Tag Archives: MBA Admissions

Over 30? No, you probably aren’t too old for a full-time MBA.

There’s a very persistent myth that MBA admissions committees “don’t like” older applicants, especially the over-30 types. Statistically, that seems like a reasonable assumption: the average age for students at most full-time U.S. MBA programs is in the mid-20s, and only a small percentage of students are over 30.

That means that MBA programs are committing age discrimination, right? And it means that if you’re over 30, you’re probably hosed in the full-time MBA admissions game… right?

Um, no. MBA admissions committees care deeply about “fit”: they want to admit candidates who will be successful members of the MBA community, and they want to admit candidates who will be easily “recruitable” when they graduate. But for the most part, MBA admissions committees don’t really care about your age, exactly.

Odds are good that if you’re an older MBA applicant, your career has probably evolved in a very specific direction, and a general management degree such as an MBA might not be the best option at this point in your life. But if that isn’t the case for you—and if your career trajectory reeks of post-MBA success—then your chances of admission might be better than you think, even if you’re getting a little bit grey around the temples.

Don’t believe me? Then I strongly suggest that you venture over to one of my all-time favorite MBA applicant blogs, the aptly named MBAover30.com. The blogger is actually in his mid-30s, and he was admitted to Booth, MIT, and Wharton for the class of 2015. He’s a great writer, and he knows what he’s talking about.

A few posts that I particularly appreciate:

MBA Admissions Age Discrimination and Rookie Hype. My favorite line: “…the over 30 demographic… has wholesale self-selected out of the full-time MBA admissions process.” No, really: the adcom doesn’t hate you just for being old.  Older folks just don’t bother to apply to full-time programs very often.
Why I’ve chosen the Wharton School of Business. Yes, your friendly blogger appears to know absolutely everything there is to know about Wharton. And yes, his unbelievably thorough research definitely helped him get in.
The Truth vs. Playing the Game in MBA Admissions Essays. Stop lying about your experiences, people. It usually doesn’t help.
Getting in to a Top Business School. My favorite line: “Most people who’ve tried to cut corners on the GMAT have ended up marching to their own funeral on test day.” I couldn’t agree more.

And if you need more perspectives from a successful MBA applicant, check out the archives of the always-wonderful Money 9111, who certainly faced some hurdles during the application process, much like the fine fellow at MBAover30.  Both bloggers would probably agree that the MBA admissions process is much more nuanced and complicated than we sometimes think; you won’t necessarily get completely blackballed just for a single weakness in your profile.  And you probably won’t get blackballed at all just for being over 30.


GMAT percentile rankings, part III: the 80th percentile myth

One of my favorite GMAT students recently called me with some great news: he got a 710 on his first attempt at the test (47 quant, 40 verbal). But despite the great composite score, the poor man was disappointed that he only scored in the 73rd percentile on the quant section, since he had heard that MBA admissions committees prefer to see scores above the 80th percentile on both sections of the GMAT.

Don’t worry, Mr. 710. You’ll be fine.

I say that for two reasons. The first reason is that MBA admissions committees simply aren’t all that rigid about the so-called “80th percentile rule.” Sure, successful applicants usually have somewhat balanced GMAT scores, but no elite MBA admissions committee blindly applies GMAT score “cutoffs” during its evaluation process. When I look through the my list of former students who were admitted to top ten MBA programs over the past five years, barely one-third of them actually scored above the 80th percentile on both the quant and the verbal sections. The 80th percentile clearly isn’t a magic number anymore—if it ever was.

But there’s a second reason why you shouldn’t worry about hitting the 80th percentile on both sections: GMAT quant scores have changed substantially in recent years. If you had taken the GMAT back in 2007—when the percentile ranking charts in the 11th edition of the GMAT Official Guide were published—a quant score of 47 would have put you in the 81st percentile. Just six years later, a 47 lands you “only” in the 73rd percentile. Similarly, quant scores of 48 and 49 would have put you in the 85th and 89th percentiles in 2007; today, you’d only be in the 78th and 83rd percentiles with those scores.

So if you’re trying to earn a score above the 80th percentile on the GMAT quant section, a 47 would have done the trick back in 2007. You would need a 49 now—and that’s a terrifyingly high quant score for many test-takers.

As I discussed in a pair of old GMAT blog posts (available here and here if you’re curious), the pool of GMAT test-takers includes an ever-growing supply of quant studs, largely from Asian countries. I admiringly call this the “Asian effect”: percentile scores on the quant section are changing quickly, simply as a result of the stronger test-taking pool. Interestingly, percentile rankings on the GMAT verbal section have stayed pretty much constant during the past decade, and that’s probably also a byproduct of the “internationalization” of the MBA applicant pool.

