Category Archives: GMAT

GMAT anecdotes, advice, and content.

GRE vs. GMAT, part VI: what is a good GRE score, anyway?

 

In the fifth installment of my (apparently never-ending?) GRE vs. GMAT blog series, I suggested that the GRE might offer an advantage if your GMAT score is on the low side, since the GRE doesn’t yet appear in the MBA rankings. So now you might be wondering: what sort of GRE score could be considered “good enough” for top MBA programs?

Unfortunately, MBA admissions committees aren’t exactly open about their handling of the GRE. The good folks at Poets & Quants recently published a few trickles of GRE data from top MBA programs, but the data is still lamentably limited.

So how might MBA admissions committees define a “good” GRE score, and what sort of GRE score should you be aiming for? Let’s start by laying out the three main ways that MBA programs could evaluate GRE scores.

Option #1: the GMAT-GRE conversion chart

As the GRE made its push for acceptance in the MBA world, it published a handy little GMAT-GRE conversion chart, so that you can take any GRE score and turn it into an “equivalent” GMAT score. Sounds great, right?

Trouble is, conversion charts that compare two different tests are on shaky scientific ground. In theory, the GRE and GMAT are designed to measure subtly different skills, and they’re on completely different score scales. Few, if any, independent psychometricians (experts in the statistical science underneath standardized testing) would suggest that these conversion charts should ever be used. They simply aren’t very accurate, even under the best of conditions.

The GMAT-GRE conversion chart was, of course, published by the creators of the GRE, who have made an aggressive attempt to seize market share from the GMAT. You won’t be surprised to hear that the GMAT responded with an anti-conversion-chart article in an old GMAT newsletter from 2009.

More detail is available on the GMAT website, but here’s the bottom line: GRE and GMAT scores are correlated, but they aren’t perfectly correlated. If you’re trying to convert GRE scores into GMAT scores, the standard error of prediction is 67.4 points, according to GMAC. In other words: if MBA programs try to use your GRE score to predict what you would have gotten if you’d taken the GMAT instead – the conversion chart is likely to be off by an average of 67.4 points in one direction or another.

And in case you’re new to the (painful) reality of MBA admissions: 67.4 points on the GMAT is a really, really big deal these days.

So if MBA admissions committees are using the GMAT-GRE conversion chart… well, they shouldn’t be.

Option #2: GRE percentiles

GRE percentile scores would, on the surface, appear to be a fairer way to evaluate MBA applicants who have taken the GRE. Why wouldn’t MBA programs just look at applicants’ quant and verbal percentiles on the GRE, and then compare them to the equivalent GMAT percentile scores?

But there’s a huge problem here, too: percentile rankings compare you with other people who took the same test. So if, for example, MBA admissions committees started using the dreaded 80th-percentile rule for GRE scores, that would be unfair: your GRE percentile rankings would be based on the scores of the 700,000+ GRE test-takers – only a small percentage of whom are applying to MBA programs. That’s not cool: you’ll face a completely different horde of competitors for the GRE vs. the GMAT.

And of course, percentiles are out of whack on the GMAT quant section, anyway. If you want to score in the 80th percentile on the GMAT, you’ll need a 49 – which requires some serious skill. On the GRE, all you’ll need to hit the 80th percentile on quant is a 162 – and that’s nowhere near as difficult as getting a 49 on the GMAT.

In other words, GRE percentiles absolutely cannot be compared fairly to GMAT percentiles. It’s a terrible idea to do so, and I desperately hope that no MBA admissions committees have gone down this road.

Option #3: Round numbers, human nature, and the GRE 160 sniff-test

Here’s where we get into the interesting stuff. I’m sure that some MBA admissions committees are making the mistake of using the GRE-GMAT conversion chart, and others might be (mis-)using GRE percentile scores. But my hunch is that most MBA admissions committees probably just use a “sniff test” for GRE scores – and I’m guessing that a 160 on both GRE sections is probably enough to make MBA adcoms move on to other aspects of your MBA application.

Let’s face it: people are naturally drawn to nice, round numbers. For a long time, a 700 was considered a key threshold on the GMAT, partly because it’s a nice round number, but also because the creators of the GMAT were thoughtful about that round number: if 500 was supposed to be the mean score on the test, a 700 was supposed to be roughly two standard deviations above the mean – and well above the 90th percentile.

