Last gasp for the GMAT: aced the AWA score (6.0)

One final blog on the GMAT: my full report came through today, and at least I got a 6.0 (maximum) for the essay writing section. Obviously I expected a decent score after a decade writing copy for a living, but I was still concerned that my idiosyncratic marketer’s syntax (and the way I realised with 30 seconds to go that I hadn’t written a closing paragraph for one of the essays) might have cost me a point. All that Analysis of an Argument and Analysis of an Issue practice paid off.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 25 (5th CAT test: 660)

Ok, my last ‘proper’ test before the exam. A 38V/44Q corrected score, giving 660, a full hundred points below my best. Oh well. Today’s essay practices:

Analysis of an Issue

“There is only one definition of success — to be able to spend your life in your own way.”

To what extent do you agree or disagree with this definition of success? Support your position by using reasons and examples from your reading, your own experience, or your observation of others.

There’s something admirable about the dropout, the hippy, the boho who hits the road and whose ambitions don’t extend any further than his next meal or park bench. He’s certainly ‘spending his life in his own way’, and has every right to consider himself successful in terms true to himself. But other people people may interpret success as the ability to lead an army, calm an epidemic, or build a political consensus. That’s why I disagree strongly with this statement: there are many definitions of success.

The statement infers that success is simply a personal viewpoint. But we live our lives in groups: families, factions, nations. Any attempt to define ‘success’ objectively can’t be limited to any one person’s inner monologue; plenty of people who bring little value to the world – Kim Jong-il, Osama bin Laden, countless reality TV celebrities – are hardly successes, despite undoubtedly being ‘heroes in their own minds’. This suggests that success is bigger than any individual.

A better definition of success might be: a successful person is one who adds value to the world. This can encompass both a purely personal definition – the hippy traveller who fosters tolerance between cultures as he leaves footprints in the sand – and a broader worldview, such as the software millionaire whose products have enabled further billions in economic growth. ‘Adding value’ takes the selfishness out of the definition – and provides further justification for my belief that the statement above is too self-limiting.

Of course, none of this makes the above statement incorrect. Far from it: it’s a perfectly valid definition of success, within its own strict limits. The silent hermit, the selfish millionaire, even the murderer – all of them have the right to believe themselves ‘successful’. What none of them has is the right to insist on his worldview being the only valid one. A purely personal view of success is unlikely to be shared by more than a small number of people, and the definition of any truly big idea – like democracy, human rights, or ‘success’ – needs broad agreement and acceptance by the majority.

In summary: success is not your private ideology, but is measured by the mark you leave on the world. If success has to be defined at all, perhaps a better definition might be: leave the world a better place than you came into it.

FAULTS: None at all! I’m happy with this one: wrote it feeling just the right mix of nerves, ideas, and energy. And no typos. Note to self though: I’d better not write any sentences starting with ‘and’ or ‘but’ in the exam; my guess is the grammatically strict E-rater will mark them down.

Analysis of an Argument

The following appeared in a memorandum sent by the vice-president of the Nadir company to the company’s human resources department:

“Nadir does not need to adopt to the costly ‘family-friendly’ programs that have been proposed such as part-time work, work from home and jobsharing. When these programs were made available at the Summit Company, the leader in the industry, only a small percentage of the employees participated in them. Rather than adversely affecting our profitability by offering these programs, we should concentrate on offering extensive help that will enable the employees to increase their productivity.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

This argument has several flaws in its reasoning. First, it assumes that any program available to all necessarily needs to be used by all. Second, it implies Nadir’s workforce is fixed and constant, unaffected by conditions elsewhere. Third, it suggests such programs are purely costs rather than investments. These views suggest the argument is short-sighted.

On the first point: no company offers flexible working options and expects 100% of its workforce to take advantage of them – they are fringe benefits, designed to improve workers’ lives in certain circumstances. Recent parents may appreciate job sharing and work-from-home options while they get to grips with a new baby, but babies don’t stay babies forever – and when round-the-clock childcare is no longer needed, those parents can return to work, without a total absence or a need for retraining clouding their effectiveness. Keeping your top performers working part-time is a far better choice than losing them altogether. No worker will use the programs all of the time, but many will benefit from that at some point in their careers. Summit Company is simply making a sound business decision: offering such options keeps people motivated and effective.

To take the second point about market conditions: does the Vice-President expect all his staff to stomach Nadir’s policies without grumbling, when recruiters are always on the lookout for effective people and Summit can offer better working conditions to disgruntled Nadirites? A worker with a fractured leg may be able to work from home if he’s with Summit, continuing to earn a salary without the discomfort of hobbling into the office every day; no such chance exists at Nadir. A mother whose daughter has fallen ill will be far happier at work knowing she can work from her kitchen table if needed. Such policies make Summit the employer of choice, and Nadir will face a constant battle to retain talent.

Moving on to the third point, the Nadir VP is looking at human resources with an accountant’s eye alone, not taking into account the extra value a happy and motivated workforce brings to the business. The cost of a few family-friendly programs – which may be used by perhaps half the workforce for a few weeks each year – may look huge as a line item, but tiny compared to total human resource costs: salaries, taxes, insurance, sick cover, staff turnover, and more. If that 10% hike in costs results in workers delivering 15% more effectively, the Summit programs are not just family-friendly; they’re business-friendly too – answering the VP’s concerns about profitability too.

One business guru describes the essence of management as ‘hiring legendary talent’. If family-friendly policies can reduce human resource issues, increase employee satisfaction, and add to the bottom line too, then the VP’s argument is weak. He may be able to support his argument purely in terms of short-term costs, since fresh programs are expensive to set up and run. But if he looks a little more closely at his own argument, he’s likely to see that many of his problems stem not from spending too much on people, but from investing too little in them.

FAULTS: I didn’t explore the other side of the issue enough – about how the cost of family-friendly programs may impede investment in new products and marketing them, making Nadir less competitive. Which would be the difference between a top-rated 6 essay and a 5, no matter how well-structured and well-written this is. So I’ll give myself a 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 24 (4th CAT test: 600)

A 600, for 38Q/38V corrected scores. Nowhere near. It’s odd that this week’s meltdown into depression is being reported so precisely; I’d never realised quite how debilitating the Black Dog could be. I may just scrape past 600 next week, some 160 points below my best. Still, it’s been an interesting month; pity it won’t lead anywhere. Today’s essay practice:

Analysis of an Issue

“It makes no sense for people with technological skills to go to college if they know they can earn a good salary without a college degree”

To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement? Support your position by using reasons and examples from your reading, your own experience, or your observation of others.

To a technically skilled young person with excellent employment prospects, going to college may seem like a waste of time. Why spend four years in a classroom, when he could be earning money? And if his ambitions extend no further than performing a trade with competence, he may be right. But the value of a college degree extends beyond anything taught in the lecture theatre; the social networks and personal qualities developed at college will continue adding depth and colour over that person’s entire lifetime. So while I sympathise with the author’s tone, I disagree with his conclusion.

As an example, take a 19-year old computer programmer who learned his trade ‘hacking’ in his bedroom for a decade. He’s skilled, yes – and is capable of doing an excellent job at a software company. A job paying, perhaps, over £100,000 a year. If that’s all he wants, great – but even the most interesting jobs become routine. Perhaps in ten years, as he approaches 30, our programmer will feel restless and apply for promotion… but a requirement of progressing to managerial level is a degree. Like it or not, this is the reality of the employment market, and our 19-year old would do well to remember this maxim.

To go further, how much better could our programmer’s technological skills be if they were given a strong theoretical underpinning by a degree? By implanting in his mind the fundamental structures of his trade, he’ll be capable of learning faster, working harder, and doing better work. The best programmers aren’t merely twice as good as the average: they’re ten, a hundred times better. If our 19-year-old has ambitions to be the next Ray Ozzie, he’d be wise to consider taking a few years out for a degree before starting work.

This principle isn’t limited to professional, white collar trades either. The state of Alberta in Canada has low college enrolment figures despite its excellent educational infrastructure: it’s because young people are sucked up by a people-hungry oil industry, where driving a truck can pay a 17-year old over $60,000 a year. Great money for a teenager – but what happens in five years, when oil prices may be lower and the tar sands lie empty? That teenager may rue the day he decided to take the quick, easy money over the long but rewarding slog of college.

Finally, there are other benefits to college besides a degree certificate. The opportunity to play sports, build social networks, and make lifelong friends are a lot less ephemeral than a monthly paycheck. Being young doesn’t last very long; I believe the time is better spent reading and learning than in a striplit cubicle.

In summary, while I’d defend anyone’s right to take a job over college if they want, I strongly believe they should take that decision only after considering all the facts – not the immediate gratification of earning money, but the lifelong benefits a degree can bring.

FAULTS: howler of a typo in ‘opportunity…are’. Not too happy with this: I spent too long on the first para getting my thoughts straight, and had to rush the rest. Only a 4.

Analysis of an Argument

The following appeared as part of an article in a magazine on lifestyles.

“Two years ago, City L was listed 14th in an annual survey that ranks cities according to the quality of life that can be enjoyed by those living in them. This information will enable people who are moving to the state in which City L is located to confidently identify one place, at least, where schools are good, housing is affordable, people are friendly, the environment is safe, and the arts flourish.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

If a town is ranked highly for quality of life, any local council can feel justly proud. But without any context for the lifestyle article, the argument is weak. Anyone considering a move to City L needs more information on the survey’s judging criteria, editorial slant, and sample size.

The judging criteria would be most important. That they covered schools, housing, the locals and the environment is assumed – but not made explicit. Was the lifestyle magazine aimed at (and scored for) young adults, whose current priorities in life may not include a top-ranked junior school nearby? The survey may well have given strong weighting to all the right points, but the argument needs to make this clear.

Secondly, how many cities were included in the survey? Was the poll commissioned for an international magazine, ranking City L against other commonly-cited cities offering a high quality of life such as Vancouver, Copenhagen, and Stockholm? Or did it appear in a local newspaper, comparing City L with the nearby commuter suburbs of Cities A to Z? If so, coming 14th may not represent anything to be proud of.

Further to this, the argument makes no mention of whether other towns in City L’s state are included in the survey…. or if they’re ranked above City L. If even one nearby city is on the list, the author’s claim to be the ‘one place’ in which people moving to the state can have confidence is undermined. If this is the case, the argument is not merely flawed; it is inaccurate.

Finally, the magazine article is two years old… and the survey was presumably conducted several months before that. A lot can happen in two and a half years, and City L may have suffered a budget collapse, natural disaster, or population crunch. We simply don’t know, and by referring to outdated information, the author weakens his argument.

However, with the above caveats, it’s likely that being mentioned in a magazine survey does represent some sort of achievement for City L; the author’s biggest fault is that he doesn’t make the most of the survey. By providing more information about City L’s school situation, social mix, and arts scene, the author could have made his case watertight, especially if City L ranked higher than nearby cities. Accordingly, we must conclude that the author has not made his case effectively. One survey doesn’t make a city great.

