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GMAT and GRE test center glitches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

you got GMAT-ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.