Buyer Beware: Tech Issues with GMATPrep Exam Pack

For many b-school hopefuls, we’re in

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the thick of crunch time. Application deadlines are already upon us (Round 1) or right around the corner (Round 2), and people are diligently putting the finishing touches on their essays (okay, some people) and taking that final GMAT to give them the score they need. With the GMAT still “in play” for many prospective applicants, the news that GMAC was coming out with TWO new full-length practice tests for GMATPrep an unqualified boon. Well, it started out as an unqualified boon. The reality has been a little more qualified.

Many of our students have purchased the new GMATPrep exam pack to get in one or two more full-length tests before game day. Unfortunately, some ran into technical issues that they shared with us, and which we though we should share with everyone else so that they’re aware of the possibilities.

Here are a couple of the problems we’ve heard about:

Installation Issues

Difficulty installing the new Prep packs, despite following the directions to the letter. The difficulties were such that outreach to GMAC tech support were required.

Functionality/Tech Issues

A functionality issue that requires users to exit and reenter the test to access each question. Time is only lost (at least on the test) if you’re not aware what has to happen to get to the next question, but it’s surely an annoying waste of time overall.

Data Retrieval and Test Review

Naturally our team jumped at the opportunity to test drive the tests. You can read the full review here, which was largely positive. But when we tried to go back to review questions and data there wasn’t any of either to be found. Apparently if you don’t uninstall previous versions of GMATPrep you won’t be able to see the data or review the questions from the exam pack.

We contacted tech support and they told us about needing to uninstall older versions. You can read the full message from GMAC at the bottom of our review here.


So what does all this mean? Just that you should know that things

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might not go smoothly. Many people experience no issues at all, but like a new rollout of any technology, there are bound to be some bugs. GMAC is surely collecting feedback and fixing them, but perhaps not in time for many people with test dates in the next few weeks. Consquently, just be aware that your testing experience may be less than ideal. If that should be the case, have a contingency plan, whether tests from other sources, or time to allow a fix or solution to be found. There’s no better testing software available than from the folks who make the test, so most people will want to get the tests, regardless of the possible tech issues.

That’s the scoop from us. Just trying to keep everyone aware of developments. Happy GMATing!


-The BC Team


College Board: Missing Opportunity

After giving this some thought, engaging in discourse with colleagues and peers, I’ve decided that the theme College Board’s major marketing event last month should have been “Missing Opportunity” (click to read my post about that event). That event marked an important moment in which David Coleman and his College Board junta could have revolutionized the SAT by thoughtfully and comprehensively addressing the elements of the SAT that lead to what he called “the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admission exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.” Instead we got a marketing event, great talking points, and lipstick put on a pig. From all indications the new SAT will be nothing new, nothing different, and imperceptibly less biased against those who don’t have access to SAT prep. There are great articles floating around (I’ll link to a few I like at the bottom of this post) about why the SAT will fail to deliver on its promise of a level playing field, so instead of piling on what’s wrong with the new test I’m going to show you how the College Board (filled with psychometricians and PhDs who are ostensibly far smarter than me and thus begging the question of why did they not address these things themselves) missed out on simple ways of creating an SAT that was less susceptible to test preparation.

Before going on, I have to point out that information about the specifics of the new SAT hasn’t been released, so this entire piece and all others criticizing or praising the new test are based on a high level description of the forthcoming test and are thus about as reliable as predicting the hunting habits of the T-Rex based on fossil evidence. But since, on the modern internet, prognostication and list-making are second only to making gifs and cat videos, I offer to you my contribution to this scholarly endeavor.


3 Ways the New SAT Could Have Minimized the Impact of Test Preparation


"Grid" provided for Student Produced Response Questions

1. Make the entire math section Student-Produced Response Questions

The current SAT has 10 of 54 math questions which are not multiple choice. These questions allow the student to “grid in” answers. By making the entire test grid-ins, this would increase the number of possible answer choices per question to 14,256 from the current 5. This change would eradicate any benefit of random guessing, since the odds of a correct guess causing a statistically significant increase in scores would be reduced to almost zero from the current 20%. Not only would the addition of grid-in remove the guessing advantage, it would also remove the most popular test preparation tool: plugging in. Every test preparation company teaches some form of plugging in, a strategy that is only applicable and effective on a multiple choice algebra test. The removal of multiple choice options would strip the test prep industry of one of the best tools for changing scores.


2. Remove the time pressure

Several studies support the notion that performance on tests is negatively impacted by time constraints, especially for low income and minority groups (though this is not proven). By remaining a highly speeded test (one that creates pressure to finish in time), the SAT remains susceptible to test preparation significantly impacting performance. Many test preparation strategies are designed to allow the test-taker to complete the item (fancy testing talk for what us laypeople call questions) not just correctly, but in the most efficient manner, thus allowing that test-taker time to work on additional questions. Removal of the time pressure would negate or minimize this tool for the test preparation industry.

NYS Statewide assessments give 90 minutes to students expected to take 50 - 70 minutes.

Removal of the time pressure would also align the SAT more with the manner in which tests are most commonly delivered in school and on statewide tests. Both teacher-created assessments and statewide tests typically provide generous amounts of time for completion, rather than allowing only for the exact amount of time it would take the top performing students to complete the test. The approach taken by the SAT further advantages top performers and those who receive test preparation.

