Tag Archives: GMAT blog

Go ahead, roll your eyes… but it’s GMAT quantitative reasoning, not GMAT math

 

If you’ve struggled with the GMAT quant section more than you think you should, this blog post is for you. If you’ve ever said, “I’ve always been a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT quant is so hard for me!” – then this post is definitely for you.

In my former life as a PhD student, I spent far too much time learning about the statistical science underneath standardized testing, known as psychometrics. My nearly three-year PhD odyssey didn’t result in much other than some grey hairs and a “thank you for playing!” Master’s degree in education, but I did experience a few things that probably helped me become a better GMAT and GRE tutor.

This is a story about one of those things – and at the time, I never would have guessed that it would be useful for my GMAT and GRE students.

In my first year as a PhD student, I went to a psychometrics conference, populated by academics and employees of major standardized testing organizations, including ETS (makers of the GRE and TOEFL) and GMAC (creators of your beloved GMAT). I attended a presentation by a high-ranking GMAT psychometrician, who discussed… well, nevermind that part, I’ll put you right to sleep if I start talking about it.

Anyway, here’s the useful bit: somebody in the audience asked a question about the “math section of the GMAT.” The GMAT psychometrician interrupted him politely: “Excuse me,” he said, “there is no math section on the GMAT. There’s only quantitative reasoning.”

I probably rolled my eyes. “What a dick,” I thought, “why would he make a big deal out of that? It’s math. S#!t, I’ve been teaching it for a decade. Whatever, dude.”

Sure, maybe the GMAT psychometrician wasn’t picking the best moment to make a big deal out of it, but he absolutely had a point. In the few years since I attended that conference, I’ve realized that my students – particularly Americans – actually perform better on the quant section of the GMAT when they stop thinking of it as “math” and start thinking of it as “quantitative reasoning.”

Here’s the thing: in the United States, “math” knowledge – at least through the high school level – is typically taught as sequences of mechanical steps that you need to memorize and follow. Throughout much of my public school education, our daily homework would consist of 10 or 20 nearly identical math problems. The problems were usually so similar that there was no reason to think about what any of it meant. If you could follow instructions, you’d get an A – even if you had absolutely zero understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts.

As a result, most Americans think that the word “math” just refers to a boring series of steps that you follow. Sadly, we don’t think of mathematics as a way of thinking, or as a set of useful tools for reasoning our way through useful problems. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have learned math in a way that strips it of its logic, meaning, and intuition.

So it’s no surprise that I hear this over and over from GMAT test-takers, especially Americans: “I’m a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT is so hard for me!”

Obviously, there are a ton of reasons why somebody might struggle with the GMAT quant section, but plenty of GMAT test-takers make the subtle mistake of trying to learn too many formulas, memorize too many steps, and drill too many mechanical aspects of mathematics. The GMAT, for all of its flaws, brilliantly twists 10th-grade math into a hard-to-penetrate – or at least a hard-to-quickly-penetrate – tangle of logic.

In other words: if you’re trying to blindly apply mechanical techniques to GMAT quant questions above the 500 or 600 level, the exam will eat you for breakfast.

Let’s look at an example (with apologies for the blurry fractions):

Which of the following is greatest?

GMAT blog example quantitative reasoning

If you think of this as a mechanical “math question,” you’ll follow some well-worn steps here: find some common denominators, add the fractions, and THEN compare the sums.

Go ahead and try it if you’d like. If you can correctly solve the question that way in two minutes or less, I’ll give you a cookie.

But if you’re thinking of the GMAT as “quantitative reasoning” – with or without the eye-roll – then maybe you’ll try something quicker, smarter, and less arithmetic-intensive. In this case, we’re just looking for the greatest value – and we don’t care what that value actually is, as long as we know that it’s larger than the other four answer choices.

So since the question is just asking for the greatest of the five answer choices, you can just compare pairs of answer choices, and knock off anything that’s the smaller of the two. Let’s start with D and E. It’s easy to see why E is larger than D once you notice that 1 – ½ = ½, so D is gone.

Similarly, B looks a lot like E, except that the denominators in B are squared – and since larger denominators mean that the fractions must be smaller, we can cross off B. The same argument holds for C – it’s clearly smaller than E as well. And then A has smaller denominators than E – so A is your answer.

No computation required, right? If you’re approaching this wisely, you barely need to lift your pen.

