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by Vault Education Editors | December 07, 2009


Oneof the great GMAT myths is that the first eight questions in each section"make or break" your score and that nothing you do after that pointhas much of an effect on the score you end up with.  False!  Eightquestions are not enough to determine your score.  If they were enough, each section wouldconsist of eight questions.


Oneof the consequences of the myth is the belief that in order to break 700, youmust answer those first eight questions correctly.  Untold numbers of test takers have laboredover the first eight, afraid that any mistake will send their scores plummetingto unthinkable depths.  While it is truethat you should give each question your best shot, the absolute number ofquestions answered correctly is not as important as their difficulty level.  Better to have a 50/50 success rate at a highlevel than a 50/50 success rate at a lower one, even though the percentage ofright and wrong answers is the same.


Themost serious consequence of this myth is that its believers spend far too muchtime on the first eight questions and then find themselves racing to finish thesection.  Often, these test takers runout of time and leave some questions unanswered at the end of a section.  Given that unanswered questions areessentially counted as incorrect answers, it makes more sense to move at asteady pace throughout the entire section rather than concentrate on anyparticular subset of questions.  In fact,spending too much time on early questions may actually damage rather than helpyour final score.


Also,keep in mind that even for a test taker of very high ability, gettingthe first eight questions correct in a section is highly unlikely, evenif that test taker spends a lot of extra time on those first eight questions!  Remember, due to the adaptive nature of theexam, if you get the first question in a section correct, you will be bumped upto a very difficult second question.  Ifyou get that second question right, your third question will also be at anextremely high difficulty level.  You willcontinue to see questions at this very high difficulty level until you get aquestion wrong, at which point the exam will adjust the difficulty leveldownward somewhat.  Even test takers ofvery high ability levels usually cannot sustain accuracy through the firsteight questions in a section.


Donot become a victim of the "first eight" myth.  Give every question your best shot, but do notlet any one group of questions drive your entire performance.


Breakdown of a 700 score


Manypeople come to GMAT preparation in mortal fear of the quantitative section.  Probability!  Exponents and roots!  The entire section seems like a parade ofhorribles.  Unfortunately, many of thesepeople spend the bulk of their study efforts honing their math skills at theexpense of their verbal preparation.  Certainly a great performance on each sectionis ideal, but experience has shown that, in fact, an excellent verbalperformance affects one's overall score more dramatically than an excellentperformance in quantitative.


Here'sa little background.  Your overall scoreout of 800 results from your performances in quant and verbal, each of which isfirst scored independently on a scale of 0 to 60.  These subscores are then combined to yieldyour overall score according to formulae to which only GMAC (the organizationthat administers the GMAT) is privy.  Each subscore (verbal and quant) receives apercentile ranking as well.  Thisindicates the percentage of test takers who scored below your level over thepast few years.  So, for example, if youreceive a verbal subscore of 40, you are in the 90th percentile, which meansthat 90 percent of all test takers did not perform as well as you in verbal.


Let'stake a look at what happens at the highest levels of the exam: 700+.  A recent test taker received a scaled score of45 in verbal (98th percentile) and 40 in quant (66th percentile) and an overallscore of 700 (93rd percentile).  Noticehow much closer the overall percentile is to the excellent verbal percentile.  If the overall percentile were simply anaverage of the individual percentiles, this person would have received about640.  But because the combination of anoutstanding verbal performance with a fair quant performance is so rare, theoverall percentile and score will be much higher than the lower quantpercentile.  Another person, who scored49 in verbal (99th percentile) and 37 in quant (56th percentile), received 710(95th percentile), even though the quant performance here was a full 10percentile points lower than that in the previous example.  Again, an outstanding performance in verbalsignificantly offset a middling performance in quant.


