Tag Archives: GMAT quant

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.


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

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

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

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

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

But after the break, things got rougher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, feel free to call or email to discuss your specific situation.

IR might be really important… in 2017

If you’re applying to MBA programs during the current (2012-13) admissions season, you’ve probably already read a few dozen articles about the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) section. As many other GMAT tutors and bloggers and forum participants have suggested, there’s little reason to think that the IR section will have any meaningful impact on your odds of admission at top business schools this year. The section is simply too new, and MBA admissions committees have absolutely no basis for evaluating the new section.

But what if you’re looking ahead, and you’re preparing to submit your MBA applications in late 2013 or beyond? Should you worry about Integrated Reasoning at all? And if so, how much of your GMAT preparation time should you devote to the IR section?

Although GMAC is doing its best to convince everybody that Integrated Reasoning is extremely important (click here or here or here or here to see their official GMAT blog posts about the awesomeness of Integrated Reasoning), I would argue that there’s still no good reason to spend much time studying for the Integrated Reasoning section… for now.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1: five years of GMAT fairness

GMAT scores are valid for a full five years, and a substantial percentage of applicants will submit “old” GMAT scores (taken before the IR section existed) during the next few admissions cycles. And it simply isn’t reasonable for schools to use Integrated Reasoning scores to compare applicants, when a certain percentage of applicants haven’t taken the new section at all.

In theory, MBA programs could require all applicants to submit an Integrated Reasoning score beginning with the 2013-14 admissions cycle, but this seems incredibly unlikely. We still know very little about the value of the Integrated Reasoning section (see reason #2 below), and there’s absolutely no incentive for MBA programs to aggressively require an IR score before the five-year window is over.

Reason #2: GMAC needs time to determine IR test validity

Somewhere in the bowels of GMAC headquarters, researchers are busy calculating the “validity” of various portions of the GMAT exam. Basically, those researchers are interested in determining what, exactly, the GMAT tells us about test-takers. Do GMAT scores correlate to performance in business school? Do GMAT scores correlate to success in the business world?

For what it’s worth, most of the studies I’ve read (and yes, I’m apparently dorky enough to read academic studies about the GMAT) suggest that the quant and verbal sections do an excellent job of predicting MBA students’ grades in business school, but the GMAT does a pretty lousy job of predicting post-MBA success… and the AWA isn’t really a great predictor of anything, which is why one of the AWA tasks has been replaced by Integrated Reasoning. If you’re curious and want to geek out on some old GMAT validity studies, you could start by clicking here.

Anyway, the bottom line is that researchers need time to “prove” that the GMAT’s new Integrated Reasoning section actually means something. Until that happens, why would MBA programs worry about your IR score?

Reason #3: MBA applicant information overload

By the time you submit your MBA application, business schools know a ton about you. They have your work history, academic transcripts, lists of extracurricular activities, two or three references, at least a few essays, maybe a cover letter, possibly a slide presentation, an interview, and probably some extra interactions with you from campus visits or other events. Oh yeah, and they have your GMAT quant score, your GMAT verbal score, your GMAT composite score, and your GMAT AWA score.

Really, do you think the adcom needs yet another data point? And do you think that the adcom is likely to care about a data point that doesn’t show up in any MBA rankings?

Don’t get me wrong: someday, all of this will probably change. If U.S. News and World Reports decides to include IR in its MBA program rankings, adcoms will suddenly care—a lot—about the IR section. I also believe that the GMAT validity studies will someday make the IR section look really, really good; frankly, the GMAT should be testing your ability to analyze basic data tables, and the exam should include some non-multiple choice questions. In my (probably very irrelevant) opinion, the Integrated Reasoning section has plenty of potential to be a valuable tool for evaluating MBA applicants.

And someday, the IR section really will matter. But not yet. Call me in 2016 or 2017, and maybe I’ll tell you to start worrying about it then.

