Tag Archives: GMAT verbal

Don’t let reality get in the way of your GMAT, part II: critical reasoning

 

In an old GMAT blog post featuring an incredible woman who answered more than 4,000 CR and RC practice questions, I wrote some decidedly unsexy stuff about the reality of improving your GMAT CR and RC results: unfortunately, if your fundamental reading precision isn’t very good, it can take a lot of work to move the needle on your GMAT verbal score.

“Fine,” you might be thinking, “but I’m not an imprecise reader. I swear – I’m not! My GMAT RC is going fine. So why am I bad at GMAT CR?”

I’ve heard that question from perhaps hundreds of GMAT test-takers over the years. There are plenty of possible answers, but I’ll focus on just one here: you might be letting reality get in the way of your GMAT critical reasoning.

That might sound snarky, and I suppose that it is: I’m not really a big fan of what the GMAT tests. I would argue that GMAT verbal questions require you to read with an unrealistic sort of intensity: if somebody plops a report on your desk tomorrow, you’re going to skim it for key takeaways, facts, and quotable bits of data. If you’re dissecting the author’s tone or carefully determining what might weaken the author’s argument on page 23 of that work report, you’re probably wasting time that could be better spent… I don’t know, maybe doing your job or something?

More importantly: in real life, you’re expected to, um, know stuff. For example, if your boss asks you to evaluate a one-paragraph plan to replace your firm’s incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs, then it’s a good thing if you know something about light bulbs, right? And if you know about a third type of light bulb – say, a cutting-edge titanium bulb that consumes even less energy than an LED – then your boss would be impressed with your useful, outside knowledge, right?

But on GMAT critical reasoning questions, if you start thinking beyond that one paragraph, you’re screwed. As soon as you let reality – in the form of outside knowledge or ideas – enter your mind, you’re much more likely to miss the question. (And yes, the light bulb example refers to a real GMAT CR question, albeit a not terribly difficult one: see OG 2017 edition, #553.)

Here’s another example, loosely adapted from a retired test question:

In the nation of Pelmenistan, 20% of 18-year-olds are left-handed, while just 10% of 45-year-olds and 2% of 70-year-olds are left-handed. But the percentage of children born left-handed has never changed in Pelmenistan, nor have societal attitudes toward left-handedness.

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

Before we get to the answer choices: when I first saw the official version of this question in 2008, I got it wrong. Why? I let reality get in the way of my test-taking. You see, I totally thought that I knew the answer immediately: left-handers are more likely to perish in accidents in factories or while operating heavy machinery, since most industrial machines are designed for right-handers. I actually learned this in an economics class in Chile as an undergraduate.

So I was certain that the answer had to have something to do with accidents or machinery or something. But I was wrong.

Back to our show:

Which of the following, if true, most helps to explain the variation in left-handedness among Pelmenistanis?

A) A substantial number of Pelmenistani men are born with only one arm.
B) In Pelmenistan, left-handers are no more likely to perish in accidents than right-handers.
C) In Pelmenistan, ambidexterity is considered a gift from God.
D) In Pelmenistan, women have a lower life expectancy than men, and they are more likely to be born left-handed.
E) Pelmenistan was named after a type of dumpling that is traditionally eaten with the right hand only.

“Easy,” I thought, “the answer is clearly B. This is all about the accidents. My Chilean economics professor told me so!” So I picked B and moved on.

Do you see my error? I cherry-picked the answer choices, looking for an answer that mentioned factories or industrial accidents or something like that. I “found” what I was looking for – but then misread it. It says that lefties are no more likely to perish in accidents. But I subconsciously refused to read it correctly, because I “knew the truth.”

And once I misread answer choice B, I compounded my mistake by not paying much attention to the other answer choices – A, C, and E are irrelevant, but if I’d thought about D a little bit more, maybe I would have questioned my love for B.

But I didn’t. I was too jacked up about my outside knowledge, and as a result, I did a sh**ty job of reading what was right in front of me.