So if you’re thinking of the GMAT quant section as a set of narrow mathematical tasks – formulas that need to be memorized, or boring-ass steps that need to be followed – then you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least if you want an elite GMAT quant score. Once you start looking for opportunities to apply flexible logic and identify multiple solution paths, then you’re on the right track.

If any of this strikes a nerve, then it might not be a bad idea to stop yourself whenever you start thinking about the GMAT “math section.” Roll your eyes at yourself if you’d like, but thinking of the GMAT quant section as “quantitative reasoning” might help you embrace the flexibility and logic you’ll need for a top GMAT quant score.

An unfortunate story about GMAT testing irregularities

 

I’m reasonably confident that the GMAT does its honest best to ensure that the GMAT testing experience is the same for every GMAT test-taker. But unfortunately, stuff happens in life – even in the tightly controlled environment of a GMAT testing center. I documented a few minor GMAT testing center horror stories on my GMAT blog a bunch of years ago: basically, a few GMAT test-takers encountered computer glitches that torpedoed their tests, or had shorter breaks because the proctor failed to release them promptly from the testing room – that sort of thing.

Since then, my GMAT students have occasionally experienced computer failures, GMAT test-center power outages, and even a haunting or two — though the latter might have happened only in a GMAT student’s (literal) nightmares. In each of the real-world cases, the folks at the GMAT have done the right thing: they’ve at least offered a free retake of the GMAT.

Sadly, it sounds like the GMAT has modified its behavior toward testing irregularities lately, and that’s pretty frustrating. The circumstances of the latest GMAT testing center horror story aren’t terribly interesting: as one of my GMAT students returned from his post-Integrated Reasoning break, the proctor botched the password when he tried to log back into the computer. He apparently botched it several times, and my poor GMAT student – let’s call him Mr. B, since he apparently makes a mean bhindi masala – lost about two minutes from his GMAT quant section.

In theory, losing two minutes shouldn’t have affected Mr. B’s quant score much – after all, that’s only the equivalent of one GMAT question, right? But let’s be realistic: since we all know that you need every possible advantage on the GMAT these days, wouldn’t you freak out just a little bit if you lost two minutes from the test? And wouldn’t that affect your performance?

Unfortunately, Mr. B badly underperformed on his GMAT that day – particularly on his slightly shortened quant section – and he chose to cancel the score. We can’t completely blame his GMAT quant score on the proctor’s error, but it certainly didn’t help.

Regardless of the effects of the proctor’s error, it’s still true that the GMAT is supposed to be a standardized test. “Standardized” means that every test-taker should be given the same, fair testing experience. The GMAT quant section is 75 minutes – not 73 minutes. What happened to Mr. B is pretty much the textbook definition of a testing irregularity.

In this situation, the GMAT should have apologized, wiped the score off Mr. B’s score report, and offered him a free retake. After all, that’s what they’ve done in the past – plus, it just seems like the right thing to do. Mr. B didn’t have the same testing experience as his competitors for coveted MBA slots, and that’s not fair – even if the disadvantage was relatively small.

Mr. B is not a particularly shy man, and he pushed the GMAT for a fair resolution. There was a paper trail – the proctor filed a report indicating that there had been a testing irregularity. What did the GMAT do after several phone calls and a few emails? Nothing. They told Mr. B that he “didn’t have to cancel his score” and refused to offer a retake.

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Mr. B earns a good living, and the $250 he paid for his next GMAT exam did not bankrupt him. But it seems unfair – and it definitely represents a departure from the GMAT’s behavior in the past.

Here’s my rather cynical theory about the GMAT’s decision: perhaps due to increasing competition from the GRE exam, the number of GMAT exams has fallen recently, and the GMAT’s revenue has presumably fallen accordingly. But if each GMAT question costs somewhere between $1500 and $3000 to develop, the GMAT can’t really afford a loss of revenue.

So it looks like they’re making up that revenue however they can. Since 2012 – when the number of GMAT tests dropped – the GMAT has begun to offer plenty of pricey (and often very useful) products, as I mentioned in an earlier GRE vs. GMAT blog post: enhanced score reports ($24.95), the ability to cancel ($25) or “un-cancel” ($50) your score after test day, the worth-every-penny GMAT Exam Packs ($49.99 each), and new GMAT OGs, released every year instead of every few years ($85 for the latest bundle on the GMAC website).