GMAT scores and percentiles have become pretty warped, of course, but the GMAT score scale was originally designed wisely: a 700 wasn’t just a nice, round number. It was also a meaningful dividing line between high scorers and ridiculously high scorers. And the same score scale was used on both the SAT and the pre-2011 version of the GRE – so the GMAT’s 200-800 scale is a familiar friend that has been part of American education culture for decades.

But our intuition goes out the window with the GRE’s new score scale, which ranges from 130 to 170 for each section. If 150 is the average GRE score, then what’s our instinctual dividing line between “very good” and “elite”? I suspect that MBA admissions officers struggle to understand the difference between, say, a 157 and a 159, but a 160 sounds nice and round, right? So I think that adcoms tend to feel OK about an applicant’s ability once they’re above the 160 mark on both the quant and verbal sections. No other implicit “cut score” would seem to make much sense.

So if you’re not much of a GMAT-slayer, my advice is to try to crack 160 on both the quant and verbal sections of the GRE. Unless you have an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses, it’s much, much easier to get a pair of 160s on the GRE than it is to get, say, a 700 on the GMAT – and of course, a 700 on the GMAT might not be enough anymore, anyway.

For whatever it’s worth, the few GRE averages that have leaked out might support the idea that MBA programs are using the GRE as a “way around” the GMAT/MBA rankings game – and it might also support the idea that a 160 could be enough to make your test score a non-issue at top-tier MBA programs.

For example, Michigan, Cornell, and UCLA all had average GRE verbal scores of 162 and average quant scores of 159; Duke’s averages were 160 on both the quant and verbal GRE sections. That’s certainly not conclusive, but it suggests that MBA admissions committees might be using 160 as a loose GRE benchmark score — even though the GMAT-GRE score conversion chart says that a pair of GRE 160s is equivalent to a not-terribly-competitive GMAT composite score of 640.

The GRE score data remains limited, so take it – and my interpretation of it – with a grain of salt. But if you’re OK with a test score that makes your MBA application “GMAT-neutral”, then the latest GRE data offers some interesting food for thought.

 

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.

 

 

That official GMAT question might cost $3000

 

I spend a lot of time telling GMAT students that no GMAT practice problems can ever be as good as real, retired questions from official GMAT tests and publications. And if you read a bunch of GMAT blog posts written by other GMAT test-prep “experts”, you’ll find that many of them seem to disagree with me – since they’re trying to sell you a nice bundle of non-official GMAT questions and exams.

Sometimes, even my own GMAT students object when I tell them to avoid using knockoff GMAT tests from, say, Manhattan GMAT or Veritas: “How terrible could those materials be? There are smart people working at those GMAT test-prep companies, right?”

Yes, of course there are smart people working at GMAT test-prep companies – though some test-prep firms clearly employ smarter GMAT question-writers than others. But even at their best, no GMAT test-prep company can possibly compete with the precision of real, official GMAT questions. Part of the reason is that copying the style of an intricate standardized test is inherently challenging, but the bigger reason is basic economics.

If you’re reading a GMAT blog, you’re probably a business-savvy future MBA student, and you probably have some intuition for the business models of companies like Kaplan or Manhattan GMAT. So take a guess: how much do you think those test-prep companies spend developing each individual question on their GMAT practice tests or in their GMAT books? Go ahead and think of a number.

OK, got something in mind? Great. Personally, I would imagine that GMAT test-prep companies spend something in the range of $5-30 per “knockoff” GMAT question if they actually want to make a profit, but I could be wrong.

Now let’s ask Dr. Lawrence Rudner, former GMAT Chief Psychometrician, how much the GMAT’s developers spend on each practice question:

Test items are costly to develop, often in the range of US$1,500 to US$2,500 per item.

This comes straight from a paper that Rudner presented at the GMAC Conference on Computer Adaptive Testing way back in 2007. If question development costs have kept pace with inflation, then each GMAT question would cost somewhere between $1,700 to $3,000 per question in 2016, though that figure could be even higher if shortages of trained psychometricians continue to inflate GMAT development costs.

(Incidentally, I got halfway through a PhD in education policy and psychometrics – the statistical science behind standardized testing – before I came to my senses and realized that I’m much happier as a GMAT tutor than as an academic or psychometrician. If you’re interested in a career in psychometrics, send me an email, and I’ll do my best to help out.)