So when you answer GMAT CR questions, always stay inside the narrow constructs of the passage. If the passage tells you that mix-handed GMAT tutors enhance their pedagogical genius by eating Namibian caterpillars, then you have to believe them. If the passage tells you that the sky in Pelmenistan is a nice shade of Denver Broncos orange, then you have to believe them. Read what’s on the page, and ignore anything else that pops into your head.

Remember: the GMAT is just a standardized test. It’s not reality. Stay inside the GMAT’s meticulously-drawn lines on critical reasoning, and good things will happen.

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.

 

5 reasons why the LSAT can help your GMAT score

In an earlier post, I profiled the amazing Ms. HP, who completed a mind-blowing quantity of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions before earning a 750 on the GMAT.  Astute readers might have noticed that most of her practice questions—roughly 3,225 out of the 4,000 that she completed—came from the LSAT, not the GMAT.

And you might be wondering:  is it really worthwhile to use LSAT materials, when you have absolutely no intention of suffering through law school?  Does the LSAT really help you to succeed on the GMAT?

For most of my GMAT students—especially the high-achieving, hard-studying types who are aiming for at least a 650—the answer is an enthusiastic yes.  And here are five reasons why the LSAT might be a worthwhile supplement to your GMAT study materials:

Reason #1:  It’s all about reading carefully

At their core, the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions on the GMAT and the LSAT require exactly the same skills.  Success on either exam requires the ability to read complicated (and often boring) texts, carefully understand the nuances of those texts, and flawlessly evaluate the arguments in the texts, without bringing in outside information.

If you pick up a mass-market GMAT test-prep book, you’ll see plenty of lessons on the different “types” of critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions.  You could learn the strategies and mapping techniques for different question types, and your score might improve as a result.   But if you can’t comprehend the nuances of the (often miserably convoluted) texts on the exam, you’re in trouble.  The key to verbal success—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—is understanding the text EXACTLY is it’s written on the page.

So sure, it’s worthwhile to think about certain ways to analyze or “map” particular question types on CR and RC; those techniques can be useful for some students.  But success on the GMAT verbal section is mostly about the precision of your reading, and your ability to battle your way through the miserable CR and RC passages that appear on the exam.  And the LSAT, with its spectacularly dense language, helps you build this skill at least as well as GMAT questions.

Reason #2:  Official GMAT RC and CR questions are in short supply

The bad news is that the total supply of official GMAT questions really isn’t all that large, even if you purchase everything you can get your hands on.  If you do every single publicly available GMAT question (by, say, purchasing GMAC’s repeat-heavy test-prep package for $263.80), you might amass a grand total of approximately 400 distinct critical reasoning questions and 400 reading comprehension questions, give or take a few dozen.  For many of you, that’s more than enough.  For others, it’s nowhere near sufficient to reach your peak performance on the GMAT.  If you’re in the latter category, you could definitely use some help from the LSAT.

But there’s another problem with the official GMAT questions: some of them are far too easy if your goal is a 650 or above.  GMAC publishes a reasonably representative cross-section of questions in their guides, ranging from the very easiest (“200-level questions,” in theory) to the very toughest (“800-level questions,” if such a thing exists).  If you’re shooting for a top-tier GMAT score, the easiest RC and CR questions might be a waste of your time.  Perhaps only the toughest 50% of GMAT Official Guide questions will give you an adequate verbal workout.

Fortunately, the supply of official LSAT questions is nearly limitless.  Last time I checked, the fine folks who produce the LSAT have, at one time or another, published more than 60 official LSAT exams, each of which contains roughly 50 critical reasoning questions (called “logical reasoning” on the LSAT) and 25 reading comprehension questions, for a grand total of more than 4500 usable questions.

The bottom line:  if you need extra critical reasoning or reading comprehension practice, you’ll never run out of LSAT questions—even if you’re as wildly ambitious as the incredible Ms. HP.

Reason #3:  official LSAT questions are far better than “knockoff” GMAT questions

In theory, you could use “non-official” GMAT questions (written by GMAT test-prep firms) instead of official LSAT questions.  But no matter what GMAT test-prep companies may tell you, official LSAT questions are far more useful than any “knockoff” questions written by GMAT test-prep companies.