In the meantime, your approach to Integrated Reasoning should be the same as your approach to the AWA section: both tasks are warmups for your quant and verbal sections, and it’s not worth burning much of your precious GMAT energy on IR or AWA. The IR section is not adaptive at all, so just answer the easy ones to avoid complete embarrassment, and let the harder ones go. It just isn’t worth spraining any brain cells for a section that has another four years of irrelevance ahead of it.

But again, call me in 2016 or 2017—the story might change by then.

GMAT timing “strategy”: how much math do you really need for a 720?

I pride myself on being a brutal realist: if I suspect that one of my GMAT students might need a ton of luck and a herculean effort to achieve her score goal, I’ll tell her… gently. A huge part of my job is establishing realistic expectations, and if I think that a student’s GMAT goals are utterly hopeless, I’ll say that, too… though I’ll usually say something far more diplomatic than “you’re hopeless.”

But sometimes my dire predictions of GMAT frustration are ridiculously wrong, and sometimes one of my students makes me feel like a complete idiot.

I love it when that happens.

Once upon a time, a warm and thoroughly loveable student (let’s call her Ms. A) came to New York for a four-week GMAT “crash course.” Like most of my GMAT students in New York, she was targeting a 700+ score; unfortunately, her math skills were pretty shaky. She wasn’t appallingly bad at math, but her academic background was in the humanities, and she hadn’t taken a math course since high school. Ms. A was clearly intelligent and competent, but I didn’t immediately see much evidence of math talent or training.

To make things worse, math—or at least GMAT math—seemed to scare the poop out of her. Ms. A would make a sad, cute whining sound (imagine a frightened puppy) whenever she saw a math question that intimidated her—and that happened with disturbing frequency. After a couple of sessions, I told her that she might need more than four weeks of GMAT tutoring, and that she would probably struggle to get her quant score near the mid-40s.

She proved that I’m an idiot. But thanks to Ms. A, I’m a proud, happy idiot.

After giving her a friendly warning to keep her score goals in perspective, I asked Ms. A to do her first math practice exam, knowing that it would be a painful experience. She got a 35, which didn’t surprise me at all.

I then reiterated my standard timing rant: if you read the question twice and don’t see a clear path to the answer, just guess and move on. Use the time you save to be ridiculously accurate on the other questions; always reread each question and check your work carefully before you click “next.” And I reminded her that she would probably miss roughly 15 questions on the quant section—but that her score would be determined by which questions she missed.

Put another way: the GMAT scoring algorithm severely punishes you for missing relatively easy questions, but your score is barely harmed by missing the toughest questions. The key to success—especially on the quant section—is to be 100% bulletproof on the questions that you understand, and to waste as little time as possible on the questions that are difficult for you.

(I repeat that advice constantly to all of my GMAT students, and I’m sure that my current and former students are rolling their eyes as they read this. If you hire me as your GMAT tutor, you’ll hear me say those same lines again and again… or at least until you stop making unnecessary mistakes on your practice tests.)

Anyway, back to Ms. A. Instead of rolling her eyes, Ms. A looked relieved when I begged her to skip the hard questions and spend her time on the easier ones—I think she was genuinely thrilled that she could ignore the questions that made her whine like a homesick puppy. The very next day, her practice test score jumped to a 43. A few days later, she scored 47 on another practice quant test.

I would love to pretend that I taught Ms. A enough GMAT math to improve her quant score by 12 points, but she took all three practice tests in the same week, and I can’t honestly take much credit for improving her math skills in such a short time frame. Sure, she was working hard and her underlying quant skills were improving steadily, but the key was that she executed her timing strategy to absolute perfection. After her first test, she never wasted time on overly difficult questions, and she almost never made careless errors on questions she understood.

In the end, Ms. A kicked some GMAT ass: 720 composite, with a 47 on the quant section.

Was Ms. A special? In a way, no: she worked really hard at her math skills, but could never be mistaken for a natural math genius.

