The following is an excerpt from Your MBA Game Plan, Third Edition: Proven Strategies for Getting Into the Top Business Schools, © 2012 Omari Bouknight and Scott Shrum. It is reprinted with permission of the publisher, Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.
A Conversation With Chad Troutwine
Chad Troutwine is co-founder and CEO of the Veritas Prep, a global GMAT preparation service. Prior to starting Veritas, Chad received his MBA from the Yale School of Management and his JD from the University of Missouri. Chad’s position within Veritas makes him intimately familiar with the GMAT exam. We had the opportunity to sit down with Chad and get his perspectives on the examination that gives so many applicants sleepless nights.
What exactly is the GMAT supposed to measure?
Business schools seek the best students possible. In an effort to evaluate candidates from a global spectrum of undergraduate institutions, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) created an objective measure of the verbal and quantitative abilities of their applicants. While many have roundly criticized the SAT for its racial and socioeconomic biases, the GMAT has remained relatively unscathed for more than 50 years. Contrary to popular belief, the GMAT has also proven to be a highly accurate predictor of a student’s academic success in graduate business school. Still, the GMAT is not a valid proxy for the rest of the application process. Specifically, the GMAT is not particularly helpful in the ultimate task of any admissions committee—assessing an applicant’s managerial prowess or leadership potential.
How much of this is innate, and how much can be learned?
Because the GMAT is a test of analytical skill, rather than a subject-based exam, a mythology developed that a test-taker could not dramatically improve her score. Kaplan, and other pioneers in the test preparation industry, exposed the myth—and Veritas has completely shattered it. Applicants who have a history of scoring well on standardized examinations will almost certainly do well on the GMAT. On the other hand, those who do not innately possess those skills can still acquire them. All standardized examinations have patterns. We have completely deconstructed the GMAT and created proven strategies to help our students exploit those archetypes.
What GMAT-related weaknesses do you most commonly see in applicants?
Applicants commonly design flawed preparation strategies. Specifically, we often see industrious students who are convinced that the secret to achieving a high score on the GMAT is simple: grind through as many practice questions as possible. They are misinformed. The ideal way to prepare for the GMAT is to learn a multifaceted and proven strategy first, then perfect that strategy with lots of sample questions. Students who jump right to the second part of the equation typically repeat the same errors, reinforcing their bad habits instead of correcting them.
What are some of the more correctable weaknesses for an average applicant who is preparing for the GMAT? What weaknesses tend to be harder for a typical applicant to correct?
Poor time management is prevalent, but easily corrected. Some students race ahead, leaving valuable minutes unused. Other students move too slowly, sacrificing precious time on early problems and leaving far too little time for later, often more difficult, questions. We offer several practice exams and pacing strategies to help alleviate both weaknesses.
Reading comprehension takes time to master. Students develop reading skills during a long period of time, particularly non-native English speakers. Other students struggle with esoteric rules of grammar. Still others have rusty (or non-existent) probability skills. The key for any student is to accurately diagnose weak areas and address them during the course of study.
What’s a reasonable level of improvement (from an initial diagnostic score to the actual GMAT) for which an applicant should shoot?
Improvement is a function of several different factors, so expectations should vary. If a student starts with a lower score (a 400, for instance), he could reasonably expect a 150 to 200 point increase. Conversely, if a student starts with a higher score (a 650, for example), she might be thrilled with a 60- to 100-point increase. A student who has previous exposure to the GMAT will likely begin with a higher diagnostic score, but may not have the same growth potential as her unexposed classmate.
Formal preparation should raise expectations, too. Students who prepare on their own suffer with stunted scores (when compared to those who take a full preparation course). Moreover, students who attend more comprehensive prep courses gain more insight, and typically earn higher scores, than those who settle for shorter programs. Nearly one-third of all Veritas students ultimately score a 700 (the 92nd percentile) or higher on test day.
Do you find that applicants who take the test more than once are able to significantly improve their scores?
GMAC statistics indicate that students do not improve much from one test to another. However, we are convinced that many of those repeating students do not take active steps to radically improve their prospects, and their results reflect that apathy. On the other hand, our repeaters are encouraged to adopt Veritas methods before retaking the test. As a result, our students (who previously took the GMAT ) still average a nearly 100 point-increase, far more than the average for all test-takers.
It seems as though top schools’ mean GMAT scores keep creeping up. What do you think that’s all about?
We have three related theories. First, the pool of test-takers has improved. Raw quantitative scores have surged in the last decade, and the standardization of the GMAT has not kept pace. More students than ever are taking prep courses, so more arrive equipped to score well. Additionally, the number of international applicants has ballooned. According to GMAC, students in several international locales achieve higher average scores than their North American counterparts, particularly on the quantitative section. Tellingly, raw verbal scores have remained relatively flat for the same period. Second, GMAC has verified the predictive ability of the GMAT in several studies with many graduate business schools. Consequently, schools may be relying more and more on the GMAT, shading their means ever higher. Third, the scores began to climb steadily after GMAC switched the GMAT from a paper-and-pencil format to an exclusively computer-adaptive test in 1997 to 1998. Any test that consistently relies on reusing questions is vulnerable.
