Tag Archives: GMAT tutor

Go ahead, roll your eyes… but it’s GMAT quantitative reasoning, not GMAT math

 

If you’ve struggled with the GMAT quant section more than you think you should, this blog post is for you. If you’ve ever said, “I’ve always been a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT quant is so hard for me!” – then this post is definitely for you.

In my former life as a PhD student, I spent far too much time learning about the statistical science underneath standardized testing, known as psychometrics. My nearly three-year PhD odyssey didn’t result in much other than some grey hairs and a “thank you for playing!” Master’s degree in education, but I did experience a few things that probably helped me become a better GMAT and GRE tutor.

This is a story about one of those things – and at the time, I never would have guessed that it would be useful for my GMAT and GRE students.

In my first year as a PhD student, I went to a psychometrics conference, populated by academics and employees of major standardized testing organizations, including ETS (makers of the GRE and TOEFL) and GMAC (creators of your beloved GMAT). I attended a presentation by a high-ranking GMAT psychometrician, who discussed… well, nevermind that part, I’ll put you right to sleep if I start talking about it.

Anyway, here’s the useful bit: somebody in the audience asked a question about the “math section of the GMAT.” The GMAT psychometrician interrupted him politely: “Excuse me,” he said, “there is no math section on the GMAT. There’s only quantitative reasoning.”

I probably rolled my eyes. “What a dick,” I thought, “why would he make a big deal out of that? It’s math. S#!t, I’ve been teaching it for a decade. Whatever, dude.”

Sure, maybe the GMAT psychometrician wasn’t picking the best moment to make a big deal out of it, but he absolutely had a point. In the few years since I attended that conference, I’ve realized that my students – particularly Americans – actually perform better on the quant section of the GMAT when they stop thinking of it as “math” and start thinking of it as “quantitative reasoning.”

Here’s the thing: in the United States, “math” knowledge – at least through the high school level – is typically taught as sequences of mechanical steps that you need to memorize and follow. Throughout much of my public school education, our daily homework would consist of 10 or 20 nearly identical math problems. The problems were usually so similar that there was no reason to think about what any of it meant. If you could follow instructions, you’d get an A – even if you had absolutely zero understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts.

As a result, most Americans think that the word “math” just refers to a boring series of steps that you follow. Sadly, we don’t think of mathematics as a way of thinking, or as a set of useful tools for reasoning our way through useful problems. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have learned math in a way that strips it of its logic, meaning, and intuition.

So it’s no surprise that I hear this over and over from GMAT test-takers, especially Americans: “I’m a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT is so hard for me!”

Obviously, there are a ton of reasons why somebody might struggle with the GMAT quant section, but plenty of GMAT test-takers make the subtle mistake of trying to learn too many formulas, memorize too many steps, and drill too many mechanical aspects of mathematics. The GMAT, for all of its flaws, brilliantly twists 10th-grade math into a hard-to-penetrate – or at least a hard-to-quickly-penetrate – tangle of logic.

In other words: if you’re trying to blindly apply mechanical techniques to GMAT quant questions above the 500 or 600 level, the exam will eat you for breakfast.

Let’s look at an example (with apologies for the blurry fractions):

Which of the following is greatest?

GMAT blog example quantitative reasoning

If you think of this as a mechanical “math question,” you’ll follow some well-worn steps here: find some common denominators, add the fractions, and THEN compare the sums.

Go ahead and try it if you’d like. If you can correctly solve the question that way in two minutes or less, I’ll give you a cookie.

But if you’re thinking of the GMAT as “quantitative reasoning” – with or without the eye-roll – then maybe you’ll try something quicker, smarter, and less arithmetic-intensive. In this case, we’re just looking for the greatest value – and we don’t care what that value actually is, as long as we know that it’s larger than the other four answer choices.

So since the question is just asking for the greatest of the five answer choices, you can just compare pairs of answer choices, and knock off anything that’s the smaller of the two. Let’s start with D and E. It’s easy to see why E is larger than D once you notice that 1 – ½ = ½, so D is gone.

Similarly, B looks a lot like E, except that the denominators in B are squared – and since larger denominators mean that the fractions must be smaller, we can cross off B. The same argument holds for C – it’s clearly smaller than E as well. And then A has smaller denominators than E – so A is your answer.