But in another way, Ms. A was truly amazing: she has an unbelievably flexible mentality, and she was able to train herself to approach the test in a completely different way. She didn’t let the GMAT clock rattle her—no matter where she was in the test, she carefully re-read each question and re-checked her work, and she understood that it was worth spending an extra 10-20 seconds to do so. (It also helped that she was naturally gifted at verbal, and could afford to spend her study time focusing almost exclusively on math.)

At the end of the day, Ms. A beat the GMAT with a insanely simple quant strategy: if she understood a question, she answered it carefully. If she didn’t immediately understand a question, she wasted very little time on it. Her approach was simple and elegant. The GMAT world is filled with a cacophony of advice about test-taking “strategy”, but you don’t really need most of that stuff: just work as hard as you can to become better at answering questions correctly, and don’t waste your time chasing the nasty questions that you still can’t easily answer.

Could you be the next Ms. A? If you have a tendency to make careless errors on your homework, you’ll need to thoroughly re-orient yourself. I constantly hear MBA aspirants say “I missed 10 questions on the homework, but they were just stupid errors—I understood all of the questions”… as if that’s a good thing! The GMAT will rip you to shreds if you make silly mistakes on easy questions, no matter how well you understand the hardest concepts covered in the GMAT Official Guide.

So take Ms. A’s simple approach: be mind-numbingly accurate on the quant questions you understand, and save time by letting the toughest questions go. If you can do that with flawless consistency, your quant score will be perfectly solid, even if your math skills aren’t exactly incredible.

Misplaced Math Anxiety: The Evil Four

As an independent GMAT tutor with an unorthodox streak, I tend to be the GMAT resource of last resort for many test-takers. The majority of my NYC students have already taken at least one GMAT prep course, and most have taken the test at least once (one of my students took the test seven times before she called me, and cracked 700 for the first time ever this weekend… yay!). I love the challenge of trying to help students beat the GMAT after they’ve already exhausted every other resource, and I’m always honored when somebody puts their faith in me after months–or years–of falling short of their score goal.

Because the prospective students who contact me tend to have so much GMAT experience already, I usually ask the same question: what do you think is holding your GMAT score back? As you might guess, I get a huge variety of answers, but there’s one common thread: nearly everybody blames combinatorics (combinations and permutations), probability, rates, and/or overlapping sets for at least part of their struggles on the quant section. Let’s call those four topics the Evil Four.

I’m not going to tell you that rate questions aren’t important. I’m not going to tell you that combinatorics, probability, and overlapping sets aren’t important. But I will tell you that the Evil Four are never the difference between, say, a 650 and a 700 on the GMAT.

Here’s the thing: when you really look hard at the GMAT, none of the Evil Four seem to appear all that often. It’s possible that you’ll see two rate problems, but it’s more likely that you’ll see only one. It’s possible that you’ll see a combined total of three probability and combinatorics questions, but it’s also possible that you’ll see exactly none–even if you’re doing well on the exam. And overlapping sets questions aren’t so common either: very few test-takers claim to see more than one or two of them on the GMAT.

Think of it this way: you might only see a grand total of four or five questions from the Evil Four on the actual GMAT. That’s only a tiny proportion of the 78 questions on the test, yet I routinely speak with people who seem to spend as much as 50% of their study time on these topics. But if the Evil Four appear in less than 10% of GMAT test questions, why is everybody so stressed out about them?

Honestly, I think that test-takers tend to focus on these questions because they’re so damned memorable compared with the rest of the questions on the GMAT. You won’t necessarily remember the algebra questions (too boring), the arithmetic questions (too pedestrian), or the number properties questions (too abstract); the crazy rate questions with two trains headed toward each other seem to stick in our heads much more easily.

But the unglamorous reality is that algebra (including word problems and functions), arithmetic (including word problems, percents, exponents, roots, and estimation), and number properties (including all sorts of fun with factors, multiples, and remainders) questions are the core of your GMAT quant score. If your accuracy on these three topics is less than stellar, your GMAT score will also be less than stellar.