If the College Board wanted to decrease test preparation’s impact, they would increase the amount of time to allow all test-takers the opportunity to finish the test, without the mad panicked bubbling that generally occurs in the last few minutes of a section.


3. Enforce their own rules of fair usage of scores

Another way the College Board could easily and

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quickly change the impact of test preparation is to enforce the rules they have so long given lip service to. College Board consistently messages the psychometrically valid ideal that a single test score is more properly indicative of a performance range rather than an absolute number. When you consider the standard error of measure, and the standard error difference as well, it becomes clear that no SAT score should stand as a single marker of ability.

CB reports a +/-30 point range with each 200 - 800 single score they report.

For years institutions have been “encouraged” to understand the statistical meanings of these terms and take them into account when making decisions. However, in truth many schools use SAT scores as hard cutoff for admissions and monetary awards.

If College Board wanted to positively impact opportunity, they would create and enforce more stringent rules against the misuse of test scores. They could also simply have changed the SAT scoring scale to convey fewer perceived levels of distinction. Many students who I’ve tutored over the years have paid good money in order to go from a 590 score to a 600 or a 690 to a 700 because of the perception conveyed by minuscule change.

“Ensure that small differences in test scores are not the basis for rejecting an otherwise qualified applicant.” – College Board guidelines for score usage.


Were the gang at College Board serious about reducing inequities engendered by the mystery surrounding the test and misuse of scores, they could have changed the 200-800 point per section scoring scale to only report scores in 50-point increments. Instead, they continue to report scores in 10 point increments and “warn” schools not to read much into small score differences. Reporting scores in fewer increments would alleviate a lot of the anxiety around minor score improvements for both students and admissions offices, but nope, that not a choice CB made in this latest iteration of the venerable college admission gate-keeping behemoth (sorry Mr. Coleman I know that’s probably over-doing it with the “SAT words”).


Alas, while I hold out hope that some of my changes might have been considered and there was a rationale for not implementing them, I have no real expectation that the College Board will do much besides topical changes to the content of the test. And the changes to the test will simply mean those families with the means to will spend it on test preparation so they can continue to solidify their advantage over those without the means to dedicate hundreds of hours to study or thousands of dollars to preparation. In the meantime Coleman will continue to tout Khan Academy as the great equalizer, though Khan will be the only source of test preparation that doesn’t ever mention timing strategies or plugging in.

Follow up with me in the week after April 16th

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when samples of the new SAT will be released. I’ll have a chance to fully analyze the test and lay out the test preparation tools that we’ll use to help students “beat” the test.


In case you’re interested, here’s some research referenced above:


Here are some of the articles on the change to the SAT and their impact:


College Board Delivering Opportunity: Winners and Losers

Today the College Board, with all due fanfare and a corresponding webcast watched by thousands, announced upcoming changes to the SAT, which will go into effect with the October 2015 PSAT and then the Spring 2016 SAT. During this hour long speech, not only did College Board president, David Coleman, announce changes to the SAT but he set the tone once again for the direction he is planning on taking the global multi-million dollar non-profit organization.


Since you can read in articles and newspapers across the internet the specifics of the announced changes to the SAT (a bunch of links are at the bottom), I thought instead to give you the benefit of my perspective on the impact of the changes by pointing out the winners and losers of the day (as I see it based on the information currently at hand which is admittedly incomplete).

First, let’s look at today’s winners:

First Place: Khan Academy

The day belonged to Khan Academy, who scored a coup by partnering with the College Board to provide free SAT preparation. While the details of what that partnership will look like are vague, early indications are that the College Board will/has provided official practice tests and questions to Khan Academy. This is a departure from decades of policy. College Board has historically only made its questions available in books they sold or on their website. Even today you can only download one SAT for free from CB, to get more would require either great google skills or spending $26 – $79.

The Khan Academy partnership will allow KA to reproduce official questions and then make instructional videos and explanatory videos and integrate those SAT items into their online learning system. This is an intriguing partnership because it has potential to broaden access to real SAT practice (not necessarily preparation) materials. I don’t think it will do as much to disrupt the test prep industry as Coleman would like to believe, but it’s a good start if they do it right. You can check out the conversation between Sal Khan and David Coleman here.

“This will be the only place in the world and free to the

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world, besides on our own website, that students will be able to encounter materials for the exam that are surely focused on the core of the math and the literacy that matters most. We will partner with the Khan academy to ensure the quality and validity of every item, every practice item. And there will be no other such partnerships.”

Second Place: College Board

College Board accomplished a lot today, not only did they announce substantial changes to the SAT but while doing so managed to put on the white hat Olivia Pope style, and cast themselves in the role of hero. The speech, in fact, seemed like something Pope would have created. There was a certain artistry in how while criticizing his own test, David Coleman took shoots at his rival college admission test, the ACT.


In addition to flinging zingers at ACT, he also took clever shots at the test prep industry while trying to avoid any cast-offs falling on his beloved SAT. Mr. Coleman pointed out repeatedly that paying for test prep advantaged certain students yet always with carefully worded statements that avoided implying that test preparation was effective. And he accomplished his attacks on the College Board’s two biggest foes while framing the entire conversation with the marketing line of “Delivering Opportunity.”