No computation required, right? If you’re approaching this wisely, you barely need to lift your pen.

So if you’re thinking of the GMAT quant section as a set of narrow mathematical tasks – formulas that need to be memorized, or boring-ass steps that need to be followed – then you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least if you want an elite GMAT quant score. Once you start looking for opportunities to apply flexible logic and identify multiple solution paths, then you’re on the right track.

If any of this strikes a nerve, then it might not be a bad idea to stop yourself whenever you start thinking about the GMAT “math section.” Roll your eyes at yourself if you’d like, but thinking of the GMAT quant section as “quantitative reasoning” might help you embrace the flexibility and logic you’ll need for a top GMAT quant score.

How to get a perfect 800 score on the GMAT… sort of

 

More than five years ago, I earned a perfect 800 on the GMAT. I don’t really think of it as much of an achievement, to be honest – and I definitely don’t think that it’s an important qualification for the best GMAT tutors.

But I’ve been asked about it literally hundreds of times over the years – by GMAT students, prospective GMAT students, random people in the GMAT forums, strangers who’ve encountered my little GMAT blog, and plenty of others. So here are a few answers to the 800-related questions that keep coming my way.

Did you get every question right? 

No, I’m 99% sure that I didn’t. GMAT enhanced score reports didn’t exist back in 2011, so I can’t actually see if I missed any questions, but as soon as I finished the exam, I worked through every quant question I could remember – and I’m pretty certain that I missed at least one. Maybe more.

The bottom line, for whatever it’s worth: you can miss a bunch of questions and still get a “perfect” GMAT quant score of 51.

But you got every verbal question right? 

I think so. But it was mostly due to dumb luck.

In all of my previous GMAT exams – including the GMATPrep practice tests the first time I took each of them – I always fell short of a perfect verbal score. I inevitably missed a few questions, partly because I tend to lose focus at the end of the GMAT, but mostly because I screw stuff up sometimes, just like every other human.

And if you’ve ever taken the GMAT or the GRE or the LSAT, I’m sure that this part will sound familiar: I inevitably face a few “coin tosses” on verbal – questions where I’m down to two answer choices, but I’m not terribly confident in the final selection. (Incidentally, if you’re down to two choices on a GMAT verbal question and you select the wrong one, that’s not necessarily a sign that you were “close” – it’s usually a sign that you misread something in the passage.)

But when I finally scored an 800 on the GMAT, that didn’t happen at all – I was pretty much 100% confident on every verbal question. That has never happened to me on any GMAT, LSAT, or GRE exam before or since – including the day when I got a perfect GRE score. That test felt freaking brutal, and I was shocked that my GRE score wasn’t lower in the end.

Most importantly, all four of my GMAT reading comprehension passages were bizarrely interesting when I got that 800. I still remember one of them – it was about a type of plant called dodder that apparently has a sense of smell. Amazing. Again, that’s never happened before or since: when have you ever had four interesting GMAT reading comprehension passages on the same exam?

So there you go: yes, I’m pretty good at the GMAT, but those last 10 or 20 points were dumb luck – or measurement error, if you prefer the technical term.

Were you banned from taking the GMAT ever again? 

Yup. I received a nice letter from the GMAT Office of Test Security, informing me that I would need a damned good reason if I ever wanted to take it again. And I don’t have a damned good reason. “I want to help my GMAT students beat your stinking exam” isn’t going to fly with the GMAT test security folks.

My MBA.com account is suspended too, though the GMAT will still happily accept my money whenever I want to buy GMAT practice tests or the GMATPrep Question Pack from them.

Did you study for the GMAT before you got the perfect score?

Well, I earned the perfect score in 2011. I started working as a GRE and GMAT test-prep tutor in 2001, starting with a gig at a large test-prep company before I became an independent tutor a few years later. So in some sense, I “studied” for 10 years before I got a perfect GMAT score – and I’m still “studying,” since I work with GMAT students almost every day.

You probably don’t want to do that. Unless you want to become a GMAT tutor yourself, “studying” for more than a decade is an epic waste of your time.

