Dan Edmonds knows how to take a standardized test. The first time he ever sat for the GMAT in 1997, while a Ph.D. student in comparative literature, Edmonds notched a 780 on the test, just 20 points shy of a perfect 800 score.
But the lanky and bald, 48-year-old transplanted New Yorker hasn’t just beaten the GMAT. He has demolished it. After that initial score, he would later rack up three 800s in a row before being banned from taking the test again by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the test’s administrator.
After all, not much more than 30 test takers out of the more than 250,000 GMAT exams annually taken, are able to nail a perfect score. GMAC obviously surmised that Edmonds wasn’t taking it to get into Harvard or Stanford’s MBA programs. He was taking it for a form of industrial espionage, to decode the exam, understand its traps, and learn the tricks he passes on to his students.
WAS ONCE OFFERED A CORVETTE IF HE WOULD TAKE A TEST FOR A CLIENT
Over the past quarter of a century, he has tutored thousands of students, including at least 300 for the GMAT alone. His testing-taking prowess is so legendary that he was once offered his choice of $50,000 or a Corvette to take the LSAT for a client who hoped to get into an elite law school. The last time he took the GMAT, the staffer who checked him into the Sylvan Learning Center where the test was administered, asked Edmonds if he would take the test for him.
It’s easy to understand why Edmonds, a master tutor at Noodle Pros, can charge $500 an hour for his services. Getting a 30-to-50 point increase in a GMAT score could easily be worth nearly $1 million in lifetime earnings for an MBA-bound test taker. That’s because a higher score can open the doors to the kind of elite business schools that can place someone on the track to the top one percent.
None of this is lost on Edmonds, a towering six-foot-five guy who has led in-house GMAT courses at the likes of Goldman Sachs and whose students have moved on to earn MBA degrees from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Kellogg, and other top business schools. He’s also not naive enough to acknowledge that many cannot afford to sit with him hour after hour to get the kind of score improvement to make a difference to a person’s life.
‘OUR JOB IS GIVING ADVANTAGE TO PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY HAVE EVERY ADVANTAGE’
“A friend jokes that our job is giving advantage to people who already have every advantage,” he says, “and there is a certain truth to that. Still, I live in the most expensive city in America, and I got to make my money. I’ve made peace with that but as the child of lefty professors who is himself pretty left of center, it does bug me at times.”
While Edmonds will offer no guarantees to clients, he says matter of factly that a student coming to him with a 680 GMAT should be able to get a 750 or more after working with him. A couple of months ago, he notes, he coached a student who first scored a 640 on the GMAT and turned it around into a 750. There was one young woman, Edmonds says, who was applying to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and was determined to beat her boyfriend’s 760 score which he achieved without tutoring. She ended up with a score ten points better at 770 when her initial goal had only been 730. “I may have caused relationship disorder there,” quips Edmonds.
Standardized test tutors are, by and large, an idiosyncratic bunch. They are often geeky, obsessively preoccupied with technical detail and intellectually curious about challenges to their mental agility. They have healthy egos, are difficult to manage, and can be highly judgmental and opinionated, often in a contrarian way. They view the standardized test—whether the SAT, GMAT, GRE or the LSAT—as a cerebral challenge to be conquered.
THE GMAT MATH QUESTIONS ARE, HE SAYS, ‘BEAUTIFUL LITTLE PUZZLES’
While Edmonds often speaks about the GMAT as enthusiastically as someone describing a life passion, calling the math questions on the test “beautiful little puzzles,” he also is sharply critical of the exam. His 22 years of experience with the GMAT has convinced him that there are three problematic issues with the test: the nearly unpredictable variability in scores achieved by a single test taker, the relevance of the test in business school admission decisions, and finally the test’s inherent bias against both minorities and women, regardless of their socio-economic status.
He speaks with authority on these flaws. Outside of the psychometricians on GMAC’s payroll who created and update the test, Edmonds may very well be the world’s foremost expert on the test. He has led R&D for two major test prep companies, including the Princeton Review during the dawn of the test prep industry, written or contributed to innumerable test prep and admissions books, and trained or mentored hundreds of tutors.
More crucially, perhaps, he has sent into test centers dozens of brainiacs to take the exam, not to get into a business school, but rather to break it. When Edmonds first joined Princeton Review in its New York offices as the head of R&D for the GMAT and the GRE in 1999, he began taking the first of his 800 scores. “When I went in to take the test, I would often test theories of mine. I see what I would weird and confusing. I would look at it for ten seconds and test my gut and then do the real work. I call it my test spidey sense because you develop it over time. I can look at a question and even if I don’t know exactly how to tackle it, I might feel the answer is this. I’m testing my gut, my theories, and I would try to remember a lot.“
‘IT FELT LIKE AN ACCOMPLISHMENT TO BE BANNED FROM THE GMAT. I WAS NOTICED’
When told he could no longer take the test about ten years ago, it was a proud moment. “I’m not going to lie but I was kind of proud. It felt like an accomplishment to be banned from the GMAT. I was noticed.” Edmonds had never studied for the exam. “Every time I work with a client,” he explains, “I’m going through all of the hardest questions on the test. The only questions that they miss are the very hardest questions and so I’m going over again and again and again the hardest questions. And every time new questions are being released, I’m going over them. So I don’t need to study.”
He managed a staff of nine who routinely marched into test centers with scoring pads to try to figure out how GMAC was scoring its tests. “I would have one person go in and get the first ten questions right and then go wrong/right, wrong/right for the rest of the test to see what score the test would produce,” says Edmonds. “Another person I would tell to get the first five wrong and all the rest right. Which of those two do you think would get the better score?” he asks rhetorically. “The first ten right or the first five wrong? The first ten right wins by a landslide. They scored in the 700s. The other scored in the high 500s and into the 600s.”
To Edmonds, this all makes sense. “It’s like dating someone,” he says. “If you went on five dates and they were all terrible, it doesn’t matter what you do with the rest of your relationship. It’s fucked. You dig yourself into such a deep hole you can’t get out of it. But If you got the first ten dates right and then you have a bad date, you’re forgiven. In fact, you could have a lot of bad dates after that and you could still be locked in as this awesome guy. I kind of described the pattern of abusive relationships, actually. But that was some of the research we did to figure out the test.”