Below are some “Case Studies” of previous students that I have tutored. They help paint a picture of the various ways in which the process can unfold and of the different ways in which I approach each situation. The few that you will find below are just a small sampling from among the hundreds of students that I have tutored, but I chose these particular cases because they illustrate some of the common situations that I have dealt with and offer some lessons on what often leads to success on the GMAT.
Starting GMAT Score: 620
Final GMAT Score: 740
School Attended: Harvard Business School
Aaron came to me with very little experience with the test and an initial practice test score of 620. In our first session it became clear to me that Aaron was a very smart guy and that he had the kind of creative problem solving and logical reasoning ability that the GMAT tends to reward, so I did something that I don’t usually do (unless I feel pretty confident about it): I told him that I thought he was destined for a score well above 700.
One reason that I have chosen to use Aaron for a case study is that his situation illustrates how my approach varies depending on the student. Part of what I do in my first session or two is get an idea of what kind of person I am dealing with (on many different levels really, from level of organization to work ethic to the way the person problem solves). This helps me craft a game plan that I think will mesh best with that particular person.
In Aaron’s case, he was very weak on content since he was very new to the test, so ordinarily I would have had him work in a very structured way outside of our meetings to build a good level of GMAT content mastery. In Aaron’s case, however, it became clear to me that he was not the type of person who would want to spend the time going methodically through all of the content, especially if it was divorced from real, official GMAT questions. So we decided that he would do no content work at all (this is not something that I would ordinarily do with someone so weak on content) and would instead work through the OG questions in a very structured way so that we could easily analyze where his weaknesses were. When there were issues that were content related (and there were definitely some) we covered them together and the overall the progress went really well with the game plan we set up.
On his first GMAT Aaron scored a 710, which was obviously a great score, but we both felt like he could do better. This was based in part on my somewhat subjective opinion of his ability, but also on the practice test scores he had been getting (in the 730 to 750 range). He decided to do some light prep on his own and take it again and unfortunately scored worse. I didn’t hear from Aaron for a while until almost a year later when he wrote to tell me that he wanted to take one more shot at the GMAT and wanted my help. We did a few sessions together to get him back into game shape and he finally nailed it – 740!
Starting GMAT Score: 410
Final GMAT Score: 670
School Attended: Not Yet Decided
Louis is a non-native English speaker and came to me with no experience whatsoever with the GMAT. Normally I would have a new student take a diagnostic before meeting with me, but I don’t always suggest it and when I think the student is going to get killed on the first attempt or if I think they will be really devastated by the score that they might get. So in Louis’s case we agreed that he should wait and do a little light prep first. Nevertheless the first practice test score was not good – 410.
Louis’s biggest weakness was Sentence Correction (which is often the case for non-native English speakers for obvious reasons). With SC, I typically focus almost exclusively on the strategy aspects of the question type, but when a person’s grammar is really bad and that is clearly effecting them on SC I usually spend more time on the hard grammar rules and issues that appear on the GMAT. But when I did this with Louis, it became clear that it was just too much for him and that we were spending so much time on it with only limited improvement. So we decided to more or less leave SC behind and focus on the lower hanging fruit. And when we did come back to SC I kept the discussion almost exclusively about high level strategy because this was what had the biggest effect on Louis and because it was clear that no amount of time spent on the grammar specifics was ever going lead to a great result.
Louis’s practice test scores were in the mid-600’s with Verbal scores in the high 30’s (high 30’s for a non-native English speaker is really impressive and in Louis’s case it was due to the fact that he was very good at CR, that he was pretty good at RC, and that we had made good progress with the strategy-only focus on SC). But when he took the test he accomplished something that most people don’t accomplish on their first attempt at the GMAT: he actually scored higher than all of his practice tests – 670 with a 42Q and 40V!!!
This was one of the largest score increases that I have ever had (nearly 300 points). This is not common, so I don’t want to suggest that this is what happens with most of my students, but it can happen and sometimes does happen, so hopefully that gives people hope about how high their score might ultimately rise.
Starting GMAT Score: 480
Final GMAT Score: 600
School Attended: Columbia Business School
Chantal was one of my all time favorite students (I am still friends with her) and her case illustrates several important lessons. Chantal is Belgian and came to New York specifically to prepare for the GMAT with the hope of attending Columbia. She was very young (only 21 years old) and had just finished college in Europe, so the cards were stacked against her in terms of getting into an MBA program. But there were several factors that in the end helped her achieve admission to Columbia, factors that I will describe below.
