Tag Archives: GMAT sentence correction

You think your GMAT nightmares are bad?

 

(Friendly warning: this GMAT blog post is mostly useless, and will not actually help you conquer the GMAT or any other standardized test. Sorry.)

If you ask any longtime waiter or bartender, they’ll tell you that they routinely have “restaurant anxiety dreams.” Nearly a decade after my last stint as a bartender, I’m no exception: I routinely have crazyass nightmares in which I’m in an unfamiliar restaurant, working simultaneously as both the waiter and the bartender. My tables are always filled with customers who insist on ordering drinks that don’t actually exist, like Screaming Vikings (with the cucumbers slightly bruised) or Nutless Monkeys (blended, with a banana garnish) or Steel-Belted Radials (easy on the ketchup).

And then I end up literally walking uphill to return to the bar, and uphill again to deliver the drinks back to the table. Restaurants in my dreams are always like M.C. Esher paintings, which makes it really hard to not suck at waiting tables.

In another version, an old high school friend was sitting at one of my tables, and he ordered a pulled pork sandwich on whole wheat bread. (Note for anybody who isn’t from barbecue country: pulled pork on whole wheat is heresy.) When I tried to enter the order into the computer system, the computer exploded, hissing and bubbling and sending sparks flying around the dining room.

Thankfully, I no longer work in restaurants or bars, so these dreams are just plain funny – and I never have anxiety dreams about my life as a GMAT tutor, because my charming GMAT students rarely manage to stress me out. My GMAT students, on the other hand, aren’t always so fortunate.

One of my all-time favorite GMAT students (let’s call her Luke, since she calls me Yoda) also had some of my all-time favorite GMAT nightmares. If the GMAT hadn’t caused some legitimate suffering in her life, the dreams would be freaking hilarious.

In the first version of the dream, Luke was taking the GMAT exam in a dilapidated shack filled with spiders and mice, as she hunched over a dimly lit computer screen. The vermin were everywhere, crawling over the keyboard and monitor as she tried to think clearly about the proper way to conjugate the 13th verb in a 100-word GMAT sentence correction question.

As she became more fed up, Luke begged the GMAT proctor to please do something about the insects and rodents crawling all over her during the test. But instead of responding in a useful way, the proctor – a cranky, creepy old librarian type, peering at her skeptically through his dusty monocle – threatened her instead of offering help: “If you complain one more time about the testing center,” he said in an ominous tone, “I’ll take 40 points off your score.” Then he laughed maniacally, and poor Luke woke up in a cold sweat.

(Don’t worry: this can’t actually happen in reality. GMAT proctors don’t really have the power to take 40 points off your score, and rodent infestations are presumably rare in GMAT testing centers.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of Luke’s GMAT nightmares. The next night, she had another version of the dream. She was back in the same dilapidated shack with spiders and mice. But this time, the shack was haunted. The feeble lights on her computer would flicker on and off, and she could feel ghosts brushing against her neck as she tried to figure out whether answer choice B or C was actually more parallel. Several times, she turned around in a panic – and saw nothing. She was supposedly alone in the GMAT testing center, but she could hear thumping sounds in the attic as she tried to decipher the GMAT’s nastiest, book-length critical reasoning question – which was, of course, written in wingdings.

But poor Luke wasn’t finished with her GMAT night terrors. A few nights later, she was back in that same damned shack, but this time, the GMAT had a brand-new section: Artists from Around the World. When she complained to the proctor, he just said, “Well, miss, remember that there are some monsters lurking in the testing room, and we do expect you to keep yourself safe and focused during the GMAT exam.”

When Luke got back into the testing room, she was completely alone, and could see the shadows of ghosts lurking behind the computer screen. She got a 480 on the GMAT that night, and the proctor was absolutely disgusted with the result. “But there were ghosts in there!” Luke protested, to no avail.

So yeah: if the GMAT is keeping you up at night, I suppose that it would always be worse.