Doesthis work in reverse?  That is, will anoutstanding performance in quant offset a middling performance in verbal?  No.  Thehigh-quant-low-verbal combination is much more common, given the increasingnumber of international test takers, who often have excellent math skills butrelatively weak command of English.  Evenamong native speakers of English, it is more common to see relatively highquant scores coupled with fair to middling verbal scores.  Because these combinations are less rare, theyare not rewarded as highly.  For example,a test taker recently received a 50 in quant (97th percentile) and a 37 inverbal (82nd percentile), but "only" a 670 overall (89th percentile). So the truly excellent quant performancewas not enough to pull the overall score above 700.


Whilean excellent verbal performance can indeed take up some of the slack from aweaker quant score, keep in mind that most business schools want to see strongskills in both sections.  In fact, someof the top-20 schools apply the "80/80 rule," which requires thatsuccessful applicants reach at least the 80th percentile in both sections.  So do not put all your eggs in one basket:make sure you prepare well for both sections.


Breaking the 760 mark


760is the threshold for the 99th percentile and the GMAT does not award thatdistinction to specialists (people who do extraordinarily well on only onesection of the exam).  To break 760, youneed to excel in both sections.  So,although a great verbal section can pick up the slack from a weaker quantperformance, if your sights are set on 760+, you need to be in top form in bothareas


Somerecent scores of 760 broke down as follows: 41V/51Q, 46V/47Q, 44V/49Q, 45V/48Q,47V/47Q.  Notice that both sections arestrong.  Some recent scores of 760 brokedown as follows: 51V/46Q, 42V/50Q, 46V/48Q, 44V/50Q.  Again, these test takers posted excellent subscores. To break 760, you more or less need toreach at least the 84th percentile in quant (subscore 46) and the 90th inverbal (subscore 40).  While asignificant number of test takers can reach one or the other of these goals,very few can reach both on the same exam. Hence the reward of 99th percentile status to those who can.


Sohow do you get there?  By understandinghow the exam changes at its highest levels.  At the 760+ level, you will no longer betested on the basics; by the time you start seeing 760-level questions, youwill already have proven to the CAT that you have mastered the fundamentals andare ready for the tough stuff.  So theCAT will try to gauge your level by taking the same concepts you would see atthe 650 level and "gussying" them up.  In quant, it is now more about logic thanabout calculation.  Did you spot thepattern hidden in the numbers?  Did youspot the hidden equations?  In verbal,you will need to resolve subtle flaws of logic and grammar.  The issues no longer announce themselves; youhave to seek them out.  The 760+ exam isfor active test takers.  If you sit backand let the exam wash over you, chances are you will not break 760.


Whatabout 800?  Does anyone ever get the"perfect" score?  Indeed.  But a score of 800 does not necessarily meanyou got every question right.  It meansthat you answered so many extremely hard questions correctly that your fewerrors were statistically insignificant in comparison.  What kind of numbers do you need for 800?  A recent test taker who managed an 800-levelperformance received 51 in verbal and 51 in quant, subscores so rare that theGMAT does not even separate them in percentile (99th) from the theoreticalupper limit of 60 on each section.


Soto break 760, review the most challenging questions you can find.  Pick them apart.  See how underneath all the fuss, they stilltest the same basic concepts.  The onlydifference is the amount of insight needed to see which basic concepts arebeing tested.  That insight will comewith practice.


Taking the exam morethan once


Whathappens if you take the exam and you do not break 700?  A common myth among GMAT hopefuls is that youonly get one bite at the apple.  In otherwords, if you do not hit your target score on your first attempt, all yoursubsequent efforts, even if successful, are somehow diminished in the eyes of B-schooladmissions committees.  This is totallyfalse!


Thevast majority of business schools take only your highest GMAT score intoaccount when evaluating your application.  Why?  First,it is in their best interest to inflate their mean and median GMAT scores tokeep their rankings high.  Second,business schools do not see the GMAT as a test of innate intelligence butrather as a measure of your preparation for business school.  They want to know that at the time of youreventual matriculation, you will have the basic skills (quantitative,reasoning, writing, etc.) necessary for success in their programs.  Whether you prove yourself on your first,second or third attempt is irrelevant as long as you demonstrate your readinesssomewhere along the way.