FAULTS: This one’s okay, but surprisingly hard to write; anything that makes a decent argument is of course harder. You should have seen the original last para: ‘especially if City L ranked higher than nearby cities not ranked in the survey’ – spotted and edited in the closing seconds, whew. No typos I can see; had five minutes to proofread, much better paced. A 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 23 (3rd CAT test: 570)

Ok, I’m in trouble. Possible reasons: a) I’m not approaching the CAT tests properly, b) the questions on the CAT are harder than on my paper practice tests, or c) my brain’s turned to mush. The most likely possibility is c), since my brain split apart on Monday and I spent twelve hours staring at the walls. Today’s essays:

Analysis of an Issue

“The safety of consumer goods can best be ensured not by way of government regulation but rather through voluntary efforts of the private businesses that produce those goods.” To what extent do you agree or disagree with the foregoing statement? Use reasons and/or examples from your experience, observation, and/or reading to explain your viewpoint.

Safety costs money, and businesses exist to make money. However good a ‘corporate citizen’, any enterprise subject to market forces has an obligation to maximise profits. This means that unless safety is a selling point of the product (and therefore worth investing in) it will always be treated as a cost to be minimised. Accordingly, I disagree with this statement.

Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that no business will increase safety unless compelled by law. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, written many decades ago and detailed the appalling conditions in the meatpacking industry, did nothing to shame the meatpackers into improving the safety of the rancid, rotted products they shipped to America’s poor; the changes came when the US government enacted laws protecting food quality. Even today, meatpacking firms are among the biggest contributors to political candidates in meat-producing regions of the USA; they are spending money not on increasing safety voluntarily, but on influencing lawmakers to reduce the legislative burden.

The fact that some health and safety legislation is ludicrous – the European Union’s endless red tape aimed at the motor industry comes to mind – does not affect this basic argument. Selling a car in Europe is hard, yes… but some 80% of the vehicles sold in European showrooms score a ‘5’ in crash tests, the safest grade. Whereas in China, where laws are less developed, virtually no model scores above a ‘1’. Again, it seems clear that companies are motivated by money, not consumer safety.

Nor does the success of companies like Volvo, known for safe products, provide evidence to the contrary. Volvo’s brand (and hence the premium it can charge consumers) is all about safety; the carmaker treats safety as a brand asset worth investing in. Therefore in maximising the safety of its cars, Volvo is not making some ‘voluntary effort’ out of the goodness of its corporate heart: it is simply making a sound business decision.

In addition, some consumer products are to all practical purposes designed to cause harm, such as those of the alcohol and tobacco companies. It’s fair to say Philip Morris and Budweiser don’t have the best interests of their customers’ lungs and livers foremost in their business plans. The law here at least provides a regulatory framework for such harmful products; if no such standards existed, it’s fair to say cigarettes would be a lot more addictive, and there’d be a lot more blindness-inducing moonshine on the shop shelves.

Of course, none of this is to argue in favour of ever-increasing government legislation. The blunt instrument of the law should only be used where all else fails, as in a situation where the participants have no other obligation to act. But businesses – faceless machines for making money, with no sense of citizenship beyond that of their individual employees – are such a case. While no business plan thrives on causing harm to its buyers, harm caused by neglect can be equally damaging… meaning regulation to protect citizens has every place in a market-driven democracy.

FAULTS: Not my best; this was a hard one! Spent nearly 10 mins just getting past the first sentence to get my plan noted down. I wanted to develop the argument more along the lines that corporations aren’t supposed to be human; this essay makes me look anti-corporate, when I’m simply stating a reasonable fact about the realities of business. And ‘fair to say’ twice? I’m only giving myself a 4.

Analysis of an Argument

(NOTE added 21aug2012: GMAT expert Mark Stewart has asserted his right to be identified as the author of the essay prompt in italics below, and has requested this link to his original source material, which I’m happy to provide.)

The following appeared in a recent report by the Fern County planning commission:

“In light of the increasing percentage of our nation’s population turning to the Internet as a source of reference material, Fern County should close the ancillary branch of its public library, and convert that facility into a computer training center for use by county residents. The converted facility would fill what is certain to be a growing need among Fern residents for computer training. At the same time, since the county library’s main branch already contains more volumes per resident than any other county library in the state, it will adequately serve the needs of Fern County residents. Moreover, Fern residents are sure to support this plan; after all, in nearby Mesa County only a few residents have objected to that county’s plan to close all but one of its public libraries in the near future.”

Discuss how logically convincing you find this argument. In your discussion, you should analyze the argument’s line of reasoning and use of evidence. It may be appropriate in your critique to call into question certain assumptions underlying the argument and/or to indicate what evidence might weaken or strengthen the argument. It may also be appropriate to discuss how you would alter the argument to make it more convincing and/or discuss what additional evidence, if any, would aid in evaluating the argument.

My answer:

This argument seems well-meant, but short-sighted. Computer training may well be useful for the denizens of Fern County… but libraries are more than stockhouses for books. The commission relies on evidence that seems little better than guesswork, and uses evidence selectively to support its specific viewpoint. Accordingly, the commission’s case for closure is unsupportable without further evidence.

The commission’s report assumes that Fern County residents are representative of the country as a whole. Is this true? If Fern contains a great many older people with time on their hands, they may strongly oppose the closure of a library, regarding a library as a social focus as well as a place of learning. In addition, the ‘increasing percentage’ quoted for the country as a whole does not include a base figure; even if the percentage turning to the Internet has doubled in the last year, that might mean 2% increasing to 4%. New technologies are often adopted first by specific demographics, such as the young; to strengthen its argument, the commission needs to demonstrate that Fern County represents a slice of society for which closing a library carries more benefits than disadvantages.

Furthermore, by mentioning the county library, the commission displays fuzzy logic – it seeks to close the local library since people are turning to the Internet, yet sees a continued need for the larger establishment. To present its case logically (pro- or con- library) the commission should present a unified view. The uncharitable view of this argument, of course, is that the main motive for closing the library may not be to respect a sea change in citizens’ learning styles, and is more about cost-cutting. If so, the commission should make this clear.

The commission cites another county’s library-closing plans as evidence, but again fails to give any information regarding the demographic makeup of Mesa County. Is Fern County a retirement community and Mesa County full of college students? The ‘few complaints’ from Mesa residents do not necessarily indicate support for the closure; there may be a silent majority of people who simply don’t know about the closure plans.

Nor has the commission made its case that this is an ‘either/or’ situation. Is there a need for both a library and a computer training facility? If computer training would be valuable to the community, it deserves to be considered on its own merits, not solely in conjunction with the loss of a library.

Of course, the need for computer training has not been established in any case. If a ‘growing percentage’ of citizens are turning to the Internet, doesn’t that suggest the nation’s computer skills are already quite strong? The commission does not make a strong business case for setting up a computer training facility, and again this makes the argument too fuzzy to be convincing.

In summary, while there may be a perfectly justifiable case for closing the local library, the commission’s report suggests Fern County should try the new at the expense of the old – when the library closure and the proposed computer training facility should each be considered separately. Libraries are not shops or warehouses; they are an ancient and respected part of a nation’s intellectual and social fabric, dating back to the establishment of democracy itself in the Greek public square, and the case for closing such an important civic institution must be made with greater depth than the argument achieves.

FAULTS: Too wordy, but I think this is ok; although it doesn’t 100% answer the issue of whether Fern commissioners have a reasonable case in wanting to open a training centre. I’ll give myself a 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 22 (2nd CAT test: 560)

Ok, my second CAT practice hit an all-time low of 560, with raws of 36V/32Q, barely above average. With a week before the test to make up a sudden 200-point drop in my simulated score, this is serious. Do I have time to recover?

Analysis of an Issue

“In any large business organization, teamwork is the ultimate key to the organization’s success.”

In your view, how accurate is the foregoing statement? Use reasons and/or examples from your experience, observation, and/or reading to explain your viewpoint.

Any large business is a mix of hard and soft skills: solid technical competence in its area of work, combined with the web of relationships between its people. That’s why I agree that teamwork is the ultimate key to business success: I believe that spirit of co-operation between people is the key to effective delivery. Why?

It’s because effective delivery means an effective business. Even the greatest products will languish in the lab without a motivated sales team to get them into the market. Of course, the most motivated sales executives will be those who have a relationship with the white-coated R&D people, who genuinely care about their company’s products and want them to be successful. Contrast this with the situation IBM found itself in during the 1980s: terrific products, yet a train-wreck of a balance sheet, largely due to a dysfunctional culture, sequestered in departmental silos, that didn’t value selling or engagement with the market. As one commentator wrote, “At IBM, products don’t get launched; they escape.”

So what’s the corollary? For the answer, just look inside any government office. An organisation where people’s loyalties are to their pension entitlements and a quiet life, rather than driving themselves and their team forward to greater achievement. In a environment of high job security and little excitement, subject to the whims of politicians who bear no loyalty to them, it’s hardly surprising that government offices are low on teamwork. This shows up in the lack of success shown by many government departments – which are among the largest organisations of all.

To add yet more evidence: over half of large mergers and acquisitions fail, despite some of the world’s top financial brains working on them to make sure every business case and budget allocation makes sense. It’s reasonable to assume that these experts haven’t made many mistakes in their costings or forecasts. So perhaps these mega-mergers fail because the people don’t feel part of a team. Newly merged divisions don’t co-operate, new managers don’t build relationships with their staff, and morale nosedives, leading to a wave of resignations by the company’s top workers.

In sum, teamwork matters because it’s fundamentally about taking responsibility: understanding that you have an obligation to others, that people are counting on you. These bonds matter, and they’re key not just to large businesses, but to every structure involving groups of human beings: family, tribe, village. Teamwork is the mechanism by which knowledge and skills ‘make it to market’, the tacit understanding and mutual trust that let products and services move from the basement lab to the bottom line.

It may not appear on any balance sheet, but strong teamwork is the most valuable asset any business can own, because in the end, any business is just the sum of its people.

FAULTS: I started slow on this one: one of those prompts that you know is important, but can’t immediately imagine how to articulate. Despite this, it’s a worthwhile effort, and follows a good structure. A 5/6.

Analysis of an Argument

(NOTE added 21aug2012: GMAT expert Mark Stewart has asserted his right to be identified as the author of the essay prompt in italics below, and has requested this link to his original source material, which I’m happy to provide.)

The following appeared in a memo from the sales director of Aura Cosmetics Company:
“The best way to reverse Aura Cosmetic’s recent decline in profitability is to require each new employee in Aura’s sales division to enroll in the popular SureSale seminar. Last year, the software company TechAide began incorporating SureSale’s week-long seminar into its training program for all new sales employees, and since that time TechAide’s total sales have increased dramatically. Also, according to a recent article in a reputable business magazine, the SureSale sales system has been widely adopted among the nation’s twenty largest companies, and the employee turnover rate at these companies is lower today than five years ago. Therefore, by enrolling Aura sales employees in the SureSale seminar Aura will also retain its highest caliber salespeople.”

