Category Archives: GRE

Why Adderall, Ritalin, and other PEDs won’t help your GMAT score

 

If you attended an undergraduate program in the United States, you probably know that academic performance-enhancing drugs (let’s call them academic PEDs for short) are a mainstay among university students. I know dozens of students who have popped a few pills – typically ADD medications such as Adderall or Ritalin, obtained through a friend, a law-bending physician, or a black-market dealer – to help them focus while studying.

These drugs are basically legal versions of amphetamines (though their “off-label” use without a prescription is, of course, illegal) that can provide energy and help you hyper-focus while you cram for a test or write a paper. Sounds great, right?

(And just to be clear: I’m NOT talking about anybody who has an actual prescription because of a diagnosed medical condition. I’m referring to off-label use only – and there are plenty of reasons why such use is dangerous, but that’s another story for a different, non-GMAT blog.)

Anyway, I’m not here to moralize about drug use – after all, I guzzled many gallons of performance-enhancing bourbon during my years as a bartender. I’m just here to offer an honest answer to a frequently asked GMAT-related question: can academic PEDs like Adderall and Ritalin help you conquer the GMAT and GRE exams, assuming that you’re willing to ignore the potential health and legal consequences?

The short answer: I don’t think so.

First of all, the whole idea behind academic PEDs is that they help you hyper-focus. Imagine, for example, that you need to spend 14 hours memorizing organic chemistry formulas. Stimulants can help, at least in the short run. Gotta grind your way through some repetitive calculus problems? Well, that takes some short-term energy and focus, and academic PEDs might help with that, too.

But hyper-focusing is actually a bad thing if you’re trying to improve your GMAT score. The GMAT – especially the quant section – requires you to think logically through different solution paths, and then choose the best option. In general, if you’re hopped up on amphetamines, you’ll speedily pick the first solution path that comes to mind – even if it’s an inefficient path or a complete dead-end. Basically, academic PEDs cause cognitive tunnel-vision – and that’s a good way to ruin your GMAT score.

The second reason why I’m skeptical of academic PEDs is that a few of my students have used them while studying for the GMAT, and they haven’t had much success. In every case, my GMAT students were accustomed to taking Ritalin, Adderall, or a similar drug during their undergraduate studies – and in every case, the academic PEDs didn’t seem to help their GMAT prep. They would stubbornly obsess over unnecessary details of GMAT RC passages, crunch through dozens of lines of algebra when quicker solutions were available, and make score-destroying careless errors because they were moving too quickly.

In a different context, maybe the academic PEDs would have helped these very same students. But the GMAT requires a flexible mindset and a solid approach to time management. Drugs that cause you to energetically develop tunnel vision are exactly the wrong prescription for success on the GMAT.

So if you’re looking for quick fixes – well, you probably already know that you’ve come to the wrong GMAT tutor’s blog if you’re looking for gimmicky shortcuts. To be honest, if I thought that academic PEDs could help your GMAT score, I would (probably very quietly) admit it. But the truth is that they don’t seem to do much to improve your GMAT or GRE scores.

I do, however, have plenty to say about another GMAT performance-enhancing substance: food.

GRE vs. GMAT, part VII: has the GMAT lost its edge?

 

My graph-making skills are admittedly a bit rusty these days, but check this out:

now you know why they call me the GMAT Ninja, not the Line Graph Ninja; data from mba.com

Now you know why nobody calls me the Line Graph Ninja; data from mba.com

 

You probably see what I see: the number of GMAT test-takers took a dive in 2013, and it hasn’t recovered completely — particularly here in the United States.

So what else happened in 2013? Well, my Boston Red Sox won the World Series – wait, no, that has nothing to do with it. But in 2013, the GRE was pushing hard for acceptance in the MBA admissions world. By the end of 2013, the GRE was accepted by nearly every major MBA program in the United States.

(As part of its marketing push, the GRE tried some odd stuff. They contacted a number of GMAT bloggers and tutors, and urged us to tell our students to take the GRE instead of the GMAT, since the GRE makes it easier to change your answers during the exam. They invited me to speak personally with one of their psychometricians – but sadly, she was a narrow-minded fool who had zero understanding of what it’s actually like to take the GRE exam. Marketing fail, GRE.)

