Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Should I keep or cancel my GMAT score?


Article by David Thomas, photo by wonderferret

For a couple of years now, GMAC has given students the option to cancel their scores if they aren't happy with how they performed. But control without judgment is a dangerous drug. One question we get all the time at Forster-Thomas is whether to keep or cancel a GMAT score. Although every case is different, here are a few basic guidelines to consider.

When to Cancel. This should go without saying, but if your score is way low, if you were sick or hung over or outrageously distracted, cancel the score. You're all but guaranteed to do better next time.

When to Keep. This category is larger than most people think. You should definitely keep any score that is higher than your previous overall scores, even if quant is lower. You should definitely keep a score with a higher quant score, even if the overall is lower. You should definitely keep a first score within 100 points of your practice tests. You should definitely keep any score of 710 or higher. And you should definitely keep anything with a quant score of 47 or higher.

Why? Say, for argument's sake, you have two tests. One with an overall high score, and a second with a high quant score but mediocre overall. You can refer to that high quant score in an optional essay as additional evidence of how quantitatively brilliant you are -- and schools will factor that in!

Don't panic! Remember -- even if you do cancel a score, you can get it back later. You have 60 days to decide whether to reinstate the scores—for a fee of 100 US Dollars. If you're thinking about reinstating, if you have questions about how your practice tests are going, or you just want to get a better handle on the process -- contact us! We'll be happy to help.

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The GMAT is an ever-evolving beast, and 2015 is no exception to the rule of change.  If you are applying (or reapplying) this year, there are several important changes to the methodology of the test that you should be aware of.

The first has to do with Score Preview and Cancellations.  Score Preview allows you to see your score on test day — If you feel you didn’t perform your best on that day, it is possible to cancel your GMAT scores.  That’s old news.  But here’s the new feature — it used to be that when you cancelled a score, it showed up as a ‘C’ on the score report that went out to schools.  As of July, The “C” that represents a candidate’s cancelled scores will not be shown on any future GMAT score reports generated by GMAC. This means that when a test taker cancels their score, only the test taker will know.

This is a big deal for applicants, who now have a level of fine control over how their GMAC report reads that they did not before.  Different business schools have different approaches to the GMAT — some superscore (taking the highest quant and verbal from different exams), some average all scores, and some take the single highest score.  Some factor cancellations into their decisions, and some do not.  By reducing the number of moving parts, candidates can help streamline their applications.

Another big change is that the wait period between exams has been shortened from 31 days to 16 days.  For most applicants, this is a huge bonus — more time to cram before the first attempt, less time to ‘forget’ inbetween exams.  But be careful — you’re still limited to no more than five attempts in a twelve-month period, and with these new rules you can reach that limit pretty quickly!

Both of these changes should make the GMAT a little less intimidating, but it’s still a challenging exam, especially on the quantitative side, where huge volumes of overseas test takers have been driving percentiles down farther and farther.  An elite quant percentile of 80+ is harder to attain now than it has ever been before, which is why schools are relying more heavily on raw scores and becoming a little more forgiving on the 80th percentile rule of thumb.  That said, it’s never been a hard and fast rule — what kind of candidate you are and what background you come from play a big role in how your quant score is assessed.

Have more questions?  We’re here for you!  Contact us for more information.

Photo by Ryan McGilchrist.

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If you're thinking of applying to b-school this year, you have something right now that is more valuable than you can possibly imagine -- preparation time.  But we all lead busy lives -- what is the best use of that time?  What really matters, and how long will it take to do?

Article by Ben Feuer, Image by Moyan Brenn

We here at Forster-Thomas know that applying to any graduate program can feel completely overwhelming, with a hundred little things to take care of and not enough time to take care of it.  So what should you focus on and when?  Here's a cliff-notes answer to that important question.  Please note -- this is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list, but it should give you plenty to think about if you're trying to maximize your application's chances.


3 YEARS - Congratulations!  You're really into planning ahead.  Keep earning top grades at your school (or if that's too easy, transfer into a tougher school) and tackle meaningful leadership challenges in your clubs and organizations.  If you're early on in the workforce, start building the key professional contacts who can later serve as recommenders or write letters of reference for your target schools.

3 MONTHS - Depending on the relative strengths and weaknesses of your application, you could either focus on retaking your GMAT or taking your GRE (standardized test scores are important) or you could look to burnish your resume with meaningful leadership by founding a small business or taking on a big responsiblity for a nonprofit.

3 WEEKS -  Although this can be enough time to do a rushed GRE/GMAT retake, depending on when the tests are scheduled, perhaps the most important thing to think about with three weeks remaining is corralling your recommenders.  Hopefully they already know you're applying at this point, but it's a good time to put in a few gentle reminders, set up any necessary meetings to provide information or just catch up, et cetera.  