First, the GMAT. When she came to me, Chantal had no experience whatsoever with the test. As a non-native English speaker, the Verbal section was obviously a challenge. She had been speaking English nearly her entire life, so her command of the language on an informal level was nearly equal to that of a native English speaker, but she was not great with the formal aspects of the language, especially grammar.
Right from the start it was apparent to me that she was extremely intelligent, but since she had absolutely no experience with the test I had her wait to do a diagnostic test until after we had had a few sessions together. Still her initial score was only 480 and she struggled on both the Quantitative and Verbal sections of the test.
Because she was so smart and had such good innate reasoning ability, it was not that hard to quickly bring her Quant score up. More than almost any other student I have ever had, she took completely to the idea that she needed to rely on her creative problem solving ability to handle the difficult questions on the test. She had pretty good innate Math ability but she was NOT good at formal Math and no matter how much we tried to boost her ability on the more formal Math approaches, it didn’t really help that much. In the end, it didn’t really matter because she was able to achieve a high Quant score by relying more on reasoning and effective problem solving than on pure Math. In fact, she became absolutely masterful at attacking questions strategically despite the holes in her Math game and this, in my opinion, teaches an important lesson: there are many avenues to a high Quant score, but one does not need to be a master of the content that underlies the questions; rather, if one learns to be a creative problem solver and to rely on reasoning more than formal Math, one can achieve great success on the Quantitative section of the GMAT.
Unfortunately the Verbal section was more difficult to deal with. She pretty quickly learned to master Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning questions, but Sentence Correction remained a huge challenge. At first I focused more on the strategy aspects of SC since I knew that it would be an uphill battle for her to really master the specific grammar concepts that she was lacking, and this helped her get much better at SC and increase her Verbal score. Nevertheless, at a certain point it seemed like she needed to really dive into the grammar more, so I had her work through the ManhattanGMAT Sentence Correction book (as I sometimes do with my students). Unfortunately, all of that focus on the nitty-gritty grammar details made her less strategic in the way that she was approaching the questions and she actually got worse at SC! So we spent some time trying to get her back to her previous mindset on the question type (while at the same time trying to incorporate some of what she had learned from the book). This again offers a very similar lesson, in my opinion: content knowledge, even on the Verbal side, is not a substitute for really effective strategic thinking with regard to the questions.
In the end, Chantal took the GMAT several times. Unfortunately for her, she would get a really high Quant and low Verbal score on one exam and then flip flop and have a much higher Verbal but lower Quant score on the next. She was never able to put together great performances on both sections on a single exam. So her final GMAT score was 600, but she achieved highs of 48 on the Quant section and 33 on the Verbal section (had she been able to “superscore” these separate section scores into a new GMAT score it would have been in the high 600’s).
The final point of interest to mention about Chantal is that she got into Columbia despite her somewhat low GMAT score, lack of work experience, and extremely young age. I am not an admissions expert, but I would offer a few explanations that might be useful to prospective applicants. First of all, Chantal is a really impressive person when you meet her and must have absolutely killed it on the interview (she is extremely charismatic, but was also very mature for her age and very driven and definitely did not seem like your typical 21 year old). Secondly, she did something very smart to help her chances: she managed to take some economics classes at Columbia as a sort-of non-matriculant, so this undoubtedly helped her get her foot in the door there. Furthermore, regarding the GMAT score, although schools don’t technically “superscore” GMAT scores, I always wonder if they will at least consider the high section scores even when they don’t combine to a single high GMAT score (in Chantal’s case I could imagine that the admissions committee may have looked at her highest Quant and Verbal scores and said, “look, this girl clearly has the quantitative and verbal ability to handle the classes here”). Finally, although she didn’t have any post-graduate work experience, she had grown up working in her family’s business, and she hired an admissions consultant who really helped her package the whole story to make it appealing to the admissions committee. In the end she was admitted to Columbia and excelled there, graduating at the top of her class.
Starting GMAT Score: 640
Final GMAT Score: 710
School Attended: JD-MBA at Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern)
Heath came to me having taken the GMAT 6 times before! He had already done a Master’s in accounting so some of the GMATs he had taken had been for admission to those programs, but I often use Heath as an example with my students since his case demonstrates that business schools don’t really care how many times a person takes the test – in the end he got into the JD-MBA program at Northwestern even though he took the test a total of 7 times!
