you can just compare pairs of answer choices, and knock off anything that’s the smaller of the two. Let’s start with D and E. It’s easy to see why E is larger than D once you notice that 1 – ½ = ½, so D is gone.

Similarly, B looks a lot like E, except that the denominators in B are squared – and since larger denominators mean that the fractions must be smaller, we can cross off B. The same argument holds for C – it’s clearly smaller than E as well. And then A has smaller denominators than E – so A is your answer.

No computation required, right? If you’re approaching this wisely, you barely need to lift your pen.

So if you’re thinking of the GMAT quant section as a set of narrow mathematical tasks – formulas that need to be memorized, or boring-ass steps that need to be followed – then you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least if you want an elite GMAT quant score. Once you start looking for opportunities to apply flexible logic and identify multiple solution paths, then you’re on the right track.

If any of this strikes a nerve, then it might not be a bad idea to stop yourself whenever you start thinking about the GMAT “math section.” Roll your eyes at yourself if you’d like, but thinking of the GMAT quant section as “quantitative reasoning” might help you embrace the flexibility and logic you’ll need for a top GMAT quant score.

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 MBA.com 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.

Choosing between an independent GMAT tutor and a large GMAT test-prep firm

In a crusty old GMAT blog post, I discussed the most important characteristics you should look for in an independent GMAT (or GRE) tutor. In this post, I’ll take a step back, and look at a broader decision: should you hire an independent GMAT tutor in the first place, or are you better off looking for a GMAT tutor from one of the established GMAT test-prep juggernauts?

As with many decisions in life, there’s no foolproof, one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few ways to think about the tradeoffs between hiring an independent GMAT tutor vs. a tutor from a large GMAT test-prep firm:

Tradeoff #1: Quality control vs. potential genius

Imagine that you’re trying to choose between two restaurants for dinner tonight. One restaurant is a national chain that you’d find in every major city. You know exactly what you’re going to get from that national chain: consistent food and a consistent overall experience. Will you have your mind blown by something new, innovative, and incredibly delicious at that chain restaurant? Probably not. But if you enjoyed your last experience at that chain restaurant, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it again tonight.

But what will happen if you walk into an independent restaurant you’ve never tried before? Well, there’s some chance that you’ll enjoy one of the most unique and delicious meals you’ve ever eaten – and it may be far better than anything you’d eat at the chain restaurant. Or there’s a chance that you’ll get a terrible bellyache. Who knows?

To be fair, no GMAT or GRE tutor will ever give you a bad case of food poisoning… but, well, some independent tutors aren't great. And others are absolute geniuses who will teach you far more than any one-size-fits-most test-prep company ever could. And that’s arguably the biggest tradeoff: are you interested in risking a few dollars in search of a GMAT or GRE virtuoso, or would you rather play it safe?

There’s obviously no right answer, but that’s arguably the heart of the decision you face if you’re thinking about hiring a GRE or GMAT test-prep tutor.

Tradeoff #2: One-size-fits-most vs. individualized solutions

I started my GMAT and GRE tutoring career at a large test-prep firm about 15 years ago. Our training was, of course, standardized: every test-prep tutor and classroom teacher learned the same processes, and taught from the same scripts. And that makes perfect sense: when you walk into the company’s test-prep center in Denver, you would expect to receive exactly the same GMAT pedagogy as you would in New York City.

That standardized approach to test-prep instruction works really, really well… unless it doesn’t. For some test-takers, the curriculum at, say, Manhattan GMAT or Economist GMAT is absolutely perfect. For some people, it’s pretty good. For others, it’s a mild disaster. But GMAT and GRE tutors at large test-prep firms are generally required to stick to their individual firm’s teaching methods. Their training is 100% rooted in those methods, and their managers expect tutors to adhere to them.

So if those standardized teaching methods don’t work for a particular GMAT or GRE student, the tutor may not be able to do much about it – either because they don’t have the freedom to select different teaching methods, or because they simply don’t know about them.

As independent GRE and GMAT tutors, we’re free to explore the wide world of test-prep pedagogy, tailoring our methods and materials to each individual student. That sounds great, but there's a catch: it’s easier for a tutor to follow a single test-prep teaching methodology than to try to synthesize dozens of them – and of course, not all independent tutors truly understand a broad range of pedagogical techniques. But the best GMAT and GRE tutors are constantly learning, and constantly expanding their teaching toolkits. And that’s something that even the best of the GMAT test-prep giants will never be able to offer.

Tradeoff #3: Free materials vs. freedom

One of the biggest reasons GMAT and GRE test-takers often prefer large test-prep companies is that they offer plenty of test-prep materials: books, worksheets, online trackers, and practice tests, all of which are included in the price of a private GMAT or GRE tutoring package. Sure, I’d argue that those goodies from test-prep companies can never be as good as official GMAT materials, but free materials are still better than no materials. Many independent GMAT and GRE tutors – myself included – do offer some free materials, but they’re obviously nowhere near as flashy as the ones produced by GMAT and GRE test-prep behemoths.