Discuss how logically convincing you find this argument. In your discussion, you should analyze the argument’s line of reasoning and use of evidence. It may be appropriate in your critique to call into question certain assumptions underlying the argument and/or to indicate what evidence might weaken or strengthen the argument. It may also be appropriate to discuss how you would alter the argument to make it more convincing and/or discuss what additional evidence, if any, would aid in evaluating the argument.

My answer:

The Sales Director makes a reasonable assumption: that sales training for sales staff will increase their effectiveness. He backs up his assertion with evidence, citing SureSale’s track record in boosting sales and reducing staff turnover. However, by supporting his argument with examples of first a software vendor and then the top 20 blue-chips, he may be making unwarranted assumptions about whether the same approach will work for a cosmetics company – while his conclusion about retaining the highest calibre salespeople seems totally unsupported.

In the context of Aura’s decline in profitability, the Director’s argument seems strong. If the SureSale system has been effective for a software company, it may well be effective for a cosmetics group. However, it’s unclear whether Aura’s sales force (or, indeed, the software company) sells principally business-to-business, or directly to consumers. Is Aura’s sales department a squad of housewives selling to their friends at sponsored parties? This isn’t how software is sold, so the Director needs to produce evidence that the sales model of SureSale (not necessarily the products it has sold) is a good fit for Aura.

In addition, the Director talks about ‘profitability’, not ‘sales’. Have Aura’s sales actually risen, and the decline in profits is due to lower margins? If so, the problem may not lie in the sales department at all: perhaps the boffins in R&D need to use cheaper raw materials, or Marketing may need to examine its pricing model. To support his argument, the Director needs to back it up with a balance sheet as well as sales forecasts.

Furthermore, relying on a magazine article to support a major change in departmental strategy is a weak support for the argument. The article may have been advertorial (sponsored space) or have been placed by a PR firm, rather than being the output of a dispassionate journalist. The source of the article – and the evidence it contains – needs to be checked if the Director wishes to strengthen his case.

Finally, his conclusion about retaining his top sales staff seems illogical. A week-long seminar for all staff may lead to some improvement across the board, but five days won’t turn mediocrities into sales stars. Nor will it lead to any improvement in the people who matter most – the top sales people. In addition the prospect of a large number of newly-trained sales people all chasing the same leads may reduce opportunities for these top performers. Top sales people are motivated by having a thick stack of hot prospects to sell to, and the adoption of SureSale may demotivate the stars.

However, none of the above means the adoption of SureSale is definitely a bad idea. Indeed, the director may already have answers to all these issues. SureSale may be perfect for Aura’s business model, the magazine article may be a shining example of unbiased journalism, and the market for Aura’s products may be so huge that even a hundred better-trained sales staff would not exhaust its opportunities. The Director’s argument deserves further consideration. But approval of his plans must be tempered by a realistic evaluation of SureSale and Aura’s current finances, since desperation is not a great sales strategy.

FAULTS: Not bad: I’m now comfortable writing these. But this was a bit rushed towards the end: I only noticed the ‘profitability vs. sales’ point with a couple of minutes to spare, so the paragraph was hastily inserted. I’ll score myself a 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 21 (1st CAT test 590)

First time trying a practice GMAT onscreen, rather than on paper. As expected, a throwaway result: 33V/39Q giving 590. The problem: rushing. Doing it on a PC creates less tension when you’re choosing an answer, so I finished the Verbal section with over 30mins left, making 11 errors of the 41. On quant, I finished with 15mins plus left, and got 14 out of 37 wrong. Lesson learned: pace better.

Today’s essay practice:

Analysis of an Issue

“Graduate business courses with a technical component, such as accounting, marketing, or economics, should teach factual information and skills and should leave ethics to designated business ethics courses.”

Discuss whether you agree or disagree with the opinion above. Provide supporting evidence for your views and use reasons and/or examples from your own experiences, observations, or reading.

Ethics is an important subject, and should be part of every professional manager’s set of skills. But business ethics come into play during the application of knowledge, not the acquisition of it. That’s why I agree with this opinion. The learning of facts and methods is neither ethical nor unethical, since the manager has yet to apply them them to real situations … making ethics irrelevant.

Take accounting. A student working on a cost-benefit problem may face a situation where the figures support only one conclusion: that a factory must be closed for the business to remain profitable. In real life, many factors would contribute to a closure decision: public relations, market conditions, and simple human decency in wanting to help 400 workers keep their livelihoods. But in the trammelled world of the test paper, all the student needs is a Pass, and the correct answer is to close the factory doors. Applying ethics to this artificial situation clouds the issue.

In addition, including ethics in every course with a technical component – teaching the same values, repeatedly across courses – is a waste of resources. Accounting 101 should be about the hard facts of credits and debits, not a cocktail mixing numbers with the soft guidelines of business ethics. There are no ethics in addition and subtraction, and teaching time is too scarce a commodity to wander into other subject areas during a class on Macroeconomic Trends.

Furthermore, by teaching business ethics in a course of its own, it won’t be treated as an adjunct. Ethics 101 demonstrates that business ethic is a subject worthy of study in itself. And by making that course mandatory (as many colleges do) that course can give managers a broad base of ethical knowledge, applicable across all areas of their lives, not in a narrow context of a single subject.

In summary, I believe ethics should not be mixed into other courses … but not because the subject lacks importance; quite the opposite. Business Ethics deserves a course of its own, and stirring it into the curriculum as footnotes to other courses reduces its value. There is a time for acquiring knowledge, and a time for applying it, and ethics only become important at the application stage. Teach students the raw technical principles of each subject they study in detail, and they’ll be better equipped to apply business ethics at all times in their future careers, when the subjects they deal with are not on test papers, but are real people with real problems.

FAULTS: Typo in paragraph 4, but overall I think this is a pretty good essay. It makes an insightful point (application versus acquisition) and is well structured, with a nice balance between beginning and end. I’ll give myself a 6.

Analysis of an Argument

The following appeared as part of a letter to the editor in a local newspaper:

“The growth of radio, television, movies, and other forms of mass media has led to the loss of intellectual creativity and curiosity among average Americans. A few writers now tell stories to tens of millions of Americans through songs played on the radio, television shows, and popular movies. Where one hundred years ago average Americans used to actively tell their own stories to countless small audiences, most Americans are now passive members of a much greater audience, all mesmerized by the same mass media offerings and reduced to commenting on the quality of various movies, sporting events, pop songs, and reality TV shows.”

Examine this argument and present your judgement on how well reasoned it is. In your discussion, analyse the author’s position and how well the author uses evidence to support the argument. For example, you may need to question the author’s underlying assumptions or consider alternative explanations that may weaken the conclusion. You can also provide additional support for or arguments against the author’s position, describe how stating the argument differently may make it more reasonable, and discuss what provisions may equip you to evaluate its thesis.

The author raises a valid concern: that modern mass media has led to a decline in participation and creative interaction among Americans, substituting the shared experiences of a top-rated TV show for the private experiences of a few good friends. But his argument appears driven by emotion, not logic, and for this reason has several weaknesses.

For example, he argues that ‘average Americans used to actively tell their own stories’ – where is his evidence? It’s possible that the images we have of storytelling Americans – cowboys singing ballads around a campfire, travelling preachers, settlers of the Old West – seem ubiquitous because they are the most memorable, not the most common. A majority of Americans a century ago may well have demonstrated no deeper intellectual curiosity than most Americans today; working for a living, falling asleep at home, then repeating the cycle. The author’s romantic images of a bygone age may have involved far fewer people than he assumes, which weakens his main argument.

In addition, the author says nothing about new forms of media that have taken storytelling and personal experience to a new level: blogging on the Web, texting on mobile phones, telephone chatlines. Normal people are still telling their stories, and they have many more options for doing so; however, the author makes no comparisons and gives no evidence. It’s possible that intellectual curiosity – the desire to know how the world works -is, on average, even greater today than it was one hundred years ago.

Finally, the author assumes that the explosion of ‘pop culture’ – TV shows, pop music, movies – reduces the opportunity for the sharing of personal experience. This is questionable, on two counts. First, large-scale ‘media events’ may provide a platform for shared experience in a fragmented world – a platform that enables the telling of fresh stories, as people connect over the Web to discuss their experiences of last night’s stadium concert. Second, being a ‘passive member’ of one audience doesn’t preclude anyone from being an active member of another. Tom Trailer-Park may spend eight hours on Sunday watching SuperBowl reruns, but on Saturdays he may be the star of a barbecue cookout, swapping stories with dozens of friends. The author implies one activity makes the other less likely to happen, which is not a conclusion that can be easily drawn from available evidence.

Despite these weaknesses, the argument remains a valid concern, since if everyone spent eight hours a night watching TV from the sofa, today’s society would indeed be the poor relation of yesteryear the author envisages. But without hard data – from both today’s society and that of a century ago – his argument lacks solidity. In fact, the onslaught of mass media and shared experience may well make the average American’s life broader and more creative than ever before. Being part of one big audience doesn’t stop you also being part of many smaller ones, and when it’s unclear how many Americans ever participated in the constant intellectual exchanges the author imagines, his argument does not hold water.

FAULTS: A bit wordy – I think this is my longest practice essay! But again it makes some good points, and I think it’s worth a 6. One caveat: running away with evidence against the argument makes for long paragraphs that repeat things, and also less time for proofing at the end, although I can’t see any typos. But overall I’d be happy if I submitted this essay during the GMAT.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: ideal structure for Analysis of an Argument

Here’s my model for the 30-minute Analysis of an Argument question, arranged in the same five-paragraph structure I tend to use.

(Update 01 June 2007: I scored perfect 6’s for both my GMAT essays, which suggests these plans work!)

Write a topic sentence that sums up what the author is saying in a few words. State whether the argument is strong or weak, and state the main strength or weakness of the argument in plain simple language.

In the second paragraph, explore the strong side of the argument (if you think it’s strong) or the weak side (if you think it’s weak.) State the assumptions he makes, and whether it’s reasonable or not reasonable to draw his conclusion from these assumptions.

In the third paragraph, explore the use of evidence. State whether each piece of evidence directly supports, indirectly supports, or does not support the argument. Give counterexamples: could this evidence be used to support the opposite conclusion?

In the fourth paragraph, switch your viewpoint and explore the other side of the argument. How it could be stronger (if you think it’s weak) or what might make it weaker (if you think it’s strong.) State whether these reasons affect the ultimate strength or weakness of the argument and admit there’s room for doubt.