“The real news today is not just the redesigned SAT but the College Boards renewed commitment to delivering opportunity.” – David Coleman

If the College Board delivers on its promises of much greater support for low income students, this day has the potential to be a watershed (a teeny, a-teeny.. this is me shedding Nipsey Russel tears for vocabulary) moment for college access and equity. CB listed a grand set of initiatives and changes that would, as Coleman put it, ” propelling students to opportunity.” Those initiatives included various outreach projects designed to provide qualified low income students with information and engagement in the college selection and going process. Specifically Mr. Coleman cited

- Personalize mailers with personalized financial aid guidance for high-achieving low-income students

- Fee waivers for qualified low-income students to apply to colleges

- Apply to 4 or More campaign to help ensure that counselors encourage application to 4 or more institutions

- Personalized online guidance to support students following the PSAT and SAT

Let’s all hope that this all comes to fruition, because it has great potential. In addition to the positive vibes that these announcements generated for CB, many of the talking points put forth the notion of the new SAT aligning more with high school curriculum and AP programs and thus providing greater access to college. I think this is a masterful stroke since again it fosters the impression of CB products as the gateway and certification of college readiness. Well played College Board.


Third Place: Low income students

Low income and under-represented students have become the focus of many initiatives in education. Not only is the College Board focused on them but so is the Whitehouse. It’s nice to see that organizations are finally taking note of the inequities and working actively to address them. The greatest question here will be how are programs implemented at the high school level? Will guidance counselors and teachers know how to guide students to Khan Academy resources, will students and their families have the information, time, and ability to take advantage of these opportunities? Only Miss Cleo knows.


“Once the test is over the real work of begins.” – David Coleman

Now let’s look at who lost today.


Biggest Loser: ACT

Today the College Board cast the proverbial (a-teeny .. a-teeny) gauntlet. David Coleman sent shot after shot across the bow of the ACT. First he cited flaws in both tests but specifcally mentioned that he was fixing the flaws in his test. Next he attacked most of the structural advantages that the ACT holds. He removed the guessing penalty aligning the scoring with the rival test and removing a major test prep weapon, he made a strong argument that the new test’s content will be less coachable, he made the SAT essay optional like

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the ACT essay has always been, he made the SAT shorter than its rival assessment tool, he announced a digital option to launch only one year after a digital ACT option, and finally he reaffirmed in our mind that College Board is the oldest consortium of colleges and not just a testing agency and thus the access to colleges is an advantage the ACT might not be able to match. He did everything he could to combat the loss of market share except offer the SAT for free and thumb his nose at our friends from Iowa.


“It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools.” – David Coleman


Second place: Test prep companies

While the jury is still out on how coachable the new SAT will be (tune in April 18th after my team has had time to vivesect the new test), Mr. Coleman did all he could to make it seem like nothing short of 12 years of Common Core curriculum and a few hours on Khan Academy would prepare you for the test. While it’s not true that the test will not be susceptible to test preparation, it certainly will influence the perception of the buyers of test prep services. How many schools who currently hire test prep companies will forego that once the new SAT is launched? How many middle income families will choose to have their child use Khan’s free online videos rather than hire a tutor that might stretch their budgets?


“We also been listening to students and their families for whom these tests are often mysterious and foster unproductive anxiety. They are skeptical that either the SAT or ACT allow them to show their best work. And too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit.”

“It’s much less about tricks, about mysterious things than an open exam that celebrates good work and the work you’ve done in your high school”

- David Coleman


My fear is that this may actually exacerbate the discrepancy in scores as low income families buy into CBs message and solely rely on the free resources at Khan Academy and wealthy families hire individual tutors to teach their children in person (using not only the Khan material but also material created by experts like myself who’ve spent over 20 years analyzing College Board tests and devising ways to take advantage of every possible nuance).


“We must not take responsibility for the practice our assessment inspires” – David Coleman


Despite these possibilities, test preparation companies are entering a period of flux that will probably shake up many of the smaller companies that might rely on middle income families or contracts with schools. Additionally, by partnering with Khan, CB has provided some measure of leveling the playing field by ostensibly providing easy open access to information about the test years before its normally available. Typically, any change in a major admission test comes with a corresponding boom in the test prep industry, this partnership with Khan has the potential to minimize the “new test panic.”


“The culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admission exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.”

“The first step we take today in redesigning the SAT is complete openness.”

- David Coleman


As additional information becomes available (full test in the new formatted are slated for release on 4/16) I’ll keep you in the loop and share my thoughts here or on twitter. In the meantime check out these articles and sites for more information:

January SAT: Veronica’s Tale

Today's post is brought to you by one of our SAT teachers who recently took the SAT. We periodically send our teachers into the actual test to make sure we have the most current info on the test, the proctoring, and the experience so we can share that with those we're helping to prepare for it. While all of our teachers have taken the SAT in high school and have done many practice tests either at home or proctored in our office, the experience of going to a testing center always reminds us of what students actually go through. - Editor