3 DAYS - Do a campus visit for the weekend!  Prepare by reaching out to students via Linkedin and asking pointed, thoughtful, comparative questions about their b-school experience thus far.  Invite them to talk about their favorite and least favorite aspects of what they do every day, and what parts of school they got the most out of.  Once you arrive on campus, take a lot of notes -- they'll help you when the time comes to write your "why school" essays -- and shake a lot of hands -- depending on the school, face-time with profs and admissions staff can help your chances of getting in quite a bit.

3 HOURS - Write a first draft of an essay.  Don't try to get it perfect your first time out of the box.  That isn't possible.  Just write something complete, authentic and honest with a clear plan in mind.  If you're going over three hours for your first draft, you're overthinking it!  Relax and wrap it up.  Then hand it to your brain trust (you do HAVE a brain trust, right?) and be prepared to be told it doesn't work at all.

30 MINUTES - Jot down five essay brainstorms for a particular prompt -- one-paragraph reminders of things you've done in the last three years or so.  You can also reformat your resume in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of negative space, compressing to one page, emphasizing recent employment and accomplishments, and purging things that aren't relevant for b-school like technical skills.

3 MINUTES - Take a deep breath and relax.  You've hit submit -- it's out of your hands now.  The best thing you can do is put it out of your mind and wait.


Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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How the learning algorithms work, and what it can teach you about your writing strategy.

By Ben Feuer

Automated writing assessment (as a supplement to human writing assessment) has been used for years now in undergraduate university settings.  It is used by EdX MOOCs.  But how exactly does it work?

Those familiar with the technology will know exactly how it works -- it is based on machine learning algorithms, which consists of a computer studying human behavior and turning key components of it into patterns the computer can then recognize and spit out at will.  The more patterns the computer spots, the better it gets at reproducing the 'model' it has in its virtual head.  A much more detailed (and fascinating) explanation of the software can be found here.

All well and good in theory, but how does this affect how you take your GMAT?

The machine learning algorithm that governs computerized essay grading is going to focus on errors in grammar, passive use cases, ability to adhere to a central message or theme and the ability to support that message.  Obviously, in a context independent of human readers, it's easy to game that system, as MIT professor Les Perelman has been demonstrating for years.  But the GMAT uses the machines as a second reader, and (very hurried) human beings as first readers.

So the optimal strategy for the GMAT AWA would be to write a technically perfect essay that answers the central question well enough not to offend the sensibilities of the human 'first reader'.  Most likely, if the essay passes a sanity check and contains a few worthwhile insights, the human reader isn't going to give the essay a hard time, and the machine will recognize what it is trained to recognize -- good grammar and sentence structure and staying on topic.


Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

No MBA applicant should be without a clear professional goal for their essay or application.

Every top MBA program, with the notable exception of HBS and MIT Sloan, has an essay that requires you to discuss your future professional goals. Unfortunately, a lot of business school applicants don’t yet know what they want to do (around 50% of the b-school candidates we see at Forster-Thomas—and 70% of those from finance backgrounds fit this mold). All they know for sure is that they no longer want to be doing what they’re doing right now. And since we all have friends who got into top business schools with ambiguous goals, you might ask: why can’t I just say that?

You can – but it would not be a good idea. Specificity is one thing that can distinguish your candidacy and set you apart in everyone’s eyes—especially admissions officers. When applying to business school—ANY b-school—there are bound to be successful applicants who buck the trend (those who have a perfect GMAT and whose last employer was David Loeb) and do just fine. You know, people who ignore every piece of advice out there and somehow still get that coveted Stanford admit. We here at Forster-Thomas like to call them “Easy A’s” (for easy admits, of course). Actually, we call them the exceptions that prove the rule. And the other thing, when they’re not looking.

The good news is that that's OK; b-schools don't necessarily expect that you're going to have the same goal going out as you do coming in. However, they do want to see vision, passion, and direction. And that’s pretty tough to demonstrate when saying, “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do.” So yes, you do have to have a specific professional goal. Here are three points to help you get there.

1. Don’t worry—you’re not signing a contract with the future. This isn't a business plan, and you're not going to be forced to sign in blood (with a few exceptions, like Wharton's Healthcare Management program—read the fine print!). This means that you should feel free to write about a possible goal you might pursue, as long as you’re genuinely interested in it and can write articulately about it.

2. Your goal must demonstrate a specific direction and vision for your career. Like Christine Sneva, director of admissions at Cornell’s Johnson School, says (along with just about every other admissions director at every other top school): “Please show you have a clear direction for your goal post-MBA.” In other words, even if you aren't 100% sure what you’re going to be doing 10 years from now, you need to show that you know how to get there. Say it’s you’re Sarah Jessica Parker, and you’re going in for an audition for the role of Carrie from Sex & the City. You wouldn’t stroll into the audition and say, "Hey, I'm really good. Take my word for it!” No, you would do an audition to show off your acting chops. Even if you had never seen a word of the script, you’d have a some other monologue memorized and prepared. If that monologue blows everyone away, the director will hire Sarah because if she can do that well, she can do his script well. The goals essay is an audition for your vision—can you conceptualize and plot out a long- and short-term career arc? Top B-schools want to see you think in concrete career terms.