In the concluding paragraph, sum up why the argument is strong or weak. Finish with a pithy phrase, such as ‘beliefs are not evidence’, that sums up the main strength or weakness of the argument.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 19 (result: 740)

A 740. Not bad. If I can maintain this orbitting around the 750 level I’ll be happy. 108 questions, 56V and 52Q, and 11 wrong leading to corrected scores of 51V/42Q. Here are today’s practice essays.

ANALYSIS OF AN ISSUE
Time—30 minutes
Directions: In this section, you will need to analyze the issue presented below and explain your views on it. The question has no “correct” answer. Instead, you should consider various perspectives as you develop your own position on the issue.

“Companies should not try to improve employees’ performance by giving incentives—for example, awards or gifts. Incentives encourage negative kinds of behavior instead of encouraging a genuine interest in doing the work well.”
Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion stated above. Support your views with reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

In the author’s imagination, every employee is capable of taking such deep delight in his job that he needs nothing further, sitting in a cubicle under harsh fluorescent striplights for the sheer joy of it. That rose-tinted world doesn’t exist, which is why I strongly disagree with this statement. Incentives – everything from sales commission to an employee-of-the-month certificate – can add meaning and purpose to a worker’s life, and are a legitimate means of fostering workforce enthusiasm.

The statement assumes that the desire to do a good job and the desire to be rewarded with an incentive are mutually exclusive. They’re not. If a sales executive has spent a month of evenings sweating over a complex proposal, giving up his own time and family life to contribute to the success of his employer, what’s wrong with that employer rewarding him for it? A week at a Hawaii Beach Resort in return for landing a £1m customer isn’t a carrot dangled cynically over the salesman’s head; it’s a reason for him to work hard. And, thus rewarded, the employee will feel closer to his employer. The right incentives make an employee more enthusiastic about his job, not less.

In addition, incentives aren’t given in isolation; they’re a means of keeping score. A fast-food restaurant handing over an occasional £10 voucher to its Employee-of-the-Month creates a desire among its other staff to try harder, to make that voucher theirs next time around. And how will they try harder? By going the extra mile, serving customers with a smile, making their employer’s business more successful. Particularly in low-income professions – for example, cleaning toilets or flipping burgers – a small incentive can make an unpleasant job just a little more bearable.

From burger chefs to bankers, the principle of employee incentives applies across all business sectors. It was Napoleon who said on creating a new medal, ‘By such baubles are men led’. His outlook might have been cynical, but its effects – millions of men prepared to die for him – were positive. (At least from Napoleon’s viewpoint.) Few workers take so much delight in their work that they never need praise, acknowledgement, or a reason to keep doing it.

In summary: the author of this statement needs to live in the real world. Incentives do not, as he supposes, have a negative effect on the ‘genuine interest in doing the work well’; they complement this genuine interest. A worker may enjoy his work and provide an excellent service, but incentives can provide the frisson of happiness that makes his career meaningful. Which, of course, provides the most basic justification to hand out incentives in any case: happier workers deliver better work.

FAULTS: An okay essay, but I felt I repeated myself a bit. I’ll score myself a 5.

ANALYSIS OF AN ARGUMENT
Time—30 minutes
Directions: In this section you will he asked to write a critique of the argument presented below. You are NOT being asked to present your own views on the subject. Read the argument and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response.

The following appeared as part of a recommendation from the business manager of a department store.
“Local clothing stores reported that their profits decreased, on average, for the three-month period between August 1 and October 31. Stores that sell products for the home reported that, on average, their profits increased during this same period. Clearly, customers are choosing to buy products for their homes instead of clothing. To take advantage of this trend, we should reduce the size of our clothing departments and enlarge our home furnishings and household products departments.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In you discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

The store manager appears to be ignoring a factor of vital importance to any retail business: the effect of seasonal variations on buying patterns. In addition, it is unclear whether he plans to refit his store as a permanent fixture, or for temporary advantage. His argument is weak, and unless he can supply further information, will remain so.

The first information we need relates to historical sales patterns. Does he have the sales data of local clothing and home products stores for previous years… and year-round, not limited to one Autumn quarter? A boost in furniture sales and a blip in clothing may be seasonal trends that happen every year. In which case, clothing sales may be about to surge as Winter approaches, and his argument for refitting his store is invalid.

Information about the current profile of his own store would also help. Is his store famous for clothing, or for furnishings, or for something else entirely? Many businesses have ‘star performers’: departments which produce 80% of the store’s total profits. If clothing is his store’s strength, the manager’s move into home products may again be unsupportable.

Furthermore, the manager must define what he means by ‘products for the home’. Fitted kitchens, carpets, expensive white goods and cheap wallpaper all appear in this category, and many such products are sold in a variety of stores, from hardware shops to furniture showrooms. The argument does not even specify whether these stores sell home products exclusively; plenty of 7-11 stores sell wine glasses and tablemats.

Finally, there’s a question mark over audience and timing. It’s perfectly possible that the manager is speaking to an audience of retail experts – who perhaps know that a store manager, in this context, would only ever be referring to a seasonal refit. This context simply isn’t clear. Nor do we know the date he’s putting this argument forward – perhaps his recommendation is dated June or July, and the store refit is planned for the upcoming August-October quarter, in which case his argument may be perfectly reasonable.

The store manager may be making an excellent case – but too much information is missing for us to judge. Until this further information is available, we must treat the argument as unsupportable. The manager, after all, should know that ‘retail is detail’.

FAULTS: Not a bad essay – but it’s easy in these types of essay to treat the one obvious point, about seasonal variations, as the only point worth making. The main hole in the argument is the context in which the manager’s speaking, not necessarily his apparent ignorance of the seasons. Finished the last sentence a scant second before timeout, so no time for proofing, but I can’t see any typos. A 6 I think.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 17 (result: 760)

A 760 on today’s practice test. I think that’s called a ‘result’: comfortably past the 99th percentile (i.e. beating 99% of the people who take this test). 108 questions, 52Q and 56V, with 11 errors giving me corrected raw scores of 44Q/50V, despite getting 5 wrong near the end of one section. Analysis tomorrow; here are the essays…

What this suggests is I’m starting to internalise the underlying formats and structures of many GMAT questions, hardwiring my brain to recognise which methods I need to use to solve each question.

ANALYSIS OF AN ARGUMENT

Time—30 minutes
Directions: In this section, you will be asked to write a critique of the argument presented below. You are NOT being asked to present your own views on the subject. Read the argument and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response.

The following appeared in a memorandum to the planning department of an investment firm.

“Costs have begun dropping for several types of equipment currently used to convert solar energy into electricity. Moreover, some exciting new technologies for converting solar energy are now being researched and developed. Hence we can expect that solar energy will soon become more cost efficient and attractive than coal or oil as a source of electrical power. We should, therefore, encourage investment in Solario, a new manufacturer of solar-powered products. After all, Solario’s chief executive was once on the financial planning team for Ready-to-Ware, a software engineering firm that has shown remarkable growth since its recent incorporation.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

The writer makes a reasonable business case for investing in Sontario, given the space limits of a memo. But – as with any investment – the planning department would need to conduct further research to confirm the validity of the proposal.

The writer reasons that the positive trends in the solar energy sector – falling equipment costs, exciting new technology – demonstrate the attractiveness of the sector as a whole. This broad-brush claim needs analysing first. Are equipment costs falling because of improved business methods and better process engineering, or something not driven by the industry itself, such as a short-term drop in the price of raw materials? Without a clear causal link with the ingenuity of the industry, the falling costs alone don’t constitute a reason to invest.

In addition, the memo uses the attractiveness of the solar energy industry as a whole to support investing in Solario in particular. Is this justified? Solario doesn’t make solar panels; it makes products powered by solar energy, which isn’t the same activity. This suggests that Solario’s success will be dependent on the success of the solar industry, rather than Solario itself being a key driver of the industry. Solario appears to be a second-tier player rather than a prime mover, and the investment team needs to look closely at how dependent the company is on the success of others.

Furthermore, the investment team needs to look beyond the solar energy industry and to the energy sector in general. Do the falling costs driving adoption of solar energy over fossil fuels represent a trend or a blip? If oil prices have been rising and are likely to continue doing so, then solar energy companies (and perhaps Solario in particular) may well be a good investment. Investment is about good timing, and if one major oil discovery is the difference between an investment’s success and failure, the investors may benefit from a cautious approach.

Narrowing down, the Chief Executive’s former role in a software company is not as negative as it first appears. Environmentally friendly firms have a reputation for being run on philosophical lines rather than sound financial sense, and Ready-to-Ware’s success in the market may well be a plus point for the competence of the CEO. His experience, albeit in a different industry, is on balance a plus point for the argument – with the caveat that his involvement with Ready-to-Ware ended some time ago.

In summary, the memo’s argument presents a reasonable case for investing in the solar industry – but not necessarily in Solario itself. The memo’s author conflates the potential of an entire industry with the potential of a single player within it… and this weakens the argument. The investment team parks its money not in industries, but in individual companies. It must make its decision based on Solario’s balance sheet and market potential, not on the basis of a good idea.

FAULTS: pleased with this one, finished just seconds before the 30min limit. But a monster typos – why did I write ‘Sontario’??? At least I picked up on something many GMAT takers will miss: Solario makes products, not panels. And I shouldn’t have repeated ‘reasonable business case’ at the beginning and end, especially since I don’t use them to make the same point. Probably a 5 for this essay.

ANALYSIS OF AN ISSUE

Time—30 minutes
Directions: In this section, you will need to analyze the issue presented below and explain your views on it. The question has no “correct” answer. Instead, you should consider various perspectives as you develop your own position on the issue. Read the statement and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response.

“The best strategy for managing a business, or any enterprise, is to find the most capable people and give them as much authority as possible.”

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion stated above. Support your views with reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

In business, people are everything, and capable people are the biggest asset any business can have. That’s why I agree strongly with the statement – with a single caveat: giving out authority in such measure must be accompanied by some fundamental ground rules.

To function as a coherent unit, an organisation’s people must work together. (However capable they are!) If Fred in R&D reasons that ten new hires would add £1m to billings, but Rebecca in HR needs to lose 20% of headcount – each having full authority to act – then the net result may not be positive for the company. Authority should be given out in well-defined chunks, and reporting lines made clear. Authority within each employee’s departmental function is a terrific idea; authority across-the-board, with overlapping opinions, leads to conflict and wasted resources.

In addition, a company’s board must remember that competency in one area doesn’t reflect expertise in another. For example, many world-class programmers are extremely poor at managing people; an expert coder given authority over hiring and firing may not have the skills to recognise the right balance of technical skills and team spirit needed for any large project. When giving people authority, it should be on the basis of what they’re best at, so they can wield that authority with confidence and gravitas.

Furthermore, with authority must go responsibility. If people are given the authority to take decisions, they must be aware that they are responsible for the consequences. An organisation where everyone takes responsibility for their actions is a strong organisation, because its people know they can trust each other not to ‘pass the buck’.