The bottom line? Percentile rankings are disturbingly fluid, and you shouldn’t stress too much about them, especially on the quant section. 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.

So if you’re worried about the strength of a 47 on the quant section, don’t be. If you’re north of a 700 with a quant score of 47 or 48, put your GMAT books away. Be proud, be confident, and focus your energy on writing a spectacular MBA application instead. The extra handful of percentile points mean far less to MBA admissions committees than a strong work history and a clear, compelling vision for your post-MBA career.


GRE vs. GMAT, part III: the test-day experience

As threatened in my last blog post about the differences between the GRE and the GMAT, I recently retook the GRE exam for the first time in several years, and I want to report an incredibly boring observation:  GRE and GMAT testing rooms aren’t exactly fun places.  I think I looked like a less-bloody version of this guy by the time I walked out of the exam.

If you’re thinking about applying to an MBA program sometime soon, you probably already know that standardized tests are unpleasant, but you might be wondering whether the GRE is easier to beat than the GMAT.  The answer is… maybe.

For starters, I absolutely loved a few things about the new version of the GRE.  As I mentioned in an earlier GMAT blog post, the GRE is now section-level adaptive, not question-level adaptive.  That means that you can flag questions within any given section, and come back to them later. The GRE even includes a handy little review screen, so that you can see exactly which questions you’ve flagged or skipped.  That saved my ass at least once:  I whiffed on a quant question, and completely failed to fill in the bubble.  No harm done, though:  the review screen helped me catch the omission.  Thank you, GRE.

The other nice thing about the GRE is that the first half of the exam is relatively gentle:  the first quant section and the first verbal section contain the approximate GRE equivalent to 500-level GMAT questions.  So the GRE starts with two 30-minute essays, followed by one non-threatening quant section and one fairly straightforward verbal section.  Then you take a 10-minute break.  And that’s good, because if you’re like me, you’ll need to pig out after two hours of testing, even if those two hours aren’t particularly intense.

But after the break, things got rougher.

I had three sections remaining:  one quant, one verbal, and one experimental section, which turned out to be quant.  The good news is that the quant sections weren’t too awful, and I’d argue that the hardest GRE quant questions are much easier than the hardest GMAT quant questions.  GRE quant questions feel substantially more formulaic:  you’ll see plenty of fairly straightforward algebra, a hearty dose of relatively orthodox geometry questions, some nonthreatening data analysis, and only a light sprinkling of number properties, overlapping sets, and probability.

The GRE does seem to test statistics (standard deviation, median, mean, range, percentiles, etc.) more deeply than the GMAT, but that’s the only quant topic that seemed as difficult on the GRE as on the GMAT.  If you’re scoring in the mid-40s on the GMAT quant section, you probably won’t have a terribly hard time on the GRE, as long as you spend some extra time on statistics and avoid silly errors.

The second verbal section, on the other hand, kicked the crap out of me.

The 20 verbal questions were a roughly even mix of reading comprehension-type stuff (including some short, critical reasoning-style passages) and vocabulary-based questions.  Out of the first 10 questions, I skipped six, because the vocabulary in them made my eyes bleed.  I also struggled through the reading comprehension, despite the fact that I’d guzzled enough Red Bull to make my wings flap uncontrollably—the passages were ludicrously convoluted and not particularly interesting.

I was sweating right up until the last second of that section, and I had to look up eight vocabulary words after I finished the test.  Not fun.  I won’t pretend that the GMAT verbal section is much more enjoyable than its GRE counterpart, but there’s a special feeling of helplessness that sets in when you can’t decipher the vocabulary in a GRE text completion or sentence equivalence question.  It hurts.

Out of the 20 questions on that last verbal section, I was completely sure that 12 of my answers were correct, but all I could do was hope for the best on my eight educated guesses.  It worked out for me in the end (my score was a perfect 340), but I definitely got lucky on some of those vocabulary questions.

So now that I’ve had the chance to suffer through the new version of the GRE, let’s talk about whether you might actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

I would argue that the GRE is a better test for you under only two circumstances:

  1. You’re better at vocabulary than grammar.  I don’t know whether I’ve ever met anybody who fits this description.  Maybe a really well-read native English speaker who lacks the discipline to do well on sentence correction?
  2. You’re comfortable with statistics and algebra and geometry, but you struggle on the toughest GMAT-style questions.  It’s possible that a test-taker with moderately strong quant skills—and relatively little propensity to make dumb errors—would have a much easier time on the GRE.