BACKGROUND: Trust me, you won’t remember anything!
In the past, I’ve been embarrassed a few times by students who ask me about my own SAT scores and how I studied. The truth is that I don’t remember studying at all. I procrastinated opening my ten-dollar Barron’s book until the week before the test, and then I decided to register for a later administration instead of cramming in just a few days. I wouldn’t have taken it that day at all if my mother hadn’t insisted that it would be good practice. But I got lucky: when my scores came back, I discovered that I had surpassed my goal and didn’t need to test again. I suppose I should’ve done it anyway, just to try to improve, but at seventeen, I didn’t think that way. Needless to say, this isn’t a strategy I like to encourage, so I’ve tried to keep that story to myself. But perhaps because I wasn’t all that nervous, I find that I don’t remember the day of the SAT very well, even though it was only seven years ago. All I can recall is the vague feeling that it wasn’t as bad as it was hyped up to be, and also that Stuyvesant (where I took it) was way too big. Despite almost two years of teaching the test, as I was stuffing a graphing calculator and a few blunt pencils into my purse at the ungodly hour of 7am this Saturday, I found myself unsure what to expect.
I registered to take the test at Washington Irving High School, because I grew up near it but had never been inside. Once I got there, I found myself, yet again, surrounded by kids who were way more nervous than I was. I had made a fairly transparent attempt to go incognito under a baseball cap and a sweatshirt, but I don’t think the kids around me would have noticed if I were dressed like the Grim Reaper. They just sat in their seats, facing forward and sweating profusely, until the moment came to bubble our names in. Security was tougher than I remembered, even at Washington Irving, which a student had told me was the most relaxed testing center. We weren’t allowed to chew gum, drink water, or eat snacks in the classroom, even during the breaks, and we had to carry our printed photo-tickets and government-issued IDs with us everywhere, even to the bathroom. A kid next to me had a simple, dollar-store-type calculator on his desk with the cover on top, and he was asked to put it under his chair during a reading section, which I thought was a little unnecessary. The main conclusion I took away from the test was that this testing is harder on the kids than we like to admit. The students around me all looked on the verge of tears and were visibly pale by the end of it. And the addition of an experimental section (a section of the SAT that the college board uses to develop future tests — one which will not be added to your score, but which is also not identified on the test) is just cruel. On my test, it took the form of a math section with material I’d only seen on 1 of the many released test I’ve seen (some kind of polynomial function thing); for other kids, I found out later, it was a series of reading comprehension questions which referred to earlier questions rather than to the passage itself [Editor's note: This is as yet unverified.]. The slog of the four-hour test is bad enough without the additional shock of being tested in unexpected ways on unexpected material, in my view, and anyway, just knowing that one section was experimental makes you sort of paranoid.
On the whole, though, the taking the test was easier than I remembered [Editor's note: let's not forget that the writer has been teaching the SAT for a couple of years], which I found reassuring; the questions seemed clear and direct, for the most part, and the reading passages were engaging. Some observations from the test:
  • No matter how many hours-long written or oral exams you’ve taken in college, there is something uniquely tough about the length of the SAT. I think it has to do with the fact that you’re switching subjects and have such measly breaks.
  • Students didn’t eat enough. I was the only one who ate anything at all during the breaks (thanks for the granola bars, mom!) and, more alarmingly, the only one who brought and drank water. Lots of kids did use the toilets, which you pretty much had to run to because they were so far from the classroom we tested in. Based on my experience, I’d advise peeing before the test and rehydrating during it, not the other way around.
  • I was impressed by the alertness of the students. Nobody even seemed sleepy. I fear for when this tireless generation enters the job market. It is surprisingly easy to mis-bubble. I actually caught myself doing it three times (!) — two of them only because I was checking my work. Check your work, everyone!
  • The room I tested in was freezing at first, but slowly shifted to 78-and-humid in the course of the test. I always advise students to wear layers to the test, so that they can adjust for any unexpected indoor weather, and I’ve never been more glad that I followed my own advice. By the end of the exam I was in a tee shirt, regretting my woolen long underwear.
  • The general impression I had was that the students’ nervousness was a serious handicap to them. They all seemed jumpy and unhappy, and I can’t imagine producing a calm, logical essay if you felt the way they looked. Timed practice tests and going over old exams should make the test less intimidating, and being prepared to take the test more than once also helps reduce the pressure.
In conclusion, my advice for students taking the March or May tests:
- Plug in wherever you can. As always there were tons of questions where plugging in cut your work in half.
- For the essay,
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it helps to use the test booklet as scrap paper.

- If you have extra time, check your work, check your work, CHECK YOUR WORK! I must have saved myself a hundred points by re-checking, and I’m usually very neat. Something about the long-distance aspect of the test makes you sloppy.
- Also periodically check that you’re bubbling in the right section or column.
- Come wearing layers and bring light snacks and a lot of water.
- Be sure to bring extra batteries for your calculator, a pencil sharpener, and at least two pencils.
- When taking practice tests at home, don’t skip the essay! No matter how great a writer you are, producing a structured, logical essay in 25 minutes is a unique skill that takes practice.
- Relax, get in the zone, and try to enjoy it, no matter how stressed the other students seem. Calm minds make better decisions!
Good luck!