Verbal questions—on both the GMAT and the LSAT—are incredibly nuanced, and it’s unbelievably difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to even begin to replicate those nuances.  Every official LSAT or GMAT test question is edited, tested, re-edited, and re-tested by small army of standardized test experts.  By the time an official question appears in an actual exam (or in the GMAT Official Guide), it will be incredibly nuanced… and 100% error-free.

Simply put, it’s impossible for test-prep companies to perfectly replicate the precision of “real” LSAT or GMAT verbal questions, and knockoffs from test-prep companies can be a dangerous substitute for the real thing.  At best, non-official verbal questions will be a benign waste of your time, since they won’t really sharpen your ability to identify the nuances of official LSAT and GMAT questions; at worst, non-official RC and CR questions will teach you to identify the wrong nuances, and your skills will actually decline.  Put another way, “knockoff” questions are often difficult in ways that do not accurately reflect the real GMAT test.

For more on the dangers of overreliance on “knockoff” GMAT questions, please visit another crusty old GMAT Ninja blog post:  Beware the Knockoffs.

Reason #4:  official LSAT questions are harder than the GMAT

This is arguably the best reason to use LSAT reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions for your GMAT studies: LSAT questions are more difficult than most GMAT questions.

If you open up an official LSAT book, you’ll immediately notice that the passages are longer and the language is more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen on the GMAT.  And that’s wonderful, especially if your goal is to score above a 700.  Even if your natural reading ability is absolutely spectacular, I promise that the hardest LSAT critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions will make you sweat.

Please forgive my use of a sports cliché here, but using LSAT questions for GMAT studies is comparable to a baseball player taking practice swings with a weighted bat before stepping to the plate:  by the time the batter (or the test-taker) actually swings a real bat (or takes a real GMAT), the task of swinging (or answering GMAT verbal questions) will feel at least somewhat easier.

Again, the single most important skill tested on GMAT CR and RC questions is your ability to battle your way through dense language and to understand the passage exactly as it’s written.  So if you want to work out your reading muscles, nothing in the test-prep world is better than retired LSAT exams.

 Reason #5:  the differences between LSAT and GMAT questions are mostly cosmetic

As mentioned above, the single biggest difference between LSAT and GMAT questions is that the LSAT questions are, on average, wordier and more difficult.  But if you skim through the questions in an LSAT critical reasoning section, you’ll find some question styles that rarely appear on the GMAT.

The most obvious example is the LSAT’s “parallel reasoning” questions, which ask you to identify the answer choice with the logical pattern that most closely resembles the original passage.  Parallel reasoning questions do appear occasionally on the GMAT, but they’re exceedingly rare.

We could split hairs over a few other differences between LSAT and GMAT verbal questions, but nearly all of those differences are minor.  The GMAT seems to prefer realistic-sounding critical reasoning passages about business and politics, while the LSAT often strays into philosophical discourses, abstract logic, and legal topics.  Many LSAT answer choices arguably sound like “legalese,” with plenty of mumbo-jumbo about premises and conclusions and patterns of reasoning.  And the GMAT’s “boldfaced” critical reasoning questions never appear on the LSAT, at least not exactly in the same format.

Though these differences might be off-putting if you’re not used to the LSAT, the skills required to succeed on the LSAT are exactly the same as those needed to beat the GMAT.  You need to read the critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages with pinpoint precision.  You need to have a flawless understanding of the scope of each CR passage, and you need to ensure that outside information doesn’t stray into your thought process.  The minor stylistic differences do nothing to change the core skills required for success on both exams.

I’m the first to admit that a pile of LSAT books won’t magically cure all of your GMAT verbal ailments, and I’ll happily concede that the LSAT isn’t a perfect replica of the GMAT.  But if you need a challenge on critical reasoning or if you’ve exhausted the supply of official GMAT reading comprehension questions, then a stack of LSAT books is the next-best thing.  Fresh LSAT questions will help your GMAT score more than redoing GMAT questions for a second time, and official LSAT questions are infinitely better than an endless diet of “knockoff” materials from GMAT test-prep companies.

So no, the LSAT isn’t perfect.  But if you’re dedicated to maximizing your GMAT verbal score, then the LSAT can be an outstanding complement to the official GMAT materials.

