Friday, December 26, 2014

Early New Year Resolution - GMAT & MBA, here I come (again)

Hi Folks, First off, a Belated Merry Xmas and a very Happy New Year to everyone here. 

After a sabbatical of  3+ years, I've been bitten by the MBA bug (again!). I will be retaking that GMAT in Q1 of next year, and have already put in 2 days of GMAT prep.

I'll be sharing my daily GMAT prep plan and will also be penning down my thought process on bschools and how I go about shortlisting the MBA programs. This should serve to keep me accountable and reduce the likelihood of my slacking off, but will hopefully also invite some constructive feedback from those who happen to read this blog.

Best Regards,

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kaplan GMAT Advanced

More about this course in the coming days. For now though, let me just say that the Kaplan User Interface is the best of the lot.

I heard that they revamped their whole system recently. Boy, they have done a good job. I love the dashboard, the smart report card, and the personal attention from the tutors. Though they are not 'personal tutors' per se, they come ever so close to offering the 'personal tutor' feel... without charging the 'personal tutor' FEE :P

I will be spending loads of hours on their course this week, so expect a more detailed and analytical review in the   next couple of days. Once I'm done with that, I'll probably draw out a comparison of all the major test prep providers.

Bye for now.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

ISB Interview Update

Sorry. I've temporarily removed the post. Will send a request to ISB to ask if they are cool with me putting up my version of the interview proceedings.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shortlisted for ISB Interview!

Holy crap! Been so busy the last couple of weeks, but even so, was caught totally offguard when I received an sms yesterday afternoon - "Congratulations. You have shortlisted for the ISB admissions interview"

I was shocked, and stood gazing at the message for a couple of minutes, before gathering myself. I then checked my email, and was in for a bigger suprise - the interview was scheduled for the 24th of Dec - less than a week away! I was expecting the interviews to be held in dec. Apparently this is not news at all, and the interview dates for the various locations were up for quite some time now. Well, time is running out and I have to get prepared, and "get suited".
So many things to do, so little time.

Any interview tips?
Any chennai peeps out there? Drop me an email.

Tray, over & out!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Q&A with Brian Galvin - Finale

Do you feel the need for more interaction between the students enrolled in the GMAT courses. I feel that there is a missed opportunity here. I've made a lot of friends through the MBA Application process. Participants might benefit from a forum to which allows them to engage with each other, and communicate outside of course hours e.g. a forum/ facebook page specific to that batch. I believe Knewton has just initiated something along these lines. Your thoughts?

The online format has been a lot of fun to teach, and I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity to “meet” so many people from around the world – I thought it was fantastic that after class was over you went for a morning run in Chennai and I went for an evening run in Santa Monica!  I can certainly see a feeling of detachment from classmates, and I like the idea of having a forum for classmates around the world to interact outside of class.  One thing that we’d need to be careful about is privacy – I always blind-copy my class lists when emailing out handouts or reminders just because I don’t want anyone to feel that their email address is ‘for sale’, and we’re also a little careful with our place in people’s lives as many students don’t necessarily want the fact that they’re applying to graduate school to be public knowledge for their  boss or coworkers to stumble upon.  So I do like the idea but we’d want to be careful with implementation not to turn a positive into a negative for anyone.

Actually, I do feel that one educational benefit of the online class is the relative anonymity of the students – on average people are much more likely to participate and ask or answer questions when they’re not worried about interrupting (or feeling foolish in front of) classmates, so there’s a definite upside to that.

We’re always looking for ways to accentuate the student experience, and we still do have more than twice as many in-person students as online students, so I’ll definitely bring your suggestion to our Student Services team. Mike and Hallie are terrific…I think they’ll love the idea.

I remember coming across a review for a Veritas Classroom Course, which stated that though the Veritas course material was brilliant, the tutor was not all that great. I haven't had this experience, but for the benefit of those reading, could you outline how Veritas goes about hiring tutors?

