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Monday, July 17, 2006

Manhattan GMAT Article: Breaking the 700 Barrier

Breaking the 700 Barrier
By Kevin Fitzgerald of Manhattan GMAT
Many students ask me what it takes to break the 700 barrier on the GMAT. Let's take a look at crossing that increasingly important threshold.

One of the great GMAT myths is that the first 8 questions in each section "make or break" your score and that nothing you do after that point has much of an effect on the score you end up with. False! Eight questions are not enough to determine your score. If they were enough, each section would consist of 8 questions.

One of the consequences of the myth is the belief that in order to break 700, you must answer those first 8 questions correctly. Untold numbers of test-takers have labored over the first eight, afraid that any mistake will send their scores plummeting to unthinkable depths. While it is true that you should give each question your best shot, the absolute number of questions answered correctly is not as important as their difficulty level. Better to have a 50/50 success rate at a high level than a 50/50 success rate at a lower one, even though the percentage of right and wrong answers is the same.

The most serious upshot of this myth is that its believers spend far too much time on the first eight questions and then find themselves racing to finish the section. Often, these test-takers run out of time and leave some questions unanswered at the end of a section. Given that unanswered questions are essentially counted as incorrect answers, it makes more sense to move at a steady pace throughout the entire section rather than concentrate on any particular subset of questions. In fact, spending too much time on early questions may actually damage rather than help your final score.

Also, keep in mind that even for a test-taker of very high ability, getting the first eight questions correct in a section is highly unlikely, even if that test-taker spends a lot of extra time on those first eight questions! Remember, due to the adaptive nature of the exam, if you get the first question in a section correct, you will be bumped up to a very difficult second question. If you get that second question right, your third question will also be at an extremely high difficulty level. You will continue to see questions at this very high difficulty level until you get a question wrong, at which point the exam will adjust the difficulty level downward somewhat. Even test-takers of very high ability levels usually cannot sustain accuracy through the first eight questions in a section.

Do not become a victim of the "first 8" myth: give every question your best shot, but do not let any one group of questions drive your entire performance.

Many people come to GMAT preparation in mortal fear of the quantitative section. Probability! Exponents and roots! The entire section seems like a parade of horribles. Unfortunately, many of these people spend the bulk of their study efforts honing their math skills at the expense of their verbal preparation. Certainly a great performance on each section is ideal, but experience has shown that an excellent verbal performance affects one's overall score more dramatically than does an excellent performance in quantitative.

Let's take a look at what happens at the highest levels of the exam: 700+. A recent test-taker received a scaled score of 45 in verbal (98th percentile) and 40 in quant (66th percentile) and an overall score of 700 (93rd percentile). Notice how much closer the overall percentile is to the excellent verbal percentile. If the overall percentile were simply an average of the individual percentiles, this person would have received about 640. But because the combination of an outstanding verbal performance with a fair quant performance is so rare, the overall percentile and score will be much higher than the lower quant percentile. Another person, who scored 49 in verbal (99th percentile) and 37 in quant (56th percentile), received 710 (95th percentile), even though the quant performance here was a full 10 percentile points lower than that in the previous example. Again, an outstanding performance in verbal significantly offset a middling performance in quant.

Does this work in reverse? That is, will an outstanding performance in quant so dramatically offset a middling performance in verbal? No. This combination is much more common, given the increasing number of international test-takers, who often have excellent math skills but relatively weak command of English. Even among native speakers of English, it is more common to see relatively high quant scores coupled with fair to middling verbal scores. Because these combinations are less rare, they are not rewarded as highly. For example, a test-taker recently received a 50 in quant (97th percentile) and a 37 in verbal (82nd percentile), but "only" a 670 overall (89th percentile). So the truly excellent quant performance was not enough to pull the overall score above 700.

While an excellent verbal performance can indeed take up some of the slack from a weaker quant score, keep in mind that most business schools want to see strong skills in both sections. In fact, some of the top 20 schools apply the "80/80 rule", which requires that successful 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Breaking a 700 on the GMAT, in and of itself, is not going to get you accepted into a top school.

Too many people are focused on this fact. Tis why the GMAT Prep companies are raking in the $$$$$.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Dave for MBA said...

Dude, the first paragraph said that same thing. Glad you agree.

12:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

do you know which school in the top 20 has the 80/80 rule?

11:53 PM  
Anonymous GMAT Ninja said...

I realize that this article is several years old, but I really wish more people understood this. Sometimes it feels like typical GMAT students spend pretty much all of their energy worrying about the first 10 quant questions, and nowhere near enough time focusing on GMAT verbal... or on the fact that work experience means much, much more than GMAT scores.

Great site, thanks for all of the good, classic articles.

6:31 PM  

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