Tag Archives: GMAT prep

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

 

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

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

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

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

The short answer: I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When do GMAT “crash courses” actually work?

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, you’ve probably had the following fantasy: wouldn’t it be great if you could contact a GMAT tutor, study like crazy for two weeks, and then be finished with the whole mess?

Well, a few lucky souls have managed to do exactly that. Consider the following stories:

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

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

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

your underlying GMAT algebra and arithmetic skills are strong

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

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

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

your timing isn’t perfect

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

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

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

your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills are strong

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

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

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

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

you have room for improvement on sentence correction

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead to fall admissions season? Start in January.

It’s the dead of winter right now, and 2013 first-round MBA deadlines won’t be here for another eight months or so. That’s almost enough time to bring a baby to term, so if you’re looking ahead to the next admissions cycle, then you still have plenty of time to worry about the GMAT and your MBA applications, right?

As crazy as it may sound, I would argue that you should probably think about starting your GMAT prep before the snow starts to melt. If your goal is to produce the best MBA applications you possibly can—without turning your life into a stressed-out nightmare right before the application deadlines—then summer might be too late to start your GMAT studies.

Unless you’ve already been humbled by the GMAT, you’re probably thinking, “Come on, you stupid ninja dude! If I start in June, I’ll still have TONS of time for applications.”

You might be right. And you might be desperately wrong. In an effort to scare the poop out of you, here are two stories about guys who started their GMAT prep in June, but still didn’t have enough time to produce their best MBA applications the following January.

In May 2011, I received a phone call from a gentleman—let’s call him Mr. U, since he’s from upstate New York—who planned to quit his (thoroughly unsatisfying) job so that he could focus exclusively on the GMAT beginning in early June. He intended to spend the summer pounding the GMAT into submission, and then he would spend the fall writing amazing MBA application essays.

And guess what? Stuff happened. His arithmetic and algebra skills were an utter disaster, and he needed far more study time than he’d hoped. He needed an extra couple of weeks to fully transition out of his job. He ended up having some unexpected family obligations as the summer and fall wore on. He got distracted by some home repair projects. Some unavoidable trips—mostly for out-of-town weddings—interrupted his GMAT studies. And because his math skills were so crappy, Mr. U battled burnout after a couple of months of studying, and had to take the GMAT twice to get his target score.

Between the GMAT struggles and the non-GMAT distractions, Mr. U didn’t start writing his MBA application essays until late December, and he pulled a few late nights in early January to get everything done. His applications weren’t very polished, and he definitely suffered through some unnecessary MBA essay agony.

It all worked out for him in the end—Mr. U currently attends a top-ten MBA program, and his life is pretty awesome—but he suffered through the harrowing process of receiving rejection letters from five of his six target MBA programs. If he had started earlier, Mr. U might have had some extra options, and he definitely would have saved himself some pain and stress.

The second story involves a more recent applicant—let’s call him Mr. FP, since he loves skiing in fresh powder, just like everybody else in Colorado. Mr. FP started working with me in June 2012, and earned his 730 in August. No problems there. He figured that he would have the entire autumn to work on his MBA applications.

But again, life got in the way. His boss gave him some summer evenings off to focus on the GMAT, but autumn was payback time, and Mr. FP ended up working ridiculously long hours from late August through the end of December. A few family dramas also ate some of his precious free time and, just like Mr. U, Mr. FP ended up finishing some of his second-round MBA applications at literally the last minute on January 3. In the end, his MBA applications weren’t perfectly polished, and we’ll both be sweating unnecessarily as we await decisions this spring.

Please don’t let this happen to you. You might think that the GMAT and MBA application process will take just a month or two, but all sorts of things can derail your progress: a bad GMAT test day, a sick family member, MBA essay writers’ block, a natural disaster, unexpected work issues, a marriage proposal from your significant other, or a promotion that requires extra hours. Or your underlying GMAT skills might be worse than you expected. As Mr. U painfully discovered, weak quant fundamentals or weak reading skills can substantially delay your GMAT test date.

(Incidentally, even the official GMAT blog agrees with me on this:  at the end of this post, the GMAT brass encourages you to start your prep early.)

