Tag Archives: GMAT quant section

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.

Inflated GMAT scores… and deflated quant percentiles

 

In the most-commented GMAT blog post I’ve ever written, I argued that the so-called “80th percentile rule” – the idea that top-tier MBA applicants need to score above the 80th percentile on both the GMAT quant and the GMAT verbal section – is mostly a myth.

Why? Well, the unfortunate truth is that GMAT quant scores have increased dramatically in recent years, and you’d now need to earn a 50 (!) on the GMAT quant section to score above the 80th percentile, according to the most recent GMAT data. Here, check this out:

From mba.com. http://www.mba.com/us/the-gmat-exam/gmat-exam-scoring/your-score-report/what-percentile-rankings-mean.aspx#tab4. Retrieved October 3, 2016.

From mba.com, based on 2013-15 GMAT data. Retrieved on October 3, 2016.

Plenty of things are alarming here. When the GMAT score scale was originally designed, the average quant score was supposed to be 30. Now a quant score of 30 is just the 20th percentile (!!), and the mean GMAT quant score is a 39 – a whopping nine points higher than it “should be” if the GMAT score distribution were actually a bell curve, as originally intended.

Even worse: if you want to score above the 80th percentile, you’ll need a 50 on the quant section. Since a 50 is one heck of a high GMAT score (a 51, of course, is a perfect GMAT quant score), I would still argue that no MBA admissions person in their right minds should actually expect it of you. So if anything, the “80th percentile rule” is more of a myth than ever.

But here’s the part of my original GMAT blog post that may not be true anymore, just a few years later:

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.

Let’s pull this apart a little bit. Would a 710/47Q/40V eliminate all rational doubt about your academic abilities? Yes, definitely. If you can get a GMAT score that high, there’s no good reason to question your ability to handle MBA-level coursework. But is that GMAT score enough to “placate MBA admissions officers”? Probably not anymore, depending on which MBA programs you’re applying to — and, of course, on the rest of your MBA profile.

Here’s the problem: GMAT score averages for top-tier MBA programs have continued to shoot through the roof in the past few years. At Kellogg, for example, average GMAT scores have risen from 712 to 728 in just six years. Stanford’s incoming class of 2018 had an average GMAT score of 737.

I’m sorry, but those GMAT scores are ridiculous. Clearly, the GMAT arms race has gotten absolutely out of control – and I say that as a test-prep tutor who profits from that very same GMAT arms race. It’s as if MBA admissions committees have zero understanding of how standardized tests such as the GMAT actually work: the GMAT’s creators would tell you that the difference between a 710 and a 740 may be nothing more than measurement error.

And that’s before we get into the fact that there’s little evidence that the GMAT is predictive of post-MBA success. But that’s another topic entirely.

To be fair, I can’t blame MBA admissions committees for allowing GMAT score averages to spiral upward. Frankly, it’s much quicker and easier for admissions committees to whittle down a stack of applications based on GMAT scores than it is to ponder the non-quantitative aspects of each MBA applicant’s profile. Plus, MBA programs are forced to play the rankings game – and average GMAT scores are part of those MBA rankings, whether we like it or not.

Unsurprisingly, MBA admissions consultants are advising their clients to chase GMAT scores in the mid-700s – and applicants to elite MBA programs are working harder than ever to raise their GMAT scores. It’s a vicious cycle, and I’d bet that GMAT scores will continue to creep upward.

In any case, if you’re reading this little GMAT blog, you probably can’t do a damned thing about the way things work: you probably just want to get into a good MBA program. So what should you do if an MBA admissions consultant – or worse, an MBA admissions committee member – tells you that you need a GMAT score in the mid-700s?

Well, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. And if you think it’s unreasonable that you might need a 750 on the GMAT exam, take solace in the fact that you’re probably right.

And then join the rest of the herd. If you have a profile that will allow you to get away with a lower GMAT score, then consider yourself lucky. But if you’re like most people, all you can do is work as hard – and as smart – as you can for as long as you can.

