Tag Archives: GMAT scores

7 reasons why your practice test scores don’t match your actual GMAT scores

 

One of the most painful things in the GMAT world is a massive test-day letdown. If you spend time on any of the GMAT forums, you’ll see tons of anguished posts that share a similar trait: a huge discrepancy between test-takers’ practice test scores and their actual GMAT scores.

In the geeky spirit of GMAT CR, our goal in this article is to help you resolve that discrepancy. So here are seven reasons why your test-day scores might be lower than your practice test scores:

Reason #1: you’ve been taking inaccurate, non-official tests

If you’re a regular reader of our little GMAT blog, you’ve heard this story before: the GMAT spends somewhere between $1500 and $3000 developing every official test question, and even the best test-prep companies can’t possibly compete with that.

Of course, it’s even harder for test-prep companies to combine those (inevitably somewhat flawed) questions into a realistic practice test. For example, test-prep companies struggle to mimic the GMAT’s use of experimental questions, or the exact mix of, say, geometry and probability questions.

To make things worse, if you’ve relied heavily on the materials written by a particular test-prep company, then you’ll probably do disproportionately well on that company’s practice exams. It stands to reason that the methods taught by Company X would be more effective on the questions written by that same company.

Sure, some of the higher-quality “knockoff” tests can still be good practice, at least for quant. But you’ll always want to take the scores with a huge grain of salt, and if you’re relying particularly heavily on one company’s GMAT practice tests, then you might want to be especially skeptical of those results.

Reason #2: you’re repeating the GMATPrep practice tests

In a perfect world, we’d all rely exclusively on official GMATPrep tests. The problem, of course, is that the GMATPrep software only offers six adaptive exams, and that might not be enough for you. (Check out this article for an inexpensive way to stretch your supply of semi-official tests.)

Plenty of people choose to retake the GMATPrep exams, and that’s not a bad idea: you’ll always learn something from the GMATPrep tests, and you’ll always see at least some new questions. The only problem is that you’ll also see some familiar questions, and that will bias your score upwards.

Whenever I say that, I hear the same objection: “Yeah, but I don’t really remember the questions, so the scores are probably accurate, right?” Sorry, but no. Even if you don’t consciously remember the questions, you’ll be able to answer them much, much faster if you’ve seen them before. Try reading a novel that you read 10 years ago, but don’t consciously remember. I promise that you’ll read it much faster – and you’ll absorb much more detail – than you did the first time around.

The bottom line: even a few repeated questions can completely change your experience on the GMATPrep tests, because you’ll feel less time-pressured, and your score will certainly inflate at least a little bit.

So please be really, really thoughtful about how you use those GMATPrep tests. If you need to repeat them, that’s OK – but don’t trick yourself into thinking that your scores on repeated GMATPrep tests are accurate. Because they probably aren’t.

Reason #3: you’re repeating the GMATPrep questions

This one is sneaky: if you’re a regular consumer of questions from the GMAT forums or other free sources, there’s a very good chance that you’re inflating your GMAT scores every day, without even noticing.

The internet is filled with official GMAT questions from all sorts of sources – including the GMATPrep exams. And even if you don’t repeat the GMATPrep tests themselves, your scores will also be inflated if you’ve seen the questions somewhere online.

So if you’re using one of the GMAT forums such as GMAT Club (which features two stunningly beautiful competent verbal forum experts), keep a close eye on the question tags. If you notice that a question comes from the GMATPrep tests, you might want to skip it, unless you’ve already thoroughly exhausted the GMATPrep exams.

Reason #4: all test-prep materials are based on GMATPrep questions

You’re not going to like this one.

When test-prep companies develop their own resources – guides, practice tests, practice questions – we have to draw inspiration from official GMAT sources. And since the GMATPrep tests are the closest thing to actual GMAT exams, we have to rely particularly heavily on the GMATPrep tests.

So there’s no way around it: every test-prep company writes their own “knockoffs” of GMATPrep questions. The best GMAT test-prep companies will artfully make their versions look drastically different from the originals; the lazier firms will just swap out a few details.

