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How to Teach the GMAT

Most people would say that the GMAT is hard, and indeed, it’s no walk in the park, but I would argue that the hardest part of this topic lies in the first three words of this blog post.  Teaching is an art that develops with experience.  I was fortunate to have done classroom teaching in high schools for more than two decades before I started at Magoosh.  (Some of my first students now have children that are almost old enough to take tests such as the GMAT & GRE!)  Let’s start with teaching itself.


How to teach

Of course, that is a wildly presumptuous section heading!  Whole books and entire Ph.D. dissertations could not exhaust this topic, and yet I am going to dispense with it in a couple paragraphs.  Just a few minimal thoughts here.  Tutoring is, in some ways, easier than general teaching, because (a) the students are already highly motivated, and (b) the students often come with a bucket of their own questions.  One skill a good tutor needs is discerning what a student really needs, and, at times, addressing that rather than expatiating on the student’s explicit question.  A student may say, “I need help with Algebra”, but then when one looks at the actual problem concerned, it turns out that the student didn’t read carefully or doesn’t understand the Data Sufficiency question format or something such as that.  Students’ stated assessments of their weaknesses may or may not correspond to the areas in which they truly need help.  In particular, many more challenging GMAT math problems often appear to require a very complicated calculation, even though they can be solved deftly with a brilliant shortcut; often, students will look at a problem of this sort and come to their GMAT tutors with all sorts of earnest questions about how to perform, in detail, that very complicated calculation, but of course, performing that calculation is very much beside the point of the problem.  A good tutor or teacher needs to know which questions deserve an answer and which questions are better redirected to more pertinent topics.

A good tutor or teacher also anticipates misunderstandings.  For example, a student may ask about cross-canceling in fractions, and the tutor might cheerfully explain that cross-canceling is a 100% legal move.  Of course, the tutor correctly has in mind the product of fractions, (a/b)*(c/d), in which b & c can legitimately be canceled.  The tutor may not be aware that the student will take this confirmation to mean that he can also cross-cancel in a proportion, (a/b) = (c/d), in which b & c most certainly cannot be canceled.  Blanket yeses are tricky, even when these responses are technically correct, if the tutor doesn’t anticipate all the ways the student might misconstrue or misapply the information.

One never knows how a student will receive or understand whatever information one imparts.  A tutor or teacher should often check-in with the student, either having them solve a practice problem or explain the information back — something to verify that, indeed, they heard and understood what the tutor or teacher was trying to communicate.

Finally — and this is a particularly difficult point for some high-performing-students-turned-tutor —- folks in the top 5%, in the top 1%, may need to hear something only once to absorb it, but most of the population needs repetition before something really sinks in.  A new tutor, herself a top performer, might not understand why a student fails to remember a concept they covered last session or earlier in the same session.  One hearing is not enough for most students.  A good teacher or tutor needs to find subtle ways to remind a student of each idea until the student clearly owns it.


Teaching the GMAT

I assume that anyone who wants to instruct others in the GMAT has already demonstrated a high level of proficiency on the test.   One’s GMAT score is often the first question prospective tutoring clients want to know.

I would recommend that anyone tutoring the GMAT read the entire Manhattan GMAT series, all ten volumes.  Those books are arguably the best GMAT prep sources in hard copy print form, and even if you are going to teach material in a different way, it’s still very good to have the MGMAT caveats in mind.

I assume anyone who is a high performer on the GMAT already can handle most of the hard math problems on the GMAT.  If, as a tutor, one needs more practice with challenging math, then one might look at some of Martin Gardiner’s books or, if you are more ambitious, even the Contest Problem books in the MAA Problem Book Series.

For practicing GMAT CR, the LSAT Logical Reasoning questions are perfect.  The LSAT arguments are typically a notch or two harder than GMAT arguments, so if you can reliably nail the LSAT questions, anything on the GMAT will be easy by comparison.

For grammar, I think it’s a very good idea to have some solid grammar references on hand.  Grammar Girl is extremely bright, but her predilections are not always the same as GMAC’s grammatical preferences.  I would recommend something more conservative.  I often refer to Swan’s Practical English Usage and the Oxford English Grammar.  For American students, it can be helpful to look at the very sophisticated grammatical structures of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, as well as some of the more famous orations (the Gettysburg Address, the “I Have a Dream” speech, famous inaugural addresses, etc.)

I would think that any GMAT tutor would read widely, including information about happenings in the business world.  Of course, the Economist magazine is one of the finest weekly publications in print.   A healthy dose of reading the social and natural sciences is also good for keeping GMAT RC skills in shape.



It is said that one definition of the word “expert” is someone who has made every possible mistake in a field, and something like that may well be true with very good teachers.   At choice moments in my teaching career certainly it seemed this way!  Teaching is very humbling, because no matter how many times one has explained Concept X, the next student may ask a question you have never encountered before or be confused about a point that has never confused anyone before.  A good teacher is always learning.

If you are embarking on a career as a GMAT tutor, I wish you the very best of luck!  Please let us know of your experiences.  If you have anything you want to share, or if you want to ask about anything I’ve said, please let us know in the comments section below.

One exclusive sign of thorough knowledge is the power of teaching.”  — Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)

We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them to discover it within themselves.” — Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” — John Dewey (1859 – 1952)

Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” — William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)


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