Joe vs. the GMAT

Every few months Bell Curves teachers take the GMAT in order to assess our test taking techniques, evaluate the accuracy of our question pool, and experiment with different result patterns.

Interviewee: Joseph Kambourakis, Instructor and Developer

Interviewer: James Yudin, Online Support Manager

The Assignment

Joe’s assignment was to go all out on the math section, getting as many correct as possible after getting the first question wrong, and to get about 1 in 4 wrong on verbal.

My Career as a Hit Man is Over

The Story

Today officially marked the end of all my dreams of being a hit man. Today, I’m officially “in the system” and to be a top notched hit man you have to be off the grid. If you think of all the truly great hit men Leon (the Professional), Booth (In the Line of Fire), and Nikita (Point of No Return, hit woman really) all were off the grid no record, no bank accounts, no paper trail. I have to give up my aspirations, my dreams, my future.

But I get ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

Today, January 3rd, 2006 I took the GMAT again. I periodically (if you’ve read my other postings you already know this) take the GMAT in order to explore whether its changed and if so how. This month’s testing is about exploring how the change to the new test administrator Pearson Vue would affect the testing experience.

Testing the test

The Assignment:

The assignment was to test out Bell Curves revolutionary test preparation techniques and evaluate how up-to-date our question pool is. While taking the GMAT he was required to answer incorrectly a portion of the quantitative section and guess blindly on a portion of the verbal section.

The Reporter: Ajani (Yanni) Burrell, Bell Curves teacher and developer

Current residence: Munich, Germany

Yanni now lives in Germany where he attends Ludwig Maximilians Universitaet in Munich and studies for a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature. He has worked in test preparation for the past 5 years, of which the last year has been as materials developer and teacher for Bell Curves.

A real-time look at taking the GMAT


Ah it’s a lovely spring day and my morning starts when my alarm rudely reminds me that I should rise and dress so that I’ll be on time for my latest bout with the Graduate Management Admissions Test. Unfortunately, today’s test is occurs at the ungodly hour of 8:30 thus my early start to the day (yes, early being a professional test prep guru for the last 15 years has meant that I’m almost never awake before 9 am and very rarely out of my day before 8:30).

Q and A with a GMAT Test-Taker

Q and A with a GMAT Test-Taker

(aka an interview with a schizophrenic mad scientist)

AB: Who are you and why is your rambling recount of a self-admitted waste of time and money interesting or informative for our readers?

A Belated Response to the NACAC Report

A deeper analysis must be made of John Hechinger’s article, SAT Coaching Found to Boost Scores — Barely. If we are to take Mr. Hechinger’s conclusions at face value — conclusions that seem more concerned with drawing a crowd than with accurate reporting — then we are voluntarily subjugating the few facts in this discussion to a series of anecdotes and conjecture.

Mr. Hechinger draws a variety of conclusions about the ethical practices of test preparation companies, particularly about (1) the claims of substantial increases in student performance on standardized tests and (2) the validity of practice tests given by these companies.

In making his first point, Mr. Hechinger directs us to look at the study recently published by the NACAC. The NACAC report does not discuss improvement, only effect. The report makes no claims about the veracity of any particular “improvement” at all, but instead seeks to demonstrate that the net effect of expensive test preparation only differs by 30 points from other forms of less expensive preparation. Mr. Hechinger completely disregards one of the major premises of the report — that improvement and effect are two entirely different measurements.   Unfortunately, by missing the major premise of the report, the conclusions he presented seem to further cloud the distinction the report attempts to make.

To address the second point, I counter that providing inaccurate scores is at least partly counter-productive for test preparation companies, which rely on analyzing student performance to enable instructors to direct and focus student preparation. Inflating or deflating scores simply disallows companies from providing effective training. If we accept, as Mr. Hechinger proposes, that the major form of marketing is trumpeting score improvements, companies have strong incentives to take actions that increase such improvements (and not just the perception thereof). The fact that there exist incentives for companies to skew results in their favor does not necessarily mean that they will. In fact, since there are no real tests on the market and ETS, the maker of the SAT, only publishes its own “practice tests” as a test-preparation option for students, one might argue that the same incentive exists for ETS. Since most students likely to be taking these courses would have taken the PSAT and possibly even the SAT, students have their own external benchmarks against which to measure their improvement.

Furthermore, the experiences of one student who scored a perfect score on his SAT is an inappropriate and peculiar example when considering average score ranges and attempting to disparage an entire industry. This type of anecdotal evidence is hardly indicative of student experiences on a large scale. When considering this type of student experience, a reasonable objective observer must also take into account a number of variables that can affect a student taking the official test. Students report a wide variety of feelings, ranging from fear and anxiety to excitement and exhilaration. In some cases these reactions translate into a stronger performance (collectively, this is known as eustress) while in other cases these reactions will translate into worse performances. To cite an informal study of a small population of a few students who worked with one provider and who had similar experiences explicitly ignores those students who might have performed on par with their practice tests or even underperformed those practice tests.