So if you’re ever had the feeling that the actual GMAT exam “feels weird” compared to the GMATPrep tests, this is one potential reason: you’ve seen tons of questions that resemble the GMATPrep questions, before you ever even touch the GMATPrep software. If this is the case for you, the GMAT questions on your actual exam might feel strange – and your score might drop as a result.

Reason #5: you’re fundamentally inconsistent

You won’t like this story very much, either.

I recently received an inquiry from a long-suffering GMAT test-taker who couldn’t figure out why his actual GMAT scores — ranging from 580 to 640 on six attempts — were so much lower than his “best GMATPrep test score of 720.”

Well, here are the scores from his first attempt at each of the GMATPrep exams:

  • GMATPrep #1: 620
  • GMATPrep #2: 720
  • GMATPrep #3: 580
  • GMATPrep #4: 660
  • GMATPrep #5: 590
  • GMATPrep #6: 600

When you average these six scores, you get 630 – and that’s really close to his top score on the actual exam.

So there are two takeaways here. First, don’t trick yourself into thinking that your best score is somehow your “real score.” Based on his GMATPrep scores, this test-taker should have expected to score in the low 600s – and that’s pretty much what happened. Praying for “a good test day” is never a winning strategy on the GMAT, and that’s basically what he was doing, without realizing it.

More importantly, these test scores clearly belong to a wildly inconsistent test-taker, and that’s a huge problem. The key to the GMAT isn’t cramming tons of knowledge into your head; it’s figuring out how to apply CONSISTENT techniques and reasoning habits every single time you see a particular type of question.

If your GMATPrep test scores are all over the place, they’re trying to tell you something: you fundamentally lack consistency and you’re applying different techniques at different moments, depending on your mood or the direction of the wind. Until your performance is consistent, there’s no reason to expect a great GMAT score – and it shouldn’t surprise you if your test-day performance is much lower than your best GMATPrep practice tests.

So be honest with yourself: until your practice results are CONSISTENTLY in your target range, it’s unlikely that you’ll earn the score you want on the actual GMAT.

Reason #6: you’re fatigued on test day

In a perfect world, you’ll feel exactly the same in the GMAT exam room as you do when you’re taking a GMATPrep exam in the comfort of your own home. But that’s not realistic: you’ll likely be amped on your test day, and your adrenaline will probably be flowing.

And maybe you’ll run out of gas as a result of all of that excitement. Every once in a while, I hear from somebody who simply got fatigued at the end of their exam – particularly if they chose the “conventional” section order, with verbal at the very end.

If fatigue was an issue for you on test day, maybe you need to do more full practice tests, or it might help to practice with some extra-hard LSAT materials, just to build up your stamina. Or maybe more sleep or a better test-day diet would help. Or you could always choose a different section order, so that the least-important sections come at the end of your exam. But test-day fatigue is definitely a very fixable problem.

Reason #7: you’re nervous

This is the elephant in the room: most people get a little bit nervous when they’re taking a high-stakes test like the GMAT. And some people – perhaps around 20%, according to studies conducted here in the United States – get so nervous that their cognitive functions are impaired.

A full discussion of test anxiety could easily fill an entire book, so I won’t say much about it here. But if your GMAT scores suddenly drop on test day, there’s a pretty good chance that nerves are playing a role – even if you aren’t consciously jittery.

If this is the case for you, you might consider trying some of the techniques mentioned in this article or this article or this article. But whatever you do, don’t sweep your test-day anxiety under the rug, and pretend that it didn’t happen. Be honest with yourself – or else you’ll have zero chance of overcoming the problem. 

Still not sure what happened? Get your ESR.

I’m a little bit cynical about the motivations behind the GMAT’s ever-increasing menu of products, but if you’re not sure why your real GMAT score was so low, the GMAT Enhanced Score Report (ESR) is probably worth the price ($24.95). And even if you’ve already canceled the score, GMAC will happily sell you an ESR.

The ESR can’t tell you everything, but it can give you some idea of what happened. For example, the ESR might tell you that you made a bunch of mistakes on easy questions, or that your time management was erratic. Or maybe it’ll tell you that you had a meltdown on one specific question type.

Of course, the ESR can’t tell you why you made those mistakes. But it can at least point you in the right direction if you’re not sure which of our seven reasons explains why your score dropped on test day.