So yeah: that GMAT question you saw on the latest version of the exam? It might have cost $3000 or more to develop – perhaps 100 times more than a GMAT test-prep company could reasonably spend on each question.

And if that sounds batsh*t crazy – or at least wildly inefficient – it probably isn’t. Actual GMAT test items go through a painstaking cycle of editing, testing (often as “experimental questions” on actual GMAT tests), re-editing, and re-testing before they actually become part of a real GMAT exam. For every question that actually makes its way onto the GMAT, countless others are discarded for any number of reasons. For example, there might be evidence that the discarded GMAT questions were phrased badly, that they don’t seem to capture the skills the GMAT promises to measure, or that they (accidentally) discriminate against GMAT test-takers from certain demographic groups. Much of this testing requires substantial skill and training – and employees with these skills certainly aren’t inexpensive.

You probably know that I’m not particularly impressed by the GMAT’s ability to identify the most talented business leaders, but the GMAT’s creators deserve credit for producing subtle and meticulously phrased questions. How could any GMAT test-prep company possibly produce anything of comparable quality or precision, given test-prep firms’ economic limitations?

So whenever you work through practice tests from major GMAT test-prep companies – or GMAT practice worksheets from an obscure little GMAT tutor dude in Colorado – remember to take your results with a huge grain of salt. Sure, our “knockoff” GMAT questions can probably help you build skills, but none of us can ever give you a truly accurate GMAT practice test – simply because none of us will ever be able to afford to do so if we actually want to keep our doors open.

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!

 

In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.

 

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 starting from the beginning of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a “good” GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.

 

How lucky was Mr. Fat Pants?

If any of you are expecting a practical, useful article about GMAT tutoring, I apologize in advance:  this is going to be a pretty useless, vaguely technocratic article about standardized testing.  Consider yourself warned.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about a fellow named Mr. FP (Mr. “Fat Pants”), who once wrote a brilliant MBA application essay about his lunchtime festivities at the office.  Mr. FP deserves to be a legend simply because he actually used the phrase “fat pants” in his MBA admissions essays, but he’s also notorious (in my little GMAT world, anyway) for springing a huge test-day surprise on both himself and his GMAT tutor:  he scored a 680 and then a 640 on his only two full-length GMATPrep practice tests, then nailed a 720 on the actual GMAT—just a few days after the 640.  Mr. FP is a great guy who kicked all sorts of ass at a top-10 business school… but we agree that he got a little bit lucky.

But how lucky did he get?  And can we somehow quantify his luck?

The quick answer is that Mr. FP was pretty darned lucky.  If you dive deep into the bowels of your GMAT score report (sorry for the image; do you really want to dive “deep into the bowels” of anything?), you’ll see some mumbo-jumbo about something called the standard error of measurement, and the score report will tell you that the standard error of measurement is about 30 points on the GMAT.

To understand the idea of a standard error of measurement, imagine for a moment that you have something called a “true” GMAT score.  There are two ways to think about a “true” GMAT score.  First, you could imagine that it’s the score you would receive if the GMAT always did a 100% perfect, 100% consistent job of measuring your verbal and quantitative reasoning skills (or whatever it is that the GMAT actually measures).  If that doesn’t seem intuitive, imagine this:  you’ll take the GMAT, I’ll wipe out your memory of the exam using the “flashy thingy” from the Men in Black movies (so that you don’t remember any of the questions), then I’ll send you back to the very same GMAT test appointment using a time machine from the Back to the Future movies.  I’ll do this an infinite number of times.  Assuming that you don’t get brain damage, your average score on your infinite number of GMAT exams would be your “true score.”

Of course, you wouldn’t always get exactly the same score on every single test appointment, even if we conjure some Hollywood magic to eliminate all day-to-day variations in your test-taking behavior.  The truth is that GMAT scores are a little bit random.  Or maybe a lot random.  Even if you behaved exactly the same way every single time you took the test, you’d still get slightly different GMAT scores from one day to the next.  That’s an inevitable part of standardized testing, especially on an adaptive exam that spits out somewhat randomized questions.

