Tag Archives: GMAT official guide

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.

 

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part IV: GRE study materials

Thanks in large part to MBA programs’ increasing appetite for the GRE, I’ve had a surge in GRE tutoring inquiries over the past year or so.  The GMAT is still king in the MBA admissions world—and probably will be for a long time—but a surprisingly large proportion of my time is spent on the GRE now.  Even though I actually have a longer history with the GRE than with the GMAT (and I’ll feel really really old if I tell you exactly how long that is), I’ve never seen this level of interest in the GRE among MBA applicants.  So congratulations, GRE:  you’re not winning yet, but you’re in the game now.

In a series of earlier blog posts, I did my best to figure out what types of MBA applicants might be better off taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.  If you really want to read the whole series, I would recommend starting with Part I, but here’s the oversimplified summary:  since MBA programs are more familiar with the GMAT—and since the GRE includes those annoying vocabulary questions—relatively few MBA applicants will actually gain a significant advantage by taking the GRE.  Sure, some applicants are much better off with the GRE, but it’s tough to argue that one test is unambiguously “better” than the other if you’re shooting for a top MBA program.

I did, however, accidentally leave one factor out of the discussion in those three blog posts:  the relatively limited availability of GRE test-prep materials.  If you’re choosing between the GRE and the GMAT and you think that you’ll need a lot of repetition in order to reach your score goals, then the GMAT might be a better bet.

From a test-taker’s perspective, one of the GMAT’s best qualities is that it isn’t difficult to keep yourself busy with high-quality study materials, even if you’re facing a protracted battle with the GMAT beast.  We’re blessed with four full, official GMATPrep practice tests, a beefy bank of nearly 500 additional questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack (which can be used to cobble together additional “fake tests”), and somewhere around 750 quant and 600 verbal questions in the GMAT official guides (including the official GMAT quant and verbal review guides).

If that isn’t enough, we also have the crusty old GMAT paper tests, older editions of the GMAT official guides that can yield a few hundred additional questions, the (deeply flawed) GMAT Focus tests, and a nearly limitless supply of LSAT questions if you need some extra work on CR and RC.  And of course, there’s a healthy ecosystem of GMAT test-prep firms that will happily provide additional materials and practice tests, albeit of lamentably variable quality. 

The bottom line:  it would take literally hundreds of hours of studying to exhaust the supply of worthwhile GMAT materials.  I’ve seen it happen, but it’s a rarity.

Unfortunately, we aren’t nearly as well-endowed when it comes to high-quality GRE materials.  (And yes, I really did just use the phrase “well-endowed” on a GMAT blog.  Judge if you must.)  The official GRE software includes only two full, adaptive practice tests—which means that you should use them very carefully if you’re planning to take the GRE.  There are a total of three additional paper-based GRE practice tests available in the GRE official guide and in an odd corner of the GRE website, but paper-based tests do not even begin to mimic the experience of taking an actual, computer-adaptive GRE exam, and therefore are of somewhat limited value.

The GRE looks even worse when we tally the questions that appear in the GRE official guides.  Even if we include the GRE’s new verbal and quantitative reasoning guides (in addition to the GRE Official Guide), we still have only 210 additional verbal questions and 210 additional quant questions – far fewer than are available for the GMAT.  Sure, it’s possible to supplement the official GRE materials with “knockoff” materials from test-prep firms, but these materials are rarely as useful as official GRE or GMAT questions.  The old GRE official guide (out of print, but still generally available online) is still a decent source of quant practice questions, but the vocabulary questions are completely obsolete, and the quant questions are generally easier than the ones you’ll encounter on an actual, computerized GRE.

So at best, we have maybe half as many high-quality GRE test questions as we do GMAT questions, depending on how you want to define “high-quality.”  If you’re a naturally gifted test-taker, then you probably won’t need that much practice, and the lack of good GRE materials is a non-issue.  But if you’re looking for a huge score improvement, you might have an easier time moving forward on the GMAT than on the GRE.

To be fair, the GRE just experienced a major overhaul in 2011, and because it is incredibly expensive for testing companies to develop operational exam questions, it normally takes quite a few years before retired questions are publicly released.  (The GMAT, after all, only began to sell the Exam Pack, which includes two additional adaptive practice tests, in 2013.)  I can’t blame the GRE’s creators at all:  their job is to create a valid exam, not necessarily to provide us with materials that help us clobber that exam.  But if you already know that you have a long road ahead of you and you’re not sure which test to take, the GMAT’s relative generosity with retired questions might be a decent reason to steer clear of the GRE.

GMAT percentile rankings, part III: the 80th percentile myth

One of my favorite GMAT students recently called me with some great news: he got a 710 on his first attempt at the test (47 quant, 40 verbal). But despite the great composite score, the poor man was disappointed that he only scored in the 73rd percentile on the quant section, since he had heard that MBA admissions committees prefer to see scores above the 80th percentile on both sections of the GMAT.

Don’t worry, Mr. 710. You’ll be fine.

I say that for two reasons. The first reason is that MBA admissions committees simply aren’t all that rigid about the so-called “80th percentile rule.” Sure, successful applicants usually have somewhat balanced GMAT scores, but no elite MBA admissions committee blindly applies GMAT score “cutoffs” during its evaluation process. When I look through the my list of former students who were admitted to top ten MBA programs over the past five years, barely one-third of them actually scored above the 80th percentile on both the quant and the verbal sections. The 80th percentile clearly isn’t a magic number anymore—if it ever was.