BC Alum Interview: Jessica Williams

Today we’re continuing our Q&A series with Bell Curves alumni who are currently pursuing or just recently finished their MBAs. Recent posts have included Q&As with Goreleigh Willis, Crystal Forde , and Kibra Yemane about their first year MBA experiences. This time around Jessica Williams shares some of her insights and advice on her MBA experience. Jessica completed her MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business
Why did you decide to apply to business school?
Business school had been on the radar since my days in undergrad, but I never knew what that looked like back then. As I was rounding out that 2.5 year mark at work, I knew that what I was doing professionally, although I was learning a lot, was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to take my career in another direction and get exposure to something that was more fulfilling. There were a few interests that I had swirling in my head, so in order to help make sense of those ideas and to help turn those into reality, I joined the organization MLT and thus began my journey to business school!
What was most surprising to you about the application

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Just how grueling it can actually be! You really need to figure out what your motivation for going back to school is, which requires a lot of self reflection on your part. On top of studying for the GMAT, writing essays, visiting schools, etc, you still have a job, family, and life to maintain. It can be a lot sometimes. Having a strong support network around you really helps to make the process easier to bear. There are a lot of GREAT candidates out there all applying to the same schools, so you need to figure out what makes you unique. Never compare yourself to anyone else, but just figure out what will make the Admissions Board say, “I want them!” Above all, make sure your pitch is honest!
Is there anything about your experience with the GMAT/application process that was unique or surprising?
If someone were to tell me that I would have to take the GMAT again, it would be one of the saddest days of my life :) In total, I took the GMAT 3 times and I didn’t think that it would take that long. I got a score I was happy enough with, but

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the final scores usually fell within the same general range. Something that surprised me, however, was that I could take practice test after practice test, perform really well, and then all of a sudden, get a score that I was nowhere to being happy with. It was a little heartbreaking, but one thing Sharon Thompson from Fuqua told us during a visit to the school was, “You are more than your GMAT score.” It’s really true. People get so caught up in getting an extremely high score that they let the rest of their application suffer. Anyone I talk to, I advise them to aim for that 800 if possible, but 1. Never compare your GMAT performance to another person’s and 2. Make sure the same amount of focus is put on other parts of the application to showcase yourself as a well-rounded candidate.
What specific advice would you give those prepping for the GMAT now?
I wouldn’t take the GMAT more than 3 times (personal opinion), especially if your score is not improving much. Focus on another aspect of the application if you feel that you have reached your limit. Also, figure out what your best learning method is if you decide to get instruction (class vs. individual help). Studying for the GMAT and applying to school is a very short term time investment for a very long payoff – make the time!
What was the most useful resource to you during the application process?
Being able to have access to the Bell Curves team as much as possible and becoming an MLT fellow. I took a class with Akil Bello and even had private tutoring sessions with him, and his ability to break down seemingly complicated questions helped tremendously in understanding what the problem actually was. Being able to navigate your way through questions to find the actual problem is a skill that I was able to use in school and even more so since rejoining the workforce.
How many schools did you apply to and get accepted to?
Applied to 5, accepted to 2, waitlisted at 1
How has business school impacted your career?
Business school has impacted my career by making me a more confident professional. It’s so motivating to constantly be surrounded by people who are so smart, so driven, so nice, and so dedicated to helping you succeed, that you can’t help but be encouraged to become more confident. I started in an industry that was interesting to me, but one that didn’t motivate me to go to work everyday. Business school enabled me to make a transfer into retail and into marketing in a role that is much more fulfilling to me and one that I am actually excited to do each day.

What Tom Hanks Can Teach You About Taking the GRE

As part of making sure you’re fully prepared for these tests our teachers often sacrifice their time, energy, and sanity and brave the Prometrics centers so that we can report on not only the content of the test be the experience of testing. This post is from one of our fabulous GRE teachers, Kara, who recently went in to take the actual GRE; here is her report:

All the advice I needed to take the GRE I learned from Hollywood.  With its momentous drama and unpredictable comedy, my test-taking experience had all the components of an Academy Award winning film (with the exception of a hunky love interest… after all, there is only so much you can deal with on test day).  Certain memorable lessons of Hollywood—clichéd though they may be—are unabashedly applicable to making it through your GRE in fine form. Here is a recap of my latest GRE experience, peppered with insights, observations, and relevant movie quotes:


“May the Force Be with You”

Physically, mentally, and emotionally preparing to take the test

Stuffing your face with omega-3 fatty acids is not a substitute for real test preparation, but that didn’t stop me from scarfing down a bagel with cream cheese and lox on the morning of my GRE test.  That being said, it is always good to eat a hearty breakfast before a test  and—if you’re going to spend the next four hours intensively thinking and staring at a computer screen—you might as make it a decadent one.

I arrived at the testing center thirty minutes before my scheduled start time, as required.  My eyes were immediately drawn to the sign that read, “No food or drinks allowed in the Testing Center”.  I slowly lowered the coffee in my left hand as I walked up to the registration desk.  The woman at the desk gave me a stack of papers to read and sign and told me to go finish my coffee someplace where she couldn’t see me.  And let’s be honest, I’d be a goner by 9:30am without my morning cup, so I was thankful.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth”

Dealing with rigid and unpleasant security procedures

I later clarified that I was allowed to store snacks in a locker with my other belongings and munch on them during the sole ten minute break in the test (provided that I ate outside of the office).  Everything besides my official ID, the locker key, and the clothes on my person had to go in the locker, including my belt, bag, and sweater.  Unfortunately, you are not able to bring a just-in-case-you-get-cold sweater into the testing room.  You have to choose between wearing the sweater the whole time or not having access to it at all; I opted for the latter.

