Tag Archives: GMAT score improvement

How to find a good private GMAT tutor

Let’s suppose that you live in a city large enough to have a decent population of private GMAT tutors, and let’s suppose that you’ve collected a list of tutors from Craigslist or gmatix.com or Google or some other website. (And let’s suppose that you’re not looking for an online GMAT tutor, otherwise you would have called the number on the sidebar, right?) So how, exactly, should you go about figuring out which private GMAT tutors actually know what they’re talking about?

Before I continue, let me be painfully honest about my own history as a private tutor: when I first started teaching GMAT lessons at a major test-prep firm more than a decade ago, I barely knew what I was doing. I was always a lively teacher, but you really shouldn’t have hired the 2001 version of GMAT Ninja; the GMAT is an incredibly nuanced exam, and it took some time for me to truly understand how to help my GMAT students succeed. I worked hard at my craft from the very start, but I know—with the benefit of hindsight—that I wasn’t the world’s best GMAT tutor when I first started out.

So if you’re looking for a great private GMAT tutor, you want to avoid shoddy, inexperienced teachers (such as the 2001 version of GMAT Ninja) and find a veteran instructor who can really help you achieve your goals.

To help you in your quest, here are a six ways to help you separate the best private GMAT tutors from the rest of the crowd… with the caveat that this is probably the longest GMAT blog post I’ve ever written. Consider yourself warned.

Hire a GMAT specialist, not a math generalist

Once upon a time, I placed general advertisements that offered my tutoring services for every major standardized test, including the GMAT, SAT, ACT and GRE. You shouldn’t have hired me back then, at least not for the GMAT.

Here’s the problem: the GMAT has shockingly little in common with most other standardized tests. The GMAT is a frustrating experience for many students exactly because its questions are unusually twisted; the quant section of the GMAT tests your ability to read convoluted math questions and make tricky logical connections. Sure, a general math/GRE/SAT tutor can help you polish your algebra and geometry basics, but an ideal tutor will help you to understand the bizarre quirks that are unique to the GMAT.

So if you find a general math tutor who claims to teach the GMAT well, make absolutely certain that the tutor can tell you exactly what makes the GMAT different from other standardized tests. Ask the tutor to talk about the difference between the GMAT and the GRE or the SAT. If he tells you that the tests are basically the same, then you’re better off finding another private GMAT tutor.

Ask if the tutor has taken the GMAT

As you undoubtedly know, the GMAT is a strange little creature that features a painfully broad variety of questions. Sometimes, it feels like the GMAT is a test of psychological strength, not just a test of verbal and math skills.

Any great GMAT tutor understands what it feels like to struggle through the GMAT, and completely understands the physical and psychological stresses unique to the exam. If your tutor hasn’t taken the exam often enough, it’s unlikely that he truly understands how to help you succeed on the test. So make sure that your GMAT tutor can have an intelligent, detailed conversation about his experiences in the testing room before you hire him for a tutoring session.

Hire a teacher, not just a test-taking wizard

Although you definitely want to make sure that you hire a GMAT tutor who regularly takes the exam, you should never hire a private tutor based solely on a high GMAT score. Just because somebody got a high score doesn’t mean that he is a great GMAT teacher.

Think of it this way: many people who get extremely high GMAT scores actually think that the test is pretty easy. If somebody doesn’t struggle with the test, it’s possible (or probable) that he would be incapable of figuring out why somebody else might find the GMAT difficult. And if a GMAT tutor can’t understand why the GMAT is difficult for you, you’ll probably waste your money by hiring him.

Obviously, you want to make sure that your GMAT tutor knows the test well enough to earn a high score, but don’t fall in love with a tutor just because he scored a 780 or an 800. Make sure that your GMAT tutor is an experienced, dedicated teacher who can have an intelligent conversation about his teaching strategies.

Listen for adaptability and flexibility

If you’re interested in hiring a private GMAT tutor, you probably decided that a one-size-fits-all GMAT prep course isn’t the best thing for you. You probably understand that your challenges and strengths and weaknesses are different from those of your test-prep classmates. You know that everybody has a different way of learning… but does your GMAT tutor know that?