Are there certain GMAT test-prep materials that would help somebody get a perfect GMAT score?

It’s funny, I read a GMAT blog post from another test-prep company that recommended its own materials for anybody who wants a perfect GMAT score. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, partly because knockoff GMAT materials can never be as good as official GMAT materials – and partly because that particular GMAT test-prep firm writes especially lousy materials, in my opinion.

So, no: other than the official GMAT materials, there aren’t magical GMAT test-prep resources that will get you to a perfect 800 on the GMAT.

And more importantly: there’s absolutely no practical reason for you to want a perfect GMAT score, anyway. An 800 will not help you get into a great business school, and I wouldn’t even argue that it’s a necessary quality for the best GMAT tutors.

So if you’re wondering how to get an 800 on the GMAT, don’t waste your time thinking about that. Go write an interesting MBA essay instead, or better still: go eat a tasty snack.

Choosing between an independent GMAT tutor and a large GMAT test-prep firm

 

In a crusty old GMAT blog post, I discussed the most important characteristics you should look for in an independent GMAT (or GRE) tutor. In this post, I’ll take a step back, and look at a broader decision: should you hire an independent GMAT tutor in the first place, or are you better off looking for a GMAT tutor from one of the established GMAT test-prep juggernauts?

As with many decisions in life, there’s no foolproof, one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few ways to think about the tradeoffs between hiring an independent GMAT tutor vs. a tutor from a large GMAT test-prep firm:

Tradeoff #1: Quality control vs. potential genius

Imagine that you’re trying to choose between two restaurants for dinner tonight. One restaurant is a national chain that you’d find in every major city. You know exactly what you’re going to get from that national chain: consistent food and a consistent overall experience. Will you have your mind blown by something new, innovative, and incredibly delicious at that chain restaurant? Probably not. But if you enjoyed your last experience at that chain restaurant, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it again tonight.

But what will happen if you walk into an independent restaurant you’ve never tried before? Well, there’s some chance that you’ll enjoy one of the most unique and delicious meals you’ve ever eaten – and it may be far better than anything you’d eat at the chain restaurant. Or there’s a chance that you’ll get a terrible bellyache. Who knows?

To be fair, no GMAT or GRE tutor will ever give you a bad case of food poisoning… but, well, some independent tutors aren’t great. And others are absolute geniuses who will teach you far more than any one-size-fits-most test-prep company ever could. And that’s arguably the biggest tradeoff: are you interested in risking a few dollars in search of a GMAT or GRE virtuoso, or would you rather play it safe?

There’s obviously no right answer, but that’s arguably the heart of the decision you face if you’re thinking about hiring a GRE or GMAT test-prep tutor.

Tradeoff #2: One-size-fits-most vs. individualized solutions

I started my GMAT and GRE tutoring career at a large test-prep firm about 15 years ago. Our training was, of course, standardized: every test-prep tutor and classroom teacher learned the same processes, and taught from the same scripts. And that makes perfect sense: when you walk into the company’s test-prep center in Denver, you would expect to receive exactly the same GMAT pedagogy as you would in New York City.

That standardized approach to test-prep instruction works really, really well… unless it doesn’t. For some test-takers, the curriculum at, say, Manhattan GMAT or Economist GMAT is absolutely perfect. For some people, it’s pretty good. For others, it’s a mild disaster. But GMAT and GRE tutors at large test-prep firms are generally required to stick to their individual firm’s teaching methods. Their training is 100% rooted in those methods, and their managers expect tutors to adhere to them.

So if those standardized teaching methods don’t work for a particular GMAT or GRE student, the tutor may not be able to do much about it – either because they don’t have the freedom to select different teaching methods, or because they simply don’t know about them.

As independent GRE and GMAT tutors, we’re free to explore the wide world of test-prep pedagogy, tailoring our methods and materials to each individual student. That sounds great, but there’s a catch: it’s easier for a tutor to follow a single test-prep teaching methodology than to try to synthesize dozens of them – and of course, not all independent tutors truly understand a broad range of pedagogical techniques. But the best GMAT and GRE tutors are constantly learning, and constantly expanding their teaching toolkits. And that’s something that even the best of the GMAT test-prep giants will never be able to offer.

