GMAT Tutoring Approaches with Greg, Boston-based tutor

Posted by Kening Zhu on 1/15/16 9:30 AM

Meet Greg, Boston-based GMAT tutor!

This week we're spotlighting Boston-based GMAT tutor, Greg, who graduated with an MBA from MIT Sloan. He’s taught the GMAT extensively, as well as academic subjects such as Calculus, Statistics, Economics. He was an Intelligence Officer in the US Navy, and is currently working on a startup.

Interested in working with Greg, either in-person in Boston, or online? Check out Greg's tutor page here!

What’s beneficial about working with a private tutor for the GMAT?

Your experience is going to be hyper-focused on what you need.  Every problem we review and every concept we cover will be triggered by a need that you've either identified (Hey Greg, help me out with Combinatorics!) or because of a specific question that you missed on a practice test or homework assignment.  With a class, you could never get that.  You're going to spend long stretches of time tuning out an instructor who might literally be reading from a script, because she's talking about a concept you already know, or answering the same question for the gazillionth time.  

From a convenience point of view, tutoring is hard to beat -- classes can't come to you, and they can't tweak their schedules for you, either.  

A private tutor is better than a self-study approach for a few reasons -- it brings built-in accountability, and it brings access to someone who may have seen a particular problem dozens of times before (and could solve it in several different ways, any one of which might click for you).  It also brings the benefit of having your feet held to the fire -- students have often told me that the timed drills we did together in session made the difference for them in a major score jump.  

What would you say is unique about working with you?

Teaching is not something I do, it's what I do.

I tutor with Cambridge Coaching, I teach half-time at BU, and I run a small start-up that deals with online security education.  Even my Army Reserve job -- Military Intelligence -- is all about condensing and then delivering information to the Commander.  Education is the one theme that ties all four aspects of my professional self together.  

Through all the time I've tutored the GMAT, I've become far more effective, and the proof can be seen in the results of my students.  Last year I had a student go from 620 to 720, and another go from 620 to 740.  I've had several others break the 700+ barrier after essentially starting from scratch.

My students know that I put a lot of time in between sessions.  I'm able to do it, I enjoy doing it, and I also know that it continually makes me better, both in terms of content mastery and teaching ability.  

Another thing I'll add here is that although my tutoring wheelhouse tends to be pretty quantitative (GRE/GMAT/Calculus/Stats/Econ), I don't doodle math problems on napkins or on mirrors, a la John Nash or Will Hunting.  I've had to put in a lot of my own sweat equity to master these subjects, but I think that actually makes me a better tutor in those areas, in addition to not being intimidating in my approach or my style.  

What’s your overall philosophy to teaching the GMAT?

Simply put, here it is: The GMAT measures one's ability to answer GMAT questions.  

Therefore, everything starts with analysis of real GMAT questions.  Much like the case method places students in a scenario in which they must first solve a problem and THEN develop their knowledge of the underlying theories and principles at stake, I believe in tying everything back to solving real examples.  When picking apart the 'why' behind an answer, we can then go as deep -- or as light -- as a student needs to.  We can talk about multiple ways to arrive at a particular answer.  We can talk about cool, GMAT-specific concepts (such as idioms that the test seems to favor, or the units digit cycle for certain exponent bases).  But it ALL comes back to this -- how many different problem types can a student solve on his or her own?  

That said, there aren't any shortcuts or magic potions.  Many students have asked me things like "How can I spot a 'C trap' in Data Sufficiency?"  That's an inherently impossible question to answer -- if there were a way to do that, the GMAT wouldn't be the GMAT.  Ditto for a lot of other "What if..." scenarios -- the best way, in most cases, is to deeply know and understand the concepts involved.  The GMAT is not a subject matter test -- it's designed to keep you on your toes, and it does!  

What’s your approach to teaching the verbal section?

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, I'll start by saying not to ignore it.

At least 80% of the time I spend GMAT tutoring is quant-focused.  That's totally fine, and it reflects the same balance I used when I prepared for the test a few years ago.  

