I first wrote about this topic back in 2010. I’ve seen so many people lately on the forums who are going for a 750 or 760+ that I decided to revive the conversation.
My first version of this article started out with some reservations about this topic—and those reservations haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve grown a little. Just yesterday, I answered a forum question from someone who told me that his or her desired school required a 750 or higher.
I don’t know a single school that says it requires a 750 or higher—and if there is one, then that admissions team is using the test incorrectly and people should be skeptical about attending that school. As far as the GMAT can tell, someone scoring 720 and someone scoring 750 are both equally capable of performing well at any particular business school. (Other reasons may exist for preferring one person over the other, but the GMAT is not one of those reasons.)
Second of all, I talk to many people on the forums who set a goal score and just assume that, as long as they study hard enough, they can get that score. In fact, they think there’s something wrong with them when they struggle to get there. The GMAT is not a static school test, where everyone could theoretically score the top score if they just studied enough. By definition, only 1 percent of test-takers will score 760 or higher.
That loops us back around to my first concern: given that so few people achieve these scores, any school that required a 750 or 760 (or higher) would not have very many candidates to choose from among when building its next MBA class. In addition, the school would build a very lopsided class. The GMAT is one admissions tool, but only one. There are many very strong candidates who do not hit the top level on this particular piece of the admissions puzzle.
In short, most people going for this kind of crazy-high score would be far better off using that time to work towards a promotion at work, or volunteer, or spend more time with family and friends. That is, unless you want to teach for my company—we’re the only organization I know that actually does require a 760+.
I also have to discuss something about the ranges I’ve chosen, 700 versus 760. You receive quant and verbal sub-scores on the GMAT, which are combined into a three digit score. The sub-scores can be quite different (or pretty similar) to get a 700 (or any score).
This article will assume that the sub-scores are roughly similar (that is, the person does not have a big disparity between the two sub-scores). If such a disparity does exist—for example, a 70th percentile quant score and a 95th percentile verbal score—then that person may score a 700, but will not have mastered everything listed below for the quant portion. At the same time, that person will likely have mastered many, if not most, things listed under the “760-level” section below for the verbal portion.
Before we can dive into what mastery means for each of these two groups, we have to define something: what it means to recognize what to do on a problem. If you recognize what to do, then when you see a new question, you quickly (within about 20 to 30 seconds) make a connection to some problem you’ve done in the past; there’s some similarity between the two problems and you recognize that similarity.
As a result of that recognition, you now know what to do in order to solve this problem, because you can use the same (or a very similar) solution method. You will also be aware of the common mistakes you might make or traps you might fall into on a question like this one. You may save a little time and you’re more likely to answer the problem correctly.
By contrast, if you don’t recognize what to do, you have to figure out what to do “from scratch” (from the beginning); that slows you down and doesn’t give you any advantage in terms of accuracy.
Okay, here are the differences in mastery for 700-level and 760-level scorers:
What jumped out at you? I’d like to point out a few important points.
First, even at the 760+ level, you won’t recognize what to do with everything. You also do have to guess, even at the highest levels.
Second, the key difference is that those capable of scoring 760+ are able to recognize what to do on large portions of the test. This does not mean that they’ve seen that exact problem (or a close one) with different words or numbers.
Rather, it means that they recognize the type of reasoning used or the type of trap set or something about the way the problem was put together. They may still have to adapt to some kind of unexpected twist—but they have a much better chance of doing so successfully in the limited available time because they recognize the underlying structure of the problem.
Read this article about Decoding the Prime Disguise for an example. Note that the beginning of the article has a link to a prior article—follow the link and read the older article first. Try the two problems mentioned in the older article. Then, check the solution for the much harder problem in the article I linked here.
Study the two problems side-by-side. At first glance, they don’t look all that similar, but the “bones” of the two problems are quite close. A 760 scorer has the math and test-taking skills to make this kind of connection.
There are a couple of wildcards to take into account. First, serendipity plays a part in our performance on the GMAT, and the higher we go, the more of an impact serendipity can have. (Serendipity is a prettier word for luck.) A few additional questions in an area of strength vs. an area of weakness can make a 20 or 30 point difference in your score, especially at higher levels.
Second, the mastery described above relies heavily upon an ability to create and recall memories. Those with a greater capacity to remember and recall a large volume of information will find it easier to reach higher levels on the test. The mastery described above also relies heavily upon an ability to recognize patterns. Again, those with a greater capacity to study patterns and to recognize similar patterns in new information will also find it easier to reach higher levels on the test.
If you’re going to score 700+ on the GMAT, you have to develop the ability to recognize what to do on at least some of the problems that you see on the official test (problems that, by definition, you’ll never have seen before). Then, you need to get better at this skill; the single biggest difference between a 760-level tester and a 700-level tester is the ability to recognize a larger percentage of the problems you see.
How to do that? You have to learn the fundamental content and the strategies for tackling the different kinds of question types, of course. Then, you need to lift yourself to the 2nd Level of Learning on the GMAT. Follow that link to learn how to study in a way that will increase the number of problems you can recognize when you take the test.
Good luck and happy studying!