But there’s a second reason why you shouldn’t worry about hitting the 80th percentile on both sections: GMAT quant scores have changed substantially in recent years. If you had taken the GMAT back in 2007—when the percentile ranking charts in the 11th edition of the GMAT Official Guide were published—a quant score of 47 would have put you in the 81st percentile. Just six years later, a 47 lands you “only” in the 73rd percentile. Similarly, quant scores of 48 and 49 would have put you in the 85th and 89th percentiles in 2007; today, you’d only be in the 78th and 83rd percentiles with those scores.

So if you’re trying to earn a score above the 80th percentile on the GMAT quant section, a 47 would have done the trick back in 2007. You would need a 49 now—and that’s a terrifyingly high quant score for many test-takers.

As I discussed in a pair of old GMAT blog posts (available here and here if you’re curious), the pool of GMAT test-takers includes an ever-growing supply of quant studs, largely from Asian countries. I admiringly call this the “Asian effect”: percentile scores on the quant section are changing quickly, simply as a result of the stronger test-taking pool. Interestingly, percentile rankings on the GMAT verbal section have stayed pretty much constant during the past decade, and that’s probably also a byproduct of the “internationalization” of the MBA applicant pool.

The bottom line? Percentile rankings are disturbingly fluid, and you shouldn’t stress too much about them, especially on the quant section. A 710/47Q/40V is still an outstanding score that eliminates all rational doubt about your academic abilities. For the vast majority of MBA applicants, a GMAT quant score in the 73rd percentile is enough to placate MBA admissions officers, and your odds of admission will depend almost entirely on other elements of your profile.

So if you’re worried about the strength of a 47 on the quant section, don’t be. If you’re north of a 700 with a quant score of 47 or 48, put your GMAT books away. Be proud, be confident, and focus your energy on writing a spectacular MBA application instead. The extra handful of percentile points mean far less to MBA admissions committees than a strong work history and a clear, compelling vision for your post-MBA career.

 

Hootie and the (very old) GMAT Paper Tests

Q: What are the GMAT Paper Tests, and why don’t I hear about them very often?

A: Back in the Dark Ages before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates conquered the world, the GMAT was a paper-based test. The GMAT Paper Tests are basically old, retired exams from way back in the day. Each test contains approximately 110 questions, divided into one data sufficiency section, two quant problem solving sections, one sentence correction section, one critical reasoning section, and one reading comprehension section.

You don’t hear about them terribly often because they aren’t very popular. GMAC has sold the GMAT Paper Tests on their website for a long time, but I don’t get the impression that they sell many copies, largely because test-takers have newer and sexier options available, including the GMAT Official Guide, the GMAT Quant Review guide and Verbal Review Guide, the GMATPrep Question Pack, and tons of materials from test-prep companies.

Considering all of the other options out there, the old GMAT Paper Tests—somewhat understandably—don’t seem to register on most test-takers’ radar screens.

Q: How old are the GMAT Paper Tests?

A: Pretty old. Most of them have a publication date of 1995, and a few were initially published even earlier.

In case you don’t remember 1995 very well: back then, a BlackBerry was just a type of fruit, Google didn’t exist yet, and hits by Coolio, Real McCoy (!!), Alanis Morissette (ouch!), Seal, and Hootie & The Blowfish topped the U.S. music charts. Yup, Hootie & The Blowfish.

Back in 1995, the average GMAT score for entering students at Wharton was 650. The median score is 720 now. In 1995, the GMAT was written and administered by ETS; today, the questions are written by the wise Iowans at ACT, and the test is administered by Pearson VUE, which loves palm vein scanners.

In 1995, palm vein scanners didn’t exist.

So yeah: the GMAT Paper Tests are old.

Q: Wait a minute… what the heck is Hootie & The Blowfish?

A: If you have to ask, you probably don’t want to know. Can we get back to the GMAT now, please?

Q: OK, fine. So the GMAT Paper Tests are old. But have GMAT questions changed that much since the 1990s?

A: GMAT questions haven’t actually changed all that much since the 1990s. The old GMAT Paper Tests still include problem solving, data sufficiency, sentence correction, critical reasoning, and reading comprehension, just like the current version of the GMAT. The only major difference is that the GMAT now includes Integrated Reasoning, which may or may not be very important to your MBA goals.

So if you need practice with the core GMAT quant and verbal question types, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use the GMAT Paper Tests. Sure, these questions are old, but they’re not radically different from, say, current GMAT Official Guide questions. And for whatever it’s worth, many of the questions in the GMAT Official Guide are from the 1980s and 1990s, and have appeared in several consecutive editions of the book.

The GMAT is constantly evolving in subtle ways, it would be ridiculous to suggest that 20-year-old GMAT questions are exactly the same as new ones. But if you’re just looking for some extra practice materials, the age of the GMAT Paper Test questions isn’t really a huge problem. They aren’t all that different from the questions you’ll find in the GMAT Official Guide.

Q: If I buy the GMAT Paper Tests, will I recognize some of the questions from the GMAT Official Guide or other GMAT resources?

A: This is where things get a little bit tricky. There is substantial overlap between the GMAT Paper Tests and other GMAT resources, and my best guess is that somewhere around 40% of the GMAT Paper Test questions have appeared elsewhere at some point in the last 20 years.

