reading comprehension

“Close” counts in Russian roulette, but not on GMAT verbal questions

Let’s suppose that you just attacked a long, painful set of GMAT (or LSAT) critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions, and let’s suppose that you weren’t all that thrilled with the results. Let’s imagine that you did, say, 50 questions, and you missed 15 of them. Like a good GMAT student, you decide to look through all of your errors. And you realize that you almost had the right answer to almost every single one of your 15 misses. Again and again, you notice that you were down to two answer choices… and then selected the wrong one.

And that’s frustrating on one level, but encouraging on another. “Hey,” you think, “I didn’t really miss the questions all that badly. I’m just barely missing them, right? So that means I’m doing pretty well! I just need to have more lucky guesses when I’m down to those last two, and I’ll be fine.”

Sorry, but a near-miss is still a miss on the GMAT. “Close” might be a great result if you’re playing shuffleboard, horseshoes, or Russian roulette, but it doesn’t mean anything on a multiple choice test. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re necessarily close to a score breakthrough, just because you’ve narrowed your critical reasoning or reading comprehension questions down to the last two options.

Think of it from the perspective of the people who write GMAT verbal test questions. I often imagine that some evil little monkey in GMAC headquarters (or, more likely, a very pleasant ACT contractor sitting in her home office) comes up with an idea for a critical reasoning question, and leaps up in a fit of joy. “I have a great idea for a really tough question!” she exclaims, and then writes the CR passage. Her moment of CR-writing inspiration probably included one extremely tempting wrong answer, in addition to the hard-to-discern correct answer.

And then she proceeds to invent three additional answer choices, none of which are as tempting, difficult, or inspired as the first two. After an intense period of testing and editing, the question eventually becomes an instrument of torture for GMAT test-takers around the world.

Here’s my point: the vast majority of difficult CR and RC questions simply don’t have five tempting answer choices. They usually have only two or three, and you’ll frequently struggle to decide between the last two options. At worst, you’ll feel that tossing a coin is a perfectly reasonable way to decide between those final two answer choices. And your coin will inevitably be wrong more often than you’d like.

So don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that some wrong answers are “less wrong” than others. If you miss a GMAT CR or RC question, it’s probably because you misread or misinterpreted something, either in the answer choices or in the passage itself. Even if you feel like you’re “close” on the majority of your misses, stay focused on the fundamentals: read with laser-like precision, practice hard using official GMAT and LSAT questions, and concentrate on honing your ability to distinguish between similar-sounding answer choices.

Eventually, you’ll get substantially better at catching the nuances of GMAT verbal passages, questions, and answer choices. On the majority of GMAT verbal questions, you’ll still be forced into a difficult choice between the last two answers. But as you strengthen your ability to understand the phrasing and logic behind CR and RC questions, you’ll choose the correct option more and more frequently. And then you can put the coin away, and watch your score improve.

When do GMAT "crash courses" actually work?

If you're struggling with the GMAT, you’ve probably had the following fantasy: wouldn’t it be great if you could contact a GMAT tutor, study like crazy for two weeks, and then be finished with the whole mess? Well, a few lucky souls have managed to do exactly that. Consider the following stories:

  • Lucky GMAT Student #1 scored a 640 on a GMATPrep test, attended five GMAT tutoring sessions in two weeks, and scored 720 on his actual test.
  • Lucky GMAT Student #2 had never taken the GMAT before, and she met with her tutor with dizzying frequency over a three-week period. Soon thereafter, she scored a 720 on her first attempt at the actual exam.
  • Lucky GMAT Student #3 was scoring in the low 600s on his practice tests. He then attended tutoring sessions on six consecutive days, and took the GMAT on the seventh day. His final score was a 710.

These GMAT “crash course” success stories sound awfully tantalizing, right? Trouble is, GMAT crash courses can only work under specific conditions. If you’re fortunate enough to be a fast learner, some of your GMAT weaknesses can be fixed really quickly. Other GMAT weaknesses? Not so much.

There are never any guarantees when it comes to short-term GMAT prep, but you might be able to succeed in a GMAT crash course if all of the following apply to you:

your underlying GMAT algebra and arithmetic skills are strong

There are plenty of things that a good GMAT tutor can teach you quickly. If, for example, you need help tackling basic overlapping sets problems, turning ratio questions into clean equations, or applying a systematic approach to percents questions, then a GMAT tutor can probably help you with those things quickly. But if you have a shaky grasp on algebra and arithmetic, you’ll need a lot more than two weeks to achieve your GMAT score goals.