 

Don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT, part 1: sentence correction

 

A few months ago, one of my favorite former GMAT students in Germany read an article about the United States presidential election in The Economist. She found the article alarming, and sent it over to me. I won’t comment on the content here, since I try to keep my little GMAT blog purely apolitical. But for whatever it’s worth, I thought that the article was wonderfully well-written – as is usually the case in The Economist, which is one of my favorite magazines.

And then I started thinking: you know, this article contains a bunch of phrases that would count as “errors” on GMAT sentence correction questions. A few examples:

Economist GMAT SC error #1

This was a transformative moment in the history of one of the world’s great political parties, but it hardly seemed so to those enjoying Cleveland’s evening sunshine while the roll call of state delegates concluded inside.

The pronoun “it” should always catch your eye on the GMAT, but I think it’s OK from a GMAT sentence correction perspective in this particular sentence – “it” seems to refer to “moment”. However, the word “this” is more clearly problematic – it’s used as a pronoun here. On GMAT SC questions, “this” can generally be used only as an article – see the GMAT Official Guide 2017 edition #760 for an example, though there are obviously more important errors in the question.

Economist GMAT SC error #2

Violent crime has fallen by more than half over the past 20 years, the economy is growing at a steady, unspectacular rate, illegal border crossings are at a low level, there are signs of racial progress for those who want to see them.

Technically, this is a comma splice: there are four independent clauses in the sentence, separated only by commas. From a GMAT perspective, the sentence would be much better if the commas were replaced with semicolons, at the very least. A similar comma splice error can be found in GMAT Verbal Guide 2017 edition, SC question #204 — though again, the question contains plenty of other errors.

Economist GMAT SC error #3

Mr Wilson says that the clashes between Trump supporters and protesters in Chicago in March—when Mr Trump announced and then cancelled a rally in a heavily African-American neighbourhood—moved the Cruz campaign polls away from their candidate towards Mr Trump by ten points almost overnight.

This is a good case of a subtle GMAT SC pronoun error. Check out the phrase “moved the Cruz campaign polls away from their candidate.” “Their” always refers to a plural noun on the GMAT, and the only plural noun nearby is “polls.” So if we read the sentence strictly and literally, it’s saying “…the clashes… moved the Cruz campaign polls away from the polls’ candidate towards Mr. Trump…” And that doesn’t make sense. On the GMAT sentence correction section, this is clearly an error – even though we easily understand the author’s point in real life.

Economist GMAT SC error #4

As voters get even more fed up with this election they may decide that both candidates are as bad as each other, or merely decide to roll the dice out of boredom. If that happens, it would be the most absent-minded political revolution in American history.

In the last sentence, both “that” and “it” are, in theory, being used as singular pronouns. Trouble is, neither has a clear referent in the previous sentence – in some sense, the author is using “that” and “it” to refer to general ideas expressed earlier in the article. That definitely wouldn’t fly on GMAT SC. (And yes, I just made exactly the same “error” in the previous sentence.)

Bonus Economist GMAT SC error #5

And here’s a bonus from another Economist article:

First, she [Patricia May] intends to include a Great Repeal Act in next year’s Queen’s Speech. This will revoke the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA), the legislation that took Britain into the club and which channels European laws onto British statute books, from the point of Brexit.

The GMAT would likely argue that there are two more errors in the second sentence. “This” is used as a pronoun, and that’s a no-no on GMAT SC, as discussed above.

The second error is a little bit more subtle: “which” can only be used as a non-essential modifier, so it doesn’t really work to say “the legislation that took Britain… and which channels…” Don’t lose sleep over that one – sure, “which” is frequently tested on GMAT SC, but not generally in this format.

Anyway, here’s my point: don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT – not even on sentence correction. I love The Economist, and I think that the writers of both articles are obviously talented. But according to GMAT rules, the writers would presumably perform somewhat poorly on GMAT sentence correction questions.