And if you need advice, feel free to leave a comment below, and we’ll do our best to help.

 

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.

GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!

 

In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.

 

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, call or email for more information… or try starting from the beginning of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a “good” GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.

 

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.

 

The International House of Pancakes test for MBA application essays

In an earlier blog post, I argued that many MBA applicants—often with the help of MBA admissions consultants—have “over-managed” their MBA essays and sucked much of the soul out of their applications.  If you know anything about human nature (or the insane workload of MBA admissions committees) you probably realize that soulless MBA essays will probably get you nowhere, unless you’re an otherwise perfect MBA candidate.

(But if you’re pretty much a perfect MBA candidate, why are you wasting your time reading this blog?  Shouldn’t you be doing something completely perfectly amazing and superhuman right now?)

For those of you who aren’t superhuman, I’m convinced that it’s absolutely critical to sound passionate about your business pursuits in your MBA applications, regardless of whether you’re writing about past successes or future goals.  Fundamentally, MBA applications are a test of your ability to market the product you presumably know best:  yourself.  If you can’t convince an MBA admissions committee that your career will reach exciting new heights post-MBA, why should anybody offer you a coveted spot at an elite business school?

This is particularly true for aspiring entrepreneurs or anybody who runs a family business.  If you can’t get us excited about your future plans in a 400-word MBA essay “elevator pitch,” it’s hard to believe that you’ll ever succeed in getting investors or customers excited about your company.  If you plan to start a business—or want to continue running your existing business—you’ll be doomed to failure if you can’t get investors, employees, and customers to buy into your product.  And why would any elite MBA program want to admit a passionless, unconvincing wannabe entrepreneur?

So if you’re an entrepreneurial sort and you’ve already written drafts of your essays, you’re probably wondering:  are your essays convincing and passionate, or generic and soulless?  And how can you tell?

As luck would have it, I’ve developed a simple, high-calorie tool for determining whether your business ideas are compelling enough for your MBA application.  I call it the International House of Pancakes test, because I really like breakfast.

Here’s how it works:  if you’ve already used the name of your company in your essays, replace the name with “International House of Pancakes.”  If the essay still makes sense, you’ve probably written an essay turd.  Your essay needs to capture your excitement for your specific industry and your particular company; if you replace the name of the company with a restaurant name, you should get complete nonsense.  (Unless, of course, you’re actually planning to run a restaurant.  In that case, I know a guy who is really, really great at testing menu items.)

To illustrate the International House of Pancakes test, here’s a real draft of an essay written by one of my favorite students (let’s call her Ms. ERP, since that’s the best-sounding word in the excerpt below), with the name of the school removed to protect her privacy:

Upon graduation from [an MBA program], my short-term goal is to manage operations for the International House of Pancakes Group – the $16 million chain wholly owned by my family.  With our proprietary SMARTE training program, internally built ERP software, and strong reputation in Canada, I am excited about helping the International House of Pancakes reach its full growth potential.  As the COO, my initial priorities would be to improve International House of Pancakes’ day-to-day operations and to expand our presence in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.  Since the profitability of our Canadian locations is declining due to rising costs resulting from government intervention, I need to streamline our organizational infrastructure so our company can grow internationally and with measured risk.  I would continue to identify potential areas for investment, lead negotiations with potential partners and suppliers, and manage new initiatives.

The paragraph is dry and clinical, but it still makes sense, right?  And that’s a huge problem.  The essay was supposed to be about her family’s business in the education industry.  Honestly, it really is an innovative, interesting firm that could plausibly be wildly successful on several continents.  But you definitely wouldn’t know that from reading this essay.  There’s no life to it, no vivid description of her work, and absolutely no hint of passion for her company or industry.

Right now, you might be chuckling at poor Ms. ERP:  “Ha ha ha!  That silly Ms. ERP!  I would never do that in my own essays!  I love what I do, and it shows in my MBA essays!”

Oh yeah?  Try swapping out the company name in your essays, and see if it still works.  You might be surprised:  it’s shockingly easy to let your MBA application essays devolve into generic, vapid corporate-speak, no matter how geeked up you actually are about your career.