The bad news is that it simply takes time to develop your algebra and arithmetic fundamentals. Think of it this way: you spent the first 10 or 12 years of your math education focused primarily on basic arithmetic and algebra skills; if you failed to develop those skills over the course of a decade, it’s unlikely that you’ll suddenly become an algebra master after two weeks of GMAT tutoring.

But if you’re generally sharp with basic equations and arithmetic, then you can worry about developing GMAT-specific skills such as trap avoidance or your ability to decipher some of the GMAT’s twisted word problems. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to develop those particular GMAT skills in just a couple of weeks.

your timing isn’t perfect

While it’s unrealistic to suggest that you can make a huge leap in your algebra fundamentals in a two-week crash course, it might be possible to quickly improve your time management on the GMAT exam, particularly on the quant section.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know that time management is arguably the single biggest determinant of your GMAT quant score. You can be pretty mediocre at math and get a composite GMAT score in the 700s (click here or here for examples). You can be somewhat terrible at math and score a 40 or above on the quant section (click here for another example). The key is to painstakingly avoid careless errors on easier questions, while having the guts to quickly guess on comparatively difficult questions.

So while a GMAT tutor might not be able to radically improve your fundamental math skills over the course of a few sessions, you might be able to improve your timing quickly. And depending on your exact situation, that could make an enormous difference in your final score.

your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills are strong

Here’s the unglamorous truth about reading comprehension and critical reasoning: if your underlying reading skills are weak, it can take a long time to make a substantial score improvement. Can a GMAT test-prep tutor help you to improve at reading comprehension and critical reasoning? Sure. Can a GMAT tutor make you wildly better at CR and RC in just a few days or weeks? Probably not, unless there are some unusually easy-to-fix flaws in your approach.

At the heart of most critical reasoning and reading comprehension errors is a very simple issue: you probably misread or misinterpreted something in the passage, the question, or the answer choices. If you read with mind-numbing precision, you'll probably do well on CR and RC; if you tend to miss details and nuances when you read, you'll probably do poorly. You can memorize as many GMAT test-prep books as you want, but if you lack precision in your reading, your verbal score will remain lamentably low.

Are there ways that a tutor can help you improve your reading skills? Absolutely. Could a GMAT tutor help you to strengthen your logical skills, or your understanding of specific critical reasoning question types? Yes, definitely.

But these things take time. If your GMAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension mistakes are primarily the result of imprecise reading, then you’ll need more than a few days to make a substantial improvement. Just ask the legendary Ms. HP.

you have room for improvement on sentence correction

While it can be difficult to improve your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills in a short timeframe, the opposite is often true on sentence correction. I would argue that sentence correction is the single most “improvable” part of the GMAT for many students. GMAT sentence correction questions emphasize a finite set of grammar and usage fundamentals; if you can learn to apply those fundamentals with 100% consistency, you’ll do at least reasonably well on sentence correction.

Sure, logic and meaning play a major role on GMAT sentence correction questions, and it can be difficult to improve your basic reasoning skills during a few hours of GMAT tutoring. But a good GMAT crash course can definitely help you to become better at quickly recognizing the GMAT’s favorite SC grammar and usage issues.  If sentence correction is your biggest hurdle, then there might be a chance that you can substantially improve your GMAT score in just a few weeks.

Let’s face it: no GMAT tutor can honestly guarantee results in two weeks, no matter how intelligent a prospective student may sound over the phone. A short GMAT crash course doesn’t really offer you an opportunity to improve your fundamental reading skills or your basic math skills, and for some students, those fundamentals are the primary culprit for disappointing GMAT scores. If this applies to you, then be patient, and prepare yourself for a long, steady assault on the GMAT.