Back to the technical crap:  the standard error of measurement is basically a measure of that random variation in your scores from one GMAT exam to the next, even if we assume that you’re a robotic test-taker who always behaves the same way.  If you’ve taken a few statistics courses, you could think of the standard error of measurement as the rough equivalent of a standard deviation for your GMAT score:  since the GMAT’s standard error of measurement is around 30 points, roughly 2/3 of all test-takers will score within 30 points of their “true” GMAT score, and roughly 95% of test-takers will score within 60 points of their “true” GMAT score.

In other words, your GMAT score could plausibly fluctuate by around 30 points from day to day, but you aren’t terribly likely to gain or lose 60 points simply by random chance.

With this in mind, Mr. FP seemed to be a very lucky man.  We’ll never know Mr. FP’s “true” GMAT score, but based on his homework and GMATPrep test results, I would have wagered that he was in line for a 660 or so—halfway between his two GMATPrep scores.  If we pretend that 660 really was his “true” GMAT score, then Mr. FP scored 60 points—or two standard errors of measurement—above his “true” score.

If you’re a statistics geek, you’re welcome to bust out your favorite z-chart and do the calculations yourself, but the bottom line is that there was roughly a 1 in 40 (2.5%) chance that Mr. FP would receive a random gift of 60 or more points from the GMAT gods.  And keep in mind that any random, luck-based deviation from your “true” GMAT score could work in your favor—but it’s equally likely that it will work against you:  if 1 out of every 40 test-takers will earn at least 60 “measurement error points” that they don’t “deserve”, then 1 out of every 40 test-takers will lose at least 60 points on their GMAT score, just from bad stinking luck.  The gods of random chance are sometimes very kind, but they’re also randomly very cruel.

So if you’re still 60 or so points away from your ideal GMAT score and you want to roll the dice, go for it.  But your odds of a Mr. FP-esque stroke of good luck aren’t all that good, and it’s probably better to hit the GMAT books hard and make your own luck.

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.

 

“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.

an easy way to improve your GMAT score: eat

If you know me personally, you probably know that I’m obsessed with food.  If you ever want to torment me, watch this video for inspiration.  And if you ever want to get on my good side, take me to one of the interesting places on this crazyass NYC food website.

So when somebody asks me how I managed to get a perfect score on the GMAT, I sometimes point to my stomach and grin stupidly.  And I’m only half-joking when I do that.

As you already know, the GMAT is a brutal, four-hour marathon, and the worst part is that the verbal section appears at the end of the GMAT, when you’re completely exhausted.  And fatigue is one of the primary reasons why unfortunate GMAT test-takers experience GMAT verbal underperformance.

There are plenty of ways to improve your GMAT verbal score—such as completing 4,000 GMAT CR and RC questions if you’re into that sort of thing—but I would argue that a thoughtful approach to your test-day food and drink intake is a simple and often underappreciated way to maximize your performance on the GMAT.

Your brain is a hungry little bugger, and studies suggest that your brain uses 20% of your caloric intake.  Your brain tends to run best when it has a steady supply of carbohydrates, and if you starve your brain of energy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to perform badly on the GMAT.

Your gastronomic goal on test day is to keep your blood sugar as stable as possible, so that you don’t suffer through a sugar crash or a food coma while you’re taking the test.  Ideally, you want to eat a solid—but not gut-busting—meal an hour or two before your test.  And during each of your breaks, you want to make sure that eat some sort of snack to help keep your brain moving.

And here comes the important part:  you definitely want to avoid consuming overly sugary snacks (M&Ms, Skittles, chocolate, etc.) during your breaks, since they’re likely to lead to a blood-sugar crash before the GMAT verbal section is over.  Stick with something a little bit healthier, ideally with a lower glycemic index:  energy bars, a mix of nuts and dried fruit, or a light sandwich on whole wheat bread.

Pure sugar might work for a short-term boost, but it can hurt you during a four-hour GMAT marathon.  A number of years ago, one of my high school students loaded up on Skittles before the SAT, was a brilliant ball of energy for the first 45 minutes of the test, and then literally fell asleep.  I swear that I’m not making this up.

So don’t mess around.  Plan out your meals and your snacks well before you take the real GMAT, and think carefully about the nutritional value of your snacks.  When you do full practice tests, be conscious of your food and caffeine intake; experiment with different meals and snacks and drinks to see what works best for you.

You might end up choosing snacks that aren’t particularly tasty, like chalky energy bars.  But even though some energy bars aren’t particularly delicious, they always taste better than a subpar GMAT score.