Finally, when granting authority, it’s important to remember that power is of little use without direction. People with authority to act still need leaders; the handing out of authority does not lessen the importance of managers and the CEO. Employees need to know what goals their authority is supposed to support, and the setting of those goals (company strategy) is a job for leaders.

Despite these points, giving people as much authority as possible remains an excellent idea which I fully agree with. Because my points above don’t diminish the power of authority; they enhance it. People will, I believe, be much happier accepting their authoritative powers if the rules are made clear first. Even when constrained by functional competency and departmental reach, there’s plenty of authority to go around.

FAULTS: finished this one early, but it’s no worse for it. I feel I’m getting stronger at ‘focussing on the question’, without going off on tangents. Can I award myself a 6 for this?

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 15 (result: 700)

ALmost back on track: 700/800. Should have hit 710 today to be fully on track. But from here on in it’s going to get really hard. 107 practice questions, with raw scores of 51/55V and 42/52Q, correcting to 50 and 40 for a total corrected raw score of 90. Here are the essays…

ANALYSIS OF AN ISSUE

Directions: In this section, you will need to analyze the issue presented below and explain your views on it. The question has no “correct” answer. Instead, you should consider various perspectives as you develop your own position on the issue. Read the statement and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response.

“Employees should keep their private lives and personal activities as separate as possible from the workplace.”

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion stated above. Support your views with reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

Every boss must have moments where he wishes his employees were faceless robots with no existence beyond the cubicle wall. They’d be easier to deal with. But the tasks of real business – messy, ill-defined, nuanced – need human skills. That’s why I disagree with the opinion above: the most effective companies are staffed by real people with real lives, and if you want an effective business, you need to take the messiness of real people into account.

To take one example, Internet search engine Google has staff laundries, an onsite medical clinic, play areas and free food for its staff. By making such ‘non-work’ facilities available at the office, it’s explicitly recognising that it can get the best out of its people by letting them bring their home lives into the office. As a result Google, along with many companies in Silicon Valley, is widely regarded as a buzzy and vibrant place to work: each of its employees contributes, on average, over $1m to the bottom line.

Conversely, look at any organisation that tries to deny the realities of human life. Banning personal relationships between employees, infantilising adults with speech codes and behaviour guides, trying to drive a wedge between the working day and the rest of life with endless red tape and rules. The best example comes easily to mind: any government office. And government offices, as anyone who deals regularly with one knows, tend to be staffed by unhelpful, one-dimensional, more-than-my-jobs-worth worker drones. By denying people lives, they attract employees who have no lives. Organisations that deny there’s a life beyond 6pm are unhappy, dysfunctional places.

By recognising that people have private lives, full of ideas and dreams, any manager will find that the hardest job of all – finding great people – becomes easier. Because with this understanding he can attract talent from a deep and varied pool. People who aren’t willing to check their private lives at the office door have ambition and drive and intellect, valuable qualities to any employer. And by letting them bring those lives into work – at least partially – they’ll start to treat the company as part of their lives, too. And people who share that sense of ownership are the best employees any manager can have.

FAULTS: Whew, harder than it looks: such an interesting and emotive topic brings the problem of too many ideas, so I was struggling to pare them down to the few points I could make in 30 minutes. And argh! That ‘and government offices’ in the third para; why is the ‘and’ there? And there’s And there again, starting the last two sentences of the last para! I think this is a great essay; but if I’d only had one more minute to tidy up that last bit. I’ll score myself a 5.

ANALYSIS OF AN ARGUMENT

Directions: In this section, you will be asked to write a critique of the argument presented below. You are NOT being asked to present your own views on the subject. Read the argument and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response.

The following appeared as part of a recommendation by one of the directors of the Beta Company.

“The Alpha Company has just reduced its workforce by laying off fifteen percent of its employees in all divisions and at all levels, and it is encouraging early retirement for other employees. As you know, the Beta Company manufactures some products similar to Alpha’s, but our profits have fallen over the last few years. To improve Beta’s competitive position, we should try to hire a significant number of Alpha’s former workers, since these experienced workers can provide valuable information about Alpha’s successful methods, will require little training, and will be particularly motivated to compete against Alpha.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

The director’s plan will bring some motivated and knowledgeable staff into the Beta company. So the argument may put forward a reasonable strategy for Beta – but further research would be useful before putting it into action.

First, what market are the two companies in? ‘In all divisions and at all levels’ suggest Alpha’s problem is not localised, and that its entire market may be shrinking. If Beta Company is in the same sector, then adding headcount may not be a good idea: rather than improve Beta’s competitive position it may make it worse, since the Beta directors would be increasing their costs at the same time as the Alpha directors are cutting theirs! To support his argument, the director needs to demonstrate reasonable growth potential in the market space where his company competes with Alpha.

Second, how much commonality is there between the two companies’ product lines? ‘Some products’ does not mean ‘all products’. The director needs to state which products in Beta Company’s portfolio would become more profitable with the input of ex-Alpha employees, and whether the market potential justifies the new hiring costs. If the products in this category are not a major part of Beta’s revenues – or worse, are lossmakers – the director’s argument is weakened.

Third, is there some deeper problem in Company Alpha causing these layoffs – perhaps a general attitude problem on the part of its workers? When starting at a new company, employees often bring their emotional baggage with them; the director cannot assume ex-Alpha workers with a grudge will become star performers at Beta. And as for their ‘successful methods’ – Alpha’s plan to cut 15% out of its workforce hardly suggests its ‘success’ is unquestioned.

Finally, since Beta Company’s profits have been declining too, indulging in a hiring frenzy is hardly likely to help these profits recover in time for the next earnings report. The director assumes that people will bring profits – which can’t be assumed. Even the most motivated employees won’t add to Beta’s bottom line unless the products they create are profitable.

To sum up, the director’s argument contains too much hope and not enough evidence. He needs to demonstrate a clear business case for hiring ex-Alpha workers, based on the market potential, the product portfolio, and Beta’s own financial position. Beta Company may well be looking at a great opportunity – but the best-run businesses look at the numbers first.

FAULTS: Seemed an easier essay to write, but I keep repeating myself; I’m not sure this is more than a 5/6. At least I got the structure quickly, which left me six minutes at the end to proof read and cut a bit.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 13 (result: 690)

OK, I’ve hit the hump. Officially. Three 690s in a row, but I think I know why, and I’ve decided once again: those GMAT people are clever bastards.

Practice tests contain questions mixed in difficulty. To simulate the Computer Adaptive nature of the real GMAT – where questions get harder as you get more right in a row – many practice tests are split into sections in a way the real GMAT isn’t: six sections of reading comprehension, critical reasoning, sentence correction, two kinds of problem solving, and data sufficiency. One of these sections will be VERY HARD.

What this does is simulate your actual GMAT score rather accurately. Here’s why:

If all the questions in a section are above your ability, you’ll get a large number in that section wrong, and the method of working out your simulated score out of 800 – which involves ‘corrected raw scores’ – drives your score for that section down by a disproportionate amount. (To get a corrected raw score you take the number of questions you got wrong for Q or V in total, divide it by 4, subtract that figure from your total right, add 0.5, and ignore anything on the right of the decimal point. That’s your corrected raw score, at least for these on-paper practice tests.)

If all the sections were of equal toughness, then once your abilities reached a certain level you’d score basically 100% on every question, and the which means that figure divided by 4 plus 0.5 will decrease your corrected raw score by a higher amount… leading to greater GMAT accuracy. I think.

Today’s sentence correction questions were hard, and it shows: 3 wrong and a further 5 (which I’ll review tomorrow) I was very doubtful about, in just 22 questions.

Today’s essays…

ANALYSIS OF AN ARGUMENT

Directions: In this section, you will be asked to write a critique of the argument presented below. Note that you are not being asked to present your own views on the subject. Instead, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking, what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion, or what sort of evidence could help strengthen or refute the argument. Time—30 minutes

The following appeared in a magazine article on trends and lifestyles.

“In general, people are not as concerned as they were a decade ago about regulating their intake of red meat and fatty cheeses. Walk into the Heart’s Delight, a store that started selling organic fruits and vegetables and wholegrain flours in the 1960’s, and you will also find a wide selection of cheeses made with high butterfat content. Next door, the owners of the Good Earth Café, an old vegetarian restaurant, are still making a modest living, but the owners of the new House of Beef across the street are millionaires.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion, be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. You can also discuss what, if anything, would make the argument more sound and persuasive or would help you to better evaluate its conclusion.

The merits of wholegrains over animal fats are worthy of crunchy debate, but the author fails to put his case convincingly. His position is that a snapshot of local retailers suggests consumers are not concerned about the health risks of cheese and meat – but economics may not correlate with attitudes.

Questioning his first point: how long has the Heart’s Delight been selling cheese? Perhaps longer than ten years? The store’s opening focus on wholegrains and organic produce may have coalesced out of the hippy movement, rather than the health boom; in this case, the store’s marketing strategy is about novelty, not health, and the varieties of cheese on its shelves may simply be a response to a fad.

Similarly, his second source, the success of a steakhouse, also looks at the matter from a questionable perspective. The economic success of one restaurant is no guide to the popularity of a cuisine; the House of Beef may be managed by professional managers and the Good Earth Cafe by well-meaning but confused bohemians. Or perhaps prime beef carries a much higher profit margin at retail. Comparing the two restaurants is comparing oranges and apples. (Or in this case, lentil soup and Porterhouse steaks.)

Finally, have people EVER been concerned about their ‘intake’ of red meat and fatty cheeses? Decades back, the West’s economy was weaker than today; for many people cheese and meat were expensive luxuries. (In 1960s Britain, ‘A chicken in every pot’ was the proud election slogan of a Prime Minister!) If consumers previously showed a preference for carrots and beans over Roquefort and fillet mignon, the decision may have been made by their pockets rather than their stomachs.

To sum up, a long economic boom in the West has led to higher disposable incomes and greater consumer choice. (Outside France and Italy, how many varieties of cheese were even obtainable on any 1960s High Street?) This increased choice may well have led to higher consumption of animal fats; it may even be attributable to a decline in concerns over health. But the pieces of evidence the author presents do not add weight to his argument. Correlation is not causation.

FAULTS: Quite a good essay; it uses more concrete language (naming cheeses and meats rather than using generic nouns, to add colour) and each point adds weight to the case against. But am I more concerned with beating the author up, rather than examining his evidence? Something to watch. I’ll give myself a 5.

ANALYSIS OF AN ISSUE

Directions: In this section, you will need to analyze the issue presented below and explain your views on it. The question has no “correct” answer. Instead, you should consider various perspectives as you develop your own position on the issue. Read the statement and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response.

“The rise of multinational corporations is leading to global homogeneity*. People everywhere are beginning to want the same products and services, and regional differences are rapidly disappearing.” *homogeneity: sameness, similarity

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion expressed above. Support your point of view with reasons and/or examples based on your own experiences, your observations, or your reading.