We’ve heard that GMAC has increased the number of combination and permutation problems featured on the GMAT over the years. What’s your perspective?
We hear the same rumors, and they may well be true. Another plausible theory is that, as quantitative scores continue to rise, more students than ever are receiving difficult questions. “Perm/combo” questions typically come from the pool of very difficult questions, so they may be appearing more frequently because the relative skill of the test-takers is rising. We take no chances in our commitment to provide the best GMAT preparation available. Veritas is the only major GMAT preparation company to devote an entire lesson to perm/combo questions and other advanced statistics. Our dynamic instructors teach proven Veritas strategies, and our lesson booklets include hundreds of practice problems to help students hone their skills.
Some schools have begun to accept GRE scores in place of GMAT results. Do you believe that the GRE is an adequate surrogate? Do you think more schools will jump on the bandwagon?
The GMAT and GRE General Test are superficially identical: Each measures verbal and critical reasoning skills, quantitative ability, and analytical writing in a timed, computer-based format. The GRE is less expensive than the GMAT, so using it presumably increases the number of potential applicants, however slightly. In addition, applicants to other graduate programs that require the GRE will only need to take one test if they also apply to graduate business school. On the other hand, the primary argument for utilizing the GMAT as an evaluation tool is that it uniformly measures the aptitude of all applicants. This standardization creates a level playing field across all applicants. Accepting multiple test formats would jeopardize the one standardized aspect of the application. As such, I’m confident that admissions officers will continue to primarily use the GMAT to obtain an objective measure of quantitative and verbal abilities.
GRE General Test
We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the GRE General Test in this chapter. Over the past few years Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that runs the GRE, has made impressive progress in getting top business schools to accept the GRE as well as the GMAT as the standardized entrance exam for applicants. Since 2005 Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, MIT, Dartmouth, and Duke (among others) have started to allow applicants to submit GRE scores in lieu of GMAT scores.
Much has been written in the press about the GRE’s progress in the realm of top business schools, but few business school applicants have adopted it as a true GMAT alternative. In fact, for the 2010–2011 application season, every top business school that shared such data reported that the percentage of applicants submitting GRE scores was in the single digits. Although it’s not a long shot to assume that this number will rise over time (especially with ETS rolling out a revised GRE in August 2011), it doesn’t look like the GRE will displace the GMAT as the business school entrance exam any time soon.
How Does the GRE Differ From the GMAT?
At first glance, the two tests are quite similar. Each has a Verbal and a Quantitative section. Each has a writing section in which you submit two short essays. Both tests are computer-adaptive. Each test give you an overall score that can go as high as 800. Just knowing this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two tests are almost perfect substitutes for one another.
Where they differ most is in how they test each of the sections. Although the GMAT’s verbal section features reading comprehension and critical reasoning, the GRE puts a great deal of emphasis on vocabulary, testing you on analogies and antonyms in addition to reading comprehension passages. In this way, the GRE looks a lot more like the standardized tests that you probably took to get into college.
In the Quantitative section, though the GMAT’s data sufficiency problems are legendary, the GRE has no exact counterpart. Instead, the GRE features two problem types of its own: Quantitative Comparison and Data Interpretation. These problems are rarely terribly difficult, but they do combine some of the “see what you can do with a limited amount of info” ideas that go into the GMAT’s Data Sufficiency (and Integrated Reasoning) problems. The GRE’s problem solving questions are similar to those that you will find on the GMAT, however, so if you’re good at one you should be good at the other.
The most important practical point to be made here is that many test-takers consider the GRE to be much easier than the GMAT, particularly on the Quantitative side. In fact, a perfect score on the Quantitative section will get you in no higher than the 94th percentile, meaning that a perfect score only means that you’re in the top six percent of all test takers. Make one mistake, and you’ll drop down to the 89th percentile.
Though you may already be thinking, “Great! I’ll take the GRE!” keep in mind that this actually could make your job harder, particularly if you’re a terrific test-taker. Why? When everyone else does well, you need to be perfect in order to stand out from the pack. If you have an off day while taking the GRE, you (and admissions officers) may be disappointed by your percentile scores. At least right now, the GMAT is a more effective instrument in separating the great test-takers from the merely good ones.
Note that, as this third edition of Your MBA Game Plan goes to press, ETS is rolling out a new version the GRE General Test. We expect that the changes (which ETS hasn’t described in great detail) will make the exam more similar to the GMAT. So, many of the differences here may go away. However, for the time being, we expect that the GMAT will continue to be the most commonly used test for business school admissions, by far.