So who do you think is correct: The Economist magazine, or the GMAT? I would argue that language is a vibrant, living creature, and a major international news magazine with millions of readers probably has a pretty darned good idea of what “correct” modern English is. The GMAT is arguably stuck in its ways, and the exam is still testing some of the same, arcane rules – often in a very narrow way – that it tested when GMAT sentence correction was first invented a few decades ago.

So the bad news is that the GMAT SC features (arguably) obsolete rules, often tested in a way that doesn’t reflect the realities of modern English. But the GMAT’s rigidity can be a good thing for test-takers: if you learn the GMAT’s most frequently tested rules on sentence correction, you’ll be on your way to a solid GMAT verbal score. I’d argue that sentence correction might be the most “beatable” or “learnable” part of the GMAT exam, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and work.

Just make sure that you stick with the GMAT’s narrow way of thinking about SC language – and don’t let reality or the excellent writers at The Economist throw you off track.

 

 

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.

 

GMAT reading comprehension, sentence correction, and a monkey…?

The fine folks who produce the GMAT exam aren’t usually known for their sense of humor, but they decided to release a series of “test tips” on their official GMAT facebook page.  And one of their GMAT test tips ended up being pretty funny… though perhaps not intentionally.

An astute member of the GMAT Club forum managed to post a screenshot of the flawed “test tip” before it was removed  from the official GMAT facebook page.  Thanks to his quick internet trigger finger, we’re blessed with the following (slightly goofy) GMAT test-taking advice:

GMAT Test Tips: Reading Comprehension

Agreement is Key.

Subject-verb, verb tense, and pronoun to noun/pronoun agreement are essential to a proper sentence.

Yes, you definitely need to pay very close attention to “pronoun to noun/pronoun agreement” on… GMAT reading comprehension??

But that’s not the funny part.  Check out the original GMAT Club post for a portrait of the banana-munching scholar who might have written this text.

 

is GMAT verbal arbitrary and subjective?

I received an interesting  GMAT-related email this weekend, and wanted to share the question with anybody who might be interested:

… I don’t see how I can improve my level in verbal. This section looks so arbitrary and subjective. Most official answers in SC, RC and CR are highly arguable. It also explains why most people get a low score in verbal while there is no required knowledge for this section contrary to quant. I don’t understand how people manage to nail this section… I never scored steadily. Yesterday I made a 40 on a prep test, today I made a 20… Is there some magic to understand what test makers expect from the candidates?

There are some great questions in here, some of which, unfortunately, do not have great answers. But I’ll do my best to pick apart some of the topics in here.

First of all, I think that GMAT sentence correction is not at all subjective. In theory, the GMAT tests your knowledge of standard, written American English grammar and usage. In practice, I can see why many of the principles tested in GMAT sentence correction seem completely arbitrary. As somebody who has worked for much of the last decade as an editor and GMAT tutor, I can assure you that the GMAT concerns itself with a lot of rules that would slip right past the vast majority of copy editors. A sizable minority of “wrong answers” on GMAT would be completely fine in most major American newspapers, and an even larger minority of the “wrong answers” would be considered completely acceptable spoken English, at least in some parts of the English-speaking world.

However, I don’t think that the arbitrary topic selections should be confused with subjectivity. If you pick up a good usage dictionary or style guide (Bryan Garner’s The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style is my personal favorite), you’ll find endless collections of rules that most people never think about. The GMAT applies these rules consistently–even if the GMAT tests a seemingly arbitrary subset of those rules.

For most people, the easiest way to make progress on verbal is to very thoroughly learn the major grammar and usage rules that appear on the GMAT. Manhattan GMAT’s sentence correction book is probably the best self-study resource for this purpose; PowerScore’s book isn’t too bad, either. If you struggle to learn grammar from a book, then a good  GMAT tutor could help straighten you out; the GMAT forums also have some fantastic sentence threads with great explanations.