He is also a good example because like many of my other students he claimed to be very good at Math but was not scoring well on the Quant section. After starting to work with him it was apparent to me that although he was indeed good at Math, he failed to understand that the GMAT is a reasoning test not a Math test. So a big part of what I did with Heath was just break him down and show him that the questions could often be approached in creative and clever ways and that he needed to stop limiting himself to straight ahead, formulaic types of approaches.
The other issue Heath was having had to deal with time management. He had taken the GMAT enough times to know that you have an average of 2 minutes per question on Quant. But like many other GMATers, he thought this meant that he should basically be spending 2 minutes on every single question when the reality is that although you will average 2 minutes per question, some questions are worth spending 3 or 4 minutes on and others warrant a very quick guess in the interest of saving time. Part of his misunderstanding was based on a very common and erroneous assumption that many GMATers make: that you need to answer almost all of the question right on Quant in order to have a high score. This is definitely not the case; unfortunately if you believe this you will want to spend 2 minutes on every single question. But because almost all test takers will get nearly half of the Quant questions wrong, it clearly does not make sense to spend undue time on questions that you are likely to get wrong anyway.
Once Heath dealt with the above issues, his score increased accordingly and he was able to score a 710, including a very high Quant score. I did not tutor him for the LSAT (and actually didn’t even know that he was thinking about JD-MBA programs), but in the end he was admitted to and attended Northwestern’s extremely selective JD-MBA program.
Starting GMAT Score: 590
Final GMAT Score: 710
School Attended: Wharton
Josh was one of the first students that I tutored completely online. He was actually located in Westchester so theoretically he could have come to the city to meet in person but he preferred the convenience of online tutoring. At the time (this was about 5 years ago) I was not completely convinced that online tutoring could be as effective as in-person tutoring, but I had spent months researching and preparing to begin doing it and so by the time I began working with Josh I at least had confidence that my methods would make the online experience as close to live tutoring as possible. In the end it worked brilliantly and I don’t think Josh ever felt like he missed anything by choosing to meet me online instead of in person.
Josh’s case was also unique for me in that he was starting a ManhattanGMAT class at the same time that we began meeting (I had worked with students who had previously taken classes with all of the major GMAT prep providers, but never with someone who was going to be starting a class while I was tutoring them). So I crafted an overall game plan that involved moving through the material in synchronization with what he would be doing in the class.
Partly because of his own nature and partly because of the nature of the ManhattanGMAT emphasis (both in its books and in the live classroom), Josh became overly focused on the content aspects of the test and was really missing the larger strategy perspective. So, as with most of my other students, I really inundated him with the message that the GMAT Quant section is a thinking and reasoning measure not a measure of pure Math ability and worked with him on changing his approach to the questions.
He also had issues on Verbal, particularly on Reading Comprehension, where he was not reading the passages correctly. Like many other GMATers, he was focusing on the details and completely missing the larger picture, so I taught him how to read with a focus on the author’s intention. The other issue that he was having on Verbal questions, and again one that is common to almost all GMATers, was that he failed to understand that the questions will have 1 correct answer and 4 incorrect answers and that there is not any real ambiguity about which one is correct. In other words, he tended to pick what he thought was the “best” answer instead of realizing that the right answer was right not because it was great or perfect but because it was the only answer that was acceptable and because all of the other answers were technically wrong for one reason or another. Once he understood this and how to differentiate between right and wrong, he became much more methodical on the Verbal section and his score really jumped.
On his practice tests leading up to the actual exam Josh was scoring in the 700 to 720 range. It is very common for students to slightly underperform on their first try at the GMAT (which is why so many people take the test more than once), but in Josh’s case he nailed in on the first try and got a 710. This was a fantastic score and right in line with what he was getting on practice tests so Josh was extremely satisfied and in the end it was good enough to get him into Wharton.
Starting GMAT Score: 670
Final GMAT Score: 730
School Attended: Wharton
Since the above cases provide a lot of detail about how the process unfolds with many of my students and since David’s situation wasn’t really much different in that regard, I am introducing his case because it illustrates one important fact: sometimes you need to take the GMAT multiple times to achieve the score that you deserve.
When I first met David, he had just taken the GMAT (after being tutored by a Kaplan tutor who he was not happy with) and scored a 670. Obviously that is already a very good score, but in our very first session I realized that David had the ability to achieve a much higher score. I have only done this a few times with my students (I did it with Aaron, mentioned above) but I told him at the end of our first meeting that he SHOULD have a score in the 700’s and that, as long as he was willing to not give up, he should keep going until he achieves a score in that range. I warned him that it may not happen on the very next try since sometimes people underperform on the real test, but his ability (in my opinion) dictated that he really was capable of a score significantly higher than 670.
