how to scare your GMAT tutor

I have no idea whether other GMAT tutors are the same way, but I usually watch my phone like a hawk when one of my students is taking the GMAT. I get pretty excited about the prospect of seeing somebody succeed after weeks or months (or years) of hard work. Unfortunately, the other side of it is that I'm always battling that nagging little worry that my student might not do as well on the GMAT as I'd hoped or expected. Today, one of my favorite students here in NYC left me a very cryptic voicemail after his test, which made me worry a little bit. I was tied up with other GMAT students all afternoon, and didn't have a chance to call him back. A few hours later, I received an email from him. The subject line just said "GMATTED". If you've read my blog in the past, you know that I use the term "GMATed" pretty often. It means "the GMAT f**ked me over."

So yeah, he scared me. This guy definitely put in his work, and seemed like one of the most consistent, steady performers I'd ever taught. Some students' scores bounce around wildly from day to day, and I pray for luck when they take the actual test; this guy, though, was rock-solid in all of his prep, and I was shocked that he got GMATed.

He didn't get GMATed at all. He got a 690 (44Q/40V) on his first try, which is enough to keep him in the conversation at pretty much any b-school out there. Very, very good stuff. By "GMATTED," he just meant that he was exhausted and could barely form a sentence.

Dude.  Please, don't scare me like that again.

Fortunately, I've had a very gratifying run of great results from my GMAT students over the past couple of months. My magic number this fall seems to be 710--before Mr. GMATTED, three of my last four students managed to get 710s, and that's always fun to see. Two of them were taking the GMAT for the very first time, and both did three-week "crash courses" with me. In one case, a student had already taken a Veritas course, and I just helped her fill in some holes. The other crash-course guy managed to make huge leaps on quant--he scored 37 on his first test, and a 47 on the real thing. Can't beat that. Both of these students were extremely talented, so I'm not going to claim that three-week GMAT crash courses are generally a good idea... but it can work, when the stars align properly.

My absolute favorite success of the season--and possibly of all-time--was a guy that I'll call Mr. P. Mr. P called me when I first moved to NYC last summer, and he'd already taken the GMAT three times over the course of about six months. He had done craploads of self-study, and had already worked his way through pretty much everything Manhattan GMAT has to offer.

Here's the crazy thing: despite all of his hard work, Mr. P's scores were flat as a pancake. Exam 1: 640/40Q/37V/6.0. Exam 2: 630/39Q/38V/6.0. Exam 3: 630/38Q/38V/6.0. I complimented him on his remarkable consistency, then threw the proverbial kitchen sink at him in an effort to shake things up. As with the venerable Mr. V, it was tough to find material that Mr. P hadn't seen before, and that always makes life challenging and interesting if you're a GMAT tutor looking for (relatively) painless ways to help a student gain points.

And guess what? Mr. P managed to scare me a few months later with a depressed-sounding voicemail. We'd shaken things up, all right: he jumped to a 44 on verbal, but his quant actually went down, leaving him with an unsatisfying score of 660. Ooops. Time to fire the GMAT tutor?

Here's the good part: one month later, he rolled back in to Pearson VUE for his fifth attempt at GMAT glory, and got his 710. There's a guy who deserved every damned point of that 710, and it was a lot of fun to see him get it.

you got GMAT-ed

I'm toward the end of my second full month of tutoring in NYC, and it's been interesting to see how my GMAT students here differ from the gang that I taught in DC. I had an amazing range of students in DC, including a couple of people who started at or above 700, quite a few others who started in the high 300s or low 400s, and pretty much everything in between. My first group of NYC GMAT students, on the other hand, consists almost entirely of ass-kickers, gunning for something close to a 700. I've met two guys who have gone through every official GMAT question twice; both of them diligently kept notebooks of all of their mistakes, and still didn't get the scores they wanted. Pretty much everybody else I've met has graduated from a Kaplan, Veritas, Princeton Review, or Manhattan course. With only one exception, all of my students have consistently scored in the 600s on the real GMAT, and in the 600s and 700s on practice test.

So all of these guys know the GMAT really, really well. Generally, they start by asking questions about the tough stuff--combinatorics, hard rate problems, set theory, conditional probability, and the most vicious of sentence correction problems. Hardly any of these guys are the least bit worried about their algebra or arithmetic skills when they call me.

I have a few little files of "easy" GMAT questions, mostly consisting of basic algebra, arithmetic, and geometry. Eighth-grade level math, at most. Over the past few weeks, I've given the set to most of these veteran GMAT warriors.

How did they do? Well, one GMAT student got a perfect score, which is exactly what he should have done if he wants to get a 700. (I'm very proud of you, Mr. V. May the GMAT gods grant you a 750 and admission to the MBA program of your dreams.) Everybody else got ripped to shreds, missing somewhere between 15% and 30% of the questions. That would be fine on medium-to-hard (say, 600- or 700-level) GMAT questions, but nobody with dreams of admits from Harvard or Stanford should miss this kind of stuff.

Here are a few examples of reasonably easy questions that caused problems:

1. You drop a ball from a height of 16 meters. Each time you drop the ball, it bounces to a level half as high as its starting point. If you catch the ball after the fourth bounce, how far did the ball travel? (A) 30 meters (B) 31 meters (C) 40 meters (D) 41 meters (E) 45 meters

2. If x and y are two-digit integers such that x < 40, which of the following is closest to the maximum possible value of xy ? (A) 400 (B) 1,600 (C) 4,000 (D) 16,000 (E) 40,000

3. If the numbers 13/24, 9/16, 1/2, 2/3, and 5/8 were ordered from greatest to least, the middle number of the resulting sequence would be (A) 13/24 (B) 9/16 (C) 1/2 (D) 2/3 (E) 5/8

I'm not sure that any of these questions are much more than 500-level questions, but some good GMAT math students screw these up regularly, just because they don't read carefully, or because they rush through their calculations. Sometimes it seems that arithmetic and algebra questions cause 600+ scorers to immediately think "this is easy, I'm going to destroy this question in 25 seconds so I can move on to harder stuff"... and then they make a dumb mistake. I call this phenomenon "getting GMAT-ed."

The GMAT writes questions specifically to test your precision, and they're trying to get you to fall into traps by being imprecise or careless. If you don't count the bounces carefully, you won't get (E) for question 1. If you jump to conclusions on #2 (i.e. by misreading an inequality sign or by missing the word "two-digit"), you might not know that the answer is (C). There's nothing magical about question #3, but it's easy to get overconfident and make a calculation or comparison error. The answer, incidentally, is (B). Easily 30% of my 600+ students have missed a version of that last one, even though it's just a simple numerical comparison.

The moral of the story? If you read a GMAT math question and you think that it's easy, watch your back. Don't let overconfidence get in the way of your GMAT score. Check your answer twice--it's always worth spending an extra 15 seconds to make sure that you haven't done something silly that can damage your GMAT score.