Why These GMAT Experts Approach Test-Taking With Empathy
How can you ace the GMAT, the EA or any test required at your dream school? [Show summary]
Mike Diamond of Apex GMAT shares his advice for acing the GMAT, prepping for graduate program tests of all kinds, and why empathy is central to Apex’s approach to test-coaching.
Mike Diamond, Director of Curriculum Development at Apex GMAT talks test prep [Show notes]
How can you ace the GMAT, the EA, or any tests that may be required at the school you have your heart set on? Today’s guest has your answer. Mike Diamond is Director of Curriculum Development at Apex GMAT, and also its Co-Founder. Mike earned his bachelor’s at Brandeis in 2000 and has worked in finance, strategy advising, and political consulting. However, his passion is the GMAT.
How did you get involved in the test prep business? [1:55]
Entirely by accident. My passion is teaching and helping people, and I’ve always pursued that in all the various places that I’ve been in my career, and even going back to being a student. And like many, I was sort of the go-to guy for friends and family members, as a resource for people I knew, without paying attention to it as a potential career choice. I had spent some time working in a hedge fund, and then I was in the world of political consulting as you had mentioned. I loved it. I was helping people. I was doing really interesting work. But frankly, I was getting a little jaded, and this is well over a decade ago, and I know a lot more people are jaded these days. I was getting a little jaded, and I was having a burrito with my best friend’s cousin. We’re sitting in the Qdoba, and she’s brilliant. She’s actually an instructor at Manhattan Prep and she says to me, “Hey, I’m super passionate about Teach For America. I love teaching fourth grade science in North Philly, but I pay my mortgage teaching the GMAT.” I said, “Oh really?” At the time, I only thought there were the bigger shops, the Kaplans and Princeton Reviews. And frankly, as an educator, and I certainly consider myself an educator, those never held much appeal for me as a place of employment. I said, “Oh wow, that’s really fascinating.” I had always had a proclivity towards psychometric standardized testing.
So about four days later, I went in, I did the GMAT, and then I began taking meetings with various GMAT firms. I was disappointed in what I saw, and there’s plenty of great firms and great tutors out there. But once a GMAT business gets beyond a small scale, personalized attention really isn’t a priority, and everything defaults to curriculum and having very bright instructors go through a prescriptive method for learning how to excel. There’s two problems with that. One is that it only gets a candidate so far, and the other is that it’s very one-size-fits-all, and yet one size does not fit all. Very quickly, everything else went into the rear view mirror. I began Apex with some like-minded instructors, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What is Apex GMAT Prep? [4:54]
Apex is dedicated to helping people become better thinkers and better learners. We really consider the GMAT and the results that you get from becoming a better thinker as a result of that deeper process, permit you to be a more creative problem-solver, a more critical thinker in your profession, in your MBA, EMBA, or other graduate school program, and in your life and your relationships. There are a core suite of thinking skills that are not taught academically, that come through experience, but also come through having a particularly great teacher or particularly great circumstances with respect to family or mentors on how to approach the attitudinal adjustments one needs to make the emotional and psychological adjustments that one has to make to even approach intractable problems. Most of this is what we focus on. It’s not tips, it’s not tricks, it’s not heuristics. It’s how you enhance your level of skill and become a better thinker all around, and the GMAT scores kind of comes along for the ride.
How do you do that? What is the method of delivery? [6:25]
Everything is online, but even prior to COVID, I’d say 90 to 95% of our clients worked with us online. We’ve traveled the entire world, but we have in place a great online learning system, not just a classroom, but an online platform with 6,000 questions and practice exams and all that stuff that you ought to expect with whomever you’re working with. We do customized one-on-one tutoring, helping each individual learner understand their mind and how it works. Different people operate differently, approach things differently. A core precept for us is that we don’t teach down. It’s not about, “Do it this way because that works for me,” or, “If you see this problem, then do it this way.” It’s about iterating with the client towards those solution paths that work best for them, their proclivities, their wiring, if you will.