Tradeoff #3: Free materials vs. freedom

One of the biggest reasons GMAT and GRE test-takers often prefer large test-prep companies is that they offer plenty of test-prep materials: books, worksheets, online trackers, and practice tests, all of which are included in the price of a private GMAT or GRE tutoring package. Sure, I’d argue that those goodies from test-prep companies can never be as good as official GMAT materials, but free materials are still better than no materials. Many independent GMAT and GRE tutors – myself included – do offer some free materials, but they’re obviously nowhere near as flashy as the ones produced by GMAT and GRE test-prep behemoths.

But again, there’s a price tag to those free materials: they limit the pedagogical freedom of the big companies’ GMAT and GRE tutors. If you work for, say, Kaplan, your bosses probably wouldn’t want you to recommend materials from Veritas – and certainly not from some wacko contrarian independent GMAT tutor guy. But independent GMAT tutors can maintain flexibility: if we think that you’re going to benefit from a GMAT or GRE test-prep guide written by another company, we’ll tell you to buy it.

In other words: large test-prep companies rely on just one set of materials. Independent GMAT and GRE tutors can draw on every available set of materials to optimize a student’s progress. We just can’t give you many of them for free.

And when you think about the overall cost of the MBA investment or the cost of private GMAT tutoring, maybe the price of a few books isn’t terribly meaningful, anyway?

Tradeoff #4: Personalization vs. potential clock-punching

There are some fantastic GMAT and GRE tutors working for some of the large test-prep firms – I’ve met plenty of them over the years. Many of them are very passionate about helping their students succeed. But others think of it as “just a job.” And maybe that’s the one risk to hiring a GMAT or GRE tutor from one of the large test-prep companies: you might be getting a smart but passionless person who’s just punching the proverbial clock.

Independent GMAT and GRE tutors – or at least the ones with staying power – are much more likely to be a different breed, with a unique perspective and some fire in their bellies for teaching. Independent tutors aren’t just cogs in a larger machine – we’re our own machines. It’s just that we’re very tiny machines, with less flash and fewer freebies — and far less standardization.

 

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.

 

How low GMAT scores might help your MBA application

 

Almost every week, I hear from somebody who’s worried about a low GMAT or GRE score on their score report. The question usually sounds something like this: “If I got a 500 on my first test but eventually get a 740 on my fourth GMAT exam, will MBA admissions committees think that I’m stupid because of the 500?”

The quick answer: no, they won’t think you’re stupid. And no, the 500 won’t hurt your odds of admission at all. If anything, I think an upward trajectory could help your chances, just a little bit – at least under the right circumstances.

You’ll hear this from plenty of MBA admissions committee members, but MBA programs really do want to evaluate your application based on your best GMAT score – and there are plenty of reasons why. First, using your highest GMAT score is better for the school’s overall average (which, of course, is an important part of MBA rankings). And just as importantly, most human beings understand that other human beings might have a bad GMAT test day once in a while – and the MBA programs want to see how you perform on your best day. That just seems fair, right?

So at worst, I’m convinced that your old, low GMAT scores are irrelevant to your chances of admission to a top MBA program. And at best, I think that a poor start to your GMAT test-taking career can actually help your chances.

Here’s a completely real example, with some details omitted to protect the MBA applicant’s identity. A number of years ago, I worked with an amazing guy who had started his career as an insurance salesman – let’s call him Mr. G, even though he didn’t work at Geico. Mr. G came from a troubled working-class family in a Rust Belt city; his father had addiction problems, and his mom supported the kids on her own.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. G’s youth wasn’t glamorous, and he wasn’t destined for Ivy League undergraduate programs or glitzy investment banking jobs. Instead, he worked in a grocery store when he was in high school, and then continued working in the same grocery store while he attended a state university that you’ve probably never heard of. Mr. G dreamed of a post-undergraduate job in “finance” – and he did, in fact, major in finance. But he attended a no-name university, and nobody ever told him how, exactly, you could land a job on Wall Street. After all, his Rust Belt city was – both spiritually and geographically – a long way from Wall Street, and his grocery store job left him little time for internships, anyway.