And we can apparently add a new revenue source to the list: a refusal to compensate GMAT test-takers when minor testing irregularities occur.

I’m obviously not impressed by the GMAT’s behavior in this case, but if you’re just a reader of this little GMAT blog, the good news is that these sorts of things don’t happen very often. But if you’re truly paranoid about the GMAT’s increasing miserliness, then maybe you have another reason to think about taking the GRE instead of the GMAT?

How to get a perfect 800 score on the GMAT… sort of

 

More than five years ago, I earned a perfect 800 on the GMAT. I don’t really think of it as much of an achievement, to be honest – and I definitely don’t think that it’s an important qualification for the best GMAT tutors.

But I’ve been asked about it literally hundreds of times over the years – by GMAT students, prospective GMAT students, random people in the GMAT forums, strangers who’ve encountered my little GMAT blog, and plenty of others. So here are a few answers to the 800-related questions that keep coming my way.

Did you get every question right? 

No, I’m 99% sure that I didn’t. GMAT enhanced score reports didn’t exist back in 2011, so I can’t actually see if I missed any questions, but as soon as I finished the exam, I worked through every quant question I could remember – and I’m pretty certain that I missed at least one. Maybe more.

The bottom line, for whatever it’s worth: you can miss a bunch of questions and still get a “perfect” GMAT quant score of 51.

But you got every verbal question right? 

I think so. But it was mostly due to dumb luck.

In all of my previous GMAT exams – including the GMATPrep practice tests the first time I took each of them – I always fell short of a perfect verbal score. I inevitably missed a few questions, partly because I tend to lose focus at the end of the GMAT, but mostly because I screw stuff up sometimes, just like every other human.

And if you’ve ever taken the GMAT or the GRE or the LSAT, I’m sure that this part will sound familiar: I inevitably face a few “coin tosses” on verbal – questions where I’m down to two answer choices, but I’m not terribly confident in the final selection. (Incidentally, if you’re down to two choices on a GMAT verbal question and you select the wrong one, that’s not necessarily a sign that you were “close” – it’s usually a sign that you misread something in the passage.)

But when I finally scored an 800 on the GMAT, that didn’t happen at all – I was pretty much 100% confident on every verbal question. That has never happened to me on any GMAT, LSAT, or GRE exam before or since – including the day when I got a perfect GRE score. That test felt freaking brutal, and I was shocked that my GRE score wasn’t lower in the end.

Most importantly, all four of my GMAT reading comprehension passages were bizarrely interesting when I got that 800. I still remember one of them – it was about a type of plant called dodder that apparently has a sense of smell. Amazing. Again, that’s never happened before or since: when have you ever had four interesting GMAT reading comprehension passages on the same exam?

So there you go: yes, I’m pretty good at the GMAT, but those last 10 or 20 points were dumb luck – or measurement error, if you prefer the technical term.

Were you banned from taking the GMAT ever again? 

Yup. I received a nice letter from the GMAT Office of Test Security, informing me that I would need a damned good reason if I ever wanted to take it again. And I don’t have a damned good reason. “I want to help my GMAT students beat your stinking exam” isn’t going to fly with the GMAT test security folks.

My MBA.com account is suspended too, though the GMAT will still happily accept my money whenever I want to buy GMAT practice tests or the GMATPrep Question Pack from them.

Did you study for the GMAT before you got the perfect score?

Well, I earned the perfect score in 2011. I started working as a GRE and GMAT test-prep tutor in 2001, starting with a gig at a large test-prep company before I became an independent tutor a few years later. So in some sense, I “studied” for 10 years before I got a perfect GMAT score – and I’m still “studying,” since I work with GMAT students almost every day.

You probably don’t want to do that. Unless you want to become a GMAT tutor yourself, “studying” for more than a decade is an epic waste of your time.

Are there certain GMAT test-prep materials that would help somebody get a perfect GMAT score?

It’s funny, I read a GMAT blog post from another test-prep company that recommended its own materials for anybody who wants a perfect GMAT score. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, partly because knockoff GMAT materials can never be as good as official GMAT materials – and partly because that particular GMAT test-prep firm writes especially lousy materials, in my opinion.

So, no: other than the official GMAT materials, there aren’t magical GMAT test-prep resources that will get you to a perfect 800 on the GMAT.

