I recently tutored a student “ let’s call her Jane “ who came to me two weeks before her test. Here’s the discussion we had:
Jane: Right now, I’m doing well on the verbal section, consistently scoring in the 80th to 90th percentile on my practice tests. However, my math isn’t as good “ the highest I’ve scored is 48th percentile. I got a 630 on my most recent practice test, but I’d really like to score a 720. My GMAT date is two weeks from today.
Ryan: Why a 720?
Jane: I don’t know, I just heard that’s what you need to get into a top school.
Ryan: Well, let’s assume that you score in the 85th percentile on the verbal section, an average performance for you. To get a 720, you’d need to hit the 90th percentile on the quant section. Did you know that?
Jane: OH MY GOD NO! WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?
Ryan: Don’t freak out! A 75th percentile math score would still get you a 690, plus there are quite a few top schools who prefer high verbal scores; they can teach you math.
Jane: I don’t know though, I’d still like to break 700.
Ryan: Fair enough. Well, you could also get a 720 by getting a 99th percentile verbal score and a passable 65th percentile quant. That’s not the plan I’d recommend, since it’s more of a gamble, but if you plan to take the GMAT twice, you’ll give yourself a better shot, and you still have plenty of time before Round 1 applications are due.
Jane: Hmm. Do you have other students in my situation who have gone from 48th percentile to 90th percentile quant in two weeks?
Ryan: A few, but they are highly atypical. Those students typically don’t have anything else to do except study for the GMAT. They also are naturally curious; they tend to seek out answers for themselves absolutely as much as they can by redoing problems over and over before coming to me with questions. If I tutor you and you don’t want to change your test date, I’ll do my absolute best to guide you, but understand that there’s A LOT of work you’ll have to do on your own. Also, the first week will be critical; by the second week you will need to be at the point where difficult quant problems become routine.
Jane: So what should I do? I’ve already signed up for my test!
Ryan: If it were me, I’d probably aim for a 75th percentile quant on your upcoming test and hope that you go beast mode on the verbal section, but just plan on taking the test again a month later and aim for a 90th percentile quant score on that one. The only downside is the cost of retaking the test, and I think you’ll be highly motivated in these next couple of weeks to study hard. Chances are you won’t be able to solidify all the concepts we go over in that short amount of time, but the experience will be worthwhile and you do have an outside chance of getting the score you want.
Do you identify with Jane here? A lot of my students do! I want to emphasize that what she is trying to do is not impossible; my point is more that she just needed to be realistic about how far off she was. I suggest that every student do a web search for GMAT score table; you can look up how your percentiles translate into your 200-800 score. Once you understand what you need to accomplish, remember three things that can improve your score: guidance, practice, and time to study. If you decrease one, you need to increase the others accordingly based on your goals.
By the way, keep your eyes out for an update on Jane!