IR might be really important… in 2017

If you’re applying to MBA programs during the current (2012-13) admissions season, you’ve probably already read a few dozen articles about the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) section. As many other GMAT tutors and bloggers and forum participants have suggested, there’s little reason to think that the IR section will have any meaningful impact on your odds of admission at top business schools this year. The section is simply too new, and MBA admissions committees have absolutely no basis for evaluating the new section.

But what if you’re looking ahead, and you’re preparing to submit your MBA applications in late 2013 or beyond? Should you worry about Integrated Reasoning at all? And if so, how much of your GMAT preparation time should you devote to the IR section?

Although GMAC is doing its best to convince everybody that Integrated Reasoning is extremely important (click here or here or here or here to see their official GMAT blog posts about the awesomeness of Integrated Reasoning), I would argue that there’s still no good reason to spend much time studying for the Integrated Reasoning section… for now.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1: five years of GMAT fairness

GMAT scores are valid for a full five years, and a substantial percentage of applicants will submit “old” GMAT scores (taken before the IR section existed) during the next few admissions cycles. And it simply isn’t reasonable for schools to use Integrated Reasoning scores to compare applicants, when a certain percentage of applicants haven’t taken the new section at all.

In theory, MBA programs could require all applicants to submit an Integrated Reasoning score beginning with the 2013-14 admissions cycle, but this seems incredibly unlikely. We still know very little about the value of the Integrated Reasoning section (see reason #2 below), and there’s absolutely no incentive for MBA programs to aggressively require an IR score before the five-year window is over.

Reason #2: GMAC needs time to determine IR test validity

Somewhere in the bowels of GMAC headquarters, researchers are busy calculating the “validity” of various portions of the GMAT exam. Basically, those researchers are interested in determining what, exactly, the GMAT tells us about test-takers. Do GMAT scores correlate to performance in business school? Do GMAT scores correlate to success in the business world?

For what it’s worth, most of the studies I’ve read (and yes, I’m apparently dorky enough to read academic studies about the GMAT) suggest that the quant and verbal sections do an excellent job of predicting MBA students’ grades in business school, but the GMAT does a pretty lousy job of predicting post-MBA success… and the AWA isn’t really a great predictor of anything, which is why one of the AWA tasks has been replaced by Integrated Reasoning. If you’re curious and want to geek out on some old GMAT validity studies, you could start by clicking here.

Anyway, the bottom line is that researchers need time to “prove” that the GMAT’s new Integrated Reasoning section actually means something. Until that happens, why would MBA programs worry about your IR score?

Reason #3: MBA applicant information overload

By the time you submit your MBA application, business schools know a ton about you. They have your work history, academic transcripts, lists of extracurricular activities, two or three references, at least a few essays, maybe a cover letter, possibly a slide presentation, an interview, and probably some extra interactions with you from campus visits or other events. Oh yeah, and they have your GMAT quant score, your GMAT verbal score, your GMAT composite score, and your GMAT AWA score.

Really, do you think the adcom needs yet another data point? And do you think that the adcom is likely to care about a data point that doesn’t show up in any MBA rankings?

Don’t get me wrong: someday, all of this will probably change. If U.S. News and World Reports decides to include IR in its MBA program rankings, adcoms will suddenly care—a lot—about the IR section. I also believe that the GMAT validity studies will someday make the IR section look really, really good; frankly, the GMAT should be testing your ability to analyze basic data tables, and the exam should include some non-multiple choice questions. In my (probably very irrelevant) opinion, the Integrated Reasoning section has plenty of potential to be a valuable tool for evaluating MBA applicants.

And someday, the IR section really will matter. But not yet. Call me in 2016 or 2017, and maybe I’ll tell you to start worrying about it then.

In the meantime, your approach to Integrated Reasoning should be the same as your approach to the AWA section: both tasks are warmups for your quant and verbal sections, and it’s not worth burning much of your precious GMAT energy on IR or AWA. The IR section is not adaptive at all, so just answer the easy ones to avoid complete embarrassment, and let the harder ones go. It just isn’t worth spraining any brain cells for a section that has another four years of irrelevance ahead of it.