It’s true that many High Streets look remarkably similar these days: a Gap, a Starbucks, a Barclays. And the business pages contain the same global names: Microsoft, Nike, CNN. But these world-girdling corporations are also driving economic expansion – and in a growing economy, variety and freshness can thrive.

Global names expand opportunities for smaller businesses, by creating an environment in which the niche and the customised can find markets. When Howard Schultz opened the first Starbucks, the idea of paying $3 for a coffee – let alone choosing from six bean-growing nations or an extra shot of espresso – seemed absurd. Yet a billion consumers have since been educated to appreciate great coffee. And the number of specialist coffee houses has grown massively on the back of this trend.

Similarly, would the world’s £67bn software industry exist without Microsoft? Like it or hate it, Windows provides a standard platform on which innovation can grow. If the market for a software application runs to 400 million people – rather than a hodgepodge bunch of enthusiasts all running different operating systems – that software application becomes a viable business, with a greater chance of attracting venture capital funding and motivated people.

And global corporations aren’t just about products; they’re about people, too. Global businesses create worldwide standards for jobs, professional qualifications, languages. Go to China for hardware engineers, India for software developers – they’ll all speak English, but none of them have lost their knowledge of Mandarin and Hindi to do so. Global corporations don’t necessarily crowd out local skills; in many cases they add to them, by providing people with economic opportunities their parents never had. The world’s middle class is growing rapidly, and that means more customers… for businesses of all sizes.

In summary: I believe the influence of global business is far from homogenising. They may take a large share of the pie, but in doing so, they grow the pie itself, providing a slice for the local, the fresh, and the new. Innovation thrives at the edges, and global corporations provide the platform without which that edge wouldn’t exist.

FAULTS: Ouch, ‘without which’ in the last para – should have fixed that. But using plenty of brand names makes this essay nice and concrete. I’m pretty sure this’d get a 6.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 11 (result: 690)

Another 690! That shows what rushing your review of wrong answers gets you. In other words, it’s time to knuckle down and study some algebra instead of winging it. (OK, I haven’t really hit the books yet, trying to ‘learn’ by going over questions instead.) Here are the essays; analysis of wrong ‘uns tomorrow.

Analysis of an issue

Directions: In this section, you will need to analyze the issue presented below and explain your views on it. The question has no “correct” answer. Instead, you should consider various perspectives as you develop your own position on the issue. Read the statement and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response. Begin writing your response on the separate answer document. Make sure that you use the answer document that goes with this writing task.

“Everywhere, it seems, there are clear and positive signs that people are becoming more respectful of one another’s differences.” In your opinion, how accurate is the view expressed above? Use reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading to develop your position.

Race relations legislation. Religious hatred laws. Company diversity policies. It’s certainly true that people are more aware than ever of race, faith, and gender differences. But does this increased awareness really equal increased respect? I’d like to think so – but I fear the opposite’s the case.

Take the thicket of race relations bills that occupies so much legislative energy. In Britain, fewer than two hundred ‘racially motivated attacks’ are reported to police each year – most of them relating to minor jostling or namecalling. Does such a thankfully small problem really warrant the thousands of hours spent each year on ‘diversity issues’ by politicians, public servants, and business people? Even small companies spend thousands of pounds on ‘diversity training’. In my opinion, this does not signify increased respect for differences – rather, it signifies the fear of being perceived as politically incorrect. Such legislative overkill may reduce respect between people of different races in the long run.

In a similar vein, religious hatred laws often seem to close down debate and limit freedom of speech, rather than make life safer for religious people. If someone’s religious faith is secure, doesn’t that mean it’s capable of taking the odd bit of criticism? Many people who don’t follow a faith are regularly made to feel intimidated by those demanding ‘respect’ for whatever private beliefs they hold – people emboldened by well-meant but misguided laws. Again, the ‘clear and positive signs’ seem to signal awareness of differences, not respect for them.

Finally, this raised awareness can all too often be interpreted as favouritism, rather than equality. The vast ‘diversity industry’ that styles itself as the arbiter of all that’s correct tends to be quick to take offence, to see insult in everything in order to justify its own existence (and frequently public funding.) Again, this drives resentment among non-prejudiced people who are constantly being told their actions ‘might be seen as discriminatory’ by some undefined person, somewhere.

In summary, I believe that diversity isn’t best served by constantly drawing attention to our differences. Respect could better be built by fostering an awareness of what we have in common, not what keeps us apart. I’m interested in you as an individual, and don’t particularly care about your race/colour/religion. Stop trying to MAKE me care!

UPDATE 29 May 2007: This essay prompt, by a 1-in-15 or so chance (there are a total of 285 essay prompts in the GMAT pool, and I’ve done about 10 in practice) actually appeared as one of my essays in the real GMAT! Where it showed, incidentally, that there’s no point in learning the list of essay subjects; for me, having tackled this prompt before actually proved a handicap, since I was trying to remember what I’d written in practice rather than apply my reasoning in real time. At least I still aced it.

FAULTS: Hmmm, am I on a soapbox here? I think I tackle the point okay, but trying to recontextualise the point as about awareness rather than respect may be going a bit far. I’ll score myself a 5.

Analysis of an argument

Directions: In this section, you will be asked to write a critique of the argument presented below. You are NOT being asked to present your own views on the subject. Read the argument and the instructions that follow it, and then make any notes in your test booklet that will help you plan your response. Begin writing your response on the separate answer document. Make sure that you use the answer document that goes with this writing task.

The following is from a campaign by Big Boards, Inc., to convince companies in River City that their sales will increase if they use Big Boards billboards for advertising their locally manufactured products. “The potential of Big Boards to increase sales of your products can be seen from an experiment we conducted last year. We increased public awareness of the name of the current national women’s marathon champion by publishing her picture and her name on billboards in River City for a period of three months. Before this time, although the champion had just won her title and was receiving extensive national publicity, only five percent of the 15,000 randomly surveyed residents of River City could correctly name the champion when shown her picture; after the three-month advertising experiment, 35 percent of respondents from a second survey could supply her name.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more sound and persuasive, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

Does the choice of an outdoor advertising medium increase public awareness of the product being advertised? Big Boards’ case is reasonable, but far from watertight. The example given – a mediagenic marathon runner, rather than a non-glamorous manufactured product – suggests any local manufacturer interested in advertising should scrutinise Big Boards’ figures further.

Firstly, the runner was in the news anyway. If the ‘extensive national publicity’ surrounding her remained strong during the campaign’s three-month lifetime, it may have boosted public awareness of her name; the 35% of River City residents who recalled it may have been prompted by newspapers or TV reports, not a face plastered across the town’s billboards. Celebrities have higher name recognition than many manufactured products!

Secondly, the quote doesn’t confirm whether the respondents for both surveys were in the same demographic group. Gender, average age, even the time of day a survey was conducted can influence results. A first survey of bored grandparents and a second survey of sports-mad teenagers might have produced the same impressive-looking percentage hike – but would have been completely invalid.

Finally, different media choices work for different classes of product. (And classes of people!) $15m spent on billboards in Australia by a phone company famously got a major advertising agency the sack a few years ago. Further research would be useful on whether any locally manufactured products have ever been advertised on billboards… and what the results were.

However, despite these factors, Big Boards makes a fair claim about billboard advertising being a worthwhile media choice. Correlation is not causation, but nor is advertising an exact science; and for many advertisers, such a strong correlation between a campaign and subsequent awareness of its content would be enough.

FAULTS: Despite the dream subject (my home turf, advertising) I was struggling to find things to say here; is it a bit repetitive? I’ve nailed the main point against the argument, but it was an easy one which won’t excite any examiner. No typos, though, so the computer will probably give it a 6 for variety; I’m guessing the human marker would give me a 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 9 (result: 690)

Whew, that was close. By one raw-adjusted point, I hit 690, maintaining my target of rising 10 points each practice test. I’m making fewer maths errors – my critical eye for question types is starting to become experienced – but dropped a few on the verbals. This test seemed more difficult than the last.

Today’s essay practice:

Analysis of an argument

The following appeared as part of an article in the business section of a local newspaper.

‘Motorcycle X has been manufactured in the United States for over 70 years. Although one foreign company has copied the motorcycle and is selling it for less, the company has failed to attract motorcycle X customers – some say because its product lacks the exceptionally loud noise made by motorcycle X. But there must be some other explanation. After all, foreign cars tend to be quieter that similar American-made cars, but they sell at least as well. Also, television advertisements for motorcycle X highlight its durability and sleek lines, not its noisiness, and the ads typically have voice-overs or rock music rather than engine-roar on the sound track.’

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In explaining your point of view, be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. Also discuss what, if anything, would make the argument more sound and persuasive, or would help you to better evaluate its conclusion.

The argument as presented is incomplete – and therefore poorly reasoned. The author implies that engineering is the only factor affecting a motorcycle buyer’s decision. Yet the decision to buy a motorcycle – indeed, any consumer product – depends at least in part on something else: its brand image.

Motorcycle X has been around for seven decades; it has weathered wars, recessions, and cheaper Asian imports. Its buyers may value their machines at least partly for the romance of this story. Even if the copy is of equal engineering excellence, the copy will find it hard to compete with the original; perhaps a bike can be duplicated, but a fascinating company history can’t. Yet the author fails to take this into account.

Similarly, engine noise alone is attractive only in the context of brand personality. The USA’s Harley-Davidson, for example, has patented its machines’ exhaust roar, so obviously a distinctive engine note has value. However, even if a copy could reproduce the Harley engine note exactly, it would be unlikely to attract true Harley buyers – because a strong brand image builds customer loyalty. Customer are buying the lifestyle evoked by the engine note, not how loud it is.

Nor is the author’s argument advanced by the reference to quieter cars. Cars are not motorcycles, and car buyers aren’t motorcycle buyers; a motorcycle buyer isn’t thinking about his bike’s practicality for shopping or the school run. The buying decision for a motorcycle is highly emotional. (If the author narrowed his argument to refer to sports cars only – also an emotionally-led decision – it might have more validity.) Perhaps advertisements for Motorcycle X concentrate on sleek lines and a rock soundtrack, but both these things also contribute to emotionality, not practicality.

In summary: this argument neglects the importance of brand. In any buying decision where emotion plays a part, brand image cannot be ignored, and so the author’s argument needs to take account of further factors to be valid.

FAULTS: I’d seen this question before, so felt out of sorts writing another essay on the same thing… but it’s not bad for that. But did I not concentrate enough on the core point of the prompt, about engine noise? This should have been an essay about why engine noise means nothing, rather than brand image I think. The last para feels clumsy, but I can’t see any typos. I’ll score myself a 5.

