Tag Archives: GMAT scores

don’t let the GMAT forums fool you

If you poke through popular GMAT forums like Beat the GMAT or GMAT Club, you’ll quickly encounter dozens of tales of GMAT glory.  You’ll read about people who improved from 580 to 710 or from 440 to 630.  You might even encounter the amazing story of the guy who got a 420 on his first practice test, and eventually made it to Harvard.  These “I just beat the GMAT!” stories seem to be everywhere, and some of them make beating the GMAT sound awfully easy.

Almost every week, somebody contacts me about GMAT tutoring, and asks me why they haven’t been able to crush the GMAT like everybody in the GMAT forums.  And the first part of my answer is always the same:  there really aren’t that many forum participants crushing the GMAT.  It just looks like it.

The triumphant tales of GMAT success receive tons of comments, and end up getting bumped to the top of the forums.  But for every loud “I just clobbered the GMAT!” story with 40 comments, there are at least five (mostly unnoticed) GMAT forum posts that begin or end with “please help!!!” And I’m sure that there are exponentially more GMAT forum “lurkers” who have been demoralized by the GMAT, but choose not to post anything online.  The people who get ripped to shreds by the GMAT either post a very quiet “um, how do I improve?” query on the boards, or they don’t say anything at all.

So whatever else you do over the course of your GMAT preparations, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you suck because “everybody else is beating the GMAT.”  They aren’t.  Only a very small percentage of people who retake the GMAT actually improve their scores substantially.  Most GMAT test-takers are suffering, just like you.  And most of the guys who made huge GMAT score improvements also suffered, just like you.

So while the GMAT success stories are absolutely wonderful if you’re looking for some inspiration, keep them in perspective: we read these stories because they’re relatively rare.  That’s why they get all of the attention on the GMAT forums.

If you’re having a hard time with the GMAT, you’re definitely not alone.  Spend some time in the darker corners of the GMAT forums, and you’ll find plenty of people just like yourself, who are working their butts off to achieve their goals.  The GMAT may be easy for a very small handful of people, but if you want to improve by 100 points or more, you’ll have to work like crazy.  But at least you’ll have plenty of company.

GMAC says you probably won’t improve your GMAT score

If you’re like most people who stumble across my little corner of the GMAT blogosphere, the GMAT has already punched you in the gut, and you’re probably preparing to retake the test.  But if you’re starting at a 600 or above, the researchers at GMAC have a message for you:  you’ll probably fail in your quest to improve your score.

In a brief article published in 2011 and an accompanying GMAT blog post, the GMAT’s chief psychometrician, Lawrence Rudner, tallied up some numbers on repeat test-takers, and came up with some interesting data:

  • nearly 25% of repeat testers actually score lower on their second GMAT test
  • the overall average gain on the second test is 33 points, but the vast majority of these gains are enjoyed by test-takers who scored below 600 on their initial exam
  • test-takers who score between 700 and 790 gain an average of only 8 points on their second exam, and their scores actually decline slightly on the third and fourth attempts
  • test-takers who score between 600 and 690 on their first GMAT exam gain an average of only 20 points on their second exam, and their scores barely improve at all on the third and fourth attempts

So basically, the guys who write the GMAT are saying that you probably won’t achieve a meaningful score improvement, especially if you’re already starting in the 600s or 700s.

In a way, GMAC has a point:  the GMAT isn’t a content-based test, and the reasoning skills required for success are extremely difficult to develop.  To make things worse, the test-writers specifically design the GMAT for “reliability,” meaning that test-takers should be expected to perform similarly on repeated testings.

So it’s definitely tough to achieve GMAT score improvements, but I can introduce you to hundreds of successful test-takers who have enjoyed huge gains on the GMAT.  Nearly all of them worked their asses off for the privilege, but it can definitely be done. With enough effort, it’s always possible to beat the odds.

Still, the statistics suggest that a large percentage of repeat test-takers are wasting their time, and GMAC is telling you that you’re likely to fail. Now please go out and prove them wrong.


maybe a nice, relaxed approach to the GMAT is a good idea?

Yeah, I know:  your GMAT test score is really important to your personal and professional goals, and your test date is written on your calendar in huge red letters.  Right now, you’re planning your entire life with that date in mind.  You’re taking it extremely seriously.  That makes perfect sense.

But let me tell you a story anyway.  Once upon a time, there was a New Yorker named Mr. FP.  (In case you’re curious, “FP” stands for “fat pants,” because he used that term in one of the most entertaining MBA application essays I’ve ever read.)  At the time, Mr. FP worked in a demanding finance job, and he struggled to find time for his GMAT studies.  He scheduled his first GMAT test date for late December, but wasn’t able to do quite as much studying as he had hoped.

