snarky Yale college advice, 1975 edition

This has absolutely nothing to do with the GMAT, MBA admissions, or GMAT tutoring. Just warning you. I was wandering around NYC with some visiting friends this weekend, and we decided that it would be fun to take them to Strand Bookstore, which is one of my favorite places in New York. Eighteen miles of books (supposedly), many of which are piled on sidewalk carts for $1 each. If you're from somewhere else and you come to NYC, the store is worth a visit.

My bizarre little $1 treasure for today was tattered paperback copy of The Insiders' Guide to the Colleges, written by The Yale Daily News in 1975, long before college rankings became such a huge national obsession. I was curious to see how top schools were perceived more than three decades ago.

I'm not sure that I learned all that much, but I had a good laugh. The writers are snobby and snarky, and definitely have some Ivy League bias.

I reflexively opened to their commentary on Stanford, my alma mater: "There is a certain trendiness in the air which often stifles any serious attempt to approach an academic problem. The school's California provincialism can be extremely irritating.

"One manifestation of the student body's provincialism is their penchant for calling the school 'the Harvard and Yale of the West,' or even for terming Harvard and Yale 'the Stanfords of the East.' The analogies simply aren't true.

"...There are also a huge number of students who only care about getting good grades... and another, almost equally large percentage who aren't really interested in doing anything.... If you want the best education (and the most heterogeneous student body) available anywhere in the country, look to the Ivies."

Lest they be accused of east-coast bias, the goofballs who wrote this book crapped all over plenty of other schools. In their commentary on Tufts, they said this: "Everybody knows, of course, that it is the goal of most high school students in the Northeast to go to college in Boston. That way you can get a lot of hippie, loose-moraled girls if you are a guy, or a lot of radical committed free guys if you are a girl... and you can get a good deal of dope to tide you over the bad times."

Fordham: "Fordham University is a Roman Catholic institution, and therein lies its problem." (!!)

Davidson: "The fact is, many of the students have never been north of the Mason-Dixon line, and occasionally those in the administration and faculty act as if they haven't either--and what's more, they don't care."

Harvard: "The college atmosphere sometimes seems to ruin those personalities that weren't warped to begin with."

Columbia: "...Columbia is unbeatable. But the decision whether to take that beating should be made very carefully."

Hilarious, right? Of course, the Yale dorks who wrote the book included a glowing four-page review of Yale itself. Not exactly an unbiased piece of writing, but highly entertaining. I'd love to see somebody write a similar book about MBA programs now--can you imagine the lawsuits?

nobody reads your essays, part II

Most GMAT students I've met really don't worry all that much about the Analytical Writing (AWA) portion of the test, but I occasionally meet somebody who is absolutely neurotic about this part of the GMAT. In my opinion, there's rarely any need to spend more than a token amount of time on AWA. First of all, one of the main reasons why MBA programs care about the GMAT is because of rankings. Unfortunately, US News & World Reports will look less favorably on a b-school if the program has low average GMAT score, so admissions committees are forced to obsess over your GMAT composite results. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons for admissions committees to care about your GMAT score, but that's a story for another day.)

Of course, the AWA section has absolutely nothing to do with your composite score, and it therefore has no impact on MBA rankings. You don't want to completely screw it up, but there's no reason to believe that your AWA score of 5.0 would keep you out of Stanford or HBS. The adcom might start to wonder if your AWA score is, say, 2.5, but I see no reason to worry if your score is reasonably high. They're looking for business leaders with decent communication skills, not novelists.

So what does it take to earn a "reasonably high" score? Not much, really. I've seen some really, really bad writers earn scores of 5.0 or 5.5. They took advantage of the fact that nobody really reads your GMAT AWA essay.

As you probably know, GMAT essays are graded by a computer and by a human; if there's a discrepancy between the two scores, then an additional human reads the essay. Obviously, the computer's exact scoring system is a closely guarded secret, but I'm convinced that the program primarily looks for structure using basic keyword algorithms. From there, it probably counts things like the average number of words per sentence and the average number of letters per word, and then it checks for grammar, usage, variety of words used, and perhaps spelling. I suspect very strongly that structure is the most important part of the AWA scoring system; spelling might not even count at all. (Again, I've seen some horrid spellers get really good scores.)

The "human," for his part, is ultimately looking for the same things as the computer when he grades the GMAT AWA: structure, clarity, correctness, richness of language, etc. But this human probably doesn't actually read your GMAT essays any more closely than the computer.

Again, imagine that you're the poor slob who gets paid $20/hour (as of a year or two ago, GRE and TOEFL graders earned $20/hour; I don't know whether the rate is similar for GMAT) to read bazillions of these AWA essays, most of which are tragically bereft of interesting content. Are you going to read every single word? Hell, no. You'll skim the introduction, maybe read the first sentence of each paragraph, and then maybe skim the conclusion. (And if anybody asks, you'll tell her that you read every single word with great care.)

When I wrote about the people who read (or skim) your MBA essays, I claimed that you should strive to make your essay interesting--you want them to read it carefully, right? For the AWA, you don't necessarily care if the human grader (or the GMAT computer) actually reads your essay. You just want to earn a decent score, with a minimum amount of exertion. If you can conserve energy during the GMAT AWA section, you'll be much sharper when you battle the (far more important) quant and verbal sections.

So focus on structure on the AWA, even if that means that you produce an essay that would, under normal circumstances, seem like a crappy, contrived piece of writing. Don't beat around the bush: every paragraph should start by clearly stating the main point of the paragraph. The entire AWA essay should start with a crystal-clear thesis statement. Somebody should be able to read the first sentences of each paragraph, and still basically understand the entire essay. Just make sure that you leave a few minutes to proofread your AWA essay, simply to avoid committing any egregious grammar, usage, and spelling errors. (If this means that you don't write a terribly long essay, that's fine--quality matters more than quantity.)

Honestly, it's almost that simple. If you lay out your argument in a completely clear, five-paragraph format, you'll be in good shape, especially if your writing mechanics (grammar, usage, etc.) are basically solid. You might ultimately write an essay that is about as much fun to read as a phone book... but fun isn't really the point of the GMAT, is it?