Similarly, critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions in the official GMAT material are extremely consistent. Sure, they can get outrageously difficult, but the test-writers are trying to test your ability to understand the nuance of language, your ability to notice fine details, and your ability to stick to the internal logic of a passage. If you think that answers to official critical reasoning questions are arbitrary, it might be because you’re allowing yourself to “think outside the question.” Once you spend enough time with official GMAT material (and again, a study partner or a good GMAT tutor might be useful), you’ll start to see how the test is rigid and consistent in its application of logical principles.

If you want to improve your reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills without paying a bunch of money for a tutor, I strongly recommend reading The Official LSAT SuperPrep, or at least the parts that describe logical reasoning (LSAT’s version of critical reasoning) and reading comprehension. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but it might help to convince you that the people who write the GMAT are systematic, even if they are kind of evil.

Here comes the rough part.

Unpleasant dose of reality, part 1: I think that it can be incredibly hard to improve your score in reading comprehension. It takes a ton of practice, and possibly a fair amount of guidance. During my long, ugly history of teaching test-prep (SAT, GRE, ACT, TOEFL, TOEIC… including a stint as a TOEFL book writer), I’ve rarely seen anybody make large improvements in reading comprehension with anything less than a herculean GMAT study plan. You could make moderate improvements in a few weeks, but major gains on reading comprehension usually take months. (Occasionally, I can browbeat a smart-but-lazy teenager into doing much better on the ACT or SAT in a few weeks, but that’s not a skill problem–it’s a focus problem.)

Unpleasant dose of reality, part 2: unless you’re using official GMAT (or LSAT or GRE) material, “knockoff” verbal questions actually ARE completely subjective and arbitrary, at least some of the time. I strongly discourage my students from touching any verbal material other than that found in the GMAT official guide, the official GMAT verbal review guide, GMATPrep, and official LSAT books. (Manhattan GMAT is an exception of sorts, but I still don’t think that anybody should rely exclusively on MGMAT for verbal. Manhattan does an absolutely amazing job, but their material is still designed as a copy of the real thing, and like all copies, the material inevitably has its biases and imperfections.)

So if you’ve taken tests from any sources other than the aforementioned, you should expect your GMAT verbal scores to be completely random. Trust me, it is more difficult to write “real GMAT reading comprehension questions” than you can possibly imagine, and most test-prep companies would never dream of spending the money it takes to produce, test, and polish a truly accurate set of GMAT verbal questions. Focus exclusively on official material for a month or two, and the GMAT will start to look much less arbitrary and subjective.

Thank you for the great set of questions! You’re surely not the only person who has these thoughts, and I wish you all the best with your GMAT studies.

GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition

Fresh off the presses: our friends at GMAT just released the 2nd edition of the GMAT Verbal Review. This time, they’ve switched to a sexy blue theme. Much nicer than the lavender on the 1st edition.

Aside from the color change, not a whole lot is different. Most of the verbal questions are the same, but they supposedly removed 75 questions and replaced them with 75 new ones. But actually… they removed 82 questions and replaced them with 82 new ones. You get 7 more real GMAT questions than they promised! Isn’t that exciting?

If you’re looking for some extra verbal practice material, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have an additional 82 “official” questions, especially since the book is so cheap (about $13 on Amazon). But do the lords of the GMAT give us any special hints in the new edition? Are there any systematic changes that might hint at a new composition of the actual test questions?

Unfortunately, not really. I spent a good chunk of time poring over the new questions, and I can’t say that all that much is substantially different. It’s not as if the new GMAT verbal guide is suddenly covered with, say, parallelism questions. It is, however, covered with balsamic vinaigrette. At least my copy is. (A little salad accident happened while I was working through the book. That was my punishment for ordering a salad, I guess.)

Anyhow, here’s a breakdown, by question type:

Reading Comprehension

Questions removed from the 1st edition: 13, 22-28, 55-63, 91-97, 98-105 (32 questions removed)

Questions added to the 2nd edition: 1-6, 18-23, 45-49, 64-70, 91-97 (31 questions added)

Random edits: a few typos were fixed (missing punctuation on 1st edition #40 and #51), indentations were added at the beginning of each passage, and line references were changed as a result (#48, #50, #74, #76, #102). Yes, I’m that anal. Want me to edit your MBA application essays?