What does Apex bring to the test prep marketplace that it previously lacked? [7:49]
Cognitive empathy. It’s a term we use here at Apex, and it’s the core filter for an instructor to come join us. All of our instructors have scored at least a 770, but even so, 90% of them don’t make the final cut because of this thing we call cognitive empathy: the ability to get inside others’ heads, understand how they think, how they’re approaching problems, what their preferred learning style is, their method of construal. Or, are they spatial thinkers, are they graphic thinkers? Are they narrative thinkers? The ability to both help others access their own thought process and mentor them to be mindful with their thought process, so they can go in and adjust it and use it to the best effect and sense the things that clients aren’t seeing. This really is the vital part of the process. It’s why you go to a tutor. It’s not for someone to run you through a bunch of problems. It’s for them to see the things that you can’t see, especially if you’re already performing well and you’re so focused on the task at hand that you can’t switch and have enough bandwidth to observe what it is you’re doing.
Can you give us an example of this process in action? [9:21]
By way of an example, I actually like to refer to athletics quite a bit. So a tennis coach or a golf coach, they’re there to watch the things that you can’t see while you’re swinging that club or racket. With respect to clients, there are so many, and we’re really proud of every client that comes through our doors, not just because they generally end up exceeding their expectations with respect to the exam. We have clients every cycle at all the top b-schools. There’s a very common thread that exists, and this even happens with our instructors. After the process they say, “Oh my God, I wish I had had this before” When it’s really because of the different approach. There’s this seat change with how one approaches the exam.
We had a great client who came in already doing fairly well, mid 600s, upper 600s, and who really had been studying for a long time, a year or a year and a half and not getting anywhere. That’s very common. Not the length of time, but a lot of people really study hard and then plateau, and they burn themselves out, whether it’s going to classes or bouncing between tutors or just sitting there and locking themselves in a room for six hours a day on the weekend and three hours during the week, which by the way, is way too long to ever spend. If you’re putting in more than about 90 minutes, two hours a day, you’re doing it wrong. You want to focus on high yield prep.
He’s really running himself ragged, and the guy happens to be brilliant. But number one, he didn’t believe that, which is problematic. But also, he was looking at the exam in a way that was very transactional, instead of looking at it more like a chess game where there are many different things going on besides the problem in front of you. The timing decisions you make, the understanding of what the test writers are doing and why they’re doing it more importantly, and understanding the signals that the structure of the exam can present. So in very short order, we were able to sensitize him to those structural signals and also help him adjust his focus onto a more abstract level of construal on seeing the problems more holistically. Then, he was able to bring all this preparation to bear on the exam and ended up somewhere in the 750, 760 nature in a matter of just a few weeks.
It’s one of the ironies: The better someone is doing before they come to us, generally the shorter the preparation, because once you get to about the 700 level, the game isn’t any longer an intellectual exercise. It’s much more a behavioral exercise and understanding how to change what it is you’re doing. I like to call it letting go of the side of the pool. When you’re a kid, you hold onto the side of the pool. Even if you know how to swim, when you let go, it feels less certain. And success on the GMAT and in tests more generally is about navigating uncertainty, and having the confidence to propel yourself forward.
One thing that’s changed in the MBA landscape in the last 10 years is the ability to choose which tests you’re going to take: the GMAT, the EA, the GRE. What are some of the differences among these exams? [13:14]
Before I go into the differences, and there are some very real differences, I do want to point out something very controversial. They’re all kind of the same. All of these exams are built upon the same underlying psychometric structure, which is: Give hundreds of thousands of people a problem, see how many people get it right, and that tells you roughly how difficult it is. In that sense, these exams are constructed similarly, but they also test the same skills. So if you’re thinking that the GRE is going to be easier than the GMAT or the GMAT’s going to be easier than the EA, you’re kind of fooling yourself. You might prefer one to the other, and that’s totally valid, but you’re going to have to put the same work in. And make no mistake, every MBA program knows the equivalence between one and the next.