Mr. G worked his butt off, and got a 4.0 GPA as an undergrad. But since he attended the University of You’ve Never Heard of It, the only “finance” job he could get afterward was as an insurance salesman. He broke sales records in his first year, but was deeply unsatisfied. So he decided to move to New York City to try to find a job on Wall Street. Of course, no high-falutin’ Wall Street firm would hire the insurance salesman from a no-name university, so he ended up in another sales job – and, since he’s such a hard-working S.O.B., Mr. G again kicked all sorts of butt in that job, unglamorous as it was.

Then Mr. G decided that a top-tier MBA was his best path out of his career slump – and probably his only path to an actual Wall Street finance job.

So he took the GMAT, and got a 580. That obviously wasn’t good enough, especially with the lack of pedigree on his resume. So he called a GMAT tutor (*cough*), got a 660 after about a month of studying, then got a 710 after another month or so of studying. Not bad!

But Mr. G’s MBA application was in big trouble from the start, since he lacked prestigious “MBA-feeder job” experience and had attended a non-selective university. So Mr. G and his MBA admissions consultant (*cough*) decided that the best strategy was to emphasize his working-class roots, highlight his epic work ethic, plainly state that he had no idea how to “play the game” as an undergraduate, and hope that a great MBA program would give him a chance.

And here’s the GMAT-related punchline: Mr. G’s GMAT score trajectory fit right into that narrative. In his MBA applications, we pounded away at a simple message: Mr. G wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he will absolutely outwork everybody else in the room. A 710 on his very first attempt at the GMAT wouldn’t have done anything to support our message. But with his 580-660-710 GMAT scores, he looked like a guy who was willing to work his ass off to achieve his dreams. Which, of course, he was.

In case you’re wondering, Mr. G is doing wonderfully now. He attended an Ivy League MBA program, and finally landed a job with a prestigious Wall Street firm as soon as he graduated. He was a superstar in his MBA program, too – and he really did outwork everybody else in the room.

Your profile may not look anything like Mr. G’s, but if you’re nervous about flashing some low scores in the fine print of your GMAT score report – well, don’t be. At worst, MBA admissions committees don’t really notice if you retake the GMAT several times. And if they notice at all, your willingness to improve your GMAT score might show that you’re also willing to outwork everybody else in the room – and that can only help your chances of admission.

 

That official GMAT question might cost $3000

 

I spend a lot of time telling GMAT students that no GMAT practice problems can ever be as good as real, retired questions from official GMAT tests and publications. And if you read a bunch of GMAT blog posts written by other GMAT test-prep “experts”, you’ll find that many of them seem to disagree with me – since they’re trying to sell you a nice bundle of non-official GMAT questions and exams.

Sometimes, even my own GMAT students object when I tell them to avoid using knockoff GMAT tests from, say, Manhattan GMAT or Veritas: “How terrible could those materials be? There are smart people working at those GMAT test-prep companies, right?”

Yes, of course there are smart people working at GMAT test-prep companies – though some test-prep firms clearly employ smarter GMAT question-writers than others. But even at their best, no GMAT test-prep company can possibly compete with the precision of real, official GMAT questions. Part of the reason is that copying the style of an intricate standardized test is inherently challenging, but the bigger reason is basic economics.

If you’re reading a GMAT blog, you’re probably a business-savvy future MBA student, and you probably have some intuition for the business models of companies like Kaplan or Manhattan GMAT. So take a guess: how much do you think those test-prep companies spend developing each individual question on their GMAT practice tests or in their GMAT books? Go ahead and think of a number.

OK, got something in mind? Great. Personally, I would imagine that GMAT test-prep companies spend something in the range of $5-30 per “knockoff” GMAT question if they actually want to make a profit, but I could be wrong.

Now let’s ask Dr. Lawrence Rudner, former GMAT Chief Psychometrician, how much the GMAT’s developers spend on each practice question:

Test items are costly to develop, often in the range of US$1,500 to US$2,500 per item.

This comes straight from a paper that Rudner presented at the GMAC Conference on Computer Adaptive Testing way back in 2007. If question development costs have kept pace with inflation, then each GMAT question would cost somewhere between $1,700 to $3,000 per question in 2016, though that figure could be even higher if shortages of trained psychometricians continue to inflate GMAT development costs.