Analysis of an issue

Some employers who recruit recent college graduates for entry-level jobs evaluate applicants only on their performance in business courses such as accounting, marketing, and economics. However, other employers also expect applicants to have a broad background in such courses as history, literature, and philosophy.

Do you think that, in the application process, employers should emphasize one type of background –either specialization in business courses or a more varied academic preparation – over the other? Why or why not? Develop your position by using reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

For a specialised job such as civil engineering or database programming, employers may well benefit from recruiting people with a narrow range of qualifications. But for an entry-level post, where the candidate is expected to develop fresh skills and knowledge on the job, I believe the opposite is true of his background: the broader the better.

This is because the employer is recruiting a person, not a set of qualifications. A candidate’s performance at work is only partly due to her functional competency; results are also dictated by her ability to work with colleagues, to absorb new information, and to make decisions. My view is that a candidate with a broad education – including, perhaps, knowledge of the great ideas of philosophy and literature – is more likely to function effectively in a team than someone with great technical ability but little experience of the world’s rich patterns. Knowledge is one thing; the ability to apply it is another.

Furthermore, my belief here is not limited to entry-level jobs, nor jobs exclusively in the business world. A medical doctor, for example, obviously needs specialist training – but think of the larger part of his job: interacting with patients, reassuring them, understanding their fears. A broad knowledge of the world will allow the doctor to empathise with patients of various cultures and backgrounds. If a patient feels his doctor is taking an interest in him as a human being (rather than as an abstract case study) the patient is likely to feel more positive about his treatment and recovery.

Finally, aside from any employer goal, the job seeker himself should value a broad education for the perspective it gives; a broad education results in flexible, well-rounded people. If he’s interested in a range of subjects, he will grow old well-rounded and interesting. And in the intervening decades, his performance at work will be well-rounded and interesting too.

FAULTS: A good essay, I think. I’d have changed the last sentence of the first para though, to ‘I believe the opposite is true: the broader his background, the better’. Taking the ‘entry level’ as my first point, it segues into the broader point about recruitment in general, and ends on a warm note. Can’t see any typos; I’ll score myself a 6 here.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 7 (result: 680)

My fourth practice test gave me 680. Also, I scored my first ‘perfect’ sections – reading comprehension and critical reasoning – so I’m up to snuff on 2 of the 5 basic question types (reading comprehension, sentence correction, and critical reasoning for verbal; problem solving and data sufficiency in quant.)

Here are the essay practices; wrong questions post-mortem’d tommorow.

Analysis of an argument

The following appeared in a memorandum from the directors of a security and safety consulting service.

‘Our research indicates that over the past six years no incidents of employee theft have been reported within ten of the companies that have been our clients. In analyzing the security practices of these ten companies, we have further learned that each of them requires its employees to wear photo identification badges while at work. In the future, therefore, we should recommend the use of such identification badges to all of our clients.’

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion, be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. You can also discuss what, if anything, would make the argument more sound and persuasive or would help you to better evaluate its conclusion.

This argument confuses correlation with causation. The policy recommendation itself may be sound, but additional research would strengthen the directors’ case. So to properly evaluate the argument’s validity, the following questions should be answered.

First, we need to review the context of that zero-theft-in-six-years statistic. Are all the company’s clients in the same market sector, with broadly similar business models? It’s relatively easy to control theft in a coded-entry office building, but much harder in an open warehouse employing casual workers. (Even if those workers are issued with ID badges.) The argument gains validity if the security firm’s clients share common characteristics, so like can be compared with like.

Second, identification badges alone may not prevent theft; they identify, but they don’t necessarily prohibit anything. Companies mandating the use of badges may well use them as part of a broader security strategy, in conjunction with coded entry doors, CCTV cameras, and plain locks and keys. Without the rest of the infrastructure, badges alone may be useless, and the directors needs to ascertain whether such infrastructure is important.

Third, just how big a problem is employee theft? Company A recording two thefts a month may have twice the problem of Company B, with a single theft each month. But if Company A has four times as many employees, its problem may be negligible. For the recommendation to be valid, it needs to take account of whether the cure is really better than the disease. The cost of an ID badge initiative – in staff unease, administrative overhead, and actual money – may be much higher than dealing with the occasional light-fingered worker. Sour as it may sound to an honest director, many businesses treat a low level of employee theft as a tolerable expense. (The retail sector even has a term for it: ‘shrinkage’, the unexplained difference between stock loaded onto a delivery vehicle and stock placed onto the shelves, often as high as 10%.)

In conclusion: this argument lacks solidity. Statistics without context cannot be used as the basis for a business recommendation, since without such support they’re meaningless. The directors of the security service will need to do more research to present a sound policy recommendation – and so will their clients.

FAULTS: I timed and paced myself well here, having the structure of the essay in place within five minutes and leaving five for proofreading. I can’t see any typos, and there’s a nice flow to it. I think this deserves a 6.

Analysis of an issue

‘As technologies and the demand for certain services change, many workers will lose their jobs. The responsibility for those people to adjust to such change should belong to the individual worker, not to government or to business.’

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion stated above. Support your position with specific reasons and/or examples drawn from your reading, your observations, or your own experience.

I agree with the author’s opinion, on the basis it shows a pragmatic attitude towards the realities of today’s global economy. A hundred years ago, when there were only a few industrial powers and most jobs had changed little in generations, government guarantees or laws may have protected workers; in today’s fast-changing world, they often do the opposite.

For the individual worker, a government guarantee fosters complacency; why work hard, if your salary’s secure no matter what? Such beliefs, multiplied by millions of workers, drain businesses of dynamism. In a global economy, where jobs can be exported to the countries that want them most, such an attitude would reduce the worker’s job security, not protect it. In the UK during the 1980s, coal workers tried to force the British goverment to guarantee their jobs: the outcome was that Britain now buys much of its energy overseas, and the mining towns of the Northeast lie in poverty. This is the fundamental reason for workers to take personal responsibility for their livelihoods: nobody else can.

Government guarantees also reduce the number of jobs available, again making the ‘protected’ worker less secure than he might think. One example is France, with jobs so thickly protected there is no incentive for companies to create them. This brake on entrepreneurial expansion has held France’s economy back: for over 25 years its unemployment rate has been above 10%, among the highest in Europe.

Finally, if a worker knows his job is open to competitive pressures and carries no guarantee, he is more likely to develop an individual sense of responsibility – valuable qualities in any citizen. Look across Africa and Asia, the developing world: in every country are millions of hard-working, entrepreneurial people earning enough to feed their families despite great hardships. They work as hard as they can, because there’s no safety net; such people make fewer demands on the public purse, and are genuine contributors to the economy, not parasites on its back.

In conclusion, government guarantees tend to weaken national economies; therefore the individual worker has not only a responsibility, but an obligation to provide for himself, including retraining or relocating if necessary. In doing so, the national economy will grow and provide more opportunities – making it less likely he will ever need a government guarantee. As in other areas of life, taking personal responsibility is the best guarantee of all.

FAULTS: not a bad essay, but for some reason I felt panicky writing it. Is it weak on why the worker should take responsibility, and too heavy on his attitude’s effect on the broader economy? Hmmm. Not sure about this one. I’ll score myself a 5.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 5 (result: 670)

Time for my third practice test. 113 questions, 52 quant and 61 verbal. 13 wrong quants and 10 wrong verbals – whoooo, slipped up on my English there, although there were more questions in the test. Corrected raw scores of 36 and 49 lead to a combined 85, equalling 670/800. Still on target!

Here’s the pair of essays:

Analysis of an issue

“None of the major problems confronting the world can be contained within the borders of a single country, and no country can, through its own efforts, be protected from these threats. Therefore the United State must work, on an equal basis, with all other countries of the world to try to lessen the impact of the many global threats that confront us in the twenty-first century.”

Discuss whether you agree or disagree with the opinion stated above. Provide supporting evidence for your views and use reasons and/or examples from your own experiences, observations, or reading.

While I agree with the author’s premise – that global threats need international responses – I disagree with his conclusion: that the USA should work on an ‘equal basis’ with all other countries from Britain to Bhutan. Because solving any complex issue requires leadership as well as collaboration … and for all its faults, the USA is well placed to provide that leadership.

Climate change is one such issue. A six degree rise in average temperature would destroy all plant and animal life on Earth – and on some projections, it’s less than three decades away. Surely the most global issue of all. Americans may be the world’s biggest polluters per head of population, yet this air-conditioner loving, gas-guzzling nation is a leading developer of biofuels and has given birth to the Tesla, an all-electric sports car which can be charged from a normal power socket. By bringing innovative technology to the world, the USA is positioned to offer practical solutions rather than endless talk and hand-wringing.

Islamic terrorism is another such issue. With 500m people educated principally in religious matters rather than the practical subjects that build better economies (over 80% of the curriculum in Saudi Arabia is religious!) the Middle East is a box of dynamite too close to the fire. The European Union, composed of 27 nations with differing beliefs, has been unable to assimilate its large Muslim population – unlike the USA, where most people think of themselves as Americans first. Despite the horrendous mistakes made in recent years – which were, after all, made by a relatively small and now falling number of neoconservatives – the USA can still provide leadership in fighting terrorism, wherever it happens.

In conclusion, I believe that while the USA must work (and think of itself) as part of a team comprising all nations, within that team, it’s the best candidate for the leader’s role.

FAULTS: Too rushed at the end – finished with only 2sec to spare – so not a great last para; the sentences are too clumsy. Climate change and terrorism are the obvious global issues, so no time wasted dreaming up examples. In the third para, I should have explained why Muslims thinking of themselves as ‘Americans first’ is important: i.e. demonstrated that this ability to assimilate is a quality providing useful leadership.

The paragraphs are unusually big by my standards. But I can’t see any typos, and the grammar’s varied and correct. So it’s a reasonable essay that I’d score myself a 4 or 5 for.

Analysis of an argument

The following appeared as part of an editorial in a business magazine:

“Studies show that Americans with PhDs in the humanities and social sciences earn less than Americans with MBA degrees. The average amount of time that it takes to earn a PhD in one of these fields is five years after college graduation, while an MBA can be earned in just two or three years. It is, therefore, a waste of time and resources to have some of America’s brightest young people studying subjects such as literature and philosophy when they are destined to earn less money and pay less in taxes than a person with an MBA. The government should discontinue all funds directed towards students pursuing PhDs in the social sciences and humanities since this is a waste of taxpayer money.”

Examine this argument and present your judgement on how well reasoned it is. In your discussion, analyse the author’s position and and how well the author uses evidence to support the argument. For example, you may need to question the author’s underlying assumptions or consider alternative explanations that may weaken the conclusion. You can also provide additional support for or arguments against the author’s position, describe how stating the argument differently makes it more reasonable, and discuss what provisions may better equip you to evaluate its thesis.