I will spare the details of what we worked on in our sessions (suffice to say it was focused on getting him to be more strategic in the way that he approached both Quantitative and Verbal questions), but as he approached his next GMAT he was scoring in the 700 to 730 range on his practice tests. Nevertheless, on the actual exam he scored a slightly disappointing 690. He planned to take the exam again without any tutoring and on this next try he did worse: 680.
At this point he was frustrated, but I encouraged him to take the test one more time. I don’t normally push people like this, but I was very confident that he was capable of a higher score. I told him that he didn’t necessarily need to see me anymore since he was already operating at a very high level (as indicated by his practice test scores and by my own assessment of his performance in our sessions). He just needed to get back on the horse and try again. In the end I did see him for one more session before his 4th GMAT just to make sure he was really in game shape and finally he achieved the score that I think he probably should have had on the previous exams: 730.
When you take the GMAT and don’t achieve the score that you want, there are really two separate situations that tend to present themselves. In some cases, you are not really operating at the score level that you want to be at. In this case you need to do additional prep and change some of what you are doing to push yourself to a higher level and close the gap between the level that you are actually at and the one that you are hoping to reach. But for many other students, they are already operating at a level consistent with the score that they are hoping to achieve. They are achieving scores on official practice tests that match or exceed the score they desire. In many of these cases, however, the student will score well below that level on the actual GMAT. When this happens, it might mean that there are some anxiety issues that need to be dealt with or that the person needs to do more full length practice tests to try to get more accustomed to the stress and fatigue that occur when taking the actual test. But in the end, people in this latter category should generally aim to get right back in there and take the test again because sometimes you just don’t have the best game day performance and all you really need is another opportunity to shine.
Starting GMAT Score: 430
Final GMAT Score: 690
School Attended: London Business School
Evan achieved one of the biggest score increases I have ever seen with any of my students, so this is part of the reason I chose to include him here. But his situation was instructive for several other reasons as well.
First of all, when I met Evan for our initial session we talked a lot about which test he should take (at the time business schools had just announced that they would accept the GRE as well as the GMAT). Evan’s math ability was very, very weak and he informed me that without a calculator he would be almost completely worthless, so we settled on the GRE. I tutored him for several months for the GRE and he did pretty well on the actual test, but he decided after that first experience (and based partly on the fact that he was feeling more confident with math at that point) that he wanted to switch to the GMAT (I tutor many students for both tests and its pretty common to switch from one to the other).
However, even with all of the work that he had put into the GRE, his initial GMAT score on the diagnostic test was 430. He wanted to go to London Business School so he had a long way to go. The biggest issue was his fundamental Math weakness. So I had him work through several foundational books and we worked together on his basic Math skills. With many of my students I help them create a binder to allow them to compile, in an organized fashion, all of the notes and rules and techniques that they will need to remember or at least be aware of come test day. This proved to be crucial in Evan’s case because he would tend to forget things as soon as we moved on to another topic. Having the binder allowed him to constantly go back and review concepts that we had covered previously.
Also, as with all of my students, I trained him to rely on his reasoning and critical thinking ability as much as possible. This was especially important in his case since no matter how much we focused on the basic math that serves as the foundation for the questions, he was never going to be completely comfortable with the harder math that appears on the test.
He also had trouble with the Verbal section. Ironically, although he was an avid reader, he had the most trouble on Reading Comprehension initially. As with many other students, it was a combination of the way he was reading the passages and the approach he had on the questions. He needed to learn to read the passages for purpose and function, which he was quickly able to do once I showed him how, in part because he had good fundamental reading ability to begin with. And for the questions, he learned how to identify the different question types and tweak his approach on each question based on what is usually required for that particular question type. And like almost all of my students, he needed to learn that Verbal questions are black and white and although there may seem to be ambiguity as to which answer is right and which ones are wrong, there is in fact no ambiguity: there is a reason why the right answer is right and why the wrong answers are wrong and what is needed is an understanding of how to prove both that the right answer is acceptable (basically not wrong) and that the wrong answers are demonstrably wrong.
When Evan went to take the GMAT for the first time, I actually thought he would probably score around 650, so I was a bit surprised but obviously ecstatic when he called to tell me that he had gotten a 690!!! Since that was actually above what he had been getting on practice tests and since he had been at it for a long time and didn’t want to do anymore, he was satisfied with that score and was admitted to London Business School later that year.