If these two characteristics apply to you, then maybe the GRE is worth a look.  After all, almost every major MBA program now accepts the GRE.  And despite the challenges of my second verbal section, I’m convinced that the GRE offers a less excruciating test-taking experience than the GMAT.  But unless you’re an unusual test-taker, the bad news is that the GRE is very unlikely to offer you any particular advantage in MBA admissions.

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, feel free to call or email to discuss your specific situation.

GRE vs. GMAT, part I: MBA admissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try reading the second part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.

minimizing MBA application essay agony

It’s that wonderful time of year when most applicants have finished their battles with the GMAT, and are now suffering through the long process of writing a bunch of MBA application essays.  And for most of you, this part of the MBA application process really isn’t much fun.

I’m not going to give you another one of those “how to write a good MBA application essay” lectures.  There are hundreds of (often very good) blogs and books and articles that cover that ground, and I don’t think that this is a good time to add to the cacophony.

Instead, I just want to give you some advice on how to minimize the pain involved in writing the essays.  Every year, I watch several dozen applicants descend into writer’s hell, and it’s never fun to see deserving MBA applicants suffer from a hideous case of writer’s block right before their deadlines.

So in honor of the upcoming second-round MBA application deadlines, here are few tips to help you avoid MBA essay paralysis:

tip #1: don’t “binge-write” your MBA essays

So you’re trying to write inspired MBA application essays, huh?  The type with some nice, creative flourishes that will help the adcom realize how brilliant and fun you are, right?

If so, don’t even think about trying to write your MBA essays in one sitting.  Or in two or three sittings.  The best essays are the result of small amounts of writing and revision, completed over the course of several weeks or months.

I discussed this in a crusty old blog post a few years ago, but the idea is that you’re likely to come up with your best ideas when you least expect it:  at work, at the gym, in the shower, or on the subway.  If you spend, say, a few minutes a day on each of your MBA application essays over the course of several weeks, you’ll give your subconscious mind plenty of time to come up with brilliant phrases, ideas, and flourishes for your essays.

The only way this can happen is if you stretch out your preparations for each MBA application.  Plan to spend at least a month on each application, working for a few minutes each day, letting your subconscious and semiconscious mind do at least some of the heavy lifting.

Trust me, the slow, five-minutes-at-a-time approach beats the heck out of staring at a computer for 12 hours on the day before the application deadline, while your hairline quickly recedes.

tip #2:  simplify your language

Far too often, MBA applicants write insanely dense essays that are almost impossible to read.  They contain pretentious vocabulary and ridiculously long sentences, and they sound like an overwrought academic discourse on philosophy.

There are two problems with this.  First of all, if you decide to write in the most “sophisticated” style you can muster, you’re probably torturing yourself in the process.  It takes a lot of time and brainpower to cram your essays with GRE vocabulary words.  Why torture yourself by trying to write in such an unnatural style?

Secondly, very few people actually enjoy reading dense, academic text.  Simple, clear language is an infinitely more effective way to communicate with suffering MBA admissions committee members who read literally thousands of essays each year.

So don’t overdo it.  Keep the language clear and unpretentious, and don’t make your essay sound like a GMAT reading comprehension passage.  Try to write as if you’re having a chat with your best friend.  You’ll be able to write faster, and your essays will be far more appealing to the poor adcom members who have to read them.

tip #3:  play with your friends

This is a simple—and probably obvious—piece of advice:  don’t try to write your MBA essays in complete isolation.  If your budget and preferences allow you to hire an MBA admissions consultant, that’s great.  If not, call a friend or a family member, even if none of them know anything about the MBA admissions process.

Here’s the thing:  sometimes, you get brain-locked when you try to write about how awesome you are.  And sometimes, even a relatively clueless advisor can help you get unstuck; simply babbling to a good friend can help to relieve your essay-writing paralysis.

This might seem like a ridiculously uninteresting piece of advice, but you might be surprised by the number of inquiries I receive from miserable, frustrated writers… who have literally never told a soul about their MBA essays.  Don’t make that mistake.

tip #4:  don’t worry about the word count… yet

Another refrain that I hear constantly from MBA applicants:  “Writing this crap is so hard with the word count and everything!”

