In Introductory Physics, students learn that even the most complicated machinery is based on different uses and applications of just six basic machines:  the lever; the wheel and axle; the pulley; the inclined plane; the wedge; and the screw.  Of these, the lever is among the simplest, but also the most powerful.  Since prehistoric times, the lever has allowed people to manipulate heavy, unwieldy objects in ways that they never could have accomplished on their own.

Today, when we hear the term ‘leverage’ we often think of financial markets.  In a financial sense, leverage enables private investors and corporations to greatly magnify the potential returns on investments in ways that would simply not be achievable without the magnified returns that a lender – typically a bank or other intermediary – can make possible.

Students who prepare for the GMAT with the aid of a tutor are essentially looking to apply some leverage to their own situation.  On his or her own, a typical student might be able to achieve a solid GMAT score, but with the right pointers, guidance, and strategy suggestions from someone well-versed in the ins and outs of the test, that same student may be capable of achieving a great score that help him or her to stand out among a competitive field of fellow b-school applicants.

Just as in other situations involving levers and leverage, the GMAT tutor is an important, but not sufficient, condition for success.  Ultimately, the student’s own initiative and determination is the most significant driver of the final result.

One of the biggest successes I had as a GMAT tutor in Boston came from working with a student who had taken the test once, stumbled on some Quant questions early in the section, and came away with a disappointing combined score that was well outside of the range for his target schools.

Together, he and I scheduled a short series of sessions in which we pulled apart several of the thorniest questions from Quant Focus and the online GMAT CATs in order to pinpoint his fundamental weaknesses in Quant.  After we zoomed in on a few areas that needed improvement, he then went off on his own to focus intensely on problems that would help him overcome those trouble spots.  I asked him to make flash cards for all the problems that gave him any difficulty whatsoever (regardless of whether he answered them rightly or wrongly the first time around).  I told him to write the entire problem out on one side of the card, and to write the answer – along with any explanation he wanted – on the back.  I told him to continuously revisit the same problems, and explained this is perhaps the most overlooked step in GMAT Quant preparation.

Approximately six weeks later, we scheduled another short burst of sessions that would take place just prior to his second round with the test.

As soon as we got going again, I could see the change.  His answers to new questions were crisper, and sharper.  His fundamentals had gone from somewhat shaky to completely solid.  His well-worn stack of index cards showed me that during the interlude between our tutoring sessions, he had diligently created – and intensely reviewed – the troublesome problems.  No surprise to me, he went on to earn a 710 on the test, and will be attending his top choice MBA program this fall.

As his tutor, I wasn’t the driving force behind his success.  I was an important factor, yes, but ultimately it was his initiative that drove the quantum leap between our two series of review sessions, and it was he who sat in the chair on test day.  Thankfully, he incorporated all the methods I showed him, he reviewed all the notes I left in our shared Google Doc, and he took my advice to heart about preparation.  He used my knowledge and experience to help with his positioning, but it was his “sweat equity” that engendered the six-week transformation.  In short, he leveraged me.

Now, I lead off sessions with new GMAT students by telling them that for every hour that we spend together, I fully expect the student to spend at least four hours working independently.  I want a student to tell me about the extra material that she explored on her own volition, or the hours that he spent re-reviewing all his index cards while waiting for the city bus or the T.

I cringe a little bit, though, when I hear a student ask me to assign him more problems (as if my mandate were somehow needed to force more study time), or when I see practice tests timestamped at 3 a.m. on the night before a scheduled tutoring session.

“Leverage me!” I’ve learned to tell these students.  “Use me for the know-how that I’ve accumulated from working with dozens of GMAT students in greater Boston.  Use me for the motivation and encouragement I’ll offer you along the way.  But if you truly want the best possible result – the highest possible score you can achieve for the hard-earned money you’re spending – just remember that I am a lever always, but never a crutch.”