Useful conclusions: none, really. I thought it was interesting that they removed a pair of random questions (1st edition #13 and #65) while keeping the rest of the passage intact, but I don’t think that leads us to any stunning conclusions about the makeup of the test. The five new passages include two science readings, two “business-y” readings, and one social science-y passage about W.E.B. DuBois. These replaced four passages, including one science reading, two business-y readings, and one social science-y passage about Florence Nightengale. As a tutor who spends way too much time with these books, I have to admit that I’ll miss Florence.

Brutally honest conclusion #1: anybody get the feeling that GMAC released this new edition just to sell books?

Brutally honest conclusion #2: I’m not serious about missing the Florence Nightengale passage.

Critical Reasoning

Questions removed from the 1st edition: 1, 2, 5, 8, 13, 15, 19, 22-23, 29, 35, 42-43, 46, 54, 55, 59, 60, 66, 68, 77, 82 (22 questions removed)

Questions added to the 2nd edition: 1, 3, 6, 9, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29, 33, 37, 40, 45, 48, 51, 54, 59, 62, 65, 70, 74, 78, 81 (23 questions added)

Random edits: underlining was removed from questions 24, 26, 27, 49, and 79 in the 1st edition. Not that you care, but it looks like some editor at GMAC had to work overtime once or twice.

Useful conclusions: actually, I do see a few semi-significant changes in the critical reasoning part of the test. There are now two (wow!) of the “boldfaced” questions, compared with one in the 1st edition. In the 1st edition, there were six “paired” questions attached to a single passage; all of those have been removed, or at least converted to single questions.

More generally, I think that GMAC has been experimenting with a broader range of question stems for critical reasoning. Once upon a time, CR didn’t go much beyond some basic “strengthen” and “weaken” questions; other phrasings (see 2nd edition #70 and #78) are a little bit more common than they used to be. This doesn’t radically alter the test, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Sentence Correction

Questions removed from the 1st edition: 3, 14, 17, 18, 21, 24, 27, 28, 33, 36, 38, 43, 47, 50, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 69, 74, 75, 77, 81, 83, 87, 89, 90 (28 questions removed)

Questions added to the 2nd edition: 1, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 22, 27, 31, 36, 42, 45, 50, 53, 57, 61, 65, 69, 73, 79, 84, 88, 92, 96, 100, 104, 108, 112 (28 questions added)

Useful conclusions: none, really. For the past couple of years, I’ve theorized that the GMAT is trying to make their sentence correction questions more “test-prep proof” by inserting more questions that involve some sort of tricky logic, unusually difficult comparisons, or funny forms of parallelism (i.e. false parallelism traps or opaque parallel structures). I also think that we’re starting to see more idioms, and fewer questions that can be solved just by knowing simple grammar and usage rules.

Although my students continue to tell me that the sentence correction questions on the real test are much harder than in the GMAT official guides, the 2nd edition of the Verbal Review gives us pretty much nothing. The new 28 questions don’t seem to be significantly harder than the 28 that were deleted from the 1st edition. The last few new ones aren’t exactly a walk in the park, but they’re still nowhere near the difficulty level of some of the evil stuff I’ve seen on the real test.

So there you have it. If you’re being really aggressive about your GMAT prep, you might want to buy both books, and then use the question lists above to cherry-pick the non-redundant questions out of one of the books. Other than that, there’s no particular reason to think that the 2nd edition offers anything all that special. If you’re confident with your verbal skills, there’s no need to race to the local bookstore for the 2nd edition–if the 1st is already in your hot little hands, you probably won’t need to bother with the 2nd.

my shortcomings, in plain view

I pride myself on being a brutal realist when it comes to GMAT tutoring. If I think that I can’t help somebody improve his GMAT score, I immediately tell him. If a student isn’t doing her homework, I’ll tell her to stop wasting her money on a tutor. If I think that a student can’t possibly achieve his GMAT goal, I’ll find a polite way to say so.