That’s completely true.  Writing your first draft is hard, and the word count is a pain in the ass.  But your first objective is to get your ideas onto the page, and then you can worry about the word count later.  If you worry about the word count prematurely, you’ll be paralyzed and miserable.  So when you start writing, ignore the word count completely at first.

If your goal is to write the most perfect essays you’re capable of, then you’ll inevitably spend plenty of time editing and rewriting parts of the essays.  If you want to avoid unnecessary pain, spew your ideas onto the page as quickly as you can on the first draft—and worry about trimming the essay later.  Don’t let the word count disrupt the flow of your writing, or else you may never finish the first draft.

tip #5: be honest with yourself:  writing is hard, and your first draft will probably suck

Whenever I take on a challenging writing project (and in case you don’t know me personally:  I’m nearly finished with my third full-length book, and I used to do lots of strange freelance writing work), my first step is to write the words SH*TTY FIRST DRAFT at the top of the page.

Why do I do that?  Well, because I like to swear.  And also because I need to remind myself that writing is hard, and that I’ll never finish my first draft if I try to make it perfect.  My first draft will mostly suck.  Pieces of it will hopefully be brilliant.  I’ll spend tons of time revising it.  And that’s OK, because it’s much easier to polish a crappy draft than to create a brand new one from scratch.

So accept your imperfections as a writer, and just get the words onto the page.  Don’t edit while you’re writing—again, you’ll have plenty of time to edit later.

Let’s face it:  it takes a lot of time to write great essays for MBA applications.  But if you let go of some of your inhibitions and “anal-ness” on the first draft—and if you work slowly and steadily on your application—you won’t suffer nearly as much as the last-minute binge-writers.  You’ll be happier, and your odds of admission will hopefully be a little bit better.

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.

a hearty congratulations

It always feels a little bit like Christmas morning when my students start receiving acceptance letters, and MBA “admit season” is my favorite time of year–at least when the news is good. I work with a lot of great people who work like crazy to achieve their goals, and watching them succeed is one of the best parts of my job as a GMAT tutor.

I’ve heard some great news from some very deserving people already this season, but one stands out, even though I did relatively little to help his candidacy. My friend Hari (please visit his blog if you haven’t already) probably put in more hours of research, studying, and writing than anybody I’ve ever seen. He did everything humanly possible to achieve his MBA goals, but still received a disappointing (and incomprehensible) string of rejections a few months ago.

Well, Hari finally got the admit that he so richly deserved, and he’s headed to IESE in Spain this fall–one of the world’s best business schools, and one of Hari’s top choices.

Congratulations, my friend. You absolutely earned this.

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.

fun with search engine queries

We’re getting into the heart of MBA admissions season, which means that I’ve been running around like a madman these past couple of weeks. Several graduates of the Ninja GMAT program are now focusing every ounce of their spare energy on application essays, so most of my non-tutoring time has been occupied with application essay editing. No time for GMAT blogging, really.

That said, I have several half-finished posts in the works. A full breakdown of the 2nd edition of the Official Guide for GMAT Quantitative Review might be coming soon (there are only 74 new questions–they ripped us off!), along with a lecture about why you really shouldn’t stress about 1st-round MBA deadlines. This is the time of year when people start to lose their heads, and I’ll do my best to encourage some rationality and calmness.

But for now, I’m a little bit tired after an insane couple of weeks, and I feel like writing a nice, frivolous post that has nothing to do with the life of a GMAT tutor in NYC. So here comes nothing particularly useful. You’ve been warned.

Thanks to the miracles of WordPress, I can access a list of all search engine queries that lead people to my little GMAT tutoring site. And some of them are pretty funny. Here is a random sampling of my favorite queries, along with some completely unnecessary, non-GMAT-related responses:

query: “gmat tutor in new york, $20”
response: Good luck with that, buddy. Funny, I think they found my website because I said something about other companies’ tutoring rates exceeding $200 per hour. Google forgot a zero?

query: “what are my shortcomings”
response: I have no idea, but I can tell you about my shortcomings if you want. First, I’m not a perfect GMAT tutor all the time. There. I said it. And sometimes, I leave just a little bit of orange juice in the carton in the fridge.

query: “gmat essays who cares”
response: Nobody, really, unless you really embarrass yourself; get something above a 4.0, and you’ll be fine.

query: “gmat real illegal questions”
response: *gulp*

And a few more, without my dumb responses:
“many dumb mistakes gmat math”
“an essay about nyc”
“worried about gmat”
“gmat gifts”
“gmat is expensive”

And my personal favorite, which led several different users to my site: “gmat is hard.”

my shortcomings, in plain view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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