The differences are in which skills different exams highlight. To use the GMAT as our base of comparison, the executive assessment has all the same problems, all the same problem types. It doesn’t have geometry, but more importantly, it incorporates integrated reasoning, which is data processing and sorting and dealing with fireballs of information. It puts that section into the aggregate score, whereas on the GMAT, integrated reasoning is a separate thing. For more seasoned professionals, for those especially who are a little less comfortable quantitatively, but have been working a lot in Excel and in complex informational environments, this can give you a boost to your equity score. The GRE as an exam on the verbal side is structured a little differently, but also has a lot of vocabulary. That doesn’t mean that one needs to memorize lists and lists of vocabulary, although it’s helpful, or at least to know the popular roots, especially the Greek and Roman roots, but it’s still testing the same thinking: Can you pick out what’s intended from the other signals in the problem and then plug in the word that’s correct? It’s not about knowing the words. It’s still about understanding more deeply what the problems are going after. How are they intending to separate you from the rest of the people in your cohort? That is where they’re trying to cue an incorrect response. That’s where you’re more likely to get something incorrect because you’re missing that or not looking at it at the right level or from the right angle.
With the GRE versus the GMAT, the quantitative comparison in data sufficiency are very similar problem types. They look different. But as you work with this stuff like we do year in year out, these are almost the exact same problem type, and the underlying skills that you need to address them both are exactly the same. Ultimately, we advise people to go with their comfort level and also get a sense from the programs that they’re looking at, and of course from their admissions consultants and advisors as to what test is going to suit them best.
The EA is also significantly shorter than the other two exams, isn’t it? [17:04]
It is. It’s an hour and a half versus close to three hours for the GMAT. So for those with stamina issues, the EA can be a better choice. That said, once again consult with Linda or whomever might be advising you, friends, family, admissions office, as to what they’re looking for because the executive assessment is (originally, at least) intended for the executive MBA. Make sure that you’re taking the exam that the program is expecting and that’s going to put you in the best light.
There’s a few schools that have rolled out their own exams: INSEAD, IE in Spain. Many of these exams are great if that’s the one and only school you want to go to. Otherwise, you’re better served going with a more popular exam.
What are your top three tips for GMAT prep? [18:38]
Everyone comes at it with a different mix of strengths and weaknesses. I’d say the number one tip is: Don’t work hard, work smart. If you’re spending a lot of time and not seeing a lot of movement, that means you need to change something. We see this a lot where people have been spending hours and hours and a lot of resources doing the same thing over and over again, doing 10 problems in 20 minutes, and looking at the back of the book saying, “Oh, wow, I got that right. Great. I can move on. Oh, I got that wrong. What did I miss? Oh, I knew that. I’ll review my notes better so I’ll get that next time.” That feels good, because it feels like you’re doing something, but it’s incredibly low yield. It’s just like preparing for a race. You can just run that race again and again to prepare for a marathon. You just run 26 miles a day, but really other things come into play: good sleep, good diet, of course, but also going to the gym, working on your pacing, putting yourself in a mindset to succeed. These things are just as vital, and the same goes for test preparation. So look beyond what it is you think you ought to be doing.
Number two: Zoom out. That’s a very generic thing to say, so it requires a little explanation. These exams, the GMAT and the others we’ve spoken about, they test logical reasoning, which means if you’re making it about the vocabulary word, if you’re making it about the formula, you’ve missed the larger point. The larger point is understanding there are multiple solution paths to every problem and that simply knowing how to do a problem correctly is not enough for success. You need to be able to do that problem efficiently, and you need to see the whole picture of the problem. Meaning that a lot of times it’s not getting to be answered, but in these multiple choice exams, it’s about selecting the correct answer choice.
And many times that can be done at a characteristic level. You don’t have to arrive at 73.12 if the other answers are seven and 700. There’s only one answer that’s going to be in that 70-ish range. You don’t have to get the precise word to go to the GRE or the precise answer that’s in your head for a critical reasoning problem with the GMAT. All you have to do is say, “Well, it’s going to look something like this.” Once you start doing that, all of a sudden a lot of the DSMs (default solving mechanisms) and these time-wasting things that we’re doing, fall away.