The story ends well for Ms. ERP.  After I sent her the International House of Pancakes version of her essay, she cursed loudly and showed my handiwork to her father, who laughed and said that I was a jerk and that he really liked me.  Ms. ERP then revised her essay to paint a vivid, energetic picture of her family business, and she now attends a super-elite U.S. business school, despite a GMAT score in the mid-600s.  But she has, unfortunately, maintained an aversion to pancakes to this day.

 

How lucky was Mr. Fat Pants?

If any of you are expecting a practical, useful article about GMAT tutoring, I apologize in advance:  this is going to be a pretty useless, vaguely technocratic article about standardized testing.  Consider yourself warned.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about a fellow named Mr. FP (Mr. “Fat Pants”), who once wrote a brilliant MBA application essay about his lunchtime festivities at the office.  Mr. FP deserves to be a legend simply because he actually used the phrase “fat pants” in his MBA admissions essays, but he’s also notorious (in my little GMAT world, anyway) for springing a huge test-day surprise on both himself and his GMAT tutor:  he scored a 680 and then a 640 on his only two full-length GMATPrep practice tests, then nailed a 720 on the actual GMAT—just a few days after the 640.  Mr. FP is a great guy who kicked all sorts of ass at a top-10 business school… but we agree that he got a little bit lucky.

But how lucky did he get?  And can we somehow quantify his luck?

The quick answer is that Mr. FP was pretty darned lucky.  If you dive deep into the bowels of your GMAT score report (sorry for the image; do you really want to dive “deep into the bowels” of anything?), you’ll see some mumbo-jumbo about something called the standard error of measurement, and the score report will tell you that the standard error of measurement is about 30 points on the GMAT.

To understand the idea of a standard error of measurement, imagine for a moment that you have something called a “true” GMAT score.  There are two ways to think about a “true” GMAT score.  First, you could imagine that it’s the score you would receive if the GMAT always did a 100% perfect, 100% consistent job of measuring your verbal and quantitative reasoning skills (or whatever it is that the GMAT actually measures).  If that doesn’t seem intuitive, imagine this:  you’ll take the GMAT, I’ll wipe out your memory of the exam using the “flashy thingy” from the Men in Black movies (so that you don’t remember any of the questions), then I’ll send you back to the very same GMAT test appointment using a time machine from the Back to the Future movies.  I’ll do this an infinite number of times.  Assuming that you don’t get brain damage, your average score on your infinite number of GMAT exams would be your “true score.”

Of course, you wouldn’t always get exactly the same score on every single test appointment, even if we conjure some Hollywood magic to eliminate all day-to-day variations in your test-taking behavior.  The truth is that GMAT scores are a little bit random.  Or maybe a lot random.  Even if you behaved exactly the same way every single time you took the test, you’d still get slightly different GMAT scores from one day to the next.  That’s an inevitable part of standardized testing, especially on an adaptive exam that spits out somewhat randomized questions.

Back to the technical crap:  the standard error of measurement is basically a measure of that random variation in your scores from one GMAT exam to the next, even if we assume that you’re a robotic test-taker who always behaves the same way.  If you’ve taken a few statistics courses, you could think of the standard error of measurement as the rough equivalent of a standard deviation for your GMAT score:  since the GMAT’s standard error of measurement is around 30 points, roughly 2/3 of all test-takers will score within 30 points of their “true” GMAT score, and roughly 95% of test-takers will score within 60 points of their “true” GMAT score.

In other words, your GMAT score could plausibly fluctuate by around 30 points from day to day, but you aren’t terribly likely to gain or lose 60 points simply by random chance.

With this in mind, Mr. FP seemed to be a very lucky man.  We’ll never know Mr. FP’s “true” GMAT score, but based on his homework and GMATPrep test results, I would have wagered that he was in line for a 660 or so—halfway between his two GMATPrep scores.  If we pretend that 660 really was his “true” GMAT score, then Mr. FP scored 60 points—or two standard errors of measurement—above his “true” score.