But “elsewhere” is a funny place when we’re talking about GMAT questions. Since 1995, GMAC has released six different editions of the GMAT Official Guide, and some of the GMAT Paper Test questions have appeared in each edition. GMAT Paper Test questions also pop up in both editions of the Quant Review Guide and both editions of the Verbal Review Guide, as well as the GMATPrep tests and the now-obsolete GMAT PowerPrep tests. So yes, the GMAT Paper Test questions are scattered all over the place.

Even if 40% of the GMAT Paper Test questions appear in other resources, you probably won’t recognize nearly that many, since many of questions appeared only in older editions of the Official Guide or in the thoroughly ancient GMAT PowerPrep tests. My best guess is that only 15-20% of the GMAT Paper Test questions appear in the newest versions of the GMAT Official Guide, GMAT quant and verbal supplements, and the GMATPrep exams.

So the bottom line is that you’ll see an overwhelming number of repeats if you’re a connoisseur of obsolete GMAT resources, but you’ll see only a moderate number of repeats if you’re sticking with the newest versions of the official GMAT books and software.

Q: Is the scoring on the GMAT Paper Tests accurate?

A: The GMAT Paper Tests were very accurate back in 1995, when the test was actually administered on paper. But in the 21st century, the scoring on the GMAT Paper Tests is pretty much irrelevant.

Think about it this way: one of the biggest challenges of the modern GMAT is time management. You can’t go back to review the questions you already answered on the GMAT, so you constantly face a difficult choice: do I keep grappling with a particular question, or should I guess and move on? I would argue that the GMAT timing conundrum is one of the single biggest determinants of your score on the exam.

But on the GMAT Paper Tests, you can move around within each section as much as you want. If you want to change an answer, great. If you want to skip a question and come back to it later, that’s no problem at all.

So the testing experience is completely different. Yes, the GMAT Paper Tests will generate scores on the familiar 200-800 scale, but they don’t mean very much. Despite the name, it’s best to think of the GMAT Paper Tests as practice questions, not as practice exams.

Q: Are the GMAT Paper Tests hard?

A: Because the test wasn’t adaptive back in 1995, the GMAT Paper Tests include an incredibly broad cross-section of questions, ranging from insanely easy to insanely difficult. In theory, the GMAT Paper Tests are much like the GMAT Official Guide: they contain a little bit of everything, and many of the questions will be of limited value to you if you’re either a very weak GMAT student or a very strong one.

If you’re scoring above a 650 on the GMAT, you’ll probably be bored by the majority of GMAT Paper Test questions. Sure, some of the questions will offer you a good challenge, but plenty of them won’t. That doesn’t mean that the GMAT Paper Tests aren’t useful; it just means that high-scoring students will get a thorough workout from perhaps 20-40% of the questions. And that’s probably better than nothing, though you could easily argue that it’s not worth spending the money on the GMAT Paper Tests if you’re a relatively advanced GMAT student.

Speaking of which…

Q: Are the GMAT Paper Tests worth the money?

A: Well, I suppose it depends on your skill level and how much you value $29.99. For that price, GMAC will send you a set of three GMAT Paper Tests, each of which contains roughly 110 questions, give or take a few. So you’re paying a little bit less than a dime per question.

That’s pretty cheap compared to GMAT Focus (which costs more than $1 per question), but a little bit more expensive than the GMATPrep Question Pack (roughly six cents per question), and much more expensive than the GMAT Official Guide and Quant Review Guide (around three or four cents per question, depending on the exact price you pay for the books).

So if we’re talking about an either/or proposition, the GMAT Paper Tests pale in comparison to the newer, cheaper GMAT Official Guides or the GMATPrep Question Pack.

But if you simply need more practice questions—either because you’ve already burned through the newer resources, or because you want to save them for later—then the GMAT Paper Tests aren’t a terrible option. Advanced GMAT students might get less mileage out of the tests, since so many of the questions are relatively easy, but you’ll still get something out of the GMAT Paper Tests.

I don’t know whether you’ll get $29.99 worth of GMAT awesomeness from the tests, but official GMAT questions are never exactly bad for you. So if you have the money and the time to do the GMAT Paper Tests, go for it. But keep in mind that they’re not a particularly good substitute for the Official Guide or the quant/verbal supplements or the GMATPrep Question Pack.

GMATPrep Question Pack FAQ, part II: GMAT “fake tests”

(This is part two in a series on the GMATPrep Question Pack.  If you’re interested in reading more about the basics of the GMATPrep Question Pack, please check out part one.)

Q: What is the best way to use the quant questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack?  Should I do the questions in order, or should I randomize them, or…?

A: Here comes a very long answer.  Consider yourself warned.

If you want, you could just do the questions in order, the same way you would use the GMAT Official Guide or any other GMAT test-prep book.  But I think it’s better to compile the GMATPrep Question Pack exercises into what I call “fake tests,” since there’s a desperate shortage of computerized practice tests that use actual, retired GMAT questions.

Here’s how it works:  for quant, select the questions that you think are appropriate for your level.  If you’re struggling on the quant section of the GMAT, maybe you should stick with the easy and medium questions.  If you’re consistently scoring in the mid-40s or above on the quant section, then you should probably select all of the medium and hard questions, as shown below.  And then hit the buttons for “random” and “study” mode.