(Incidentally, I got halfway through a PhD in education policy and psychometrics – the statistical science behind standardized testing – before I came to my senses and realized that I’m much happier as a GMAT tutor than as an academic or psychometrician. If you’re interested in a career in psychometrics, send me an email, and I’ll do my best to help out.)

So yeah: that GMAT question you saw on the latest version of the exam? It might have cost $3000 or more to develop – perhaps 100 times more than a GMAT test-prep company could reasonably spend on each question.

And if that sounds batsh*t crazy – or at least wildly inefficient – it probably isn’t. Actual GMAT test items go through a painstaking cycle of editing, testing (often as “experimental questions” on actual GMAT tests), re-editing, and re-testing before they actually become part of a real GMAT exam. For every question that actually makes its way onto the GMAT, countless others are discarded for any number of reasons. For example, there might be evidence that the discarded GMAT questions were phrased badly, that they don’t seem to capture the skills the GMAT promises to measure, or that they (accidentally) discriminate against GMAT test-takers from certain demographic groups. Much of this testing requires substantial skill and training – and employees with these skills certainly aren’t inexpensive.

You probably know that I’m not particularly impressed by the GMAT’s ability to identify the most talented business leaders, but the GMAT’s creators deserve credit for producing subtle and meticulously phrased questions. How could any GMAT test-prep company possibly produce anything of comparable quality or precision, given test-prep firms’ economic limitations?

So whenever you work through practice tests from major GMAT test-prep companies – or GMAT practice worksheets from an obscure little GMAT tutor dude in Colorado – remember to take your results with a huge grain of salt. Sure, our “knockoff” GMAT questions can probably help you build skills, but none of us can ever give you a truly accurate GMAT practice test – simply because none of us will ever be able to afford to do so if we actually want to keep our doors open.

 

Inflated GMAT scores… and deflated quant percentiles

 

In the most-commented GMAT blog post I’ve ever written, I argued that the so-called “80th percentile rule” – the idea that top-tier MBA applicants need to score above the 80th percentile on both the GMAT quant and the GMAT verbal section – is mostly a myth.

Why? Well, the unfortunate truth is that GMAT quant scores have increased dramatically in recent years, and you’d now need to earn a 50 (!) on the GMAT quant section to score above the 80th percentile, according to the most recent GMAT data. Here, check this out:

From mba.com. http://www.mba.com/us/the-gmat-exam/gmat-exam-scoring/your-score-report/what-percentile-rankings-mean.aspx#tab4. Retrieved October 3, 2016.

From mba.com, based on 2013-15 GMAT data. Retrieved on October 3, 2016.

Plenty of things are alarming here. When the GMAT score scale was originally designed, the average quant score was supposed to be 30. Now a quant score of 30 is just the 20th percentile (!!), and the mean GMAT quant score is a 39 – a whopping nine points higher than it “should be” if the GMAT score distribution were actually a bell curve, as originally intended.

Even worse: if you want to score above the 80th percentile, you’ll need a 50 on the quant section. Since a 50 is one heck of a high GMAT score (a 51, of course, is a perfect GMAT quant score), I would still argue that no MBA admissions person in their right minds should actually expect it of you. So if anything, the “80th percentile rule” is more of a myth than ever.

But here’s the part of my original GMAT blog post that may not be true anymore, just a few years later:

A 710/47Q/40V is still an outstanding score that eliminates all rational doubt about your academic abilities. For the vast majority of MBA applicants, a GMAT quant score in the 73rd percentile is enough to placate MBA admissions officers, and your odds of admission will depend almost entirely on other elements of your profile.

Let’s pull this apart a little bit. Would a 710/47Q/40V eliminate all rational doubt about your academic abilities? Yes, definitely. If you can get a GMAT score that high, there’s no good reason to question your ability to handle MBA-level coursework. But is that GMAT score enough to “placate MBA admissions officers”? Probably not anymore, depending on which MBA programs you’re applying to — and, of course, on the rest of your MBA profile.