Anyway, back to the GMAT data. We obviously can’t be sure that the drop in GMAT tests was solely a consequence of competition from the GRE – after all, the world economy was still doing weird stuff back then, and the number of youngish professionals with “MBA-feeder” jobs probably dropped during the Great Recession. But I suspect that the GRE played at least some role in the GMAT’s decline, and if I’m correct, there are two major consequences.

First, the GMAT’s potential loss of market share to the GRE has forced the GMAT to adapt in quite a few ways, partly to try to win back test-takers, and partly to recoup lost revenue in other ways. (After all, it costs a fortune to produce good, official GMAT questions.) Since 2013, the GMAT has introduced all of the following products:

  • Enhanced GMAT score reports ($24.95)
  • The ability to completely remove canceled scores from your GMAT score report; this is free at the testing center, but now you can also cancel a score up to 72 hours after leaving the exam ($25)
  • The ability to reinstate canceled scores ($50)
  • New editions of the GMAT official guides released every year, instead of every 3-5 years ($85 for the bundle of three 2017 official guides on the GMAC website)
  • A reduction in the wait time between exams from 31 days to 16 days
  • Release of additional, full practice tests ($49.99 for a set of two GMATPrep exams); the GMAT now offers 6 official practice tests, while the GRE has only released two

Some of these things are clearly money-grabs, but most are wonderful for GMAT test-takers. Apparently, competition is good, even when the competitors are two supposedly not-for-profit standardized testing companies.

But for whatever it’s worth, there’s a second reason why GMAT’s drop in market share might be relevant to you as an MBA applicant: perhaps it’s a sign that the GRE really is gaining traction in MBA admissions.

In an earlier blog post, I argued that the GRE’s absence from the MBA rankings might be the biggest reason why taking the GRE can be a good idea. But once the GRE becomes commonplace in MBA admissions, won’t it be just a matter of time before the GRE weasels its way into MBA rankings schemes? And if that happens — and it might not — then maybe the GRE advantage will evaporate.

So enjoy the GRE vs. GMAT competition while it lasts – and before it accidentally creates unintended consequences that aren’t so MBA applicant-friendly.

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 now seven-part series on the GRE vs. the GMAT

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

GRE vs. GMAT, part III: the test-day experience

As threatened in my last blog post about the differences between the GRE and the GMAT, I recently retook the GRE exam for the first time in several years, and I want to report an incredibly boring observation:  GRE and GMAT testing rooms aren’t exactly fun places.  I think I looked like a less-bloody version of this guy by the time I walked out of the exam.

If you’re thinking about applying to an MBA program sometime soon, you probably already know that standardized tests are unpleasant, but you might be wondering whether the GRE is easier to beat than the GMAT.  The answer is… maybe.

For starters, I absolutely loved a few things about the new version of the GRE.  As I mentioned in an earlier GMAT blog post, the GRE is now section-level adaptive, not question-level adaptive.  That means that you can flag questions within any given section, and come back to them later. The GRE even includes a handy little review screen, so that you can see exactly which questions you’ve flagged or skipped.  That saved my ass at least once:  I whiffed on a quant question, and completely failed to fill in the bubble.  No harm done, though:  the review screen helped me catch the omission.  Thank you, GRE.

The other nice thing about the GRE is that the first half of the exam is relatively gentle:  the first quant section and the first verbal section contain the approximate GRE equivalent to 500-level GMAT questions.  So the GRE starts with two 30-minute essays, followed by one non-threatening quant section and one fairly straightforward verbal section.  Then you take a 10-minute break.  And that’s good, because if you’re like me, you’ll need to pig out after two hours of testing, even if those two hours aren’t particularly intense.

But after the break, things got rougher.

I had three sections remaining:  one quant, one verbal, and one experimental section, which turned out to be quant.  The good news is that the quant sections weren’t too awful, and I’d argue that the hardest GRE quant questions are much easier than the hardest GMAT quant questions.  GRE quant questions feel substantially more formulaic:  you’ll see plenty of fairly straightforward algebra, a hearty dose of relatively orthodox geometry questions, some nonthreatening data analysis, and only a light sprinkling of number properties, overlapping sets, and probability.

