Mad Scientist Disease


I recently had a very encouraging session. A girl whose progress had stalled out around 650 on the GMAT wanted to come in and do one session before her test. She already had the test date scheduled and wanted to at least get a sense of direction so that we could plan out her next attempt. As we worked together however, I found that her skills were excellent. She knew all of the concepts and formulas and had a strong enough math background to do very well on the test. The problem was that she had mad scientist disease.

Now mad scientist disease is a phrase I coined for someone who upon seeing a math problem erupts in a flurry of activity. Notes are scribbled, equations laid out and many important things are figured out. The problem is that many of those things are irrelevant! What the mad scientist does is largely a waste of time. She mixes together lots of chemicals and hopes that one of the compounds she finds is useful and that nothing blows up in her face!

In the one session we had before this student’s test we talked about how to approach problems. We focused on patiently organizing thinking and planning on what needed to be solved before solving anything. I got the student to slow down and relax.

Now I can’t claim that this is a typical result, but after that one session this student’s score went up to 730! An 80-point gain in a week! And all it took was a simple cure for mad scientist disease. Slow down and plan what you’re going to do before you do it.

 GRE AWA: Argument Essay


In my last post I looked at the GRE’s Issue Essay. Today we’ll take a look at the Argument Essay. There is a clear difference between the two essays, so it’s important to note the differences because each task will require a different approach.

The Argument Essay is all about critiquing someone else’s argument and conclusion. As with the Issue Essay, the pool of potential writing prompts are available here. The instructions that you’ll see going along with each prompt differ a little bit but the basic idea is the same: Find the logical flaws with the original argument and point how the author’s conclusion may be incorrect.

One of the biggest problems that students have in writing these essays is that they are not used to reading critically. By that I mean that much of the reading you’ve been doing has been assigned by teachers and comes with an implied stamp of correctness. You are inclined to agree with the conclusions that the author presents. To successfully complete this task on the GRE, you need to do the exact opposite. You need to figure out why the author is wrong.

The best way to do that is to seek out assumptions that the author has made. An assumption is an unstated piece of evidence that must be true in order for the author’s conclusion to be true. The failure of the author’s assumptions may lead to the failure of her argument. Your job is to find and point out those assumptions in order to reveal the logical weakness.

To find an assumption, you’re looking for a way in which the evidence can be true and yet still not lead to the conclusion. Finding assumptions can be a nuanced skill, but the most basic skills are to approach the argument looking for flaws and find assumptions where the conclusion and evidence don’t match up.

Keep those ideas in mind as you start crafting your own essays and don’t forget to read some graded samples to see these ideas in action!

 GRE AWA: Issue Essay


It’s time to step off the solid land where answers are firmly right or wrong and tip our toes into the sometimes uncertain territory of the GRE essay section. The essay section is called the Analytical Writing Assessment or AWA and is composed of two thirty-minute essays: the Issue Essay and the Argument Essay. We’ll begin today by looking at the Issue Essay.

The Issue Essay begins by giving you a semi-controversial statement. Not controversial in a partisan or ideological sense, but rather something that intelligent people could disagree about. If you want some examples, the entire pool of potential essay prompts is made available by ETS here. Let’s pull one example from that source to work through here:

“To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities.”

What follows is a standard set of instructions that outlines your task:

“Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.”

The first thing you must understand is that there is no correct or incorrect answer here. ETS doesn’t have a secret pro-city or anti-city agenda. Answering in agreement or disagreement with the prompt produces an equal likelihood of an excellent score. However there are several key things you WILL need to accomplish to get a great score.

1. Answer the question- In this case there are two reasonable theses you could forward. You must study major cities to understand a society or you don’t need to study major cities. As the instructions point out, any essay needs to get into the nuance. However, if you begin your essay without a clear statement of which side your essay if taking you risk losing your reader.

2. Clarity is key- As I mentioned above, you want to be very clear about the point you’re going to make and how you’re going to get there. That’s driven largely by the fact that you have two graders. One is a piece of software, and although the algorithm is uses is proprietary we do know that similar software uses transition words, punctuation and paragraph structure in order to assign a score. Those all suggest you should work on being organized and clear, but in my opinion the facts about the second grader are even more compelling. The human grader that will read your essay will spend approximately 30 seconds going through it. The grader is not going to go into great depth so the clearer and more organized your thoughts are the easier you are going to make it for her to evaluate them. That leads to higher scores.

3. Take the time to prep what you’re going to say- These essays require evidence and examples, but more importantly they require evidence that is neatly structured and aimed at achieving some sort of objective. If your approach is more machine gun than methodical (“Cities are really important! All the best stuff is in cities, so they must mean something. Talent tends to move to big cities because there are more jobs there.”) You risk losing the impact of your examples. Take the time to come up with goals for each body paragraph and a topic sentence before you start work on your essay. It really shows.

Have a point. Express it clearly. Organize your evidence so that it has the biggest possible impact. Do those things and you’re well on your way to a great GRE essay score!




I recently came across a problem that required knowledge of parabola formulas. That surprised me. Although parabola problems show up relatively frequently, they usually require little more than logic. However, I thought that provided a nice opportunity to refresh on all things parabola.

A parabola is defined mathematically by this formula: y= ax^2 + bx + c. We see parabolas in nature most often when we look at projectiles, like a cannonball shot out of a cannon or a jump shot out of the hand of Steph Curry. Parabolas are generally u-shaped and are symmetrical about the vertex, which is either the highest or lowest point of the parabola, depending on the orientation.

Whether our parabola is cupped upward or downward is determined by the sign of the “a” term in the formula we saw above. When a is positive, the parabola will have a vertex at the bottom and open upward. When a is negative, the parabola will have a vertex at the top and open downward.

However, there is more than one way to define a parabola mathematically. We can also solve a parabola if we have the vertex and another point on the parabola. We do that by using the similar formula y = a(x-h)^2 + k. The coordinates of the vertex are (h,k).

So using that information, find the equation of a parabola with vertex (-2,1) containing the point (1, 19). The first thing we need to do is solve for a by inserting our points into the formula. We get:

19 = a(1-(-2)^2 + 1

19= a(3^2) + 1

19= 9a + 1

Now, we put our a into the formula with our vertex (h,k), but instead of using the x and y from a specific

point we’re going to solve for the generic x and y.

y= 2(x-(-2)^2 + 1

y= 2(x+2)^2 +1

Now expand:

y=2(x+2)(x+2) +1

y=2x^2 + 8x + 9

Now we’ve solved for the equation of this parabola and we could mathematically figure out all of the

points on this curve.

I hope that’s been a good refresher on parabolas!