It's very common for people to have lots of self-doubt in Quant but be very confident in Verbal.  Again, that's okay, but it's also a good way to ensure that your Verbal score won't move very much.  If you're already starting in the upper 40s, then there's nothing I can say about that.

But for everyone else -- and that really means just about everyone -- there are little areas in which improvements can happen.  By stopping to analyzing your RCs, you might notice that you can improve by answering the questions more literally than you first thought possible.  With CRs, you might see a quantum leap after spending half a session identifying and isolating arguments.  SCs are actually where the biggest Verbal gains can happen -- every student of mine who has combed the PowerScore GMAT SC Bible cover-to-cover has gone on to crush the SC portion of the test.  

What are some common misconceptions about the GMAT?

One misconception that sometimes drives me a little bit nuts is the idea that it's somehow "not proper" or even "not mathematical" to take an unconventional approach to solving a problem.  

For instance, if a Problem Solving question is presented with variables in the answer choices, it will almost always work to the student's favor to assign values to those variables, solve the problem, and then match up that solution with the right answer choice.  

Way too many times, I've seen students insist on taking the "all-algebra" route, getting twisted up in the alphabet soup of variables, wasting a lot of time, and still not arriving at the correct solution.  There are no style points on the GMAT!  Furthermore, it's technically wrong to call the variable-assignment option "un-mathematical."  

Ditto for some overarching principle question involving a major constraint.  Let's say you're being asked about something that will ALWAYS be the case for "an even integer greater than 7."  Try testing to see what happens with 8.  Any answer choice that doesn't work must not ALWAYS work for an even integer greater than 7...sometimes it's really that simple, and trying to overcomplicate things doesn't lead to a higher score.    

On another note, another misconception is that there's limited value in retaking the CAT exams.  When you retake these tests, the test bank generator will randomly assign you new material at the start; furthermore, the adaptive nature of the test means that as you get better, you will see harder material that you did not see during previous iterations of the test.  Many times, I've had to nearly twist students' arms to get them to retake these tests; each time, they've thanked me afterwards and stated that the process was an extremely valuable part of their preparation.  

In all the test prep material I've come across, I've seen a few examples of what I'll call "Potemkin Village analytics."  I know of one test company that tries to wow students with lots of detailed graphs, colorful diagrams, and breakdowns of their practice tests, e.g. "You spent ten extra seconds, on average, on moderately challenging Data Sufficiency questions on the latter half the section, as compared to the first half."  Who, exactly, is that supposed to help?  How is that in any way prescriptive?  I'm all about detailed analysis of the questions themselves, but no student should ever see this type of meta-analysis as a substitute for the hard work required to effect a meaningful score improvement.  

What are the three most important things you think all GMAT students should know?

  1. When approaching Data Sufficiency questions, resist the natural tendency to dive right into the problem.  Instead, take about 10-20 seconds to absorb everything that's being presented to you before allowing yourself to even write anything on your paper.  At first, these will feel like the most awkward 10-20 seconds ever!  Over time, however, this process will both improve your accuracy and your timing.  I call this the HOMDASU Principle (HOMDASU stands for Hands Off My DAta SUfficiency!)  At its core, Data Sufficiency is about interpreting information and identifying its value -- NOT about solving problems.  
  1.  Most GMAT students are stunned when I tell them that a 48Q can be achieved with 12 errors, and even that a 50Q can be achieved with 5 errors.  If you're aiming for a 48Q, you need to know that it's a high standard, but NOT a standard of perfection.  You have to be willing to let go of certain problems that have the potential to become Time Vampires.  Counterintuitive though it may seem, this decision comes from a place of confidence; essentially, you're saying, "I know the GMAT material so well that my time is better spent solving something else, rather than spinning my wheels here on this crazy geometry problem."  A student of mine recently went from a 34Q to a 47Q in a matter of weeks; a big part of that jump is attributable to better time management decisions, including her decision to simply "punt" on four of the quant questions that she saw on the test.  
  1.  Students should never casually dismiss so-called "careless errors."  When you make an error, you need to dissect the 'why' behind its occurrence.  Was it because of a totally absentminded calculation (for instance, did you say that 12x5 is 50?) Or was it because you misread a key aspect of the problem, such as the condition that x and y had to be even integers?  With either of those common error types (procedural careless errors and reading-based careless errors), you can take steps to reduce the likelihood you'll do the same thing in the future.  If you just brush it off and say "I won't do that on the test" then guess what's almost certainly going to happen? 