And if I make a mistake, I’ll admit it immediately. I’m not really into hiding.

I’ve had a surprising number of hits on my original post about Mr. V, one of my students here in NYC who has worked like crazy to raise his score. Basically, he’s seen every single useful GMAT question at least twice. He took the exam twice, and couldn’t crack 640. I’ve tutored him for the past six weeks, and I was absolutely convinced that he’d made some great progress. He was nailing some of my toughest math and sentence correction questions, he was holding his own on the LSAT material, and his final GMATPrep test was well into the 700s.

It took some creativity to put together a good program for him, and I thought that I’d be able to write a gloating post about how well my odd schemes worked. Unfortunately, nothing worked as well as we’d planned. Mr. V took the GMAT last weekend, and his verbal score actually went down. I was pretty shocked and humbled by that. I thought that we had really made him better, and it just didn’t happen. His math score improved, but his composite score went sideways.

Mr. V has been more than gracious, and doesn’t blame me at all for his lack of improvement. (Actually, he posted a glowing endorsement of me on his blog. Thank you for that, good sir.) But I can’t help but feel a little bit responsible. Sometimes, even a dedicated tutor’s best efforts just don’t quite cut it, and I don’t want to run from that fact.

For what it’s worth, Mr. V didn’t see anything surprising on the exam. He said that it was pretty much exactly what he expected: the critical reasoning and reading comprehension were hard but reasonable, the math was predictably tough, and the sentence correction didn’t contain any grammatical surprises. If anything, we suspected that the sentence correction idioms got the best of him–he said that he was unsure whether he chose the right phrases on a number of questions. That, coupled with a little bit of bad luck, probably did the damage on the verbal section. And unfortunately, I didn’t advise him to memorize hundreds of idioms before taking the GMAT. (Nor would I ever recommend memorizing more than a few dozen of the most frequently used idioms.)

Unless Mr. V suddenly gets shy and asks me to stop, I’ll continue posting occasionally about his progress with his MBA quest. He has chosen not to re-take the test, but we’ll keep working together in an effort to make his MBA applications sing. The point of all of his GMAT labors was to get into a great MBA program. And if he can pull that off, the disappointment of the score won’t really matter at all.

exhausting the OGs: a case study

As a private GMAT tutor who presents himself in unconventional ways, I tend to attract unusual students. People who are “average” or “typical” tend to do well in prep classes; there’s no need for them to pay for a private GMAT tutor. Often, I find that I’m the GMAT resource of last resort. I get lots of calls from people who have already done everything they can (self-study, prep courses, perhaps repeated re-takings of the GMAT) and can’t think of anything else, so they call an independent tutor, hoping that I can offer some help.

Usually, I immediately have an idea of what to do for a student. Some people complain about their GMAT verbal scores, but haven’t had a lick of sentence correction grammar training–it’s easy to see that there is, at the very least, a content issue in these cases. Some students reveal major deficiencies in their math preparations, and these are also easy enough to fix. I’m about to start working with a student who has scored 330 and 430 on her first two practice tests, and is in the middle of a prep class; at least as a starting point, she just needs a little bit of one-on-one attention to help her grasp some fundamental concepts and build her confidence. Basically, there’s an obvious starting point with nearly every GMAT student I’ve ever worked with, and I can usually figure that out over the phone.

But when I first came to NYC last month, I met a student who might, in some ways, know more about the GMAT than I do. This guy has done every single official GMAT question (GMAT Official Guide 11th edition, GMAT Official Guide 12th edition, GMAT Verbal Review, GMAT Quant Review, GMATPrep, GMAT Focus)… twice. And he’s taken all of the Manhattan GMAT tests twice. He kept a journal of all of his mistakes. And he’s taken the real GMAT test twice. I couldn’t ask for a more thorough course of self-study.