And more importantly: there’s absolutely no practical reason for you to want a perfect GMAT score, anyway. An 800 will not help you get into a great business school, and I wouldn’t even argue that it’s a necessary quality for the best GMAT tutors.

So if you’re wondering how to get an 800 on the GMAT, don’t waste your time thinking about that. Go write an interesting MBA essay instead, or better still: go eat a tasty snack.

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.

 

You think your GMAT nightmares are bad?

 

(Friendly warning: this GMAT blog post is mostly useless, and will not actually help you conquer the GMAT or any other standardized test. Sorry.)

If you ask any longtime waiter or bartender, they’ll tell you that they routinely have “restaurant anxiety dreams.” Nearly a decade after my last stint as a bartender, I’m no exception: I routinely have crazyass nightmares in which I’m in an unfamiliar restaurant, working simultaneously as both the waiter and the bartender. My tables are always filled with customers who insist on ordering drinks that don’t actually exist, like Screaming Vikings (with the cucumbers slightly bruised) or Nutless Monkeys (blended, with a banana garnish) or Steel-Belted Radials (easy on the ketchup).

And then I end up literally walking uphill to return to the bar, and uphill again to deliver the drinks back to the table. Restaurants in my dreams are always like M.C. Esher paintings, which makes it really hard to not suck at waiting tables.

In another version, an old high school friend was sitting at one of my tables, and he ordered a pulled pork sandwich on whole wheat bread. (Note for anybody who isn’t from barbecue country: pulled pork on whole wheat is heresy.) When I tried to enter the order into the computer system, the computer exploded, hissing and bubbling and sending sparks flying around the dining room.

Thankfully, I no longer work in restaurants or bars, so these dreams are just plain funny – and I never have anxiety dreams about my life as a GMAT tutor, because my charming GMAT students rarely manage to stress me out. My GMAT students, on the other hand, aren’t always so fortunate.

One of my all-time favorite GMAT students (let’s call her Luke, since she calls me Yoda) also had some of my all-time favorite GMAT nightmares. If the GMAT hadn’t caused some legitimate suffering in her life, the dreams would be freaking hilarious.

In the first version of the dream, Luke was taking the GMAT exam in a dilapidated shack filled with spiders and mice, as she hunched over a dimly lit computer screen. The vermin were everywhere, crawling over the keyboard and monitor as she tried to think clearly about the proper way to conjugate the 13th verb in a 100-word GMAT sentence correction question.

As she became more fed up, Luke begged the GMAT proctor to please do something about the insects and rodents crawling all over her during the test. But instead of responding in a useful way, the proctor – a cranky, creepy old librarian type, peering at her skeptically through his dusty monocle – threatened her instead of offering help: “If you complain one more time about the testing center,” he said in an ominous tone, “I’ll take 40 points off your score.” Then he laughed maniacally, and poor Luke woke up in a cold sweat.

(Don’t worry: this can’t actually happen in reality. GMAT proctors don’t really have the power to take 40 points off your score, and rodent infestations are presumably rare in GMAT testing centers.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of Luke’s GMAT nightmares. The next night, she had another version of the dream. She was back in the same dilapidated shack with spiders and mice. But this time, the shack was haunted. The feeble lights on her computer would flicker on and off, and she could feel ghosts brushing against her neck as she tried to figure out whether answer choice B or C was actually more parallel. Several times, she turned around in a panic – and saw nothing. She was supposedly alone in the GMAT testing center, but she could hear thumping sounds in the attic as she tried to decipher the GMAT’s nastiest, book-length critical reasoning question – which was, of course, written in wingdings.

But poor Luke wasn’t finished with her GMAT night terrors. A few nights later, she was back in that same damned shack, but this time, the GMAT had a brand-new section: Artists from Around the World. When she complained to the proctor, he just said, “Well, miss, remember that there are some monsters lurking in the testing room, and we do expect you to keep yourself safe and focused during the GMAT exam.”

When Luke got back into the testing room, she was completely alone, and could see the shadows of ghosts lurking behind the computer screen. She got a 480 on the GMAT that night, and the proctor was absolutely disgusted with the result. “But there were ghosts in there!” Luke protested, to no avail.

So yeah: if the GMAT is keeping you up at night, I suppose that it would always be worse.