Here’s the problem: GMAT score averages for top-tier MBA programs have continued to shoot through the roof in the past few years. At Kellogg, for example, average GMAT scores have risen from 712 to 728 in just six years. Stanford’s incoming class of 2018 had an average GMAT score of 737.

I’m sorry, but those GMAT scores are ridiculous. Clearly, the GMAT arms race has gotten absolutely out of control – and I say that as a test-prep tutor who profits from that very same GMAT arms race. It’s as if MBA admissions committees have zero understanding of how standardized tests such as the GMAT actually work: the GMAT’s creators would tell you that the difference between a 710 and a 740 may be nothing more than measurement error.

And that’s before we get into the fact that there’s little evidence that the GMAT is predictive of post-MBA success. But that’s another topic entirely.

To be fair, I can’t blame MBA admissions committees for allowing GMAT score averages to spiral upward. Frankly, it’s much quicker and easier for admissions committees to whittle down a stack of applications based on GMAT scores than it is to ponder the non-quantitative aspects of each MBA applicant’s profile. Plus, MBA programs are forced to play the rankings game – and average GMAT scores are part of those MBA rankings, whether we like it or not.

Unsurprisingly, MBA admissions consultants are advising their clients to chase GMAT scores in the mid-700s – and applicants to elite MBA programs are working harder than ever to raise their GMAT scores. It’s a vicious cycle, and I’d bet that GMAT scores will continue to creep upward.

In any case, if you’re reading this little GMAT blog, you probably can’t do a damned thing about the way things work: you probably just want to get into a good MBA program. So what should you do if an MBA admissions consultant – or worse, an MBA admissions committee member – tells you that you need a GMAT score in the mid-700s?

Well, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. And if you think it’s unreasonable that you might need a 750 on the GMAT exam, take solace in the fact that you’re probably right.

And then join the rest of the herd. If you have a profile that will allow you to get away with a lower GMAT score, then consider yourself lucky. But if you’re like most people, all you can do is work as hard – and as smart – as you can for as long as you can.

And if you’re already scoring in the low-to-mid 700s but don’t have time to continue studying, maybe it’s worth taking an extra couple of shots at the GMAT, just to see if dumb luck (or measurement error, if you want to be technical about it) might hand you an extra few points next time around. And if you’re a really long way from the GMAT score you want, then maybe it’s time to think about the GRE — but that’s another topic entirely.

Then, please graduate from your top MBA program, become a bigshot in the MBA world, and change the way that the GMAT is handled by MBA admissions committees – because I think that the GMAT arms race encourages even more great business talents to slip through the MBA cracks.

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part IV: GRE study materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When do GMAT “crash courses” actually work?

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, you’ve probably had the following fantasy: wouldn’t it be great if you could contact a GMAT tutor, study like crazy for two weeks, and then be finished with the whole mess?

Well, a few lucky souls have managed to do exactly that. Consider the following stories:

  • Lucky GMAT Student #1 scored a 640 on a GMATPrep test, attended five GMAT tutoring sessions in two weeks, and scored 720 on his actual test.
  • Lucky GMAT Student #2 had never taken the GMAT before, and she met with her tutor with dizzying frequency over a three-week period. Soon thereafter, she scored a 720 on her first attempt at the actual exam.
  • Lucky GMAT Student #3 was scoring in the low 600s on his practice tests. He then attended tutoring sessions on six consecutive days, and took the GMAT on the seventh day. His final score was a 710.

These GMAT “crash course” success stories sound awfully tantalizing, right? Trouble is, GMAT crash courses can only work under specific conditions. If you’re fortunate enough to be a fast learner, some of your GMAT weaknesses can be fixed really quickly. Other GMAT weaknesses? Not so much.

There are never any guarantees when it comes to short-term GMAT prep, but you might be able to succeed in a GMAT crash course if all of the following apply to you:

your underlying GMAT algebra and arithmetic skills are strong

There are plenty of things that a good GMAT tutor can teach you quickly. If, for example, you need help tackling basic overlapping sets problems, turning ratio questions into clean equations, or applying a systematic approach to percents questions, then a GMAT tutor can probably help you with those things quickly. But if you have a shaky grasp on algebra and arithmetic, you’ll need a lot more than two weeks to achieve your GMAT score goals.