If you’re a statistics geek, you’re welcome to bust out your favorite z-chart and do the calculations yourself, but the bottom line is that there was roughly a 1 in 40 (2.5%) chance that Mr. FP would receive a random gift of 60 or more points from the GMAT gods.  And keep in mind that any random, luck-based deviation from your “true” GMAT score could work in your favor—but it’s equally likely that it will work against you:  if 1 out of every 40 test-takers will earn at least 60 “measurement error points” that they don’t “deserve”, then 1 out of every 40 test-takers will lose at least 60 points on their GMAT score, just from bad stinking luck.  The gods of random chance are sometimes very kind, but they’re also randomly very cruel.

So if you’re still 60 or so points away from your ideal GMAT score and you want to roll the dice, go for it.  But your odds of a Mr. FP-esque stroke of good luck aren’t all that good, and it’s probably better to hit the GMAT books hard and make your own luck.

GRE vs. GMAT, part IV: GRE study materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Close” counts in Russian roulette, but not on GMAT verbal questions

Let’s suppose that you just attacked a long, painful set of GMAT (or LSAT) critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions, and let’s suppose that you weren’t all that thrilled with the results. Let’s imagine that you did, say, 50 questions, and you missed 15 of them.

Like a good GMAT student, you decide to look through all of your errors. And you realize that you almost had the right answer to almost every single one of your 15 misses. Again and again, you notice that you were down to two answer choices… and then selected the wrong one.

And that’s frustrating on one level, but encouraging on another. “Hey,” you think, “I didn’t really miss the questions all that badly. I’m just barely missing them, right? So that means I’m doing pretty well! I just need to have more lucky guesses when I’m down to those last two, and I’ll be fine.”

Sorry, but a near-miss is still a miss on the GMAT. “Close” might be a great result if you’re playing shuffleboard, horseshoes, or Russian roulette, but it doesn’t mean anything on a multiple choice test. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re necessarily close to a score breakthrough, just because you’ve narrowed your critical reasoning or reading comprehension questions down to the last two options.

Think of it from the perspective of the people who write GMAT verbal test questions. I often imagine that some evil little monkey in GMAC headquarters (or, more likely, a very pleasant ACT contractor sitting in her home office) comes up with an idea for a critical reasoning question, and leaps up in a fit of joy. “I have a great idea for a really tough question!” she exclaims, and then writes the CR passage. Her moment of CR-writing inspiration probably included one extremely tempting wrong answer, in addition to the hard-to-discern correct answer.

And then she proceeds to invent three additional answer choices, none of which are as tempting, difficult, or inspired as the first two. After an intense period of testing and editing, the question eventually becomes an instrument of torture for GMAT test-takers around the world.

Here’s my point: the vast majority of difficult CR and RC questions simply don’t have five tempting answer choices. They usually have only two or three, and you’ll frequently struggle to decide between the last two options. At worst, you’ll feel that tossing a coin is a perfectly reasonable way to decide between those final two answer choices. And your coin will inevitably be wrong more often than you’d like.

So don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that some wrong answers are “less wrong” than others. If you miss a GMAT CR or RC question, it’s probably because you misread or misinterpreted something, either in the answer choices or in the passage itself. Even if you feel like you’re “close” on the majority of your misses, stay focused on the fundamentals: read with laser-like precision, practice hard using official GMAT and LSAT questions, and concentrate on honing your ability to distinguish between similar-sounding answer choices.

Eventually, you’ll get substantially better at catching the nuances of GMAT verbal passages, questions, and answer choices. On the majority of GMAT verbal questions, you’ll still be forced into a difficult choice between the last two answers. But as you strengthen your ability to understand the phrasing and logic behind CR and RC questions, you’ll choose the correct option more and more frequently. And then you can put the coin away, and watch your score improve.

an easy way to improve your GMAT score: eat

If you know me personally, you probably know that I’m obsessed with food.  If you ever want to torment me, watch this video for inspiration.  And if you ever want to get on my good side, take me to one of the interesting places on this crazyass NYC food website.

So when somebody asks me how I managed to get a perfect score on the GMAT, I sometimes point to my stomach and grin stupidly.  And I’m only half-joking when I do that.

As you already know, the GMAT is a brutal, four-hour marathon, and the worst part is that the verbal section appears at the end of the GMAT, when you’re completely exhausted.  And fatigue is one of the primary reasons why unfortunate GMAT test-takers experience GMAT verbal underperformance.