Still, Mr. FP took his two GMATPrep tests in the week leading up to his test date, despite the fact that he didn’t feel 100% ready for the exam.  On his first GMATPrep test, he scored a 680.  Not bad, right?  The 680 was a pleasant surprise, considering Mr. FP’s difficulties with some of the homework.  A few days before his exam, Mr. FP took the second GMATPrep test, and only scored a 640.  Not spectacular, especially since his goal was a 700.

At that point, it was clear that Mr. FP didn’t have a very good shot at getting a 700.  He’s a brilliant guy, but we agreed that he had specific GMAT weaknesses, and his practice tests weren’t going terribly well.  But Mr. FP is a pretty laid-back fellow, and he took the situation in stride.

“Whatever dude,” he said, in our final GMAT tutoring session before his exam, “It’s my first time taking the test, and it’s too late to get my money back.  So I’ll just take it as a practice test, and maybe I’ll learn something or whatever.”

Two days later, Mr. FP called me immediately after he left his GMAT exam, and he was laughing so hard that he couldn’t even tell me what happened.  Eventually, he spit out the news:  he got a 720.  And he thought it was absolutely hilarious.

The moral of the story?  I’m not certain that there is one.  Maybe Mr. FP is just a really, really lucky man.  Or maybe he performed incredibly well because he was relaxed, and didn’t take the GMAT overly seriously that day.  Whenever he got rough questions, he didn’t let them rattle him—he just shrugged, made his best guess, and calmly moved on.  Whatever Mr. FP did that day, it worked.

You know that I’m in awe of the work ethic of most of my GMAT students.  But maybe some of you try a little bit too hard sometimes.  Just some food for thought.

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.


why you should (almost) never cancel your GMAT score

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

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

Probably not.  And here are three reasons why:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason #3:  why waste $250?

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

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

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

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

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

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

yes, GMAT scoring is weird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



my best students prove that the GMAT is meaningless

On a snowy Denver afternoon, I decided to conduct an odd GMAT-related thought experiment, just for the hell of it.

Purely for entertainment, I imagined that an all-powerful being forced me to choose any 20 of my former GMAT students to run a business; if the business failed, I would die a miserable death.  In a life-or-death business situation, which of my former students would I select?

The catch is that I have no idea what the business actually is.  I just have to select the 20 ex-students who would be the most intelligent, nimble, well-rounded, effective managers.  The business would be named later.

So I dug through my old spreadsheets and created a list of the most broadly talented GMAT students I’ve worked with.  Then, I selected the 20 ex-students who would be the most likely to contribute to the success of an unnamed business enterprise.  I didn’t try to balance the list (by selecting a mix of finance, consulting, and industry backgrounds, for example), and I don’t care about their resumes at all.  I was just looking for the 20 most incredible people.

After I selected the 20 best business minds, I sorted them by GMAT score.  And this may or may not surprise you, but there seems to be absolutely no correlation between GMAT scores and business acumen, at least among my (relatively small) group of students.

Out of my 20 most brilliant students ever, only half scored a 700 or above, and seven of those ten had to work their asses off to get to a 700. Every single one of those 10 test-takers studied for at least two months, five of them improved by 100 points or more, and one of them did 4,000 practice CR and RC questions.  Only a very select few of my best students are naturally gifted at taking the GMAT.  The rest of them just work incredibly hard.

The other half of the list is even more interesting.  Five of my top 20 students were stuck in the 600s, even after herculean efforts on the GMAT.  One is still going through the application process, but the other four are currently kicking all sorts of butt at super-elite, top-ten business schools.  Adcoms, it seems, are definitely willing to looking past the GMAT score when a candidate is truly special.

The other five students got absolutely clobbered by the GMAT.  Three scored in the 500s, and all three are now working for prestigious, household-name-type companies.  The other two gave up before they even took the GMAT.  One is a ludicrously talented woman with an unusual form of ADD, and another has an interesting learning disability that gets in the way of his math training; out of respect for their privacy, all I’m going to say is that both of them have been featured in New York Times articles, and one of them became a C-level executive before he hit 30.  Neither of them needed an MBA.  They’re that awesome.

Keep in mind that the majority of my students start in the high 500s or somewhere in the 600s, and most of them ultimately fall somewhere in the 680-750 range.  I just don’t get very many calls from students who would be content with a 550 or 600, and it’s interesting that such a large percentage of my lowest-scoring students are so successful.