If you speak with a GMAT tutor and he offers a rigid “plan” or “program” that he uses for all of his GMAT students, you might be wasting your money. The point of private tutoring is to receive a customized program designed specifically for your needs. If you speak with a tutor and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in adapting his teaching to suit your specific needs, you might want to look elsewhere.

The bottom line: make sure that the GMAT tutor is willing to have a detailed, engaging conversation about your specific needs. He definitely shouldn’t have all of the answers based on a phone call, but he should be able to broadly outline a unique GMAT tutoring program tailored specifically to your goals, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t let the tutor’s price fool you — in either direction

Many people make the mistake of thinking that high prices and high quality always go hand-in-hand. In the wonderful world of private GMAT tutoring, I don’t think that this is necessarily the case.

During my years as a private tutor, I’ve met some spectacular teachers who massively undercharge for their services, and I’ve met some great teachers who charge a small fortune. I’ve also met crappy teachers who charge $20/hour, and crappy teachers who charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

To be honest, tutoring prices have very little to do with the quality of the teacher. Don’t assume that a high-priced GMAT tutor is necessarily good at what he does, and don’t assume that an inexpensive tutor is an unseasoned rookie. Some people are simply more aggressive than others from a pricing and marketing perspective—and that often has nothing to do with the quality of their teaching.

In the strange world of private tutoring, you don’t always get what you pay for. Ask the right questions, and you might be able to find a great GMAT tutor at a reasonable price.

Don’t hire a GMAT miracle salesman

Improving your GMAT score inevitably involves lots of hard work, and any great GMAT tutor will acknowledge that fact. If your GMAT goals are ambitious, and you hope to gain 100 or more points on the test, you should probably be prepared for a long, hard battle. The best GMAT tutors will always make that battle much easier, but if you call a private tutor and he says that you’ll be able to gain 200 points in a few weeks, you should definitely call somebody else.

Also, be very careful with score improvement statistics, which are frequently manipulated by test-prep firms. If a GMAT tutor claims to have an average score improvement of, say, 120 points, you need to look more closely at his claims. Many GMAT tutors and test-prep firms use questionable GMAT diagnostic test data as the “before” scores, and truth is that we rarely have truly accurate data on our students when they begin working with us.

Think of it this way: if a student has never taken the real GMAT test before hiring me as his tutor, how can I possibly take credit for a specific score improvement? If a student took the GMAT, then took a mass-market GMAT prep course, and then contacted me for tutoring, how do I know how much of her score improvement was due to my efforts, and how much of the improvement was a result of the GMAT prep course?

The bottom line is that statistics simply aren’t all that useful in the wonderful world of GMAT tutoring. Hire an honest person who willingly shares stories and references, and you’ll be much less likely to get burned by an ineffective GMAT tutor.

4,000 verbal questions: a (painful) GMAT success story

Everybody loves a good, hyper-dramatic GMAT success story. That’s why our friends at Beat the GMAT have so many dedicated readers and contributors: we’re all addicted to the “I went from a 460 to a 740 in just one month!!!” stories. The faster somebody improves, the more excited we get in the GMAT world.

I certainly love to watch a student (or a perfect stranger) jump 100 points in a few weeks, but I love it even more when a GMAT student succeeds after fighting like crazy to improve. Put another way, I admire plucky test-taking persistence more than I admire pure test-taking talent. And today’s story features the amazing Ms. HP, who is probably the most incredibly dedicated GMAT student I’ve ever met.

(Before I tell you about Ms. HP, a quick note for anybody who might be wondering about my long absence from my GMAT blog: during the years that have passed since my last post, I’ve traveled to eight countries, taught three courses in a NYC public school, moved cross-country to Colorado, written over 170 (!!) articles for an odd mix of food and plastic surgery websites, and proposed to my lovely soon-to-be-wife… all while maintaining a completely full schedule of GMAT students and MBA applicants. Life is calmer now. Please forgive my absence, and brace yourself for a small flurry of pent-up GMAT blog posts before I get too busy again.)