But again, there’s a price tag to those free materials: they limit the pedagogical freedom of the big companies’ GMAT and GRE tutors. If you work for, say, Kaplan, your bosses probably wouldn't want you to recommend materials from Veritas – and certainly not from some wacko contrarian independent GMAT tutor guy. But independent GMAT tutors can maintain flexibility: if we think that you’re going to benefit from a GMAT or GRE test-prep guide written by another company, we’ll tell you to buy it.

In other words: large test-prep companies rely on just one set of materials. Independent GMAT and GRE tutors can draw on every available set of materials to optimize a student’s progress. We just can't give you many of them for free.

And when you think about the overall cost of the MBA investment or the cost of private GMAT tutoring, maybe the price of a few books isn’t terribly meaningful, anyway?

Tradeoff #4: Personalization vs. potential clock-punching

There are some fantastic GMAT and GRE tutors working for some of the large test-prep firms – I’ve met plenty of them over the years. Many of them are very passionate about helping their students succeed. But others think of it as “just a job.” And maybe that’s the one risk to hiring a GMAT or GRE tutor from one of the large test-prep companies: you might be getting a smart but passionless person who’s just punching the proverbial clock.

Independent GMAT and GRE tutors – or at least the ones with staying power – are much more likely to be a different breed, with a unique perspective and some fire in their bellies for teaching. Independent tutors aren’t just cogs in a larger machine – we're our own machines. It’s just that we’re very tiny machines, with less flash and fewer freebies -- and far less standardization.

 

You think your GMAT nightmares are bad?

  (Friendly warning: this GMAT blog post is mostly useless, and will not actually help you conquer the GMAT or any other standardized test. Sorry.)

If you ask any longtime waiter or bartender, they’ll tell you that they routinely have “restaurant anxiety dreams.” Nearly a decade after my last stint as a bartender, I’m no exception: I routinely have crazyass nightmares in which I’m in an unfamiliar restaurant, working simultaneously as both the waiter and the bartender. My tables are always filled with customers who insist on ordering drinks that don’t actually exist, like Screaming Vikings (with the cucumbers slightly bruised) or Nutless Monkeys (blended, with a banana garnish) or Steel-Belted Radials (easy on the ketchup).

And then I end up literally walking uphill to return to the bar, and uphill again to deliver the drinks back to the table. Restaurants in my dreams are always like M.C. Esher paintings, which makes it really hard to not suck at waiting tables.

In another version, an old high school friend was sitting at one of my tables, and he ordered a pulled pork sandwich on whole wheat bread. (Note for anybody who isn’t from barbecue country: pulled pork on whole wheat is heresy.) When I tried to enter the order into the computer system, the computer exploded, hissing and bubbling and sending sparks flying around the dining room.

Thankfully, I no longer work in restaurants or bars, so these dreams are just plain funny – and I never have anxiety dreams about my life as a GMAT tutor, because my charming GMAT students rarely manage to stress me out. My GMAT students, on the other hand, aren’t always so fortunate.

One of my all-time favorite GMAT students (let’s call her Luke, since she calls me Yoda) also had some of my all-time favorite GMAT nightmares. If the GMAT hadn’t caused some legitimate suffering in her life, the dreams would be freaking hilarious.

In the first version of the dream, Luke was taking the GMAT exam in a dilapidated shack filled with spiders and mice, as she hunched over a dimly lit computer screen. The vermin were everywhere, crawling over the keyboard and monitor as she tried to think clearly about the proper way to conjugate the 13th verb in a 100-word GMAT sentence correction question.

As she became more fed up, Luke begged the GMAT proctor to please do something about the insects and rodents crawling all over her during the test. But instead of responding in a useful way, the proctor – a cranky, creepy old librarian type, peering at her skeptically through his dusty monocle – threatened her instead of offering help: “If you complain one more time about the testing center,” he said in an ominous tone, “I’ll take 40 points off your score.” Then he laughed maniacally, and poor Luke woke up in a cold sweat.

(Don’t worry: this can’t actually happen in reality. GMAT proctors don’t really have the power to take 40 points off your score, and rodent infestations are presumably rare in GMAT testing centers.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of Luke’s GMAT nightmares. The next night, she had another version of the dream. She was back in the same dilapidated shack with spiders and mice. But this time, the shack was haunted. The feeble lights on her computer would flicker on and off, and she could feel ghosts brushing against her neck as she tried to figure out whether answer choice B or C was actually more parallel. Several times, she turned around in a panic – and saw nothing. She was supposedly alone in the GMAT testing center, but she could hear thumping sounds in the attic as she tried to decipher the GMAT’s nastiest, book-length critical reasoning question – which was, of course, written in wingdings.

But poor Luke wasn’t finished with her GMAT night terrors. A few nights later, she was back in that same damned shack, but this time, the GMAT had a brand-new section: Artists from Around the World. When she complained to the proctor, he just said, “Well, miss, remember that there are some monsters lurking in the testing room, and we do expect you to keep yourself safe and focused during the GMAT exam.”

When Luke got back into the testing room, she was completely alone, and could see the shadows of ghosts lurking behind the computer screen. She got a 480 on the GMAT that night, and the proctor was absolutely disgusted with the result. “But there were ghosts in there!” Luke protested, to no avail.

So yeah: if the GMAT is keeping you up at night, I suppose that it would always be worse.