So if you’re truly serious about your MBA goals, make sure that you give yourself enough time to weather every possible distraction. If you start in January but succeed in achieving your dream GMAT score in February, that’s wonderful—you’ll have time for some Colorado ski trips this winter, and plenty of time for b-school visits in the spring and summer. But it takes a ton of time to write great MBA applications, and if your life isn’t perfectly smooth during the course of your GMAT studies and the MBA application process, you’ll ultimately be thrilled that you started working on the GMAT early.

“first-round advantage” is a big fat lie… sort of

As summer in NYC rumbles toward a close, the emails and phone calls I receive from aspiring MBA applicants start to sound more and more ambitious.  Most students want to cram their GMAT preparations into three or four weeks, even if they need a massive score gain.  I hear the same refrain over and over again:  “I want to apply in the first round, so I have to take the GMAT really really really soon or else I’ll never have enough time to write my essays and then I won’t apply in the first round and then the world will come to an end…!”

OK, so I’m paraphrasing a little bit.  Very few people sound that dramatic.  (Disclaimer: I swear that I’m not writing this to pick on any of my beloved current or former GMAT students. This post is about a general seasonal trend, not about any particular GMAT student.) But I always hear a lot of unnecessary panic in GMAT students’ voices this time of year, and the anxiety seems to increase as soon as I suggest that an MBA applicant might need more weeks of GMAT prep than they had (perhaps optimistically) anticipated.  Many applicants seem absolutely convinced that they’ll have a chance at their favorite MBA program only if they apply before the first-round deadline.

Call me a heretic if you want, but I’m convinced that the vaunted “first-round advantage” is mostly a myth.  Unless you fit into a few special categories, there is virtually no benefit to driving yourself into a GMAT-addled frenzy just for the sake of being one of the earliest applicants.

Sure, some of you have perfectly wonderful reasons to apply early in the admissions season.  If you’re looking for a scholarship (and are among the tiny handful of applicants who actually have a realistic chance at getting one), you’re definitely better off applying early:  scholarship funds are often given out early in the admissions season.  It’s also possible that you’ll get a lift from applying to binding “early action” programs (Tuck, Columbia, Duke, and Vanderbilt leap to mind); technically speaking, you make a binding commitment when you apply through these programs, and the schools have little reason to think that you’d flake on them if you’re admitted… and that will probably help your chances.

But if you’re obsessed with first-round MBA applications and nothing in the previous paragraph applies to you, you probably need to relax a little bit.  Sure, admissions committees are somewhat more likely to have some spare time on their hands in September than in January, and they’re a bit more likely to read first-round essays with fresh eyes and an open mind.  But that’s really the only general advantage to applying in the first round.

Think about it rationally:  the best MBA programs want to attract and select top applicants just as badly as you want to be among the top applicants; why the heck would they ding a strong MBA applicant in January, but admit that same applicant in September?  At most top MBA programs, less than half of the incoming class is admitted during the first round… so don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities during second round.

Or think of it this way:  if you’re awesome enough to earn a first-round admit from HBS or Stanford, then you’re probably awesome enough to get in during second round.  Then again, if your application is shaky for some reason, a first-round attempt won’t fix any of your problems.  If your essays are shoddy, your work experience is flimsy, or your GMAT score is hopelessly low, you’ll be just as screwed during first round as you would be later in the admissions season.  Sorry, but the “first-round advantage” won’t mask any of your MBA application weaknesses.

Whatever you do, don’t let the stress of looming first-round deadlines hurt the quality of your application.  If you need an extra few weeks or months to raise your GMAT score, take your time:  a strong GMAT score in January will help you far more than a rushed first-round application in October.  If you could use a few extra weeks to perfect your essays, take your time:  a sloppy, typo-ravaged October application will be far less successful than a polished, eloquent second-round application.  If you get hasty with your essays and fail to tell a coherent “story” about your life and goals, you’ll do enormous harm to your candidacy—no matter when you apply.

The bottom line is that it’s always wise to produce the best MBA application that you possibly can.  If it’s mid-September and you’re just starting to rumble into high gear with your GMAT prep or MBA essays, chances are good that your very best MBA application won’t be ready until second round.  And you shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit of remorse if you wait just a few more months to bless the adcom with your irresistibly charming second-round application.