 

Don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT, part II: critical reasoning

 

In an old GMAT blog post featuring an incredible woman who answered more than 4,000 CR and RC practice questions, I wrote some decidedly unsexy stuff about the reality of improving your GMAT CR and RC results: unfortunately, if your fundamental reading precision isn’t very good, it can take a lot of work to move the needle on your GMAT verbal score.

“Fine,” you might be thinking, “but I’m not an imprecise reader. I swear – I’m not! My GMAT RC is going fine. So why am I bad at GMAT CR?”

I’ve heard that question from perhaps hundreds of GMAT test-takers over the years. There are plenty of possible answers, but I’ll focus on just one here: you might be letting reality get in the way of your GMAT critical reasoning.

That might sound snarky, and I suppose that it is: I’m not really a big fan of what the GMAT tests. I would argue that GMAT verbal questions require you to read with an unrealistic sort of intensity: if somebody plops a report on your desk tomorrow, you’re going to skim it for key takeaways, facts, and quotable bits of data. If you’re dissecting the author’s tone or carefully determining what might weaken the author’s argument on page 23 of that work report, you’re probably wasting time that could be better spent… I don’t know, maybe doing your job or something?

More importantly: in real life, you’re expected to, um, know stuff. For example, if your boss asks you to evaluate a one-paragraph plan to replace your firm’s incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs, then it’s a good thing if you know something about light bulbs, right? And if you know about a third type of light bulb – say, a cutting-edge titanium bulb that consumes even less energy than an LED – then your boss would be impressed with your useful, outside knowledge, right?

But on GMAT critical reasoning questions, if you start thinking beyond that one paragraph, you’re screwed. As soon as you let reality – in the form of outside knowledge or ideas – enter your mind, you’re much more likely to miss the question. (And yes, the light bulb example refers to a real GMAT CR question, albeit a not terribly difficult one: see OG 2017 edition, #553.)

Here’s another example, loosely adapted from a retired test question:

In the nation of Pelmenistan, 20% of 18-year-olds are left-handed, while just 10% of 45-year-olds and 2% of 70-year-olds are left-handed. But the percentage of children born left-handed has never changed in Pelmenistan, nor have societal attitudes toward left-handedness.

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

Before we get to the answer choices: when I first saw the official version of this question in 2008, I got it wrong. Why? I let reality get in the way of my test-taking. You see, I totally thought that I knew the answer immediately: left-handers are more likely to perish in accidents in factories or while operating heavy machinery, since most industrial machines are designed for right-handers. I actually learned this in an economics class in Chile as an undergraduate.

So I was certain that the answer had to have something to do with accidents or machinery or something. But I was wrong.

Back to our show:

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

A) A substantial number of Pelmenistani men are born with only one arm.
B) In Pelmenistan, left-handers are no more likely to perish in accidents than right-handers.
C) In Pelmenistan, ambidexterity is considered a gift from God.
D) In Pelmenistan, women have a lower life expectancy than men, and they are more likely to be born left-handed.
E) Pelmenistan was named after a type of dumpling that is traditionally eaten with the right hand only.

“Easy,” I thought, “the answer is clearly B. This is all about the accidents. My Chilean economics professor told me so!” So I picked B and moved on.

Do you see my error? I cherry-picked the answer choices, looking for an answer that mentioned factories or industrial accidents or something like that. I “found” what I was looking for – but then misread it. It says that lefties are no more likely to perish in accidents. But I subconsciously refused to read it correctly, because I “knew the truth.”

And once I misread answer choice B, I compounded my mistake by not paying much attention to the other answer choices – A, C, and E are irrelevant, but if I’d thought about D a little bit more, maybe I would have questioned my love for B.

But I didn’t. I was too jacked up about my outside knowledge, and as a result, I did a sh**ty job of reading what was right in front of me.

So when you answer GMAT CR questions, always stay inside the narrow constructs of the passage. If the passage tells you that mix-handed GMAT tutors enhance their pedagogical genius by eating Namibian caterpillars, then you have to believe them. If the passage tells you that the sky in Pelmenistan is a nice shade of Denver Broncos orange, then you have to believe them. Read what’s on the page, and ignore anything else that pops into your head.

Remember: the GMAT is just a standardized test. It’s not reality. Stay inside the GMAT’s meticulously-drawn lines on critical reasoning, and good things will happen.

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.