Let’s face it:  the GMAT is an absolutely fantastic measure of how well you fill in little bubbles, and it’s a reasonable predictor of how well you’ll do in, say, a graduate-level microeconomics class.  But it’s a terrible predictor of any other sort of success.

As I look at my “dream team” of 20 former GMAT students, I see a few people who were great at filling in bubbles, a lot of people who worked hard at it and improved dramatically, and a handful who were beyond hope when it came to the GMAT.  And that shouldn’t surprise us at all.

On a guest post for somebody else’s MBA blog, I once made the case that the most successful people are “grinders”: they may or may not be naturally brilliant at filling in little bubbles, but they’ll work like hell to achieve their goals.  They’ll succeed in their professional and personal lives, even if it takes a lifetime of all-nighters to get it done.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some incredible “grinders,” and I’ve probably learned more from them than they’ve learned from me.  These are the students that make teaching worthwhile.  I can teach them number properties and GMAT grammar, but they’ve taught me a lot about what it takes to really kick ass in this world.

Now if somebody wants to invest $100 million in a business—without telling me what type of business—I have a young, energetic management team ready for you, and I guarantee that they won’t fail.  Just don’t ask them about their GMAT scores.

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.

GRE vs. GMAT, part II: test content and structure

In my last GMAT blog post, I mentioned that it’s possible—at least in theory—to apply to nearly any major MBA program with only a GRE score.  Very few top MBA programs (hello, BYU and Haas!) stubbornly refuse to accept GRE scores, and the creators of the GRE have generously produced a handy GRE to GMAT score converter to make the GRE more appealing to MBA admissions committees.

You could easily argue that MBA admissions committees aren’t 100% comfortable with the GRE yet, but it’s certainly possible to be admitted to most MBA programs without touching a GMAT book.  So if you’re completely convinced that you’ll do better on GRE than on the GMAT, then there’s no reason to hesitate.

Which brings us to the next question:  what are the differences between the two tests, and what are the chances that you’ll actually do better on the GRE than on the GMAT?  Although I think that most people will score similarly on the two tests, it’s conceivable that you could gain an advantage by taking the GRE, depending on whether the differences between the two tests work in your favor.

The first major difference between the GRE and the GMAT is probably irrelevant to your odds of admission to business school, at least for now.  The GRE includes two 30-minute writing assessments, instead of the GMAT’s combo meal of one AWA and one 30-minute Integrated Reasoning exercise.  But as you hopefully know already, neither the AWA nor the Integrated Reasoning is likely to have a substantial impact on your odds of admission.  So at least for the next few years, that particular difference between the GRE and the GMAT doesn’t really matter.

On the quant side, the GRE lacks the data sufficiency that all GMAT test-takers (*cough*) dearly love; instead, the GRE includes a less-tricky question type called quantitative comparisons.  The GRE also includes some numeric entry questions that require you to come up with an actual number yourself.  And the GRE also gives you data analysis questions, which aren’t terribly common on the quant section of the GMAT.  So if you hate data sufficiency and love data analysis, you might be happier taking the GRE.  (The GRE also offers a simple on-screen calculator, but I’d argue that it really doesn’t help all that much—the numbers are rarely cumbersome on either exam, especially if you’re well-trained in the art of finding intelligent quant shortcuts.)

On the verbal sections, the differences between the GRE and the GMAT are substantial.  Both exams include some sort of reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions, but the GRE has no sentence correction questions.  Instead, you’ll face some vocabulary-heavy text completion and sentence equivalence questions.  So if you have a strong vocabulary and hate GMAT sentence correction, then maybe the GRE is for you.

Structurally, there are also some major differences between the GMAT and the GRE.  The GRE has several shorter sections and only one extended break, roughly two hours into the test.  I would argue that the GRE feels like running wind sprints:  once you finish your two 30-minute AWA sections on the GRE, you’ll suffer through two scored quant sections (35 minutes each), two unscored verbal sections (30 minutes each), and one experimental section, which could be either quant or verbal.  The GMAT, of course, includes one 75-minute quant section and one 75-minute verbal section.  The total amount of test-taking pain is similar, but the heart of the GMAT consists of two long, painful marathons, instead of a set of shorter sprints.  I’m not sure which is worse, but I promise that I’ll whine about the GRE’s format in my next blog post, after I retake the GRE for the first time in several years.

And now for the most important difference between the two tests:  the GMAT is question-level adaptive, while the GRE is section-level adaptive.  If you get a few consecutive questions correct on the GMAT, you’re likely to see tougher questions almost immediately.  But the GRE only “adapts” between sections.  If you do really well on the first quant section, then your second quant section will be extremely difficult.  And it won’t matter what you do with the first few questions within each GRE section—the test doesn’t adapt until you move from the first quant section to the second quant section, or from the first verbal section to the second verbal section.