I was ushered through an extensive security process which included not only metal detection, but also turning out my pockets, rolling up my sleeves, and lifting up the cuffs of my pants.  They subsequently confirmed my identity and snapped a less-than-flattering picture of me (see image for rough facsimile).


“Mama Always Said Life was like a Box of Chocolates.

You Never Know what You’re Gonna Get”

Turning the unfamiliar into the familiar

Once the bureaucratic portion of the morning was finished, it was time for me to put my test-taking skills into practice.  Naturally, I had no way of knowing what specific questions would be on the test. Despite not knowing the exact questions I was about to face, I reminded myself that I already had both the content knowledge and practiced skills to take on any question.  I was escorted to carrel 10 just as the testing program finished loading up and then there I was – just me and the next four hours of my life, face to face.  After reading through several pages of policies and preliminary instructions, I started the first section, Analysis of an Issue.  I read the prompt and proceeded to brainstorm my essay with the pencils and eight page 8.5”x11” blue book that had been provided as scratch paper.  After a few minutes of thinking, I started to type.  I was on a roll—fingers flying and writing like an average sesquipedalian.  With 32 seconds remaining, I glanced at the clock and began my essay wrap up process.  With 12 seconds remaining, my computer screen suddenly went black.


“Houston, We Have a Problem”

Reacting to an unexpected crisis

This is every GRE taker’s worst fear: you spend countless hours studying and preparing for a test, you arrange your schedule and mental state around your test date, then just when you get in your groove, the computer crashes.

And yes, it happened to me 29 minutes into my test.

 I calmly exited the room to let the administrator know what had happened.  She fiddled around on her computer for a minute and then walked me back to carrel 10—my home away from home.  Despite the administrator’s assurances that I would not need to restart the test from the beginning, the situation looked pretty grim to me as I watched her reboot my computer.

Three minutes later, the computer presented me the picture ID from earlier and asked me to confirm that I was, in fact, the young woman with sleepy eyes and a bad hair day being displayed on the screen.  When I returned to the Analysis of an Issue screen, I found that I had 30 seconds remaining and—to my great relief—all of my work except for two sentences had been saved.  I took a deep breath and finished Section 1.  Now, I only had Sections 2 through 7 to go.


“There’s no crying in baseball!”

Getting past a tough moment

People are easily jarred and thrown off their game when hiccups happen during their test—a computer crash, a question you can’t figure out, or a sudden realization that there is not much time remaining in a section.  Failure to get past that moment can be debilitating to you as a test-taker and devastating to your scores.  If something unexpected comes up. which it inevitably will, take a few deep breaths and put whatever happened out of your head so that you can focus on the remainder of the test.

The moment I took to calm and ready myself after the computer crash was crucial to my later success on the test, which went by with relative ease.  My Analysis of an Argument was, understandably, riddled with accusations of fallacious conclusions and erroneous reasoning.  It was followed by alternating Verbal and Quantitative sections (V, Q, V, Q, V).  Only two Verbal sections and two Quantitative sections are scored, but every GRE test includes an unscored section which is used by ETS as a laboratory for new questions.  My unscored section was clearly one of the Verbal sections, but unfortunately there is no way to know which one it was.


“I see dead people”

Maintaining focus when you feel like you’re gonna lose it

Towards the end of the test, I began to feel a pull to read less carefully and select answers more haphazardly with less thought.  However, with the end in sight, it was especially essential for me to maintain my concentration and push for those final points.  Just like in basketball or soccer, this is test endurance.  The GRE only has one significant break (10 minutes after Section 3), but there are optional one minute breaks in between every section.  Although I was eager to be done with the test, those breaks were critical to my testing experience.  Rather than rushing through, I used those minute breaks to breathe, stretch my arms, relax my shoulders, and clear my head in preparation for the next section.

In the test finale, you are given myriad options including the opportunity to discard your results in the event that you think that you completely bombed the test.  I declined to discard the blood, sweat, and tears of my last four hours and the computer subsequently rewarded my decision by displaying my predicted Quantitative and Verbal scores on a 130-170 scale (the official Quant and Verbal scores, in addition to the Analytical Writing score, become available on your GRE account about 10-14 days after the test).


“I’m the King of the World”

Celebrating and not stressing about your scores

When you’re done, you’re done, and that is worth celebrating!  Happy with my score and relieved to be finished, I signed out, grabbed my belongings from the locker, and walked out of that office building in Downtown Brooklyn never to look back.


For information on Bell Curves preparation that could help you take the next step in your GRE score, visit us at

ACT vs SAT – A Tale of Two Essays

One of the questions we get asked a lot as teachers and tutors is “What’s the deal with the essay, anyway?” Interestingly, this question is asked by both SAT students and ACT students. Let me break it down for ya, fellas…



First the ACT and SAT prompts are very different. The ACT presents topics that students can easily relate to and have some familiarity with. The ACT topics are often about school or education. The SAT, on the other hand, presents prompts that are a bit more esoteric, obscure and arcane (see what I did there? ). Here are samples of each:

An ACT Prompt

Educators debate extending high school to five years because of increasing demands on students from employers and colleges to participate in extracurricular activities and community service in addition to having high grades. Some educators support extending high school to five years because they think students need more time to achieve all that is expected of them. Other educators do not support extending high school to five years because they think students would lose interest in school and attendance would drop in the fifth year. In your opinion, should high school be extended to five years?