But again, call me in 2016 or 2017—the story might change by then.

4,000 verbal questions: a (painful) GMAT success story

Everybody loves a good, hyper-dramatic GMAT success story. That’s why our friends at Beat the GMAT have so many dedicated readers and contributors: we’re all addicted to the “I went from a 460 to a 740 in just one month!!!” stories. The faster somebody improves, the more excited we get in the GMAT world.

I certainly love to watch a student (or a perfect stranger) jump 100 points in a few weeks, but I love it even more when a GMAT student succeeds after fighting like crazy to improve. Put another way, I admire plucky test-taking persistence more than I admire pure test-taking talent. And today’s story features the amazing Ms. HP, who is probably the most incredibly dedicated GMAT student I’ve ever met.

(Before I tell you about Ms. HP, a quick note for anybody who might be wondering about my long absence from my GMAT blog: during the years that have passed since my last post, I’ve traveled to eight countries, taught three courses in a NYC public school, moved cross-country to Colorado, written over 170 (!!) articles for an odd mix of food and plastic surgery websites, and proposed to my lovely soon-to-be-wife… all while maintaining a completely full schedule of GMAT students and MBA applicants. Life is calmer now. Please forgive my absence, and brace yourself for a small flurry of pent-up GMAT blog posts before I get too busy again.)

And now, back to Ms. HP. When I first met Ms. HP (not her real name, of course– “HP” refers to Chinese hot pot, which is one of her favorite meals), she had just earned a string of 640s on her MGMAT practice tests, with equally erratic performances on quant and verbal. After a session or two, I realized that Ms. HP had excellent math skills; once she learned to consistently check her work to avoid unforced errors, I wasn’t really worried about her GMAT quant score at all.

Verbal was a different story. After Ms. HP completed some critical reasoning and reading comprehension diagnostic tests from my favorite LSAT book, I discovered that she had some legitimate weaknesses. She had a tendency to rush through questions, she would occasionally over-think CR passages, and she simply didn’t feel confident battling through the dense language of CR and RC texts. Her GMAT score goal was a 720, but her error rate was easily twice as high as it needed to be to achieve her goals.

If you’re struggling with CR or RC, you won’t like what I’m about to tell you: for certain students—including Ms. HP—the only reliable cure for GMAT verbal ailments is tons and tons of practice.

Sure, a good GMAT (or LSAT) tutor can help you to conquer difficulties with particular question types. If you’re disproportionately bad at, say, inference questions or assumption questions or main idea questions, we can fix that. If you have some bad note-taking habits—such as taking too many or too few notes, or focusing on the wrong details—a good GMAT tutor can help with that. And a good GMAT tutor can help you organize your time, and help you organize the information in the passage.

But if your reading skills are fundamentally flawed or if you consistently misunderstand the passages, there’s really only one (unappealing) cure: craploads of practice. Sure, some occasional guidance from a GMAT tutor can help you to focus on the right details, but there are no GMAT test-prep gimmicks that can make you a better reader. You simply have to work hard at improving your skills, often over a long period of time.

Ms. HP, for better or worse, really didn’t have many bad habits with CR or RC, and her errors were evenly distributed among the question types. The bottom line was that she wasn’t great at reading the passages and answer choices. So I told her to do as much practice as she could: three or four 25-question practice sets per week, at the very least.

To make a long story short, Ms. HP proceeded to work like crazy, and consistently did far more homework than I assigned each week. Her CR and RC results improved dramatically, and she ultimately earned a 750/49Q/42V. If we use Ms. HP’s original MGMAT scores as a baseline, she improved by 110 points. Awesome, right?

Here’s the truly incredibly part: Ms. HP completed a total of roughly 4,000 CR and RC questions before her GMAT exam. Yes, you read that correctly: 4,000 questions, give or take a few. In addition to completing every official GMAT verbal question ever published—most of them at least twice—she also completed every CR and RC question from 43 full LSAT exams, for an approximate total of 3,225 LSAT questions. If we include her work in GMAT books and on practice GMAT tests, she did somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 CR and RC questions—in just a few months.