GMATPrep Question Pack fake GMAT tests

This will give you a nice, randomized selection of questions, vaguely approximating the feel of the actual GMAT exam.  This isn’t a perfect approach, since the actual GMAT is adaptive, and the GMATPrep Question Pack “fake tests” are randomized.  But to be honest, the actual GMAT exam often feels pretty darned random, and if you select your GMATPrep Question Pack difficulty levels correctly, the 37-question “fake test” will feel very much like an actual GMAT exam.

The only problem is that you’ll have to set your own timer for 75 minutes, and you’ll have to stop yourself when you’ve completed 37 questions.  The software won’t do it for you.  That’s annoying, but easily fixed with the help of a stopwatch or a kitchen timer.

Sure, this isn’t exactly the same thing as taking, say, a GMATPrep practice test.  You won’t get a scaled score.  But these “fake tests” will give you an opportunity to test your mettle on real GMAT questions, under timed conditions.

Even without a scaled section score, you can learn a ton from your mistakes. Did you make a lot of careless errors under time pressure?  Did you have to scramble at the end of your “fake test” because you spent too much time on a handful of hard questions?  Should you have been quicker to let the tougher questions go?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you probably need to focus carefully on your timing and accuracy before you take the actual GMAT exam.  So the GMATPrep “fake tests” aren’t exactly perfect, but they’re still an outstanding tool for improvement if you’re diligent about analyzing your errors and your timing.

Q:  What about verbal?  How should I use the verbal questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack?

A:  On the quant side, I would argue that the GMATPrep Question Pack “fake tests” offer a reasonable facsimile of the actual GMAT experience.  On the verbal side, I’m not so sure.

In theory, you could select a nice cross-section of GMAT sentence correction, reading comprehension, and critical reasoning questions, and then select “random” and “exam” mode, just as you would for the quant “fake tests.”  And then you could do 41 questions in 75 minutes, and it would feel much like the actual GMAT.  In theory.

Here’s the problem:  there’s a little hitch in the GMATPrep Question Pack software, and if you select “random” and “exam” mode for reading comprehension questions, you’ll only receive one question for each reading comprehension passage, instead of the three or four questions that you would  see on each RC passage on an actual GMAT exam.  So you might see 10 or 12 or 15 reading comprehension passages in your “fake test”, and each of those passages would include only one question.  Not fun.

The only alternative is to select “in order” instead of “random,” but then you’ll see an endless series of consecutive reading comprehension questions.  And obviously, that isn’t realistic, either.

So the bottom line is that you can’t really do anything to produce semi-realistic verbal “fake tests.”  And that’s a sad story.  You can, however, skip the reading comprehension questions, and stick with critical reasoning and sentence correction only (in “random” and “exam” mode).  You’ll probably have an easier time finishing 41 questions in 75 minutes when there aren’t any reading comprehension questions included, but at least you’ll be able to do something that resembles an actual test.  If nothing else, you’ll get some good exposure to official questions, and your stamina will be vaguely challenged by the experience, especially if you do a quant section beforehand.

And then if you really want to do some extra GMAT reading comprehension practice, you can just do those questions in order.

Q: When should I use the GMATPrep Question Pack?

A: As I discussed in part one of this series, the GMATPrep Question Pack contains some of the newest official GMAT questions available, and it is definitely one of the best GMAT study resources out there.  But it’s wise to avoid burning through the best materials too early in the study process, so you might want to make sure that your quant and verbal fundamentals are sound before you rip through all of your official GMAT materials, including the GMATPrep Question Pack.

At the very least, the GMATPrep Question Pack definitely isn’t the first resource you should turn to when preparing for the GMAT, and it makes sense to use it only when you feel 100% ready.  For most of you, that means saving the GMATPrep Question Pack until the last few weeks before your actual GMAT exam.

Q: I finished a GMATPrep Question Pack “fake test” and now I can’t access the questions I completed!  WTF?

A:  Yeah, welcome to the wonderful world of janky GMAC software.  (And yes, I’m proud that I managed to use the word “janky” on a GMAT blog.)

I also mentioned this in part one of this series, but it’s always a good idea to take screenshots of the questions you missed immediately after finishing anything in the GMATPrep software, including both the “real” GMATPrep tests and the GMATPrep Question Pack “fake tests.”  It’s annoying, but it’s also the only way to be 100% certain that you don’t miss an opportunity to review the questions.

 

GMATPrep Question Pack FAQ, part I: the basics

The new GMATPrep software and the $25 GMATPrep Question Pack have been around for nearly a year now, but I have a funny feeling that the GMATPrep Question Pack is still somewhat underutilized as a GMAT study resource.  So in an effort to encourage you to use the GMATPrep Question Pack—and to use it wisely—here are answers to a few questions that I’ve been asked about it over the past year or so.

This is the first part of a two-part series; I’ll post part two next week.

Q:  Does the GMATPrep Question Pack actually contain new questions, or do the same questions appear in the GMAT Official Guide or somewhere else?

A: Let’s face it:  GMAC has a funny habit of selling recycled questions.  The (rather expensive) GMAT Focus tests overlapped the GMAT Official Guide and the GMAT Quant Review Guide, and GMAC still sells crusty old GMAT Paper Tests that are filled with questions that appear elsewhere.

But the GMATPrep Question Pack seems to contain good, fresh, retired questions, and the official GMAT blog insists that the GMATPrep Question Pack exercises don’t appear anywhere else.  So I think it’s safe to say that the Question Pack really does contain completely new questions.  Pretty exciting.