And if you’re already scoring in the low-to-mid 700s but don’t have time to continue studying, maybe it’s worth taking an extra couple of shots at the GMAT, just to see if dumb luck (or measurement error, if you want to be technical about it) might hand you an extra few points next time around. And if you’re a really long way from the GMAT score you want, then maybe it’s time to think about the GRE — but that’s another topic entirely.

Then, please graduate from your top MBA program, become a bigshot in the MBA world, and change the way that the GMAT is handled by MBA admissions committees – because I think that the GMAT arms race encourages even more great business talents to slip through the MBA cracks.

 

why you should (almost) never cancel your GMAT score

Suppose that you took the GMAT exam, and you felt like you got the living #$^%*&@! beaten out of you.  Maybe the quant section felt ridiculously difficult, and you had to race through the last 12 questions to finish the section before time ran out.  Maybe all of your reading comprehension passages felt completely incomprehensible.

By the time you finish the exam, your heart is pounding out of your chest, and you have two minutes to decide whether to cancel your test or view your GMAT scores.  Should you cancel your test?

Probably not.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1:  it’s almost impossible to know how well you did

Once upon a time, I worked with a skittish woman who always seemed to doubt her capacity for GMAT success, especially on the quant section.  She earned a 660 on her first attempt at the test, and then contacted me for some help.  After a couple of months of tutoring, she went back to face the beast.  And I made her promise not to cancel her score, no matter what.

The poor woman was convinced that the quant had beaten her to a bloody pulp.  The questions seemed strange, and she felt bewildered for most of the section.  She only had about 15 minutes left for the last 12 questions, so the final third of the quant section passed in a blur.  Pardon the expression, but she was convinced that she had shat the bed.

And guess what?  She got a 760, and was offered merit-based scholarships everywhere she applied.

I’ve heard this sort of story dozens—or maybe even hundreds—of times over the years.  The GMAT is a sneaky, slimy, deceptive creature.  You never know how well (or how badly) you’re doing until the score pops up.  Unless you literally wet your pants during the exam, you can’t possibly know whether you did terribly.  And if you don’t believe me, click here or here or here or here to read recent GMAT forum debriefs written by test-takers who struggled during the exam, but were somewhat surprised by their fantastic scores.

So “feeling bad” about your test is a lousy reason to cancel.  You might be canceling the GMAT score of your dreams, and that wouldn’t be cute at all.

Reason #2:  even if your GMAT score was bad this time, you’ll learn from the result

I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “No really, ninja dude:  I know when I’m getting my butt kicked by the GMAT.”  And I respectfully disagree, but let’s pretend that you do know that you had a crappy test.  Should you cancel your score?

Again, I’d argue that you shouldn’t.  While it’s maddening that you can never see exactly what you missed on the actual GMAT, the score does provide you with some feedback.  You might be surprised by how high (or how low) your score is on one or both sections.  And as you prepare for your next battle with the test, that can be an invaluable piece of information.

Let’s suppose that you were aiming for a 710, but only got a 600Now you know exactly what it feels like to get 600, and as you replay the test in your mind, you’ll almost certainly learn from it.  Even a disappointing exam can be a great learning experience, and the score provides you with some feedback that can help you move forward.

Reason #3:  why waste $250?

This might sound silly, but I always feel like a complete chump whenever I spend money on something I don’t use.  For example, there are a few test-prep books on my shelf that I almost never touch.  The $20 or $30 that I spent on each of the books isn’t going to destroy my bank account, but I still feel like a moron for buying them.

Couldn’t we say the same thing about a canceled GMAT test score?  If you “buy” a GMAT test for $250 and never actually get a score from the experience, wouldn’t it feel like a complete waste of money?  You’ll basically spend $250 for some frayed nerves and an unsatisfying, blank line on your GMAT score report.

The GMAT is already sodomizing your wallet for $250 whenever you take the test; personally, I would feel even worse if I didn’t at least get something back from them in return.  A bad score at least counts as something.