The bad news is that it simply takes time to develop your algebra and arithmetic fundamentals. Think of it this way: you spent the first 10 or 12 years of your math education focused primarily on basic arithmetic and algebra skills; if you failed to develop those skills over the course of a decade, it’s unlikely that you’ll suddenly become an algebra master after two weeks of GMAT tutoring.

But if you’re generally sharp with basic equations and arithmetic, then you can worry about developing GMAT-specific skills such as trap avoidance or your ability to decipher some of the GMAT’s twisted word problems. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to develop those particular GMAT skills in just a couple of weeks.

your timing isn’t perfect

While it’s unrealistic to suggest that you can make a huge leap in your algebra fundamentals in a two-week crash course, it might be possible to quickly improve your time management on the GMAT exam, particularly on the quant section.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know that time management is arguably the single biggest determinant of your GMAT quant score. You can be pretty mediocre at math and get a composite GMAT score in the 700s (click here or here for examples). You can be somewhat terrible at math and score a 40 or above on the quant section (click here for another example). The key is to painstakingly avoid careless errors on easier questions, while having the guts to quickly guess on comparatively difficult questions.

So while a GMAT tutor might not be able to radically improve your fundamental math skills over the course of a few sessions, you might be able to improve your timing quickly. And depending on your exact situation, that could make an enormous difference in your final score.

your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills are strong

Here’s the unglamorous truth about reading comprehension and critical reasoning: if your underlying reading skills are weak, it can take a long time to make a substantial score improvement. Can a GMAT test-prep tutor help you to improve at reading comprehension and critical reasoning? Sure. Can a GMAT tutor make you wildly better at CR and RC in just a few days or weeks? Probably not, unless there are some unusually easy-to-fix flaws in your approach.

At the heart of most critical reasoning and reading comprehension errors is a very simple issue: you probably misread or misinterpreted something in the passage, the question, or the answer choices. If you read with mind-numbing precision, you’ll probably do well on CR and RC; if you tend to miss details and nuances when you read, you’ll probably do poorly. You can memorize as many GMAT test-prep books as you want, but if you lack precision in your reading, your verbal score will remain lamentably low.

Are there ways that a tutor can help you improve your reading skills? Absolutely. Could a GMAT tutor help you to strengthen your logical skills, or your understanding of specific critical reasoning question types? Yes, definitely.

But these things take time. If your GMAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension mistakes are primarily the result of imprecise reading, then you’ll need more than a few days to make a substantial improvement. Just ask the legendary Ms. HP.

you have room for improvement on sentence correction

While it can be difficult to improve your critical reasoning and reading comprehension skills in a short timeframe, the opposite is often true on sentence correction. I would argue that sentence correction is the single most “improvable” part of the GMAT for many students. GMAT sentence correction questions emphasize a finite set of grammar and usage fundamentals; if you can learn to apply those fundamentals with 100% consistency, you’ll do at least reasonably well on sentence correction.

Sure, logic and meaning play a major role on GMAT sentence correction questions, and it can be difficult to improve your basic reasoning skills during a few hours of GMAT tutoring. But a good GMAT crash course can definitely help you to become better at quickly recognizing the GMAT’s favorite SC grammar and usage issues.  If sentence correction is your biggest hurdle, then there might be a chance that you can substantially improve your GMAT score in just a few weeks.

Let’s face it: no GMAT tutor can honestly guarantee results in two weeks, no matter how intelligent a prospective student may sound over the phone. A short GMAT crash course doesn’t really offer you an opportunity to improve your fundamental reading skills or your basic math skills, and for some students, those fundamentals are the primary culprit for disappointing GMAT scores. If this applies to you, then be patient, and prepare yourself for a long, steady assault on the GMAT.

But if you need help on sentence correction, some of the finer points of GMAT quantitative questions, or your GMAT time management skills, then you might have a shot at making a substantial score jump in a short period of time. There are never any guarantees, but you’ll at least have a puncher’s chance to break through your ceiling in a few days or weeks. Your odds of success might not be fantastic, but if you manage to achieve your score goal quickly, you’ll have far more time to battle the next beast: your MBA applications.

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.