Mr. Hechinger should have perhaps noted that the NACAC report concludes with the following points:

  • students should be encouraged to prepare before taking admissions tests
  • students should be counseled to use cheaper forms of test preparation
  • commercial coaching or private tutoring may well be worth the cost

Finally, the article presents two propositions: (1) SAT coaching resulted in around 30 points in score improvement, and (2) a third of schools with tight selection criteria said that an increase of 30 points would “significantly improve students’ likelihood of admission.” Even assuming that the improvement from the preparation is only 30 points, the author seems compelled to ignore the glaring conclusion that the ‘modest benefit’ can have a very real effect on potential admission to selective schools. To the extent that students can avail themselves of companies (like my own) that offer students the opportunity to get quality test preparation at 20 to 50 percent of the rates charged by the providers highlighted in Mr. Hechinger’s piece, the net value of that “modest benefit” increases dramatically.

The increasingly competitive world of standardized testing and college admission has forced students to seek out every available resource. Until schools become more transparent with how they value SAT scores, college applicants will reasonably pursue any gains, modest or significant, within their reach. And until a more extensive and finely tuned study is performed (the need for which is continually noted in the NACAC report), it is irresponsible to draw conclusions about test preparatory companies or their effectiveness. The more salient question, ignored by both Mr. Hechinger and the NACAC report, is to what extent are students without access to high-quality test preparation disadvantaged by their inability to get those modest 30 points?

Hashim Bello is co-founder of Bell Curves, a test preparation company which seeks to deliver high quality test preparation to traditionally underserved youth.

From the Trenches – part 3.

All Quiet On The Northern Front


Ajani Burrell (GMAT Instructor and Part-time Spy)


Marquette, Michigan (Latitude: 46.56N by Longitude: 87.41)


Friday, March 14, 2008


10 am EST

The Mission

  • To test a variety of keypad shortcuts to see if any could be used to more efficiently navigate through the screens.
  • Enjoy myself thoroughly.

From the Trenches – Part 2.

GMAT by the Bay
Time and Place

I one Joseph Kambourakis took the GMAT in that grand old dame of a town Oakland, California. At one time in his life Tupac Amaru Shakur lived here, so I thought this would be as good a place as any. The test center is on 22nd Street, Downtown. The test center workers, Steve and Carmen, were very friendly. I asked them a bunch of questions, among them whether Carmen would be averse to a date with myself. Steve was none-too-thrilled. My amorous attempts shot down, they gave me some info about the location. They said that all test centers have the same pictures on the wall, which is why no one remembers any of them. The computers and monitors were the same kind as in the Boston office, which is why people are as thrilled to take the test in Oakland as they are in Boston (I’ve been to both, I prefer Oakland). The notepad and marker were also the exact same. The marker was a Staedtler brand marker, a fine writing instrument crafted of German engineering. The earplugs were similar as well, which means they could have been better. Steve told me that the pictures on file are checked versus my previous pictures when I signed up, but he wasn’t sure about the fingerprint. I said that’s okay because I was using the same fingers I used when I took the test in Boston.
The Business At Hand
My first essay question was an Analysis of an Argument, the gist of which is below:

The GMAT Experience Vol. 1

The GMAT Experience – prologue

I am a devout test taker and a renowned slacker with aspirations to be a writer of bad science fiction, so forgive me if I ramble. In this summary I am recording my experience taking the GMAT, hopefully it will inform, amuse, and educate.

The GMAT Experience – legal

When reading this the proverbial grain of salt must be taken. The experience of one standardized-test-loving slacker is not reflective of all test takers. The ability of the test-taker mentioned in this commentary to control whether he selects a correct or incorrect answer is much greater than that of the average test taker.

The GMAT Experience

It was a sunny day in Brooklyn NY and I got up on time for my appointment at 12:30 on Remsen Street. I took a cab to Court Street and then went looking for the building.

The GMAT Experience Vol. 2

Round One

(A quick tale of the how the GMAT can ruin a perfectly good day)


Hashim Bello, GMAT Teacher wanna-be and Mousetrap builder


Argh 2.5 hours away in Random Town X, Mystery state. The things I do to build a better mousetrap. Sheesh.




August 9, 2004

The Mission:

  • Test a revolutionary new way of approaching the test for high scoring students.
  • Test theories of questions flow on the math and verbal sections real test.
  • Harvest question ideas for future content and upcoming Insights Newsletter.
  • Analyze breakdown of topics on both math and verbal sections.
  • Visit centers in areas that Bell Curves has many students in order to best advise them on centers to stay away from or use.

The Adventure:

  • (877) 223-3828
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