Q: Is the GMATPrep Question Pack worth the money? 

A:  Absolutely.  I’m completely convinced that there is no substitute for good, official GMAT questions.  They’re infinitely more valuable than “knockoff” materials produced by GMAT test-prep firms. So you don’t want to pass up any opportunity to practice with real, retired GMAT questions.

Considering that you’ll pay $250 just to take the GMAT—and considering that you’re likely to invest more than $400,000 in an elite MBA if you include the two years of forgone wages—$25  for a set of 404 official GMAT questions is a pretty serious bargain.

Q:  Does the GMATPrep Question Pack contain newer questions than the Official Guide?

A:  Presumably, yes.  Although we don’t know exactly when the GMATPrep Question Pack exercises were actually retired, it’s probably safe to suspect that the questions are relatively new.  Some of the GMAT Official Guide questions are also fairly new, but others are at least 20 years old, and have appeared in several editions of the GMAT Official Guide.

Q:  Does the GMATPrep Question Pack include answer explanations?

A: Yup, it does, though I should warn you that the explanations don’t always offer the easiest way to do each question.  But the same is true of the GMAT Official Guide, and I think we’ll all agree that a slightly flawed explanation is far better than no explanation at all.

Q:  How hard are the questions in the GMATPrep Question Pack?

A: Well, the questions are divided into “easy,” “medium,” and “hard” categories, and I think those labels are reasonably accurate.  Some of the “hard” questions are absolutely brutal, and they’re a good representation of the nastiness that you’ll see on the actual exam if you’re doing well.  So there’s something for everybody in the GMATPrep Question Pack, even if the “easy” questions are unlikely to offer a very good workout for anybody with 700-level GMAT skills.

In case you’re curious, the GMATPrep software includes 90 questions for free, an addition to the 404 questions that are sold for $25.  Out of the grand total of 494 questions, 146 are “easy”, 199 are “medium,” and 149 are “hard.”  So even if you completely ignore the “easy” questions and the questions that you would get for free, you’ll still have an additional 300 “medium” and “hard” questions.  And that’s a pretty good deal for $25. 

Q:  Will I see any of the GMATPrep questions on the actual exam?

A:  Sorry, no.  You’ll see a completely fresh set of creative, difficult GMAT questions that aren’t published anywhere else.  So learn everything you can about the concepts underneath the GMATPrep questions, and learn how to approach completely new questions.  Because you’ll see plenty of them on your actual GMAT exam.

Q: Why can’t I review the GMATPrep questions anymore?  I did them, but I can’t access them in the same order.  WTF? 

A: Yeah, the nice people at GMAC are really great at writing standardized tests, but they apparently aren’t very good at developing software.  There are all sorts of goofy glitches and quirks in the GMATPrep software, including some bizarreness when it comes to reviewing the questions you already finished.

The best advice?  Immediately after completing any questions from the GMATPrep software, take screenshots of them, regardless of whether you’re doing an actual practice test or just the Question Pack.  It’s the only way to be 100% certain that you don’t lose an opportunity to review the questions after completing them.

5 reasons why the LSAT can help your GMAT score

In an earlier post, I profiled the amazing Ms. HP, who completed a mind-blowing quantity of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions before earning a 750 on the GMAT.  Astute readers might have noticed that most of her practice questions—roughly 3,225 out of the 4,000 that she completed—came from the LSAT, not the GMAT.

And you might be wondering:  is it really worthwhile to use LSAT materials, when you have absolutely no intention of suffering through law school?  Does the LSAT really help you to succeed on the GMAT?

For most of my GMAT students—especially the high-achieving, hard-studying types who are aiming for at least a 650—the answer is an enthusiastic yes.  And here are five reasons why the LSAT might be a worthwhile supplement to your GMAT study materials:

Reason #1:  It’s all about reading carefully

At their core, the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions on the GMAT and the LSAT require exactly the same skills.  Success on either exam requires the ability to read complicated (and often boring) texts, carefully understand the nuances of those texts, and flawlessly evaluate the arguments in the texts, without bringing in outside information.

If you pick up a mass-market GMAT test-prep book, you’ll see plenty of lessons on the different “types” of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions.  You could learn the strategies and mapping techniques for different question types, and your score might improve as a result.   But if you can’t comprehend the nuances of the (often miserably convoluted) texts on the exam, you’re in trouble.  The key to verbal success—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—is understanding the text EXACTLY is it’s written on the page.

So sure, it’s worthwhile to think about certain ways to analyze or “map” particular question types on CR and RC; those techniques can be useful for some students.  But success on the GMAT verbal section is mostly about the precision of your reading, and your ability to battle your way through the miserable CR and RC passages that appear on the exam.  And the LSAT, with its spectacularly dense language, helps you build this skill at least as well as GMAT questions.

Reason #2:  Official GMAT RC and CR questions are in short supply

The bad news is that the total supply of official GMAT questions really isn’t all that large, even if you purchase everything you can get your hands on.  If you do every single publicly available GMAT question (by, say, purchasing GMAC’s repeat-heavy test-prep package for $263.80), you might amass a grand total of approximately 400 distinct critical reasoning questions and 400 reading comprehension questions, give or take a few dozen.  For many of you, that’s more than enough.  For others, it’s nowhere near sufficient to reach your peak performance on the GMAT.  If you’re in the latter category, you could definitely use some help from the LSAT.

