Perfection is Possible

I'm surprised that so few people get a perfect score on the GMAT exam. Each fall, when business schools release their full range of GMAT scores from admitted applicants, there is virtually never an 800 on the list. The highest number I see is a 780 or 790. Why no 800?

I'm not trying to insinuate that it's easy to get a perfect score, but there are lots of good test takers out there who are within reach of perfection, and all they need on any given day is a little luck. Why then is it that so few MBA applicants pull it off?

Test-Prep Companies

Some of the blame can be put on test-prep companies. For obvious reasons, their courses are designed to address the middle of the curve. They need to cover material that applies to all students in their classes without intimidating those who are struggling. So by their very nature, large commercial test-prep companies can't spend a lot of time on the hardest concepts.

GMAT Instructors

Additionally, few instructors at test-prep companies can do the hardest problems themselves. I know this from firsthand experience.

I started teaching the GMAT exam at the Princeton Review in L.A. Even though it was a silly part-time job that I tried just for fun, I took my role seriously. Soon I was the guy training the company's new instructors and passing judgment on who was good and who wasn't. If I didn't think you had enough game to work with GMAT students (our oldest and most demanding demographic), I'd insist that you step down and teach the SAT exam until you got better.

That experience is why I know that the vast majority of GMAT instructors can't solve every problem on the test. (For the record, neither could I when I started.) And it's yet another reason why so few test takers get a perfect score. The toughest problems aren't covered in prep classes, in part because most instructors can't solve them.

The GMAT Prep Material is Shit

Perhaps the most disturbing reason for underperformance is the material itself. It's often inaccurate and unhelpful. Developing questions for standardized tests is a demanding process that's done by experienced professionals who profile every problem before it appears on an exam. (These are the "experimental questions" on the GMAT.) If a question doesn't profile correctly in the experimental phase, it's thrown out.

Unfortunately, test-prep companies don't hold themselves to these same high standards — mostly because they don't always understand what makes a question a valid indicator of student achievement. So they write shitty questions that sort of mimic what they see on actual exams, knowing that their customers won't be able to spot the subtle shortcomings. After all, if a test-prep company can't understand what makes practice problems perfectly accurate, how can a student?

The problem, of course, is that students who prepare with inaccurate material aren't sharpening the highly specific reasoning skills that will be tested on exam day — especially those that come into play at the top of the curve, where subtle distinctions are so important. It's as if they were preparing for baseball season by playing football. To do well, GMAT test takers need to learn the finer, highly nuanced math and verbal skills that appear only in well-written questions.

In recent years, a number of insurgent upstarts have flooded the test-prep market and lowered the quality of practice materials that students are exposed to. Some new players have chosen to use quantity as a differentiator, but my experience with practice books from those companies has been disturbing. Not only are questions written inaccurately, but entire areas of math and verbal that appear in those book aren't tested on the GMAT exam. Studying that material is a complete waste of time.

When preparing for the GMAT exam, the most important thing you can do is use the Official Guide. I know that the explanations are terrible, but at least the problems themselves are accurate. They come from real GMAT exams, so they've been properly developed and profiled

What It Takes to Score 800 on the GMAT Exam

A lot of practice.

As I've already written, the test-prep world isn't set up to produce perfect scores: course are too short, teachers can't solve the hardest problems and materials are flawed. This was true for me as well when I entered the Princeton Review. And yet, I was able to get up to scoring 800s consistently. I got there by following five rules:

  1. Do a huge volume of problems over an extended period of time.
  2. Use only high-quality practice problems written by the official test writers.
  3. Practice without ever timing yourself.
  4. Early in your prep season, surrender problems you can't solve and move on.
  5. Later in your prep season, insist on perfection. Getting even a single problem wrong means doing the entire set over again.

Later, I'll try to share more details on how to train for the most important test of your life. I'll tell you exactly how I mastered the GMAT. There's nothing particularly brilliant about it, you just need to commit to the process and understand that it will take time. I tell my students that I taught the test for a full year before I thought I understood it. You should prepare for an equally long prep season.