There are plenty of ways to improve your GMAT verbal score—such as completing 4,000 GMAT CR and RC questions if you’re into that sort of thing—but I would argue that a thoughtful approach to your test-day food and drink intake is a simple and often underappreciated way to maximize your performance on the GMAT.

Your brain is a hungry little bugger, and studies suggest that your brain uses 20% of your caloric intake.  Your brain tends to run best when it has a steady supply of carbohydrates, and if you starve your brain of energy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to perform badly on the GMAT.

Your gastronomic goal on test day is to keep your blood sugar as stable as possible, so that you don’t suffer through a sugar crash or a food coma while you’re taking the test.  Ideally, you want to eat a solid—but not gut-busting—meal an hour or two before your test.  And during each of your breaks, you want to make sure that eat some sort of snack to help keep your brain moving.

And here comes the important part:  you definitely want to avoid consuming overly sugary snacks (M&Ms, Skittles, chocolate, etc.) during your breaks, since they’re likely to lead to a blood-sugar crash before the GMAT verbal section is over.  Stick with something a little bit healthier, ideally with a lower glycemic index:  energy bars, a mix of nuts and dried fruit, or a light sandwich on whole wheat bread.

Pure sugar might work for a short-term boost, but it can hurt you during a four-hour GMAT marathon.  A number of years ago, one of my high school students loaded up on Skittles before the SAT, was a brilliant ball of energy for the first 45 minutes of the test, and then literally fell asleep.  I swear that I’m not making this up.

So don’t mess around.  Plan out your meals and your snacks well before you take the real GMAT, and think carefully about the nutritional value of your snacks.  When you do full practice tests, be conscious of your food and caffeine intake; experiment with different meals and snacks and drinks to see what works best for you.

You might end up choosing snacks that aren’t particularly tasty, like chalky energy bars.  But even though some energy bars aren’t particularly delicious, they always taste better than a subpar GMAT score.

 

Does the GMAT matter?

If you either know me personally or are a regular reader of my GMAT blog, you know that I’m not always fond of the GMAT.  I honestly enjoy some of the intellectual and psychological challenges presented by the exam, but I often cringe at the actual content of the test.  I’m simply not convinced that your knowledge of number properties or modifier placement will ever help you to become the CEO of a successful company.

And that brings us to a (somewhat unanswerable) question:  what is the GMAT good for, anyway?  And can we prove that the GMAT is a useful measure of… something?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post about the new Integrated Reasoning section, the writers of the GMAT spend a lot of time proving that the GMAT is “valid,” and their official GMAT blog often goes to great lengths to remind us of the GMAT’s value.  GMAC’s definition of the word “valid” is interesting, though:  most GMAT validity studies simply examine the correlation between GMAT scores and students’ grades during the first year of business school.

By this measure, the GMAT is an outstanding exam, and it does an excellent job of predicting test-takers’ academic performance upon entering business school. If you feel like geeking out on some of the numbers, you can check out a classic GMAT validity study here.

But the GMAT isn’t really designed to predict anything else.  Yes, the GMAT correlates strongly to your grades during your first year of business school.  But your grades in an MBA program don’t correlate strongly to success in the business world—and neither do your GMAT scores.  According to a recent article in Forbes, the GMAT doesn’t seem to predict to post-MBA salaries at all, despite the fact that a handful of high-paying finance and consulting firms still use business school grades during the hiring process.

Many of us have an unfortunate habit of blowing the GMAT way out of proportion, and we act as though it’s a measure of general intelligence or business acumen.  It isn’t either of those things.  The GMAT is a fantastic measure of a specific set of quantitative and verbal reasoning skills, and validity studies have proven that those reasoning skills will help you get good grades in business school.  Beyond that, the GMAT isn’t a great indicator of success.

So next time you get your butt kicked by some GMAT questions, don’t take it personally.  The GMAT isn’t telling you that you’re stupid, or that you won’t succeed in business.  It’s just telling you that you might not have the specific skills required to get a high score on a very specific standardized test.  And even if you’re getting your butt kicked by number properties or modifier placement rules, you might still be an absolutely spectacular business mind, destined for a lifetime of financial success.