But there’s another problem with the official GMAT questions: some of them are far too easy if your goal is a 650 or above.  GMAC publishes a reasonably representative cross-section of questions in their guides, ranging from the very easiest (“200-level questions,” in theory) to the very toughest (“800-level questions,” if such a thing exists).  If you’re shooting for a top-tier GMAT score, the easiest RC and CR questions might be a waste of your time.  Perhaps only the toughest 50% of GMAT Official Guide questions will give you an adequate verbal workout.

Fortunately, the supply of official LSAT questions is nearly limitless.  Last time I checked, the fine folks who produce the LSAT have, at one time or another, published more than 60 official LSAT exams, each of which contains roughly 50 critical reasoning questions (called “logical reasoning” on the LSAT) and 25 reading comprehension questions, for a grand total of more than 4500 usable questions.

The bottom line:  if you need extra critical reasoning or reading comprehension practice, you’ll never run out of LSAT questions—even if you’re as wildly ambitious as the incredible Ms. HP.

Reason #3:  official LSAT questions are far better than “knockoff” GMAT questions

In theory, you could use “non-official” GMAT questions (written by GMAT test-prep firms) instead of official LSAT questions.  But no matter what GMAT test-prep companies may tell you, official LSAT questions are far more useful than any “knockoff” questions written by GMAT test-prep companies.

Verbal questions—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—are incredibly nuanced, and it’s unbelievably difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to even begin to replicate those nuances.  Every official LSAT or GMAT test question is edited, tested, re-edited, and re-tested by small army of standardized test experts.  By the time an official question appears in an actual exam (or in the GMAT Official Guide), it will be incredibly nuanced… and 100% error-free.

Simply put, it’s impossible for test-prep companies to perfectly replicate the precision of “real” LSAT or GMAT verbal questions, and knockoffs from test-prep companies can be a dangerous substitute for the real thing.  At best, non-official verbal questions will be a benign waste of your time, since they won’t really sharpen your ability to identify the nuances of official LSAT and GMAT questions; at worst, non-official RC and CR questions will teach you to identify the wrong nuances, and your skills will actually decline.  Put another way, “knockoff” questions are often difficult in ways that do not accurately reflect the real GMAT test.

For more on the dangers of overreliance on “knockoff” GMAT questions, please visit another crusty old GMAT Ninja blog post:  Beware the Knockoffs.

Reason #4:  official LSAT questions are harder than the GMAT

This is arguably the best reason to use LSAT reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions for your GMAT studies: LSAT questions are more difficult than most GMAT questions.

If you open up an official LSAT book, you’ll immediately notice that the passages are longer and the language is more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen on the GMAT.  And that’s wonderful, especially if your goal is to score above a 700.  Even if your natural reading ability is absolutely spectacular, I promise that the hardest LSAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions will make you sweat.

Please forgive my use of a sports cliché here, but using LSAT questions for GMAT studies is comparable to a baseball player taking practice swings with a weighted bat before stepping to the plate:  by the time the batter (or the test-taker) actually swings a real bat (or takes a real GMAT), the task of swinging (or answering GMAT verbal questions) will feel at least somewhat easier.

Again, the single most important skill tested on GMAT CR and RC questions is your ability to battle your way through dense language and to understand the passage exactly as it’s written.  So if you want to work out your reading muscles, nothing in the test-prep world is better than retired LSAT exams.

 Reason #5:  the differences between LSAT and GMAT questions are mostly cosmetic

As mentioned above, the single biggest difference between LSAT and GMAT questions is that the LSAT questions are, on average, wordier and more difficult.  But if you skim through the questions in an LSAT critical reasoning section, you’ll find some question styles that rarely appear on the GMAT.

The most obvious example is the LSAT’s “parallel reasoning” questions, which ask you to identify the answer choice with the logical pattern that most closely resembles the original passage.  Parallel reasoning questions do appear occasionally on the GMAT, but they’re exceedingly rare.

We could split hairs over a few other differences between LSAT and GMAT verbal questions, but nearly all of those differences are minor.  The GMAT seems to prefer realistic-sounding critical reasoning passages about business and politics, while the LSAT often strays into philosophical discourses, abstract logic, and legal topics.  Many LSAT answer choices arguably sound like “legalese,” with plenty of mumbo-jumbo about premises and conclusions and patterns of reasoning.  And the GMAT’s “boldfaced” critical reasoning questions never appear on the LSAT, at least not exactly in the same format.

Though these differences might be off-putting if you’re not used to the LSAT, the skills required to succeed on the LSAT are exactly the same as those needed to beat the GMAT.  You need to read the critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages with pinpoint precision.  You need to have a flawless understanding of the scope of each CR passage, and you need to ensure that outside information doesn’t stray into your thought process.  The minor stylistic differences do nothing to change the core skills required for success on both exams.

I’m the first to admit that a pile of LSAT books won’t magically cure all of your GMAT verbal ailments, and I’ll happily concede that the LSAT isn’t a perfect replica of the GMAT.  But if you need a challenge on critical reasoning or if you’ve exhausted the supply of official GMAT reading comprehension questions, then a stack of LSAT books is the next-best thing.  Fresh LSAT questions will help your GMAT score more than redoing GMAT questions for a second time, and official LSAT questions are infinitely better than an endless diet of “knockoff” materials from GMAT test-prep companies.