But if you need help on sentence correction, some of the finer points of GMAT quantitative questions, or your GMAT time management skills, then you might have a shot at making a substantial score jump in a short period of time. There are never any guarantees, but you’ll at least have a puncher’s chance to break through your ceiling in a few days or weeks. Your odds of success might not be fantastic, but if you manage to achieve your score goal quickly, you’ll have far more time to battle the next beast: your MBA applications.

why you should (almost) never cancel your GMAT score

Suppose that you took the GMAT exam, and you felt like you got the living #$^%*&@! beaten out of you.  Maybe the quant section felt ridiculously difficult, and you had to race through the last 12 questions to finish the section before time ran out.  Maybe all of your reading comprehension passages felt completely incomprehensible. By the time you finish the exam, your heart is pounding out of your chest, and you have two minutes to decide whether to cancel your test or view your GMAT scores.  Should you cancel your test?

Probably not.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1:  it’s almost impossible to know how well you did

Once upon a time, I worked with a skittish woman who always seemed to doubt her capacity for GMAT success, especially on the quant section.  She earned a 660 on her first attempt at the test, and then contacted me for some help.  After a couple of months of tutoring, she went back to face the beast.  And I made her promise not to cancel her score, no matter what.

The poor woman was convinced that the quant had beaten her to a bloody pulp.  The questions seemed strange, and she felt bewildered for most of the section.  She only had about 15 minutes left for the last 12 questions, so the final third of the quant section passed in a blur.  Pardon the expression, but she was convinced that she had shat the bed.

And guess what?  She got a 760, and was offered merit-based scholarships everywhere she applied.

I’ve heard this sort of story dozens—or maybe even hundreds—of times over the years.  The GMAT is a sneaky, slimy, deceptive creature.  You never know how well (or how badly) you’re doing until the score pops up.  Unless you literally wet your pants during the exam, you can’t possibly know whether you did terribly.  And if you don’t believe me, click here or here or here or here to read recent GMAT forum debriefs written by test-takers who struggled during the exam, but were somewhat surprised by their fantastic scores.

So “feeling bad” about your test is a lousy reason to cancel.  You might be canceling the GMAT score of your dreams, and that wouldn’t be cute at all.

Reason #2:  even if your GMAT score was bad this time, you'll learn from the result

I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “No really, ninja dude:  I know when I’m getting my butt kicked by the GMAT.”  And I respectfully disagree, but let’s pretend that you do know that you had a crappy test.  Should you cancel your score?

Again, I’d argue that you shouldn’t.  While it’s maddening that you can never see exactly what you missed on the actual GMAT, the score does provide you with some feedback.  You might be surprised by how high (or how low) your score is on one or both sections.  And as you prepare for your next battle with the test, that can be an invaluable piece of information.

Let’s suppose that you were aiming for a 710, but only got a 600Now you know exactly what it feels like to get 600, and as you replay the test in your mind, you’ll almost certainly learn from it.  Even a disappointing exam can be a great learning experience, and the score provides you with some feedback that can help you move forward.

Reason #3:  why waste $250?

This might sound silly, but I always feel like a complete chump whenever I spend money on something I don’t use.  For example, there are a few test-prep books on my shelf that I almost never touch.  The $20 or $30 that I spent on each of the books isn’t going to destroy my bank account, but I still feel like a moron for buying them.

Couldn’t we say the same thing about a canceled GMAT test score?  If you “buy” a GMAT test for $250 and never actually get a score from the experience, wouldn’t it feel like a complete waste of money?  You’ll basically spend $250 for some frayed nerves and an unsatisfying, blank line on your GMAT score report.

The GMAT is already sodomizing your wallet for $250 whenever you take the test; personally, I would feel even worse if I didn’t at least get something back from them in return.  A bad score at least counts as something.

So don’t feel like a chump with a sodomized wallet:  take a good look at your score, even if you’re pretty sure it’s going to be crappy.  At worst, you’ll have a rallying cry for your future studies.  And at best, you’ll be surprised with a 760, even if you felt terrible during the exam.

One last thing:  if you’re worried about having a crappy result on your GMAT score report, don’t be.  An upward score trajectory always looks great, and MBA programs are being completely honest when they say that they consider your highest score.

So unless you really do have a bladder malfunction during your test, please don’t cancel your score.  At the very least, you’ll have a data point to work with as you continue your GMAT studies.  And if you’re really fortunate, your score might surprise you.