Finally, and this is a big one: Take fewer practice exams. We actually have a video about this on our YouTube, “The 6 Most Common Mistakes Preppers Make.” Practice exams are often misused, and most people use them as a way to rank where they are now, which really doesn’t matter when you’re preparing. It’s sort of like running a race as fast as you can and saying, “Well, I got this time. How much time did it take?” Well, it doesn’t matter. You want to run it faster. Focus on the skills that are going to help you to run it faster.
People get psyched out. They get preoccupied with the score that they’re receiving, rather than using practice exams for what they are, which are calibration tools. Practice tests are for calibrating your timing decisions, for understanding how you’re operating under pressure, for identifying weaknesses and places where you’re not handling problems, even if you’re getting them correct in the way you want to be. And most importantly, they’re for experimentation. If you’re focused on performing on a practice exam, you’re not focused on using the new skills you’ve been developing during all your self-prep, whether with a tutor on your own or otherwise. If you are preoccupied with the score you end up DSM-ing, you end up going back and grabbing that side of the pool and not actually building confidence in the new ways.
Practice exams are great for understanding everything that you’re doing wrong, but then you have to put in the work in between the practices exams. Doing a practice exam every week is too much. Doing a practice exam every day is frankly insane. If you’re not sure, and this isn’t a plug for Apex, but more generally, provide yourself with a teacher. Find a guide, find a friend, find a loved one, find a mentor at work, someone who’s been through it and who can advise you on what worked for them. And then question every single thing you hear from them and find two of them who just like it. Because what works for one does not work for another, but don’t do this in a vacuum. It’s a recipe for disaster.
And that’s the case with all teachers and with all students; there’s no one size fits all, especially as you’re pushing for elite performance. It’s rare that we have anyone who doesn’t say, “I want a 700. I want to go to a top school,” which is very natural. But to get that elite performance, you need to get beyond the basics and find the ways to make your mind work at its highest capacity. This is worth noting that many people, when they’re preparing, are focused on the wrong skills. They’re focused on all the tools at their disposal, without focusing on growing their skills.
Imagine going into a craftsman’s shop, to a woodworker. There are plenty of people out there who are preparing by saying, “Oh, there’s a picture. That’s a hammer, that’s a saw, that’s a screwdriver.” They go to the test and they say, “Well, oh, this is a hammer problem. That’s a saw problem. That’s a screwdriver problem.” But they never pick them up. They never build. And when they’re told to build a birdhouse, it doesn’t come out great because they’ve never used the tools. Many others use the tools, but they keep building that same birdhouse over and over and they’ve got a beautiful birdhouse. They get on the GMAT and the GMAT says, “Okay, we’ll build a chair.” The chair doesn’t come out well because they’ve been focused on the project, rather on how to use the tools better. A lot of times people get into these cycles where they keep focusing on repeating the things they already know, which is comfortable. It feels like you’re making progress, rather than working on the things that you don’t know and going into the places where you’re less comfortable.
What about on test day itself? [26:36]
Stop preparing 24 hours in advance of your exam. The common mistake is: They’re sitting there in the exam room with their notes, or in the waiting room. If you haven’t learned it by now, you’re not going to learn it. The last 24 hours, and really the last couple of days before the exam, it’s time to get yourself into a good head space. You should be eating well. You should be sleeping well. You should not be partaking in alcohol and other substances if that’s your custom. You really should be just focused on de-stressing, keep yourself out of stressful situations, away from people that stress you out.
Another thing that’s really vital is: Expect something to go wrong, especially at the test center. There’s a bit of what they call lab coat or white coat syndrome in going to take a test. That syndrome is when you go to a doctor, your blood pressure tends to be higher because there’s something mildly unsettling for most people about being in the doctor’s office; something could be wrong. There’s this medical phenomenon, and it’s well documented, where people have higher blood pressures when their blood pressure is taken compared to other times. The same thing happens at the testing center. Expect something to go wrong. Expect the person checking you in to be rude. Expect someone to have the sniffles when you’re sitting next to them in the test. Once you’re mentally prepared for that, then you can sort of put that aside.