And now, back to Ms. HP. When I first met Ms. HP (not her real name, of course– “HP” refers to Chinese hot pot, which is one of her favorite meals), she had just earned a string of 640s on her MGMAT practice tests, with equally erratic performances on quant and verbal. After a session or two, I realized that Ms. HP had excellent math skills; once she learned to consistently check her work to avoid unforced errors, I wasn’t really worried about her GMAT quant score at all.

Verbal was a different story. After Ms. HP completed some critical reasoning and reading comprehension diagnostic tests from my favorite LSAT book, I discovered that she had some legitimate weaknesses. She had a tendency to rush through questions, she would occasionally over-think CR passages, and she simply didn’t feel confident battling through the dense language of CR and RC texts. Her GMAT score goal was a 720, but her error rate was easily twice as high as it needed to be to achieve her goals.

If you’re struggling with CR or RC, you won’t like what I’m about to tell you: for certain students—including Ms. HP—the only reliable cure for GMAT verbal ailments is tons and tons of practice.

Sure, a good GMAT (or LSAT) tutor can help you to conquer difficulties with particular question types. If you’re disproportionately bad at, say, inference questions or assumption questions or main idea questions, we can fix that. If you have some bad note-taking habits—such as taking too many or too few notes, or focusing on the wrong details—a good GMAT tutor can help with that. And a good GMAT tutor can help you organize your time, and help you organize the information in the passage.

But if your reading skills are fundamentally flawed or if you consistently misunderstand the passages, there’s really only one (unappealing) cure: craploads of practice. Sure, some occasional guidance from a GMAT tutor can help you to focus on the right details, but there are no GMAT test-prep gimmicks that can make you a better reader. You simply have to work hard at improving your skills, often over a long period of time.

Ms. HP, for better or worse, really didn’t have many bad habits with CR or RC, and her errors were evenly distributed among the question types. The bottom line was that she wasn’t great at reading the passages and answer choices. So I told her to do as much practice as she could: three or four 25-question practice sets per week, at the very least.

To make a long story short, Ms. HP proceeded to work like crazy, and consistently did far more homework than I assigned each week. Her CR and RC results improved dramatically, and she ultimately earned a 750/49Q/42V. If we use Ms. HP’s original MGMAT scores as a baseline, she improved by 110 points. Awesome, right?

Here’s the truly incredibly part: Ms. HP completed a total of roughly 4,000 CR and RC questions before her GMAT exam. Yes, you read that correctly: 4,000 questions, give or take a few. In addition to completing every official GMAT verbal question ever published—most of them at least twice—she also completed every CR and RC question from 43 full LSAT exams, for an approximate total of 3,225 LSAT questions. If we include her work in GMAT books and on practice GMAT tests, she did somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 CR and RC questions—in just a few months.

At the risk of jinxing poor Ms. HP, I’ll call my shot right now: WHEN she gets into a top-ten MBA program, she will richly deserve it. I’ve seen plenty of students work hard for their (often dramatic) GMAT score improvements, but I’ve never seen anybody work as mind-blowingly hard as Ms. HP. The qualities that made her an incredible GMAT student are exactly the qualities which make her great at everything she does: she has a positive attitude, an incredible work ethic, a laser-like focus on her goals, and—pardon the expression—cajones of steel. (Not literally, of course.)  She’ll be an outstanding MBA student, wherever she ultimately ends up.

If you’re completely terrified by the thought of completing 4,000 CR and RC questions, don’t worry: Ms. HP is clearly an extreme character (in a good way), and I suspect that she could have achieved an amazing GMAT score with a less-heroic quantity of verbal exercises. And if you’re studying for the GMAT right now, odds are good that you’ll be able to reach your peak with substantially fewer questions.

But next time you sit down in front of a GMAT book and dread the thought of doing another few dozen CR questions, think of Ms. HP. Hopefully, her story will provide a little bit of inspiration… or at least remind you that this GMAT verbal crap isn’t always as easy as we’d like it to be.

deciphering adaptive GMAT scores

Math-phobic students have always been a part of my life as a GMAT tutor, and I currently work with several New Yorkers who used to sweat profusely whenever they heard the words “slope” or “equation.” One of my favorite current students is a 34-year-old actor who has taken exactly no math since high school, and he is raising all sorts of interesting questions as he starts to ascend toward a decent GMAT score.