Again, I’m not saying that rates, combinatorics, probability, and overlapping sets aren’t worth studying. I just think that these questions cause a disproportionate amount of anxiety, and I think it’s crucial to keep them in perspective. If you’re trying to raise your GMAT score from, say, a 47 to a 51, you probably need to study the living hell out of everything. But if your goals and starting score are more modest–or if you need to substantially improve your composite score–don’t overemphasize this stuff.

At the very least, make sure that you don’t focus on the Evil Four at the expense of more important topics. If you need to make a big improvement in your GMAT quant score, spend the bulk of your time developing your accuracy on algebra, arithmetic, and number properties. Since those three topics appear in more than two-thirds of GMAT quant questions, it would be wise to keep them at the front of your mind as you create your GMAT study plan.

how to scare your GMAT tutor

I have no idea whether other GMAT tutors are the same way, but I usually watch my phone like a hawk when one of my students is taking the GMAT. I get pretty excited about the prospect of seeing somebody succeed after weeks or months (or years) of hard work. Unfortunately, the other side of it is that I’m always battling that nagging little worry that my student might not do as well on the GMAT as I’d hoped or expected.

Today, one of my favorite students here in NYC left me a very cryptic voicemail after his test, which made me worry a little bit. I was tied up with other GMAT students all afternoon, and didn’t have a chance to call him back. A few hours later, I received an email from him. The subject line just said “GMATTED”. If you’ve read my blog in the past, you know that I use the term “GMATed” pretty often. It means “the GMAT f**ked me over.”

So yeah, he scared me. This guy definitely put in his work, and seemed like one of the most consistent, steady performers I’d ever taught. Some students’ scores bounce around wildly from day to day, and I pray for luck when they take the actual test; this guy, though, was rock-solid in all of his prep, and I was shocked that he got GMATed.

He didn’t get GMATed at all. He got a 690 (44Q/40V) on his first try, which is enough to keep him in the conversation at pretty much any b-school out there. Very, very good stuff. By “GMATTED,” he just meant that he was exhausted and could barely form a sentence.

Dude.  Please, don’t scare me like that again.

Fortunately, I’ve had a very gratifying run of great results from my GMAT students over the past couple of months. My magic number this fall seems to be 710–before Mr. GMATTED, three of my last four students managed to get 710s, and that’s always fun to see. Two of them were taking the GMAT for the very first time, and both did three-week “crash courses” with me. In one case, a student had already taken a Veritas course, and I just helped her fill in some holes. The other crash-course guy managed to make huge leaps on quant–he scored 37 on his first mba.com test, and a 47 on the real thing. Can’t beat that. Both of these students were extremely talented, so I’m not going to claim that three-week GMAT crash courses are generally a good idea… but it can work, when the stars align properly.

My absolute favorite success of the season–and possibly of all-time–was a guy that I’ll call Mr. P. Mr. P called me when I first moved to NYC last summer, and he’d already taken the GMAT three times over the course of about six months. He had done craploads of self-study, and had already worked his way through pretty much everything Manhattan GMAT has to offer.

Here’s the crazy thing: despite all of his hard work, Mr. P’s scores were flat as a pancake. Exam 1: 640/40Q/37V/6.0. Exam 2: 630/39Q/38V/6.0. Exam 3: 630/38Q/38V/6.0. I complimented him on his remarkable consistency, then threw the proverbial kitchen sink at him in an effort to shake things up. As with the venerable Mr. V, it was tough to find material that Mr. P hadn’t seen before, and that always makes life challenging and interesting if you’re a GMAT tutor looking for (relatively) painless ways to help a student gain points.

And guess what? Mr. P managed to scare me a few months later with a depressed-sounding voicemail. We’d shaken things up, all right: he jumped to a 44 on verbal, but his quant actually went down, leaving him with an unsatisfying score of 660. Ooops. Time to fire the GMAT tutor?