In some ways, that’s absolutely wonderful:  on the GRE, each 20-question section is “fixed” once you start the section, which means that you can go back and review the questions that you’ve already completed within that section.  It’s a completely different test-taking experience than the GMAT.  Most of us feel much more comfortable with the GRE in this respect; there’s something extremely comforting about the idea that we can skip questions and come back to them later, or revise our answers if we have extra time at the end of any given section.

So yes, the two tests are substantially different, but the bad news is that I’ve seen plenty of students take both exams, and their GRE scores tend to be very comparable to their GMAT scores.  But if you’re absolutely convinced that GRE questions will be systematically easier for you than their GMAT counterparts, then don’t hold back:  the GRE might be ideal for you.  If you’re not convinced that you’ll perform substantially better on the GRE, then stick with the GMAT:  you never know when you might fall in love with Haas or BYU, and regret your decision to abandon the GMAT in favor of the GRE.

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 reading the third part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.

GRE vs. GMAT, part I: MBA admissions

If you spend your time carefully reading MBA application instructions, you might have noticed that nearly every major U.S. business school now accepts both the GRE and the GMAT.  There are still a few exceptions (at the time of writing, BYU and the full-time Haas MBA program hadn’t jumped aboard the GRE bandwagon yet), but it’s possible to apply to the vast majority of top MBA programs with only a GRE score.

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, the GRE might sound awfully tempting.  The GRE has no data sufficiency or sentence correction questions; instead, you’ll see the GRE’s (relatively non-threatening) quantitative comparisons and grammar-free vocabulary questions.  Better still, the GRE is generally rumored to be easier than the GMAT, and the GRE costs $75 less than the GMAT.  Not bad, huh?

But wait, there’s more:  with the changes implemented to the GRE in 2011, you can actually go back and change your answers on the test now!  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The GRE inarguably offers a more pleasant test-taking experience than the GMAT, but you might be wondering:  can you actually get into top MBA programs with only a GRE score?  At least at the moment, the answer is a very wishy-washy “yes, but…”

For starters, we don’t really have much data on average GRE scores at top business schools.  According to a 2012 survey conducted by Kaplan, only 16% of MBA applicants have even considered using the GRE for their MBA applications, and far fewer have actually applied to business schools with a GRE score.  As a result, MBA programs really aren’t able to give us a clear idea of the average GRE scores for its admitted students, since so few admits actually take the GRE.

The (somewhat) good news is that our friends at ETS have created a nifty GRE-GMAT score converter, which means that you can, at least in theory, convert any GRE score into an equivalent GMAT score.  For example, if you’re using the pre-2011 GRE scoring system, a 700 on the GMAT would have been roughly equivalent to a GRE composite score between 1400 and 1450, depending on the exact breakdown of your quant and verbal scores.  If you’re using the new GRE scoring system (on a wildly inconvenient scale from 260 to 340), you’ll need to score somewhere between 323 and 328 to earn the equivalent of a 700 on the GMAT.

The trouble is, it’s not clear whether MBA admissions committees put much faith in the score converter. Everybody in the MBA world knows how to interpret GMAT scores, but some adcoms aren’t yet 100% comfortable making judgments based on GRE scores, even with the score converter.  A friend of mine works closely with the admissions committee at a top-ten MBA program, and he claims that the admissions committee is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the GRE; the adcom certainly isn’t going out of its way to encourage applicants to take the GRE instead of the GMAT… at least not yet.

And that makes perfect sense, considering the lack of data on MBA applicants, students, and graduates who have taken the GRE.  Decades of GMAT validity studies tell us that the GMAT is an excellent predictor of MBA students’ performance during their first year of business school, but the GRE simply doesn’t have that sort of track record in the MBA world.

The bigger problem is that the GRE is unlikely to offer you any particular advantage over the GMAT.  Most tutors and test-takers agree that the GRE “feels” easier than the GMAT, but don’t be fooled by the “feel” of the tests:  I very rarely meet students who perform substantially better on one test or the other, even if they “like” the GRE better.  The tests are similar enough that relatively few MBA applicants actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

So should you completely avoid the GRE if you’re applying to business school?  Not at all—obviously, admissions committees are open to admitting students without a GMAT score, even if they aren’t 100% comfortable interpreting GRE scores yet.  But unless you have some very specific test-taking preferences—which I’ll discuss in my next blog post—it’s unlikely that the GRE will greatly improve your chances of admission, either.


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 reading the second part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.