This particular guy (let’s call him Mr. L… that’s short for Law & Order, since he once appeared on an episode as the main victim) took a Princeton Review GMAT course, got a horrendous score on the math section (21, which is probably on the wrong side of the 10th percentile), demanded his money back from Princeton Review, hired a GMAT tutor in India (he was volunteering there at the time), and then managed to get a 33 on the math–a huge, huge improvement. (If anybody needs a GMAT math tutor in Ahmedabad, India, I can recommend a great one. Oddly enough, I also know a great auditor who lives there, too. And no, I’ve never set foot in Ahmedabad or anywhere else in India.)

Upon his return to NYC, Mr. L contacted me for GMAT tutoring, and we’ve been working together for about a month. His patience for the GMAT started to wane recently, and I suggested that he take a few practice math tests–not because I thought that he was almost ready to take the GMAT, but because I thought that online practice tests would keep him a little bit more engaged than paper-based practice problems.

And Mr. L pretty much crapped himself when he saw his first score: on a Manhattan GMAT test, he scored 40 on the math. I figured that it wasn’t a complete fluke–Mr. L had improved by quite a bit. But he was highly skeptical, so I asked him to take another MGMAT math test. And he scored 40 again. Clearly, the 40 wasn’t a fluke, unless you’re skeptical of MGMAT’s scoring (that’s another topic entirely, but I usually find that the math scores are fairly accurate for students who haven’t taken their course).

I haven’t quite succeeded in convincing Mr. L that he deserved the 40, and here’s why: on both tests, he got 20 questions right, and missed 17. In the American educational paradigm, getting just over half right usually means that you barely passed, which means that you suck. Mr. L couldn’t really get his head around this: he missed enough GMAT math questions to suck pretty badly, but his score was higher than he ever dreamed possible.

So here’s the deal: adaptive tests such as the GMAT and GRE are designed to make you miss lots of questions. (That’s one of many reasons why taking these tests can be such a painful experience.) Each GMAT question is essentially assigned a difficulty level–if it helps, you can think of each GMAT question as, say, a “700-level” or a “520-level” question. The test basically tries to figure out the level of question at which you get 50% right. It seems logical that you might be able to get 55-60% of the questions right, and still get a decent score–your score is based on which questions you miss, not necessarily on how many you miss.

If you don’t believe me, check out a recent entry in the official GMAT blog that addresses this issue.  Or keep reading.  Whichever you prefer.

If it helps, imagine that you’re destined to earn the equivalent of a 650 on the math section of the GMAT. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to ignore some of the complexities of GMAT scoring. Forgive me.) The first question of the test will be a 550-level question (roughly), and let’s suppose that you get it right. You’ll get a harder question next, and you probably won’t start to screw up consistently until you see a few 650- or 700-level questions. But it won’t take too long to get to that level–if you get the first three questions right, the fourth question of the GMAT quant section will probably make you sweat.

Now, imagine that the fourth question is a 650-level question… seems reasonable enough, right? If you’re a 650-level test-taker, you’re likely to miss about half of the remaining 34 questions. I’m obviously making some gross oversimplifications here, but it isn’t hard to imagine that you could get a 650 on the GMAT, or perhaps something even higher… without getting more than about 20 questions right.

My point is this: in all likelihood, you have a huge margin for error on the GMAT. As long as you don’t fall apart at the beginning of the test, you can miss tons of questions, and still get a fantastic score. So when you see some crazy, indecipherable GMAT combinatorics problem, there’s really not much harm in guessing and moving on–one missed question won’t hurt your composite score by much, and you’ll have plenty of chances to recover.

So if you’re reading this, Mr. L… have I convinced you yet? You actually deserved those 40s, and we’re not even warmed up yet. Crazy as it sounds, getting 60% of the questions right might be enough to get you wherever you want to go on the GMAT math section.