The GRE does seem to test statistics (standard deviation, median, mean, range, percentiles, etc.) more deeply than the GMAT, but that’s the only quant topic that seemed as difficult on the GRE as on the GMAT.  If you’re scoring in the mid-40s on the GMAT quant section, you probably won’t have a terribly hard time on the GRE, as long as you spend some extra time on statistics and avoid silly errors.

The second verbal section, on the other hand, kicked the crap out of me.

The 20 verbal questions were a roughly even mix of reading comprehension-type stuff (including some short, critical reasoning-style passages) and vocabulary-based questions.  Out of the first 10 questions, I skipped six, because the vocabulary in them made my eyes bleed.  I also struggled through the reading comprehension, despite the fact that I’d guzzled enough Red Bull to make my wings flap uncontrollably—the passages were ludicrously convoluted and not particularly interesting.

I was sweating right up until the last second of that section, and I had to look up eight vocabulary words after I finished the test.  Not fun.  I won’t pretend that the GMAT verbal section is much more enjoyable than its GRE counterpart, but there’s a special feeling of helplessness that sets in when you can’t decipher the vocabulary in a GRE text completion or sentence equivalence question.  It hurts.

Out of the 20 questions on that last verbal section, I was completely sure that 12 of my answers were correct, but all I could do was hope for the best on my eight educated guesses.  It worked out for me in the end (my score was a perfect 340), but I definitely got lucky on some of those vocabulary questions.

So now that I’ve had the chance to suffer through the new version of the GRE, let’s talk about whether you might actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

I would argue that the GRE is a better test for you under only two circumstances:

  1. You’re better at vocabulary than grammar.  I don’t know whether I’ve ever met anybody who fits this description.  Maybe a really well-read native English speaker who lacks the discipline to do well on sentence correction?
  2. You’re comfortable with statistics and algebra and geometry, but you struggle on the toughest GMAT-style questions.  It’s possible that a test-taker with moderately strong quant skills—and relatively little propensity to make dumb errors—would have a much easier time on the GRE.

If these two characteristics apply to you, then maybe the GRE is worth a look.  After all, almost every major MBA program now accepts the GRE.  And despite the challenges of my second verbal section, I’m convinced that the GRE offers a less excruciating test-taking experience than the GMAT.  But unless you’re an unusual test-taker, the bad news is that the GRE is very unlikely to offer you any particular advantage in MBA admissions.

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, feel free to call or email to discuss your specific situation.

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.

GRE vs. GMAT, part I: MBA admissions

If you spend your time carefully reading MBA application instructions, you might have noticed that nearly every major U.S. business school now accepts both the GRE and the GMAT.  There are still a few exceptions (at the time of writing, BYU and the full-time Haas MBA program hadn’t jumped aboard the GRE bandwagon yet), but it’s possible to apply to the vast majority of top MBA programs with only a GRE score.

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, the GRE might sound awfully tempting.  The GRE has no data sufficiency or sentence correction questions; instead, you’ll see the GRE’s (relatively non-threatening) quantitative comparisons and grammar-free vocabulary questions.  Better still, the GRE is generally rumored to be easier than the GMAT, and the GRE costs $75 less than the GMAT.  Not bad, huh?

But wait, there’s more:  with the changes implemented to the GRE in 2011, you can actually go back and change your answers on the test now!  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The GRE inarguably offers a more pleasant test-taking experience than the GMAT, but you might be wondering:  can you actually get into top MBA programs with only a GRE score?  At least at the moment, the answer is a very wishy-washy “yes, but…”

For starters, we don’t really have much data on average GRE scores at top business schools.  According to a 2012 survey conducted by Kaplan, only 16% of MBA applicants have even considered using the GRE for their MBA applications, and far fewer have actually applied to business schools with a GRE score.  As a result, MBA programs really aren’t able to give us a clear idea of the average GRE scores for its admitted students, since so few admits actually take the GRE.

The (somewhat) good news is that our friends at ETS have created a nifty GRE-GMAT score converter, which means that you can, at least in theory, convert any GRE score into an equivalent GMAT score.  For example, if you’re using the pre-2011 GRE scoring system, a 700 on the GMAT would have been roughly equivalent to a GRE composite score between 1400 and 1450, depending on the exact breakdown of your quant and verbal scores.  If you’re using the new GRE scoring system (on a wildly inconvenient scale from 260 to 340), you’ll need to score somewhere between 323 and 328 to earn the equivalent of a 700 on the GMAT.