At the risk of jinxing poor Ms. HP, I’ll call my shot right now: WHEN she gets into a top-ten MBA program, she will richly deserve it. I’ve seen plenty of students work hard for their (often dramatic) GMAT score improvements, but I’ve never seen anybody work as mind-blowingly hard as Ms. HP. The qualities that made her an incredible GMAT student are exactly the qualities which make her great at everything she does: she has a positive attitude, an incredible work ethic, a laser-like focus on her goals, and—pardon the expression—cajones of steel. (Not literally, of course.)  She’ll be an outstanding MBA student, wherever she ultimately ends up.

If you’re completely terrified by the thought of completing 4,000 CR and RC questions, don’t worry: Ms. HP is clearly an extreme character (in a good way), and I suspect that she could have achieved an amazing GMAT score with a less-heroic quantity of verbal exercises. And if you’re studying for the GMAT right now, odds are good that you’ll be able to reach your peak with substantially fewer questions.

But next time you sit down in front of a GMAT book and dread the thought of doing another few dozen CR questions, think of Ms. HP. Hopefully, her story will provide a little bit of inspiration… or at least remind you that this GMAT verbal crap isn’t always as easy as we’d like it to be.

GMAT verbal underperformance

I recently received an email from a lovely mother of three who has done an absolutely heroic job of raising her GMAT quantitative score from 18 to 36 in just a few months. That’s an amazing jump, and her math tutor deserves a cookie. Unfortunately, the poor woman has seen her GMAT verbal score move in the opposite direction in the past few months: she’s gone from a 33 to a 26 to a 24.

If you were her, you’d probably be pretty upset, too.

Believe it or not, she’s absolutely not alone. I think that about 20-30% of the people I meet have experienced some sort of inexplicable verbal calamity on the GMAT. By “calamity,” I just mean that their official GMAT scores don’t match their practice test scores—and unfortunately, the scores sometimes aren’t even close. This seems to happen much more often on the verbal than on the math section, and it took me quite a few years to figure out why that might be the case.

First of all, I really don’t think that the GMAT official guides necessarily give you a good sense of what “real” verbal questions feel like. Very few of the reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions in the official guide seem to be much tougher than, say, 650-level questions. I’ve seen plenty of actual GMAT passages that are nearly incomprehensible, but there are very few such passages in the official guides. (Many of my students–especially those who scored above a 35 on the verbal section–seem to share my opinion on this.) The bottom line is that students who rely primarily on the GMAT OGs might be thrown off by the surprisingly difficult critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages on the real test.

Worse yet, some students rely far too heavily on “knockoff” test-prep material, and you know how I feel about that. It’s outrageously difficult for GMAT test-prep companies to accurately copy the nuanced style of the verbal section of the GMAT, and non-official practice questions are inevitably very different from the real thing. In a lot of cases, using these materials can actually do more harm than good, unfortunately. Students grow accustomed to the question-writing style of their chosen test-prep firm, and then suffer mightily when they take the actual GMAT exam. The best test-prep firms offer some good techniques for tackling the verbal, but I think it’s a mistake to rely too heavily on their practice tests. There is no replacement for official GMAT and LSAT materials, and most students will do best if they use “knockoff” tests sparingly.

But I think the most important reason for verbal underperformance has nothing to do with study habits: many test-takers are simply way too “amped” when they start the verbal section. For pretty much everybody, the quant section of GMAT is an intense experience–you’re racing against the clock, the adrenaline starts to flow, and you push yourself as hard as you possibly can. You take your little eight-minute break, and then you go back in to the testing room, foaming at the mouth, ready to rip the verbal to shreds.

And in your haste to power your way through the verbal, you get a little bit too intense, and maybe you skip a word here or there. You finish with a few minutes to spare, or maybe more. And then your score sucks. Why? If you’re not reading very, very carefully, you’ll get GMATed by every verbal question type. Even if you miss just one key word on every other question, you’ll do massive, massive damage to your overall GMAT score.