Strangely, the poor guy (let’s call him Mr. V) is stuck with a sub-650 score, with particularly weak outcomes on the verbal section (low 40s on quant, but he was right around 30 on the verbal). Apparently, Mr. V called two other independent GMAT tutors before contacting me, and both said that they couldn’t do anything to help him. And I can understand why. What can possibly be done to help this guy, when he has apparently left no stone unturned? He has a strong work background, but is aiming for a 700+ GMAT score so that he can have a shot at top MBA programs. Jumping from, say, 620 to 700 is no joke under the best of circumstances, but it’s one hell of a task for a student who has already devoured every retired GMAT question that has ever been published.

I was honest with Mr. V from the start: I’m not sure how well any of this will work, but I gave him a smorgasbord of GMAT options. Ultimately, we decided to do a full run-through of all of the key grammar concepts on sentence correction, as well as a quick tour through the math content to see if we could find any holes in his understanding of the fundamentals. Beyond that, we realized that we needed to squeeze every possible drop of knowledge out of the official GMAT material, and we had to find some way to supplement the verbal content with outside sources.

For sentence correction, I’m forcing poor Mr. V to identify every single mistake in every wrong answer choice. Much of the material in the OGs is far easier than what he saw on the actual GMAT, and I realized that he probably hadn’t really trained himself to find every type of error. I think this approach is driving him nuts, but seems to be helping somewhat. (I’ve given the same assignment to other students, with mixed results.)

On the math section, we’ve discovered that Mr. V is an algebra genius, but that he gets tripped up by some of the logic- and word-based material. Combinations, permutations, conditional probability, and venn diagram questions tend to make him see double. So we’re working through some methods to make him more systematic in his approaches to those questions, and we’re both digging around to find as many additional, 700-level problems as we can for those topics.

The other two GMAT verbal sections, as is often the case, have proven to be more problematic. I’ve shown Mr. V several different tactics for approaching GMAT critical reasoning, most of which involve creating some sort of visual guide for navigating the questions. I’m not sure how well the tactics themselves are working, but we decided to make him suffer through LSAT logical reasoning questions alongside the OG critical reasoning material. At worst, the LSAT material will make the GMAT seem a little bit easier and more straightforward; I hope that he’ll look at the verbal section of the actual GMAT and be a little bit less intimidated by the convoluted language. At best, a steady practice diet of LSAT might actually cure him of his logical errors.

Mr. V’s test date is still a few weeks away, and I’ll probably be almost as nervous as he will be. I’ve certainly helped some unique individuals reach their MBA goals, but Mr. V has forced us to rewrite the GMAT test prep playbook. I just hope that the first draft of the new playbook is good enough to get him the points he needs to achieve his MBA goals. I’m fascinated, and will update this page with his progress, regardless of whether his result ultimately makes his GMAT tutor look good.

Brutal SCs

One of my favorite new GMAT students in NYC asked me to take a look at a set of verbal questions that have been floating around the internet for awhile.  The file is called “Brutal SCs”, and it contains 70 GMAT sentence correction questions.  They’re supposed to be brutal, I guess.  And they are… just not in the way that the author (or compiler?) apparently intended.

I’d be lying if I told you that I analyzed every single question in the document with extreme care, but I did take a reasonably thorough survey of the first 25 sentence correction questions.  I found major typos in four questions, and a fifth question had a misuse of the phrase “due to” in the non-underlined portion of the original sentence.  These mistakes may or may not have impacted the answer, but they definitely made me question the quality of the resource.

More importantly, several of the answers seemed to be just plain wrong.  At least two questions (#21 and #22, if you happen to have a copy) are very clearly flawed, and I’m deeply suspicious of several others.  In short, at least 20% of the questions in this resource contain mistakes of some sort, and I suspect that this figure is an understatement.

The bottom line:  stay away from Brutal SCs, and find another way to practice your GMAT sentence correction skills.