So no, the LSAT isn’t perfect.  But if you’re dedicated to maximizing your GMAT verbal score, then the LSAT can be an outstanding complement to the official GMAT materials.

GMAT Focus Stinks

In a previous post, I gave a qualified endorsement of GMAT Focus, which is a series of 24-question quant tests sold by the makers of the GMAT.  GMAT Focus consists of retired GMAT test questions, and I was pretty convinced that the test is a useful product, since so many real GMAT test questions seem to (very, very strongly) resemble questions seen on GMAT Focus.

The only trouble is that the tests are too short, overpriced (in my opinion), oddly timed (24 questions in 45 minutes?  huh?), and a little bit of a rip-off, since some of the questions also appear in the GMAT Official Guide and the GMAT Quantitative Review Guide.  If you don’t believe me, click here to see a brief discussion of this in a Manhattan GMAT forum.

Over the past year, I’ve strongly encouraged my students do use GMAT Focus, but I think it’s time to advise everybody to stay away from it.  Believe it or not, one of my students just took a GMAT Focus test that had 14 questions that overlapped with the GMAT Official Guide (12th edition) or the GMAT Quantitative Review (2nd edition).  That means that only 10 of them were fresh questions.  Dude, my poor GMAT student totally got ripped off.

(Luckily, my student didn’t recognize all of the questions, and still missed 6 of the 14 repeats.  It’s safe to say that he still got a good math workout; it’s also safe to say that his GMAT tutor needs to kick his butt a little bit harder.)

Here’s the complete list of questions that appeared on this particular GMAT Focus test:

  • GMAT Official Guide DS #33, 45, 48 (though I found it interesting that they removed the reference to the year 1989 in that question), 66, 70, 75, and 76
  • GMAT Official Guide PS #48, 81, and 89
  • GMAT Quantitative Review DS #33
  • GMAT Quantitative Review PS #142, 146, and 147

And if you’re curious, here’s the complete list of GMAT Focus repeats that I’ve marked over past few months:

  • GMAT Official Guide DS:  #44, 45, 52, 53, 62, 66, 68, 70, 75, 76, 79, 82, 87, 90, 94, 110, 121, 123
  • GMAT Official Guide PS:  #73, 74, 81, 89, 107, 117, 148, 163
  • GMAT Quantitative Review DS: #11, 33, 122
  • GMAT Quantitative Review PS:  #142, 146, 147

I’m sure that I haven’t caught everything, but this should be enough to convince you that GMAT Focus probably isn’t worth $25 per test.

GMAT Focus quirks

For the most part, I’m a fan of GMAC, the company that produces the GMAT. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last decade working as an SAT, ACT, GRE, and TOEFL tutor, and I respect that fact that the GMAT is much more complicated, precise, and nuanced than any of the aforementioned exams. And GMAC is also fairly generous about publishing retired test questions; some of us whine about the GMAT OG’s lack of hard questions, but the official guides for GRE and TOEFL are far worse, offering only a handful of (ancient, moldy) practice questions. So while I generally think that GMAC does its job really, really well, they seem to have been a little bit sloppy with GMAT Focus lately.

In some ways, GMAT Focus is the best of the GMAT practice material. Sure, it’s overpriced ($25 for one test, or $65 for three… basically, you’ll pay almost $1 per question). And I think it’s weird that they sell the tests in groups of three–you can actually take the test four times before questions start to repeat. And you’re given only 45 minutes to complete 24 questions–a little bit odd, since you’ll ultimately need to get used to doing 37 GMAT questions in 75 minutes. But GMAT Focus still contains an impressive bank of difficult, fresh GMAT questions; I’m convinced that GMAT Focus questions are much closer to the real thing than any other practice resource available. If you’re serious about improving your quant score, GMAT Focus is absolutely not optional.

Unfortunately, the GMAT Focus questions are no longer all that unique. Many of them appear in the 12th edition of the official guide, and I have a funny feeling that even more will show up in the next edition of the Quantitative Review guide. So you might be paying $1 for questions that you’ve already purchased in another book. That’s really annoying, especially if you’re already paying for a GMAT tutor.

Even more annoying: the GMAT Focus might not be as representative of the real test as I once thought. For a long time, it seemed that the GMAT Focus would give you a pretty good idea of the composition of the quantitative section–specifically, GMAT Focus included a lot more tricky logic, combinatorics, and “creative algebra” questions than the official guides, and GMAT Focus seemed to be an extremely accurate representation of the actual test. Sadly, something might have shifted, at least a little bit. In the past month, several of my students (all with quant raw scores above 40) whined that the real test didn’t have any of the tough combination/permutation/probability questions that appear on GMAT Focus. It makes me wonder whether the GMAT Focus is becoming somehow less indicative of the actual test. Again, I find that a little bit irritating–if it’s actually true.

Here’s the strangest report of all: one of my GMAT students swears that he saw a GMAT Focus question on the real exam last weekend. He claims that the question was absolutely identical, with the same numbers and everything. He didn’t share the details of the question (that would be illegal), but I find that pretty alarming if it’s true. Is GMAC getting sloppy? Was the “retread” GMAT Focus question tossed back into the real test as some sort of experiment, or as a statistical control for other questions? Or was my student just hallucinating after a long, stressful few hours of test-taking?