Case in point: an unusually brilliant JD/MBA applicant hired me for two weeks of fast-paced, balls-to-the-wall GMAT lessons. This guy is at an Ivy League law school, and he’s ridiculously smart, even when compared to other Ivy League lawyer types. He hired a GMAT tutor just to help him to shake off some math rust, and he needed basically no help on verbal. On the GMATPrep test that he took before his first tutoring session with me, Mr. Ivy League Law scored a 37 on math, and somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s on verbal. So we focused on math, and brought his actual GMAT quant score up to a 47 after just a couple of weeks.

Awesome, right? But hold on: Mr. Ivy League Law was so amped after the math that he raced through the GMAT verbal section at breakneck speed, and finished with 20 minutes (!!) to spare. His verbal score dropped to a 41. That’s still enough for a 710 composite, but if he’d taken a few more deep breaths, he could have easily gotten a 750. (Not that it really matters–a 710 is high enough, and Mr. Ivy League Law will soon be Mr. Ivy League JD/MBA. But he’s a great illustration of how an overaggressive approach to verbal can sabotage your score.)

So I’m convinced that stress, exhaustion, and haste are the biggest culprit for almost everybody whose real GMAT verbal score doesn’t seem to match their practice test scores. If you have a tendency to race too much on the verbal, taking a few deep breaths might be more important than any studying you could possibly do. When you finish the quant, use your eight-minute break to re-orient yourself. Grab a snack or a drink or a smoke or whatever makes you happy, and relax a little bit. Focus on being precise and thorough and alert on the verbal. Even if you’re a slow reader, you’ll gain much more from being calm, focused, and accurate than you’ll lose from having to guess on a small handful of the 41 verbal questions.

how to scare your GMAT tutor

I have no idea whether other GMAT tutors are the same way, but I usually watch my phone like a hawk when one of my students is taking the GMAT. I get pretty excited about the prospect of seeing somebody succeed after weeks or months (or years) of hard work. Unfortunately, the other side of it is that I’m always battling that nagging little worry that my student might not do as well on the GMAT as I’d hoped or expected.

Today, one of my favorite students here in NYC left me a very cryptic voicemail after his test, which made me worry a little bit. I was tied up with other GMAT students all afternoon, and didn’t have a chance to call him back. A few hours later, I received an email from him. The subject line just said “GMATTED”. If you’ve read my blog in the past, you know that I use the term “GMATed” pretty often. It means “the GMAT f**ked me over.”

So yeah, he scared me. This guy definitely put in his work, and seemed like one of the most consistent, steady performers I’d ever taught. Some students’ scores bounce around wildly from day to day, and I pray for luck when they take the actual test; this guy, though, was rock-solid in all of his prep, and I was shocked that he got GMATed.

He didn’t get GMATed at all. He got a 690 (44Q/40V) on his first try, which is enough to keep him in the conversation at pretty much any b-school out there. Very, very good stuff. By “GMATTED,” he just meant that he was exhausted and could barely form a sentence.

Dude.  Please, don’t scare me like that again.

Fortunately, I’ve had a very gratifying run of great results from my GMAT students over the past couple of months. My magic number this fall seems to be 710–before Mr. GMATTED, three of my last four students managed to get 710s, and that’s always fun to see. Two of them were taking the GMAT for the very first time, and both did three-week “crash courses” with me. In one case, a student had already taken a Veritas course, and I just helped her fill in some holes. The other crash-course guy managed to make huge leaps on quant–he scored 37 on his first mba.com test, and a 47 on the real thing. Can’t beat that. Both of these students were extremely talented, so I’m not going to claim that three-week GMAT crash courses are generally a good idea… but it can work, when the stars align properly.

My absolute favorite success of the season–and possibly of all-time–was a guy that I’ll call Mr. P. Mr. P called me when I first moved to NYC last summer, and he’d already taken the GMAT three times over the course of about six months. He had done craploads of self-study, and had already worked his way through pretty much everything Manhattan GMAT has to offer.

Here’s the crazy thing: despite all of his hard work, Mr. P’s scores were flat as a pancake. Exam 1: 640/40Q/37V/6.0. Exam 2: 630/39Q/38V/6.0. Exam 3: 630/38Q/38V/6.0. I complimented him on his remarkable consistency, then threw the proverbial kitchen sink at him in an effort to shake things up. As with the venerable Mr. V, it was tough to find material that Mr. P hadn’t seen before, and that always makes life challenging and interesting if you’re a GMAT tutor looking for (relatively) painless ways to help a student gain points.