One great thing for those with test anxiety, and this is one of our secrets: Go to the testing center a couple of times before your test. It’s not about making sure you know the traffic patterns or where the front door is, although that’s a side effect. If you’re going to be triggered, if you’re going to be unnerved by being there, simply the act of going there and desensitizing yourself to those stimuli a little bit can really get in front of test anxiety. Go ahead and read a book, and eventually you’re going to calm down about it a little bit.
You were kind enough to invite me and a few of the other Accepted consultants to a mini-session. Mike gave us some questions and had us solve them on the spot, and it was fascinating how easy it was to miss key elements in the question. A little humiliating and humbling, but still fascinating. It definitely increased my empathy for students taking these exams. [28:53]
I have to say, Linda, it ought not to be. It’s very natural. These are things that our brain does that we’re wired to do. We see, okay, we’re going to talk about apples, bananas and cherries. It’s natural to start thinking about the apples first, because it was presented first or has the letter A and our mind associates that with number one, “start here.” Since we were two years old, A comes first, right? We’re wired to organize information in certain ways. A lot of people think these exams are about intelligence or knowing formulas and all that stuff, and really it’s about attentiveness. It’s about sensitivity. It’s about self-discipline and about really sharpening your process for dealing with information.
This is something that’s incredibly hard to do. It takes habitual work to do. But it’s also something that we do very well in situations where we know we need it. You read a contract very differently than you really had a book. You solve a problem when it’s about the money in your pocket very differently than when it’s about Annie selling oranges at the seashore. A lot of times it’s about making it real to yourself, but also understanding that the focus ought to be on how you’re processing, organizing, and approaching information. Those underlying skills, while they take a little bit of work, are relatively easy to load. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 400 or a 700, those fundamentals and the mechanics can be learned in short order. Everything else is what you do with those tools.
Any last advice for applicants about to take either the GMAT, the EA, or the GRE? [31:56]
I’d refer back to something I’ve kind of been alluding to throughout the hour, but I’ve never come out and said it: Be kind to yourself. Take the pressure off yourself. You are not your GMAT score. It’s not the measure of your self-worth. And frankly, we don’t let any instructor in the door at Apex who is proud of their GMAT score. That’s not what it’s about. It’s one part, it’s necessary, but not sufficient. It’s one part of a much larger profile, and many candidates and applicants really build it up in their mind that it’s the be-all end-all and that it has to come first. Again, it’s necessary, but your applications are just as necessary. Your work is just as necessary. Being a good person is also necessary. Spending time with your family. These are much more important things. And when you look back on it, you’re not going to be thinking about your GMAT score. Take it in stride and give yourself a break. And oddly enough, when you do so, you give yourself a break at the emotional level. That tends to be the catharsis that allows for great performance.
Where can listeners and potential applicants learn more about Apex? [34:18]
They can find us at apexgmat.com. That has our GMAT and executive assessment materials, or apexgre.com if you’re interested in the GRE. Also, we’re rolling out a new tool, apexgmat.com/calculator. Right now it’s for the GMAT. You can go on and input a bunch of background information. I’ll warn you, it’s a bit of a longer form, but we’ve gotten pretty good at understanding both where someone is likely to be, even if you haven’t started the GMAT process yet, but also getting a sense from things of your background, where the range of potential is, both now and where you can likely be. It’s a really great way to get started in the process, to calibrate what the reasonableness is for achieving a certain score and the timeline that you’re looking at. It’s designed to give you a sense of what the process looks like. Of course, you can always speak with any one of us. We don’t have a sales force here. We just have instructors who do this full-time and care about you and your success. That’s why we’re all in this business. We all started elsewhere. We’re all dedicated educators. You can give us a call anytime and we’re happy to speak with you.
- Apex’s GMAT and EA website
- Apex’s GRE website
- The Impact of Your GMAT & GRE, an on-demand webinar
- The B-School Selectivity Index: Are You a Competitive Applicant to Your Dream School?
- MBA Admissions Consulting Services
- E-GMAT: A New and Better Approach to GMAT Prep
- Application Trends to Watch in 2021, and a Look Back at 2020
- An Insider’s Look at MBA Admissions
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