3. Your goal has to make sense and be organic with who you are as a person. Sticking with our acting theme, Chris Colfer (the gay kid from Glee) would NOT be auditioning for Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. You got that, Stella? If you're a Quant Jock who has never cared about the triple-bottom line, don't rhapsodize about social entrepreneurship—your goal should inspire real passion in you. You need to love the concept of your goal and be able to talk with passion and persuasion about it—both in your essays and your interviews.

The goals essay is nothing to fear. In fact, once you write it, you may find yourself liking it so much you want to build your whole candidacy around it … an approach we heartily recommend.

--Ben Feuer

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For the first time ever, Forster-Thomas reveals the data behind its HBS applicants to provide a snapshot of what a successful candidate looks like.

HBS has spoken. Now that the b-school has announced interview invitations on two back-to-back Wednesdays (along with those dreaded dings and deferrals), a picture has quickly emerged as to what the school is looking for in its new, sole admissions essay. So what kind of essays is the school responding to?

In a word: Personal.

At Forster-Thomas, we spent the last week crunching the numbers to determine who got interviews and who didn’t—and what set the yeas apart from the nays. While there are many factors that determine a given applicant’s candidacy, one clear trend emerged with regards to essays: a full 75% of the essays written by candidates who received interview requests were personal in nature.

Instead of beating their chests about their accomplishments, these candidates spoke from the heart, reflected upon challenging experiences, and talked about how they think, not just what they’ve done. In some cases, this meant exploring how overcoming a challenging situation in the candidate’s youth provided them with the outlook and perspective to succeed later in life. Other candidates spoke about a current passion of theirs, and why it’s so important to them. Still others reflected upon an attribute or value that has defined their decisions throughout life. In many of these cases, candidates spent up to 75% of their word count (which averaged around 700) describing these defining experiences, then related how these perspectives have driven personal or professional success.

Forster-Thomas has always embraced the notion that the best essays are introspective, insightful, and focus on the candidate’s journey (rather than just the destination or result). It’s one of the key messages in our book, The MBA Reality Check: Make The School You Want, Want You. Our candidates’ Round 1 success at HBS proves just how powerful this approach is.

“Snobbery” not a factor

Another metric we uncovered—though one we’ve long been aware of—is that HBS will not turn up its nose at candidates lacking in “prestige” brand names. Among our Round 1 applicants who received interviews, only a quarter attended Ivy League universities. Meanwhile, those remaining split almost perfectly between private and state schools—including second-tier state universities. In other words, despite a reputation for the contrary (see here, here, and here for three pretty funny examples), HBS is not wowed by prestige—it is wowed by great candidates.

The GMAT sweet spot

Over our 17-year history, we’ve helped candidates with a vast range of GMAT scores get into the b-schools of their dreams. In a recent Poets & Quants’ feature, we even came the closest among a number of top admissions consultants to identifying 2012’s 570 GMAT admit into HBS (having helped numerous candidates with sub-600 GMAT scores over the years helped us greatly). However, we have always maintained that the optimal GMAT score is around a 730-750: high enough to raise (rather than lower) a school’s average GMAT score, but not so freakishly high that admissions assumes you are a socially awkward bookworm (Big Bang Theory characters don’t belong in b-school). Our HBS Round 1 findings support this perspective, with the average GMAT score being…drum roll…a 740. We expect the average GMAT of our interviewed Round 2 candidates to be more like a 720 (Round 2 is generally more accepting of less conventional candidates in our experience).

Candidacy is King

Ultimately, all other factors aside, what our successful candidates all possessed were great candidacies. As Evan Forster wrote in a blog right after HBS announced the move to one optional essay, “[HBS is] really going to be evaluating you more on who you really ARE, not on who you SAY you are. Candidates can’t just talk the talk anymore. They have to walk the walk.” In other words, HBS is still looking for the same qualities they’ve always valued: A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship. A great GMAT score and powerful essays can help a strong candidate stand out from the pack—but a weak candidate can’t gussy him/herself up at the last minute and hope to be taken seriously. That’s why we have our Leadership Action Plan—and why every candidate needs to be a strong candidate from the get-go, not at the eleventh hour.

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 GMAT vs GRE.  Which test looks better on your application?  It depends.

Oh, the times they are a changin’.