And guess what? Mr. P managed to scare me a few months later with a depressed-sounding voicemail. We’d shaken things up, all right: he jumped to a 44 on verbal, but his quant actually went down, leaving him with an unsatisfying score of 660. Ooops. Time to fire the GMAT tutor?

Here’s the good part: one month later, he rolled back in to Pearson VUE for his fifth attempt at GMAT glory, and got his 710. There’s a guy who deserved every damned point of that 710, and it was a lot of fun to see him get it.

how high can you go?

I received an interesting email a week or two ago, and thought that I should share it with everybody, since I regularly receive similar questions:

I took the GMAT this week and scored 640 (Q44, V33).

I did about 3 or 4 practice tests, one from the downloadable MBA.com, and others from old editions of Kaplan and Princeton. I spent about $0 on prep (they were old CD’s and books from my friend) and about 1 week’s worth of time studying.

After reading your blog, somehow I’m dying to know…IF I were to work hard at it, do you think it be possible for me to reach, say 750 within a year?

This email came from a (very polite!) complete stranger who is nowhere near NYC. So without knowing anything else about her, I gave her a completely honest answer. In her case, I think it’s fair to say that she has some quantitative talent, since she got a 44 on the GMAT quant without much effort. I’m pretty convinced that she’d be able to raise her GMAT quantitative score into the high 40s, and nearly anybody who works hard enough can pull his or her verbal score up by at least a few points. A 700 would be a reasonable goal for her, and it might not be crazy to think that she could achieve that without the help of a GMAT tutor.

Beyond that? A 750? I have absolutely no idea. I would have to spend at least a few hours tutoring her before figuring out how high she could go.

Here’s the way I see it: almost any fluent speaker of English is capable of getting a 650, unless they have some extenuating circumstances such as learning disabilities or debilitating test anxiety (both of which are far more common than most people think–I have all sorts of thoughts about both, and might share them on this blog at some point). I’m not saying that it’s easy to get a 650 on the GMAT. I’m just saying that a truly, deeply dedicated student could work like a lunatic and–on her best day–get a 650. I’ve seen plenty of people start at a very low level (say, 380-420) and ultimately crack 600. For them, 650 is doable.

After that? No guarantees, at all. It isn’t fair, but I would argue that you need to have some sort of particular talent for “the GMAT way of thinking” if you want to crack 650. This “talent” might not be correlated to other forms of intelligence. You could be absolutely brilliant, and never have any shot at beating a 650 on the GMAT. Sorry, but that’s just reality. Once you get beyond 650-level questions, you have to have a knack for “seeing” something in the question, or “making a connection” in ways that can’t always be taught easily. A good GMAT tutor can increase the odds that you’ll get the tough questions right, but some people really, really struggle to make much headway on those.

(Random example of a GMAT “hard gainer”: one of my all-time favorite students started with a 420. She worked hard, but was bizarrely erratic with her GMAT practice tests, scoring everywhere from 380 to 540. On the real test, she stunned us both by scoring a 570, and got into her first-choice MBA program with a fourth-round application. She has zero GMAT talent, but she has been wildly successful in business school, and I swear that she will be CEO of something huge someday. She’s intelligent, motivated, and awesome, and will be an outstanding business leader. Screw the GMAT, right?)

So whenever somebody contacts me–from NYC or from afar–and says that their goal is a 700 or a 750, and that they’ll do anything to achieve that goal… I always try to tell them to chill the f*** out, as politely as I can. For some people, a 750 or a 780 is doable with a year’s worth of studying. For others, a 700 is possible with a herculean effort. And for some, 650 would take a crapload of studying. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality. After a few hours of tutoring, I usually have a good idea of which category a GMAT student falls into, but it’s awfully tough to tell from an email or a phone call.

One more thing I can tell you without knowing much about you: your work (and other) experience is far more important than the GMAT in the admissions process. If you’re an amazing candidate with an amazing work ethic, the GMAT will be an irritation, but never an obstacle.

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.