The trouble is, it’s not clear whether MBA admissions committees put much faith in the score converter. Everybody in the MBA world knows how to interpret GMAT scores, but some adcoms aren’t yet 100% comfortable making judgments based on GRE scores, even with the score converter.  A friend of mine works closely with the admissions committee at a top-ten MBA program, and he claims that the admissions committee is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the GRE; the adcom certainly isn’t going out of its way to encourage applicants to take the GRE instead of the GMAT… at least not yet.

And that makes perfect sense, considering the lack of data on MBA applicants, students, and graduates who have taken the GRE.  Decades of GMAT validity studies tell us that the GMAT is an excellent predictor of MBA students’ performance during their first year of business school, but the GRE simply doesn’t have that sort of track record in the MBA world.

The bigger problem is that the GRE is unlikely to offer you any particular advantage over the GMAT.  Most tutors and test-takers agree that the GRE “feels” easier than the GMAT, but don’t be fooled by the “feel” of the tests:  I very rarely meet students who perform substantially better on one test or the other, even if they “like” the GRE better.  The tests are similar enough that relatively few MBA applicants actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

So should you completely avoid the GRE if you’re applying to business school?  Not at all—obviously, admissions committees are open to admitting students without a GMAT score, even if they aren’t 100% comfortable interpreting GRE scores yet.  But unless you have some very specific test-taking preferences—which I’ll discuss in my next blog post—it’s unlikely that the GRE will greatly improve your chances of admission, either.

 

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 second part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.

GMAT and GRE test center glitches

Disclaimer: I have no real reason to share this batch of GMAT horror stories, other than to scare you just a little bit for no good reason.

Pretty much everybody faces some serious time pressure on the GMAT quant section, and many people are forced to scramble on the verbal and AWA as well. So if you lose two minutes due to a computer glitch, it’s pretty maddening. Two minutes won’t destroy your GMAT score, but it might make you flustered and cause a cascade of errors.

In the past 12 months, at least five of my private tutoring clients have been affected by GMAT test-center glitches. This past weekend, two of them–one in NYC, one in DC–had issues. In both cases, the dudes working for Pearson VUE (the company that runs the testing centers) had a hard time logging the test-taker back into the system after a break. In both cases, the students lost a couple of minutes for the quant section. Pretty crappy.

In another couple of cases, the GMAT testing center dudes accidentally shortened the test-takers’ breaks by failing to notice when the test-taker was finished with a section. When you’re ready for a break after a section, you’re supposed to tell the computer that you’re ready for a break, and then raise your hand so that you can be escorted out of the testing room. Supposedly, the “escort” didn’t notice when a couple of my GMAT students were ready, and a few minutes passed before the proctor noticed the test-takers’ flailing hands. It isn’t a big deal to have eight minutes instead of ten for your break, but it’s still annoying.

And then there are the computer glitches. In one case, the system crashed during a break, and somehow restarted with several minutes already elapsed in the quant section. (I can’t explain why these problems seem to occur between AWA and quant. GMAT hates you?) Another student faced a really bizarre glitch which prevented him from clicking on certain radio buttons–if I remember correctly, he was literally unable to select most of the answer choices, and had to click “next” with some questions unanswered. He complained at the testing center, but they couldn’t really do anything about it. I don’t think that he even finished the test. In both of these cases, the test-takers called GMAC every single day until they were allowed to re-take the GMAT for free.

Again, I have no real point here. I’m not trying to criticize Pearson VUE; generally, I think that the company does a solid job administering the GMAT, and I’ve had good experiences in their test centers. (The GRE is another matter–last time I took the GRE at a Prometrics test center, I was forced to an old, flickering monitor which made my eyes hurt. By the time I left, I felt like I’d been staring at a strobe light for four hours, which made me a little bit crazy.) As a full-time GMAT tutor who watches students spend craploads of time and money on the MBA admissions process, it’s painful to see people get thrown off by these stupid glitches.  But human and computer errors happen, and all you can do is roll with the punches.  And if the glitches really affect your score, you can always bitch and moan until GMAC compensates you for the errors.