GRE vs. GMAT, part II: test content and structure

In my last GMAT blog post, I mentioned that it’s possible—at least in theory—to apply to nearly any major MBA program with only a GRE score.  Very few top MBA programs (hello, BYU and Haas!) stubbornly refuse to accept GRE scores, and the creators of the GRE have generously produced a handy GRE to GMAT score converter to make the GRE more appealing to MBA admissions committees. You could easily argue that MBA admissions committees aren’t 100% comfortable with the GRE yet, but it’s certainly possible to be admitted to most MBA programs without touching a GMAT book.  So if you’re completely convinced that you’ll do better on GRE than on the GMAT, then there’s no reason to hesitate.

Which brings us to the next question:  what are the differences between the two tests, and what are the chances that you’ll actually do better on the GRE than on the GMAT?  Although I think that most people will score similarly on the two tests, it’s conceivable that you could gain an advantage by taking the GRE, depending on whether the differences between the two tests work in your favor.

The first major difference between the GRE and the GMAT is probably irrelevant to your odds of admission to business school, at least for now.  The GRE includes two 30-minute writing assessments, instead of the GMAT’s combo meal of one AWA and one 30-minute Integrated Reasoning exercise.  But as you hopefully know already, neither the AWA nor the Integrated Reasoning is likely to have a substantial impact on your odds of admission.  So at least for the next few years, that particular difference between the GRE and the GMAT doesn’t really matter.

On the quant side, the GRE lacks the data sufficiency that all GMAT test-takers (*cough*) dearly love; instead, the GRE includes a less-tricky question type called quantitative comparisons.  The GRE also includes some numeric entry questions that require you to come up with an actual number yourself.  And the GRE also gives you data analysis questions, which aren’t terribly common on the quant section of the GMAT.  So if you hate data sufficiency and love data analysis, you might be happier taking the GRE.  (The GRE also offers a simple on-screen calculator, but I’d argue that it really doesn’t help all that much—the numbers are rarely cumbersome on either exam, especially if you’re well-trained in the art of finding intelligent quant shortcuts.)

On the verbal sections, the differences between the GRE and the GMAT are substantial.  Both exams include some sort of reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions, but the GRE has no sentence correction questions.  Instead, you’ll face some vocabulary-heavy text completion and sentence equivalence questions.  So if you have a strong vocabulary and hate GMAT sentence correction, then maybe the GRE is for you.

Structurally, there are also some major differences between the GMAT and the GRE.  The GRE has several shorter sections and only one extended break, roughly two hours into the test.  I would argue that the GRE feels like running wind sprints:  once you finish your two 30-minute AWA sections on the GRE, you’ll suffer through two scored quant sections (35 minutes each), two unscored verbal sections (30 minutes each), and one experimental section, which could be either quant or verbal.  The GMAT, of course, includes one 75-minute quant section and one 75-minute verbal section.  The total amount of test-taking pain is similar, but the heart of the GMAT consists of two long, painful marathons, instead of a set of shorter sprints.  I’m not sure which is worse, but I promise that I’ll whine about the GRE’s format in my next blog post, after I retake the GRE for the first time in several years.

And now for the most important difference between the two tests:  the GMAT is question-level adaptive, while the GRE is section-level adaptive.  If you get a few consecutive questions correct on the GMAT, you’re likely to see tougher questions almost immediately.  But the GRE only “adapts” between sections.  If you do really well on the first quant section, then your second quant section will be extremely difficult.  And it won’t matter what you do with the first few questions within each GRE section—the test doesn’t adapt until you move from the first quant section to the second quant section, or from the first verbal section to the second verbal section.

In some ways, that’s absolutely wonderful:  on the GRE, each 20-question section is “fixed” once you start the section, which means that you can go back and review the questions that you’ve already completed within that section.  It’s a completely different test-taking experience than the GMAT.  Most of us feel much more comfortable with the GRE in this respect; there’s something extremely comforting about the idea that we can skip questions and come back to them later, or revise our answers if we have extra time at the end of any given section.

So yes, the two tests are substantially different, but the bad news is that I’ve seen plenty of students take both exams, and their GRE scores tend to be very comparable to their GMAT scores.  But if you’re absolutely convinced that GRE questions will be systematically easier for you than their GMAT counterparts, then don’t hold back:  the GRE might be ideal for you.  If you’re not convinced that you’ll perform substantially better on the GRE, then stick with the GMAT:  you never know when you might fall in love with Haas or BYU, and regret your decision to abandon the GMAT in favor of the GRE.

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you're not sure which test to take, call or email for more information... or try reading the third part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.