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.


An SAT Prompt

Being unwilling to change is often seen as a limitation. For example, a common accusation people often make in arguments is that the other person refuses to even consider taking new positions on issues. But being consistent is not always a bad thing. In fact, firmly supporting a position or point of view shows that one is stable and constant and does not change one’s position whenever circumstances change. This consistency is far more important than a willingness to adjust one’s thinking.

Assignment: Is it more important to remain consistent than to change one’s mind when circumstances change? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.




The essay section is the first section of the test. It is required, and you have 25 minutes to read the prompt, craft your argument, and write your essay. Essays are graded by two readers who each assign it a 0 – 6, or a total of 0 – 12. The score of the essay is then combined with raw score from the Writing multiple choice sections of the test to arrive at a 200 – 800 score. Thus the essay can be up to 180 points of your writing score, and is it’s important to do well.

Here are some tips that will make your essay easy to write and above average:

1. Pick a point of view.

The essay prompt can always be approached by different viewpoints. The essay graders are looking for how well you write an argument, and that means making sure you chose a side and make your choice clear to the reader. Avoid writing things like “on the other hand.” or “I think it’s both.” Even if you don’t believe what you are writing, pick a side! That’s what you were asked to do.

2. Use specific examples.

The less successful essays we see say things like “Scientists did experiments and took measurements.” Avoid these types of generalizations, and instead pick specifics, “Unlike his fellow scientists, Galileo believed the Earth revolved around the sun. He was eventually jailed for his beliefs.” Also avoid using the quote in the prompt itself as an example.

If you look at enough SAT essays you’ll see that the prompts are very similar and thus you can prepare examples that will work pretty broadly regardless of the question. You should prepare evidence ready to use before you go into the test. Historical events like World War II or books you read in English class like The Great Gatsby have a lot of rich content that can be mined for examples and applied to a variety of prompts.

3. Stretch your vocab muscles!

You’ve been studying, so you know some robust words that can demonstrate your sophisticated writing style. “Some people think that technology is making us lazy” is much less engaging than “Many contend that technology is has spawned a highly dependent generation.” Note that we didn’t use simply big words but instead used apt and interesting words

4. You can use “I.”

Unlike school essays and college research papers, it’s completely acceptable for you to use the first person in your SAT essay, since this is an essay asking you for your opinion. “I believe that privacy is no longer valued,” is a great declarative thesis statement that opens an essay in response to the prompt “Do you agree that privacy is no longer as valued as it once was?”


While the ACT essay is technically optional,

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some colleges require or recommend this section so it’s important that you check with the schools you to which you are considering applying before deciding whether you’ll take the ACT with essay or without.

The ACT essay section is 30 minutes long and takes place after you’ve finished the other four sections of multiple choice questions. Similar to the SAT, the ACT essay is graded by two readers who assign it a score between 0 -6, with a total of 0 – 12. Your score is combined with the English multiple choice section, with the essay portion counting for 1/3 of the total score. Unlike the SAT prompt which asks for argumentation and analysis, the ACT prompt is geared more toward speculation and opinion. It’s important to write a thoughtful piece, but overall the essay is more informal in tone than the SAT essay.

In addition to being more comfortable for students, the ACT prompt is also more flexible in that it allows you take either one of the two sides presented or to present a completely different perspective. In short, anything goes…


1. Write an introduction with your thesis statement.

Make sure to have a definite opinion on the subject. As with all good essays you have to make your position clearly. Having a solid thesis will help you do this. It doesn’t need to be Shakespearean but it should catch your reader’s attention.

2. Have two example paragraphs that support your statement.

Planning on two example paragraphs helps you craft an effective outline that will make it easier to manage under timed pressure. These can be drawn from personal experience, personal observation, articles you’ve read, or anywhere really.

3. Give a counter-point.

As your third paragraph, you should include a “counter-paragraph,” which acknowledges what holes may exist in your argument and addresses them. Something like “While in most circumstances being consistent is beneficial there are cases where one must stray from ones norm and blaze a new trail.”

4. Use what they give you.

You can use the information provided in the prompt in your essay. If you need more information or want to provide greater context or juxtaposition than feel free to quote or restate the info given in the prompt. There is no rule against it and it might provide you the inspiration to make your essay really sing.

Finally, remember that not all schools require the ACT with Writing. Check out the policies of the schools to determine if you need to write the essay or not. If you are unsure what the ACT essay policy is for a school, you can search here.

Some schools that require you to write the ACT essay include:

  • Columbia
  • Howard University
  • Cornell, Vassar
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Northwestern
  • Penn State
  • Claremont McKenna
  • Stanford
  • UC Berkeley
  • American University

Regardless of which test you take, it’s important to have a plan to tackle the essay before you go into the test. By preparing ahead of time, you will be able to start writing right away without wasting your limited time trying to think of something to say.