Just three years ago, top b-schools like Chicago Booth were going on record as “having no plans to accept the GRE in the near future.” Today, it’s hard to find a b-school that will not accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT. HBS? Check. Stanford? Check. Booth? You betcha. In fact, as of this writing, the only top 10 MBA program that will not accept the GRE is Berkeley Haas.

So it’s official: the GRE has quickly established itself as a viable alternative to the GMAT. But how do the two exams stack up? Are b-schools truly as acronym-blind as they claim to be? And which test is right for you?

As usual, the answer is not simple. There are numerous factors in play, a wealth of conflicting information, and at least a handful of “it kinda depends” scenarios.

For example, while many contend that adcoms secretly frown upon the GRE, John Byrne at Poets & Quants recently pointed out that because many rankings organizations don’t factor GRE scores into their rankings criteria, MBA programs are actually more tolerant of a low GRE score than a low GMAT score. Likewise, some b-schools refrain from reporting GRE scores to rankings organizations, meaning that they are more likely to admit a strong candidate with a poor GRE score than a strong candidate with a poor GMAT score. In other words, if you’re not a strong test-taker, the GRE seems the way to go.

On the other hand, there’s a perception gap to contend with. The GMAT is still considered the gold standard of standardized testing for MBA programs, while the GRE is often regarded as an easier test (primarily because the quantitative section is less challenging). If you’re a strong candidate and you choose the GRE over the GMAT, it could cast a slight shadow of doubt over your entire candidacy (“If he’s really as smart as he looks, why was he afraid of the GMAT? What’s he hiding?”). If you’re a less-than-stellar candidate, meanwhile, taking the GMAT could be exactly what you need to show admissions that you’re up for the rigors of their program—but only if you get a strong score. Finally, for people who aren’t 100% set on b-school, the GRE is a great option because it is transferrable to numerous other programs…but taking it instead of the GMAT could raise questions about your commitment to pursuing an MBA.

In short, there’s enough strategy involved in the process to make General Patton go a little weak in the knees. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible for me to give you a “general rule” on the GRE vs GMAT debate. If you really want to know which test is right for you, you should contact Forster-Thomas for a free and personalized candidacy assessment. But if you twisted my arm for a general rule, well, this is what it would be:

For the majority of b-school candidates, I suggest taking the GMAT. As mentioned earlier, it’s still the gold standard, and it will be for the foreseeable future. Admissions officers know the test, trust the test, and like the test, if for no other reason than it’s more familiar to them. While the GMAT will likely require more preparation time, tutoring sessions, and headaches, chances are better that it will all pay off in the end.

Getting a bit more specific:

  • If you are a very conventional applicant, the GMAT is practically a must. “Very conventional” means that you are from a big applicant pool and have a quant background (i.e., investment bankers, PE associates, management consultants, etc). The GMAT is what your (numerous) peers are taking, and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you opt for the GRE. The only exception here is if you’re bombing your GMAT diagnostics (even after sufficient prep). If that’s the case, the GRE might be a good alternative; schools are more likely to overlook a poor GRE score than a poor GMAT score, since they may not have to report the former. However, this only works if you have a stellar candidacy—otherwise, they’ll just take the “you” with the good GMAT score (probably that guy you hate who works two cubes over from you).
  • For highly unconventional applicants with strong GPAs, the GRE is a viable alternative if you’re struggling with the GMAT. You’re unconventional if you have no “business experience” and/or never took a single econ or finance class in college—in other words, you’re a Sociology major who has spent the last two years doing Teach For America or working in the PR department of a crunchy non-profit. If this sounds like you, I still suggest you try your hand at the GMAT; if you can do well on it, you’ll impress the adcom. But if the GMAT just isn’t paying off, the GRE will suffice—after all, the reason b-schools started accepting the GRE was to attract a more diverse applicant pool, and you are the “diversity” they had in mind. Just make sure your GRE quant section is strong, as that’s where admissions will really be looking.
  • For strong dual-degree applicants, the GRE can be a great option. Not only will it allow you to take one test instead of two, but you have a built-in “excuse” for not taking the GMAT. That being said, you don’t want to seem lazy, so you better study hard and get a great score. Further, while MBA programs have nothing against dual-degree programs, they look out for applicants who might just be tacking on the MBA to add an extra degree, but one for which they might not really care about. Therefore, if you opt not to take the GMAT, you better make it clear just how much you want that MBA in your MBA goals essay. In summary, the GMAT is still the king, but the GRE is gaining ground, and is a great option for less traditional candidates and those who just can’t crack the GMAT.

Finally, if you’ve taken the GRE already and want to know what your score looks like to MBA admissions, check out this handy GRE/GMAT comparison tool.

--Justin Marshall

In 2013, 86% of Forster-Thomas MBA applicants got into at least one of their three top choice schools.  Join the club!  Contact Forster-Thomas for a free and personalized candidacy assessment.