Here’s the good part: one month later, he rolled back in to Pearson VUE for his fifth attempt at GMAT glory, and got his 710. There’s a guy who deserved every damned point of that 710, and it was a lot of fun to see him get it.

GMAT and GRE test center glitches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

you got GMAT-ed

I’m toward the end of my second full month of tutoring in NYC, and it’s been interesting to see how my GMAT students here differ from the gang that I taught in DC. I had an amazing range of students in DC, including a couple of people who started at or above 700, quite a few others who started in the high 300s or low 400s, and pretty much everything in between.

My first group of NYC GMAT students, on the other hand, consists almost entirely of ass-kickers, gunning for something close to a 700. I’ve met two guys who have gone through every official GMAT question twice; both of them diligently kept notebooks of all of their mistakes, and still didn’t get the scores they wanted. Pretty much everybody else I’ve met has graduated from a Kaplan, Veritas, Princeton Review, or Manhattan course. With only one exception, all of my students have consistently scored in the 600s on the real GMAT, and in the 600s and 700s on practice test.

So all of these guys know the GMAT really, really well. Generally, they start by asking questions about the tough stuff–combinatorics, hard rate problems, set theory, conditional probability, and the most vicious of sentence correction problems. Hardly any of these guys are the least bit worried about their algebra or arithmetic skills when they call me.

I have a few little files of “easy” GMAT questions, mostly consisting of basic algebra, arithmetic, and geometry. Eighth-grade level math, at most. Over the past few weeks, I’ve given the set to most of these veteran GMAT warriors.

How did they do? Well, one GMAT student got a perfect score, which is exactly what he should have done if he wants to get a 700. (I’m very proud of you, Mr. V. May the GMAT gods grant you a 750 and admission to the MBA program of your dreams.) Everybody else got ripped to shreds, missing somewhere between 15% and 30% of the questions. That would be fine on medium-to-hard (say, 600- or 700-level) GMAT questions, but nobody with dreams of admits from Harvard or Stanford should miss this kind of stuff.

Here are a few examples of reasonably easy questions that caused problems:

1. You drop a ball from a height of 16 meters. Each time you drop the ball, it bounces to a level half as high as its starting point. If you catch the ball after the fourth bounce, how far did the ball travel?
(A) 30 meters
(B) 31 meters
(C) 40 meters
(D) 41 meters
(E) 45 meters

2. If x and y are two-digit integers such that x < 40, which of the following is closest to the maximum possible value of xy ?
(A) 400
(B) 1,600
(C) 4,000
(D) 16,000
(E) 40,000

3. If the numbers 13/24, 9/16, 1/2, 2/3, and 5/8 were ordered from greatest to least, the middle number of the resulting sequence would be
(A) 13/24
(B) 9/16
(C) 1/2
(D) 2/3
(E) 5/8

I’m not sure that any of these questions are much more than 500-level questions, but some good GMAT math students screw these up regularly, just because they don’t read carefully, or because they rush through their calculations. Sometimes it seems that arithmetic and algebra questions cause 600+ scorers to immediately think “this is easy, I’m going to destroy this question in 25 seconds so I can move on to harder stuff”… and then they make a dumb mistake. I call this phenomenon “getting GMAT-ed.”

The GMAT writes questions specifically to test your precision, and they’re trying to get you to fall into traps by being imprecise or careless. If you don’t count the bounces carefully, you won’t get (E) for question 1. If you jump to conclusions on #2 (i.e. by misreading an inequality sign or by missing the word “two-digit”), you might not know that the answer is (C). There’s nothing magical about question #3, but it’s easy to get overconfident and make a calculation or comparison error. The answer, incidentally, is (B). Easily 30% of my 600+ students have missed a version of that last one, even though it’s just a simple numerical comparison.

The moral of the story? If you read a GMAT math question and you think that it’s easy, watch your back. Don’t let overconfidence get in the way of your GMAT score. Check your answer twice–it’s always worth spending an extra 15 seconds to make sure that you haven’t done something silly that can damage your GMAT score.