Either way, it’s interesting. I still think that it’s worth spending $90 for all four GMAT Focus tests, but I couldn’t really blame a budget-conscious GMAT student who comes to a different conclusion.

GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition

Fresh off the presses: our friends at GMAT just released the 2nd edition of the GMAT Verbal Review. This time, they’ve switched to a sexy blue theme. Much nicer than the lavender on the 1st edition.

Aside from the color change, not a whole lot is different. Most of the verbal questions are the same, but they supposedly removed 75 questions and replaced them with 75 new ones. But actually… they removed 82 questions and replaced them with 82 new ones. You get 7 more real GMAT questions than they promised! Isn’t that exciting?

If you’re looking for some extra verbal practice material, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have an additional 82 “official” questions, especially since the book is so cheap (about $13 on Amazon). But do the lords of the GMAT give us any special hints in the new edition? Are there any systematic changes that might hint at a new composition of the actual test questions?

Unfortunately, not really. I spent a good chunk of time poring over the new questions, and I can’t say that all that much is substantially different. It’s not as if the new GMAT verbal guide is suddenly covered with, say, parallelism questions. It is, however, covered with balsamic vinaigrette. At least my copy is. (A little salad accident happened while I was working through the book. That was my punishment for ordering a salad, I guess.)

Anyhow, here’s a breakdown, by question type:

Reading Comprehension

Questions removed from the 1st edition: 13, 22-28, 55-63, 91-97, 98-105 (32 questions removed)

Questions added to the 2nd edition: 1-6, 18-23, 45-49, 64-70, 91-97 (31 questions added)

Random edits: a few typos were fixed (missing punctuation on 1st edition #40 and #51), indentations were added at the beginning of each passage, and line references were changed as a result (#48, #50, #74, #76, #102). Yes, I’m that anal. Want me to edit your MBA application essays?

Useful conclusions: none, really. I thought it was interesting that they removed a pair of random questions (1st edition #13 and #65) while keeping the rest of the passage intact, but I don’t think that leads us to any stunning conclusions about the makeup of the test. The five new passages include two science readings, two “business-y” readings, and one social science-y passage about W.E.B. DuBois. These replaced four passages, including one science reading, two business-y readings, and one social science-y passage about Florence Nightengale. As a tutor who spends way too much time with these books, I have to admit that I’ll miss Florence.

Brutally honest conclusion #1: anybody get the feeling that GMAC released this new edition just to sell books?

Brutally honest conclusion #2: I’m not serious about missing the Florence Nightengale passage.

Critical Reasoning

Questions removed from the 1st edition: 1, 2, 5, 8, 13, 15, 19, 22-23, 29, 35, 42-43, 46, 54, 55, 59, 60, 66, 68, 77, 82 (22 questions removed)

Questions added to the 2nd edition: 1, 3, 6, 9, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29, 33, 37, 40, 45, 48, 51, 54, 59, 62, 65, 70, 74, 78, 81 (23 questions added)

Random edits: underlining was removed from questions 24, 26, 27, 49, and 79 in the 1st edition. Not that you care, but it looks like some editor at GMAC had to work overtime once or twice.

Useful conclusions: actually, I do see a few semi-significant changes in the critical reasoning part of the test. There are now two (wow!) of the “boldfaced” questions, compared with one in the 1st edition. In the 1st edition, there were six “paired” questions attached to a single passage; all of those have been removed, or at least converted to single questions.

More generally, I think that GMAC has been experimenting with a broader range of question stems for critical reasoning. Once upon a time, CR didn’t go much beyond some basic “strengthen” and “weaken” questions; other phrasings (see 2nd edition #70 and #78) are a little bit more common than they used to be. This doesn’t radically alter the test, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Sentence Correction

Questions removed from the 1st edition: 3, 14, 17, 18, 21, 24, 27, 28, 33, 36, 38, 43, 47, 50, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 69, 74, 75, 77, 81, 83, 87, 89, 90 (28 questions removed)

Questions added to the 2nd edition: 1, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 22, 27, 31, 36, 42, 45, 50, 53, 57, 61, 65, 69, 73, 79, 84, 88, 92, 96, 100, 104, 108, 112 (28 questions added)

Useful conclusions: none, really. For the past couple of years, I’ve theorized that the GMAT is trying to make their sentence correction questions more “test-prep proof” by inserting more questions that involve some sort of tricky logic, unusually difficult comparisons, or funny forms of parallelism (i.e. false parallelism traps or opaque parallel structures). I also think that we’re starting to see more idioms, and fewer questions that can be solved just by knowing simple grammar and usage rules.

Although my students continue to tell me that the sentence correction questions on the real test are much harder than in the GMAT official guides, the 2nd edition of the Verbal Review gives us pretty much nothing. The new 28 questions don’t seem to be significantly harder than the 28 that were deleted from the 1st edition. The last few new ones aren’t exactly a walk in the park, but they’re still nowhere near the difficulty level of some of the evil stuff I’ve seen on the real test.

So there you have it. If you’re being really aggressive about your GMAT prep, you might want to buy both books, and then use the question lists above to cherry-pick the non-redundant questions out of one of the books. Other than that, there’s no particular reason to think that the 2nd edition offers anything all that special. If you’re confident with your verbal skills, there’s no need to race to the local bookstore for the 2nd edition–if the 1st is already in your hot little hands, you probably won’t need to bother with the 2nd.