Also,keep in mind that business schools evaluate not only your academicqualifications (e.g., GMAT and GPA), but also your professional promise.  They gauge this by your career choices andsuccesses and by your demonstrated determination to succeed.  If you present a GMAT score that is clearlybelow a school's standards, the admissions office will question your drive andconsider you unrealistic.  Taking theexam again shows determination and an appreciation for what it takes to achieveyour goals, all desirable traits in a business school applicant.


Howlikely is it that your score will improve on a subsequent test?  It is more likely than not.  Many test takers succumb to nerves on theirfirst try, letting time slip away as they fumble through the exam.  On a second attempt, the exam is no longer amystery.  Having learned from experience,many test takers are better able to manage the time and to recognize thewarning signs when they find themselves dealing with questions beyond theirreach.  Recent test takers have gone from620 to 720, 650 to 710, 580 to 670, 630 to 680, 520 to 690, and these are justa tiny sample of people whose scores improved significantly on a subsequenttry.  Of course, they continued to studyand hone their skills, but an essential component of their eventual success wastheir prior experience with the exam.


Ifyour first attempt at the exam falls short of your target score (i.e., a scorethat will make you competitive at the schools to which you plan to apply), youwill need to take the exam again.  But donot see this as a failure.  Rather, it isa second opportunity to show the business schools that you are ready.  In fact, we recommend that everyone plan totake the test twice, right from the start.  The first try is a "practice run" toshake out your nerves and familiarize yourself with the timing and pressure ofthe real exam so that on your second attempt you can concentrate on the contentand time management.


How business schools viewthe 700 barrier


The700 barrier has taken on a life of its own among business school applicants.  It seems more and more that applicants areshooting for 700 in order to "seal the deal" at a top-20 businessschool.  But is 700 really necessary foradmissions success?


Whilethe vast majority of business schools still report average GMAT scores below700, the uppermost echelon increasingly reports averages at or above that mark. You have to be careful, though, whenevaluating reported GMAT scores.  Is itan average or a median?  If a schoolreports an average GMAT score of 700, for example, you have no way of knowingwhat proportion of students scored above that mark, or below for that matter.  A few very high or very low scores can skewthe average up or down.  If a schoolreports a median GMAT score of 700, by contrast, you know that approximately 50percent of its students scored above that mark and approximately 50 percentscored below.  Accordingly, median GMATscores are more indicative of your admissions chances than are averages, thoughfor most schools the two will be quite close.


Forexample, the average GMAT score in a recent year at the University of ChicagoBooth School of Business was 687, but the median score was 700.  The slight discrepancy indicates that eventhough 50 percent scored above 700 and 50 percent below, there were more verylow scores (relatively speaking, that is—it is still Chicago, after all) thanvery high scores.  What does this mean?  It means that some applicants withcomparatively low GMAT scores were admitted to Chicago Booth.  Another top school with a similar discrepancyis the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.  In a recent year, it reported an average GMATscore of 701 but a median of 710.  The MITSloan School of Management and Hass School of Business (University of California,Berkeley) also reported similar discrepancies between their mean and medianGMAT scores in recent years.  This showsthat while your GMAT score weighs heavily in your application, a score above700 is not necessary for admission to some of the country's most prestigiousbusiness schools, even when they report average scores at or above 700.


Infact, you should not think of average or median GMAT scores as "cutoffs." One very prestigious B-school reports anaverage score above 700, but its admissions officers have been known to tellapplicants that the real minimum in their eyes is 660.  Will you have a better chance with a score of760 than 660?  Sure, but your applicationwould not be summarily dismissed if you submitted a score of 660.  And remember that more goes into theadmissions decisions than just the GMAT score, including work experience, GPA,recommendations, essays, etc.


Ofcourse, breaking the 700 barrier can only help your chances.  So aim high and study hard!

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