2013 Year in Review

With the end of one year and the start of a new one, people often take stock of what they’ve done and what they could have done. We at Bell Curves are no different, and one thing we are very pleased to have done this past year is visit many organizations and institutions to help their students understand how to prepare for standardized tests. The organizations and institutions we work with share our mission of increasing diversity in higher education, and we’re always thrilled when they invite us to speak with their members or students. This past year we made a whirlwind tour of colleges, universities, and organizations and helped a vast array of students, from undergrads to potential PhDs, understand how to

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prepare for the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT. We’ve proudly worked with a diverse spectrum of partners and hopefully helped hundreds of students. We presented at the NABA Annual Southern Region Student Conference, the PhD Pipeline Opportunity Program Summer Institute, the HBCU Business Deans Roundtable, the Jackie Robinson Foundation Mentoring and Leadership Conference, and the ML4T Kick-off,

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among others. We also had the pleasure of visiting Duke University, Simmons College, Prairie View A&M University, Morehouse College, Georgia Southern University, and a number of other fine institutions. We even hosted an event with MBA Diversity Prep and OSU’s Fisher College of Business, and conducted webinars and workshops for The Consortium, ALFPA, the NBMBAA, and the PhD Project. We thought we should, in the spirit of the holidays, share one of our recent workshops that was recorded. We’ve embedded the link below so you can learn more about the GMAT and get a jump start on your preparation.

A special thanks to Georgia Southern University, who invited us to campus for this particular workshop, recorded the session, and were kind enough to share it with us. We’re thankful this holiday season for all the fine people and organizations we work with day in and day out to make higher education a more diverse environment. As we look toward the new year, we hope to continue building the relationships we have with our partner organizations, and begin working with an even wider array of organizations and institutions committed to diversity in higher education. We’d like to wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2014!


October 2013 SAT: Heretics Derisively Satirize Erudition

Another great word cloud with another great list of SAT words:

As we do after each time we get our copy

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of the January, June and October tests (the three SAT administrations that are available for test-takers to purchase after the test), we construct a list of vocab words for your edification. Below are the words from the October 2013 SAT that were most interesting to us. This list gives you not only a great group of words to study for the SAT but it also gives you a great group of words to study for college. As with most words on the SAT you’ll not only see them on the test, you’ll see most of them in your college level reading.

Good luck and good studying!





Musings from an MBA 1st Year in Action

BC Alum and Johnson MBA 1st Year Kayla Baker


Today’s post comes from a Bell Curves guest blogger and former student. Kayla Baker is a first-year MBA Candidate at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Prior to business school, she worked at the JPMorgan Private Bank for 3 years as a Junior Portfolio Manager; most recently, Kayla worked as an Account Manager at the education non-profit, Citizen Schools. At Johnson, Kayla is a member of the General Management and High-Technology clubs. Kayla holds a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College.

In this, her inaugural post, Kayla shares some thoughts on how to best prepare for the rigors of business school and maximize your experience.


While top business schools attract some of the most ambitious, successful people, returning to school comes with a few challenges. Sure, there’s a reward in the end, but in order to get there, I’d like offer a few considerations to help you prepare:

Beat the GMAT

I started studying for the GMAT on October 25, 2011 (yes, I still remember the date), and I finished one year later. While working on an equity desk at a bank in New York (a demanding job with long hours), I was putting in a solid 10-20 hours of studying per week. I was determined to do well on the exam because standardized tests are not about knowledge but basic concept mastery, and a good GMAT score would give me the best business school options. In the end, I received 4 admittances out of the 5 business schools I applied to.

Know yourself and your values

Although an MBA has its perks, attending business school is not just about getting a degree, it’s about a journey…your journey. The application essays should feel like a sort of self-reflection/therapy session. This exercise isn’t just about telling admissions officers what they want to hear, it’s about you discovering who you are, where you’ve been, and knowing where you’re going and why. It’s also about redefining yourself. If your current job has you burned out because it feels more like a job and less like a career, then you have an opportunity to pick a new career for yourself. Take time to define this ‘new’ career.

Self-awareness is the most value asset in business school. There’s a herd, group-think mentality in business school; for example, the top desired career paths at most top programs are banking and consulting. It’s great if that’s what you want to do with you career, but if not, walk your own path. It helps to map your path before you start walking. A path may be an exact career, or it make be a more general role within a couple of industries that interest you. The decision is yours.

When reflecting on who you are and what you want, take some time to talk with people who know you well. During the GMAT preparation process, I talked with my mentors, colleagues, friends, and family. I asked them questions about my personality, my strengths, my weaknesses, and what careers seem like a great fit for me. These conversations, along with my own self-reflection, were instrumental in my confidence to walk my path in business school and ignore the herds.

Your time is no longer your time.

I’ve always taken pride in managing my calendars and lists. Since business school has started, I’ve found managing my time very challenging. There are so many meetings for group projects, study sessions, company briefings, alumni talks (not just at Johnson, but at Cornell, in general), and, of course, I need to sleep. If you are like me, learn to flex your time for the important things. I’ve also learned to block personal time on my calendar because I regenerate best through alone time. If you aren’t the organized type, business school will be a good experience to learn this skill. Business school, particularly programs like Johnson at Cornell, where the core curriculum is completely in one semester, are incredibly fast-paced, but definitely doable with perseverance, focus, and organization.

Studying for the GMAT for many is a test of perseverance; self-reflection will facilitate focus; and organization comes with the MBA territory. All of these things are integral in helping you get off on the right foot in your business school endeavor. Good luck!

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