This argument is exceptionally poorly reasoned. The author’s position is that money is everything – that the amount of tax a graduate pays over his lifetime is the sole indicator by which the value of a postgraduate degree should be judged. The author completely neglects the non-monetary value of the humanities and those who study them – most notably their contribution to the vibrancy and intellectual culture of the USA, without which MBA programmes would find it much harder to thrive.

The author’s argument fails first at the individual level. For those taking a doctorate in literature or social science, postgraduate salary is less important than the chance to develop great intellectual concepts. Graduates will create and disseminate new insights into the great ideas that underpin civilisations … adding fresh contours to the USA’s intellectual landscape. This is a valuable contribution to the nation – but it is not measured in a tax return form.

The argument also fails at a higher level: that of the US economy as a whole. A broad and diverse aspect to a country’s intellectual life will attract fee-paying students, economy-strengthening businesses, and a high quality of immigrant. In addition, it will equip US citizens (PhDs or not) with the cultural and social knowledge that makes them more effective at their jobs (and hence better able to achieve high salaries and pay high taxes.) All increasing the amount of revenue going to the US government in total.

A country’s intellectual diversity is critical in one final sense: it adds to that country’s standing in the world. The USA’s universities are admired worldwide, and some 40 of the world’s top 50 business schools are within its borders. It can be inferred that top MBA programmes can only exist in parallel with a broad and diverse intellectual life – of which the social sciences and humanities are a part.

The author’s case is poorly reasoned, and does not make the case for abolishing PhD programmes in the softer sciences. MBAs are not everything!

FAULTS: Another one rushed at the end, but I think I get away with it. However, am I banging on about ‘intellectual diversity’ too much and missing other points? I hope not. My fourth para isn’t quite complete; there should be something about how this ‘standing in the world’ creates more money for the US Treasury. The point would have been easy to make: about humanities creating the bedrock for further economic activity.

I don’t see any typos, and I’ve used varied grammar in my sentences. Can I dare to think this would be a 6?

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 3 (result: 650)

An ‘official’ practice test today, at London’s Kaplan Centre.

It’s a ‘real’ test of 78 questions, 37 quant and 41 verbal, done in the correct order (quant then verbal). I get raw scores of 24 and 38, corrected to 36 and 42. The combined corrected 78 gives me a projected GMAT of 650, 10 above two days ago. I’m on course – although only at the 85th percentile (i.e. beating 85% of test-takers) due to the weak math score. Here are the essays I did to make this a ‘complete’ test; analysis of multiple choice tomorrow.

Analysis of an issue

The following appeared in the editorial section of a corporate newsletter:

In matching job candidates to openings, managers must consider not only such variables as previous work experience and educational background but also personality traits and work habits, which are more difficult to judge.

What do you consider essential in an employee or colleague? Explain, using reasons and/or examples from your work or worklife experiences, or from your observations of others.

Any manager interviewing a prospective employee will look first for great school grades and a sterling work record. But too many managers stop there – and make their decision based solely on education and experience. I believe that’s a mistake. In my opinion a third attribute surpasses both school and work in importance. That attribute is attitude.

If Sam has a good degree, he’s proven his ability to think and communicate clearly. If Jane has a sterling work record, she’s demonstrated her ability to take responsibility. That gives either candidate a great base. But it’s attitude that will show whether they’re a snug fit for their new roles.

The right attitude can solve almost any problem. A positive mental outlook will create bonds of friendship within a team. A strong sense of personal responsibility will lead to an atmosphere of trust. A desire to do a great job will drive an employee to perform at his peak. With the right attitude, any missing skills can be learned and any knowledge gaps can be closed.

Conversely, a negative attitude can turn the air to poison. Fred’s first-class degree from Oxford means nothing if he’s arrogant beyond words. Claire’s ten years of service add no value if her negativity rubs off on her colleagues. Having the right attitude matters – more than most employers seem to believe.

So when I’m working with a new employee or colleague, what matters most is attitude. If the attitude’s right, the aptitude will follow.

FAULTS: I was quite pleased with this essay. But why did I use ‘sterling’ twice? And given the American preference in the GMAT for longer paragraphs, I should probably have glued the last two together. I like to think this is a 5 though.

Analysis of an argument

The following appeared in the editorial section of a corporate newsletter:

“The common notion that workers are generally apathetic about management issues is false, or at least outdated: a recently published survey indicates that 79% of the nearly 1,200 workers who responded to survey questionnaires expressed a high level of interest in the topics of corporate restructuring and redesign of benefits programmes.”

Discuss how logically convincing you find this argument. In explaining your point of view, be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. Also discuss what, if anything, would make the argument more sound and persuasive, or would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

The arguments presents workers as keenly interested in high-level business issues, including corporate restructuring and benefits programs. But both these topics affect the worker directly – hitting both his job security and his bank balance. As a result, the argument fails to convince.

‘Corporate restructuring’ is often a euphemism for sacking people. In a firm of 1,200 people, a restructuring program may involve several hundred workers losing their jobs; it’s natural to expect employee interest when they believe they’re about to be laid off! This doesn’t demonstrate workforce fascination with business strategy: rather, it suggests that people worry when they hear talk of layoffs.

Similarly, ‘redesigned benefits programs’ is another (deceptively upbeat) scrap of jargon. With the costs of healthcare, pensions, and perks already sky-high for many companies, few business owners would approve any program that handed out further costly benefits; a ‘redesign’ is all too likely to involve cuts. When a ‘redesigned benefits program’ may mean a poverty-stricken retirement racked by poor health, it’s hardly surprising to find the factory floor is interested.

Finally, the argument is based on weak methodology – a survey of 1,200 workers ‘who responded to questionnaires’. Those most likely to complete a questionnaire are those most interested in the subjects it covers; the sample is self-selecting.

Wishful thinking – such as workers being genuinely interested in the concerns of their company above themselves – can lead to fanciful interpretations of evidence, of which this argument is an example. Since the only evidence presented relates to the likelihood of being sacked and the chance of a benefits cut, the only surprise is that the 79% figure for worker interest is not 100%!

FAULTS: I made a typo in the first sentence – AARGH! But apart from that this isn’t a bad essay. But I need to read the question more carefully. It asks what would make it more persuasive, which I don’t think I answered. I’ll score myself 4.

How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 1 (result: 640)

Today’s the first day of my plan. A practice test with 113 questions, 61 verbal and 52 quant. I get a raw scores of 51 and 39, corrected to 49 and 36. The combined corrected 83 gives me a projected GMAT of 640. Okay from a cold start I suppose.

Post mortem of the questions I got wrong comes tomorrow, but here are the sample (unscored) essays:

Analysis of an issue

“Business relations are infected through and though with the disease of short-sighted motives. We are so concerned with immediate results and short-term goals that we fail to look beyond them.”

Assuming that the term ‘business relations’ can refer to the decisions and actions of any organization – for instance, a small family business, a community association, or a large international corporation – explain the extent to which you think that this criticism is valid. In your discussion of the issue, use reasons and/or examples from your own experience, your observations of others, or your reading.

I disagree with the author – but not completely. His concerns about short-sighted decisions obscuring an organization’s long-term strategy are valid. But I believe he’s working from a false premise: that long-term relations exist independently of actions taken today.

Any ‘Strategy Document’ setting out a company’s long-term goals tends to be written by management or marketers – not the far larger number of people whose daily actions and attitudes directly affect customers, corporate culture, and the bottom line. Indeed, the existence of such a document can have a negative impact on the workforce – a ‘commandment from on high’, something to be sneered at, rather than guided by.

In the USA today, the average worker stays in a job less than seven years; to Mr Smith from Sales, ‘long-term’ may mean no more than hitting his targets this quarter – especially if failure means his family will go hungry. Making that Friday afternoon sale is far more important to him than acting in strict accordance with a mission statement. It’s an immediate need – with an immediate action. Long-term business goals are driven by thousands of decisions like these, bubbling up from the shopfloor. They’re not independent entities.

Besides, who can decide what’s ‘long-term’ and what isn’t? In Japan in 2006, a family enterprise, Kongo Gumi, closed its doors – after being in business for more than fourteen centuries! Kongo was in the business of building temples, and had been since 578 AD. But even that long-term strategy wasn’t enough to save it: decisions taken in the 90s, which doubtless seemed like sensible long-term planning at the time, drove it into bankruptcy.

However reluctantly a CEO might admit it, long-term goals – in any organization – are simply the side-effects, over time, of the actions of the organisation. This isn’t a bad thing. After all, it means they can change.

FAULTS: Too much confusion about business goals and business relations here. Should have put ‘in the 90s to invest in land’ in Kongo para! The last paragraph is hurried and does not tie up the essay effectively. I’d score myself 4 or 4.5 out of 6.

Analysis of an argument

The following appeared as part of a campaign to sell advertising time on a local radio station to local businesses.

“The Cumquat Cafe began advertising on our local radio station this year and was delighted to see its business increase by 10 percent over last year’s totals. Their success shows you how you can use radio advertising to make your business more profitable.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion, be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. You can also discuss what, if anything, would make the argument more sound and persuasive or would help you to better evaluate its conclusion.

Radio advertising works for many companies – and seems to have worked for the Cumquat Cafe. But any business thinking of driving sales with jingles and scripts should do its homework before making a decision – because an ad, created to portray the station in the best light, will never give the full story.

Firstly, the ad doesn’t say anything about the local economy. How fast has business as a whole been growing this year? Several world economies are growing at over 10%. If the Cafe’s in a certain region of China or India, its little slice of the economy may actually be shrinking.

Secondly, assuming that 10% figure is accurate, has the ad itself – paid for by the station, not the Cumquat Cafe – driven much of the new business at the Cafe, merely by repeatedly mentioning it on air? If the market value of this ‘free’ advertising is higher than the 10% growth spurt the Cafe enjoyed, it suggests radio is actually a poor media choice – with the campaign’s cost exceeding the incremental business generated.

Thirdly, the ad implies any business can benefit from radio advertising – quite a claim. If the station is a drivetime favorite, and the Cafe is located on a street used by 60% of local workers between 5 and 8pm, it may well be capable of bringing hordes of hungry workers through Cumquat’s doors every evening. But would those same people be as hungry for engineering parts?

Finally, the ad claims business ‘increase(d) by 10 percent over last year’s totals.’ This may refer to turnover – not profits. If costs increased by 11 percent, the Cafe lost money. In addition, when did the Cafe start up in business? If this is only its second year, a 10% hike in business would be far from sizzling; many new businesses double in size annually in their early years.

Radio advertising may well be an excellent way for local businesses to drive sales. But anyone encouraged to advertise their business by this method needs more information about both Cumquat Cafe and the radio station – because correlation does not mean causation.

FAULTS: Did I analyze the line of reasoning – which was that advertising on this station would drive new business for you? It’s not even clear this was a radio ad – I assumed it. Should I leave lines between paras, or indent paras? Will ask on test day to make sure. But for 30mins work, I think this essay is reasonable, and probably a 5.