How much can I expect to improve?   How do I get the most out of tutoring?

Ownership matters a lot here.  A tutor is a lever, so use me like one -- for every hour we spend together in a session, you should be putting in several more on your own.  

Also, communicate with me between sessions using the Google Doc Question Log.  You'll get far more out of the sessions, I'll be better-prepared, and our time together will be even more focused.  

Hiring a tutor isn't like hiring someone to simply perform a service.  It’s not like car repairs or having HVAC issues -- I have no idea what's going on, so I outsource it.  

Tutoring is very different, because the student is both the client and the product.  As obvious as this might sound to most people reading it, it still needs to be said.  A successful student will almost always be more of a co-pilot than a passenger.  

Students should also know what a tutor can and can't do.  A tutor can help you become a heckuva lot better at answering GMAT questions.  A tutor can't give some micro-targeted advice such as "Only study probability questions involving four decks of playing cards" or "Only study simultaneous rate-work problems involving machines working in parallel."  No one knows exactly what you'll see on the test.  A tutor can identify weak spots and can help you shore them up, though.

How much time should I dedicate to studying for the GMAT?

A saying that I've heard many times in the Army is this: "We train to standard, not to time."  

Instead of thinking about time, think about this checklist.  Have you:

  • Mastered every problem in the OG?
  • Mastered the Quant and Verbal OG Supplement books?
  • Completed three GMAT Focus quant diagnostics, with detailed review of all errors?
  • Taken and retaken all four official CAT exams, with detailed review of all errors, until the scores you received on the tests were each > than your target score for the actual test?
  • Gone through all of the supplemental test questions that you can purchase through  
  • Made and reviewed flashcards for all the questions you missed along the way?

Being able to answer "yes" to all of the above is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the greatest possible result on test day.  

How do you recommend dealing with GMAT test anxiety?

I make all of my students go through all three GMAT Focus quant diagnostics, plus multiple cracks at the CAT exams offered by the GMAC.  This gives them a ton of familiarity with what they'll see on "Game Day" -- right down to the exact User Interface, color scheme, and two-step answering process they'll use on the actual test.  Students often tell me afterwards that this relieves anxiety -- it produces a feeling of "hey, I've been here before."

As for pre-test anxiety, I always tell my students to embrace it, rather than run from it.  Many studies of academic and athletic performance have consistently found that the optimal mindset of a peak performer is "slightly nervous."  So, if you're feeling nervous on the night before the test, or the morning of the test, stop trying to fight it, and stop trying to convince yourself that there's something "wrong" with that.  

I might ask them to think about this -- let's say you're at the beach and you see someone wading in waist-high water.  A big wave starts to form in front of him.  What's going to happen if he bends his knees, lowers his shoulder, and leans into it?  Now, what happens if he's sort of paralyzed by fear and just sort of stands on his heels as it's about to hit him?  A very different result, right?

How does the GMAT compare to the GRE?

The first thing that comes to my mind here is what I'll call 'error tolerance.'  As I noted above, students can miss 1/3 of the Quant questions on the GMAT and still come away with a great score.  They can miss nearly 15 percent of the questions and notch a phenomenal score.  The GRE doesn't work like that -- a small number of GRE errors will quickly bring a quant score outside of the 160s.  Sometimes students will say the GRE is "easier" but there's no free lunch offered up by the test; personally, I'd rather have the greater complexity and the greater error tolerance that comes with the GMAT.  

View Greg's tutor page

Tags: GMAT, Tutoring Approaches