So don’t feel like a chump with a sodomized wallet:  take a good look at your score, even if you’re pretty sure it’s going to be crappy.  At worst, you’ll have a rallying cry for your future studies.  And at best, you’ll be surprised with a 760, even if you felt terrible during the exam.

One last thing:  if you’re worried about having a crappy result on your GMAT score report, don’t be.  An upward score trajectory always looks great, and MBA programs are being completely honest when they say that they consider your highest score.

So unless you really do have a bladder malfunction during your test, please don’t cancel your score.  At the very least, you’ll have a data point to work with as you continue your GMAT studies.  And if you’re really fortunate, your score might surprise you.

yes, GMAT scoring is weird

Let’s play a little GMAT guessing game. Take a look at the two GMATPrep screenshots below, and see if you can guess the quant score for each of these tests. (Sorry, the screenshots aren’t beautiful, but I did my best to make them legible.)  Keep in mind that the GMATPrep software uses exactly the same algorithm as the real GMAT test.

On GMATPrep test #1, the student missed a total of 7 quant questions out of 37 (81% correct):

strange GMAT Prep 51

And on GMATPrep test #2, the test-taker missed a total of 21 questions out of 37 (43% correct):

strange GMATPrep quant 44

Go ahead, take a guess. What quant score do you think these two students received on their GMATPrep tests? The lucky student who got 81% correct probably got a solid but imperfect score, right? And the poor schmuck who got 43% correct must have been vaguely suicidal after that GMAT quant disaster, yes?

Well, the first student got a perfect 51 on her quant section, and the second student earned a 44.  (For what it’s worth, he paired the 44 quant with a 41 verbal, for a grand total of 710, and he earned a very similar score on the real GMAT.)

Surprised? It turns out that a “perfect” GMAT quant score doesn’t necessarily require complete perfection, and you can miss a ton of questions on the GMAT quant section without endangering your chance at a 700.

I discussed the GMAT scoring system in both a recent GMAT blog post (which profiled a mediocre math student who still earned a 720) and in an ancient, crusty GMAT blog post (which explored the fundamentals of the GMAT scoring algorithm), but I’ll say it here again: your GMAT quant score doesn’t really depend on how many questions you miss.  It depends on which questions you miss.

As you probably already know, the GMAT exam “adapts” to your performance, selecting each question based on your answers to previous questions.  Your final score is based primarily on the difficulty level of the questions you see on the test. If you see tons of hard questions, your score will be higher than if you see nothing but GMAT cream puffs.

By the time you reach, say, question #29, the GMAT scoring system already has 28 data points about your skills.  If you get 27 of the first 28 questions correct–as student #1 did–you’ll convince the GMAT scoring algorithm that you’re pretty awesome. And it will spit out the hardest question it can find.  Even if you miss that question, you’ll still have missed only two out of the first 29, and the computer will spit out another really tough question.

So as you look at the student who earned a quant score of 51 while missing seven questions, you shouldn’t be too shocked:  six of her seven mistakes came at the end of the test, once the GMAT scoring system had “already made up its mind about her.” All of the seven questions that she missed were unbelievably difficult, and the GMAT algorithm doesn’t really punish test-takers for missing hard questions.  Just ask Ms. A from this GMAT blog post.

Student #2 is admittedly an even more extreme case.  He missed 21 questions and still scored above 700; that’s not normal, but it’s obviously possible under the right circumstances.  In his case, he had a reasonably strong start to the test, missed only the toughest questions that the GMATPrep software threw at him, and managed to get just enough questions right to prevent a score meltdown.  Again, this is a great illustration of the GMAT scoring system:  you can miss piles of questions and still do well on the GMAT.  You just can’t afford to miss the easier questions, since those errors will send your GMAT score into a tailspin.

The bottom line is that a 51 isn’t necessarily “perfect” on the GMAT, and a 700 doesn’t necessarily require a high rate of accuracy.  You can miss tons of hard questions and still do incredibly well on the GMAT, as long as you don’t miss the questions that are relatively easy.   And when you see impossibly difficult questions on your GMAT exam, just smile, and accept the fact that you can miss them without torpedoing your GMAT score.