That’s frustrating to hear, and fortunately we don’t hear it often.  My responsibility includes the quality of all of our lesson materials and instructors, and admittedly there’s a little bit of a conflict of interest in those two categories.  When we do receive less-than-ideal feedback on our instructors (and I’ll define that in a second), the predominant reason is to the extent of “he/she mainly just read out of the book and I thought they would add more value.”   Now, what’s difficult about that is that our books are, as I think you and most of your readers would agree, really good!  So when we advertise excellent instructors in addition to excellent materials, we put a lot of pressure on our instructors  by building up expectations, and every so often instructors won’t meet that expectation.  It’s tough, because we obviously don’t want to lessen the quality of the books so that it’s easy for instructors to shine above them, so we work with instructors to ensure that they’re confident in their abilities to add extra value.  One of my favorite projects is going to visit the classrooms of our top-rated instructors – this year I’ve gotten to watch worldwide Instructor of the Year winners Amit Kakkad in London, Chris Kane in New York, and Frankie Beecroft in Chicago, as well as David Newland online – so that I can bring back strategies to the rest of the faculty.  We do regular instructor development sessions online in which we share teaching/tutoring strategies and I bring back tales and tips from the field for everyone, so this is something we’re thinking about all the time.

Probably my biggest goal – at least the one that carries the biggest weight in my annual employee reviews here, I don’t mind admitting – is for our worldwide faculty to average 4.5 out of a scale of 5.0 on students’ responses to the question “I would recommend my instructor to others”.  Now, I teach some weighted average lessons as part of our course, so I know what a challenge that is!  For every score of 1 – strongly disagree – I need 7 scores of 5 (strongly agree) to balance that out and stay at 4.5.  But I’m pretty confident that we’ll hit that mark for the calendar year 2010, and that’s due in large part to the fact that we have such amazing instructors and quite a few opportunities to share resources.

Here’s our hiring and training process:

1)      I review resumes and interview those that we select over the phone.  In that session I’m primarily looking for a clear passion for teaching, a genuine interest in the GMAT subject matter (I love the phrase “it may sound crazy, but I really liked studying for the GMAT”), and the ability to explain things clearly in an engaging manner.  My other big interest is longevity – if someone is looking to kill some time over the course of a year or so, they’re probably not a good fit for us; I want the people who are going to keep GMAT instruction as an interest over multiple years.  One of the great assets that we have is a faculty of dozens who have been teaching for over three years, and at least a handful of us who have been teaching for 5-8.  The more of that wisdom and experience we’re able to impart to our students and our younger instructors, the better we are, and that’s something we look for.

2)      Instructors who impress us in the first interview come back for a second, online interview in which they teach a few GMAT questions to us.  My goals there are clarity of instruction, genuine enthusiasm for and mastery of GMAT topics, and the ability to make big-picture points and takeaways and to anticipate student mistakes.  Our instructors don’t just need to be able to teach “the GMAT”, they need to be able to teach “students”, and there’s a definite distinction in my mind.  Great instructors can  take a problem and use it as a platform to teach a strategy or concept – students have a tendency to want to learn “the answer” to that problem, but instructors need to be able to go beyond that and teach how to get the answers to many problems like it.  Great instructors are also always looking for reasons that students make mistakes so that we can help people become more conscious of them.  If instructors demonstrate those abilities, we’ll invite them for the third round, which is:

3)      An in-person meeting with one of our Mentor Instructors in their region.  We have about a dozen instructors on that team, all with over three years of teaching experience  for us, and they conduct an in-person assessment/training session and then serve as a local mentor for the new instructor, providing resources and suggestions and helping to teach them the ways of working with our students and with the company.

4)      New instructors serve as Teaching Assistants on our online courses, getting a feel for how a veteran instructor paces and manages each lesson and also getting experience answering student questions and learning how students react to our lessons and strategies.  We’re big fans of active training – the more that instructors are in a position to help the more natural the lesson prep becomes, and in that forum you just get a much better perspective not on “the material” but on “teaching the material to student”, which like I said is a fairly big distinction.

From there, we hold regular development sessions and we consistently monitor student feedback.  So, to your original question about having seen a bad review, I know that there may be a few out there,  but I know that they’re pretty rare.  And we certainly want to ensure that each Veritas Prep student gets the experience that they expect and deserve, so if a student ever feels that they could benefit from another instructor’s perspective, our Student Services team is happy to help them find that experience in another schedule.

There are a plethora of GMAT courses to choose from. What factors should one take into account when selecting a course? Should the cost be an important factor?

Tray, you’re asking the wrong guy about whether cost should be an important factor – I think cost should always be a factor!  I’m notoriously frugal…my father’s son, I guess, so I definitely think that people should view cost as a factor.  I guess I’ll define it slightly differently, though – really value should be the primary concern.  Coming up with a cheaper option is easy – just shrink the number of hours and resources, pay less for lower quality, and you can come in a dollar below the other provider without much trouble.  We saw that when we were initially brainstorming ideas for the Essentials Course – if our goal was to appeal to a more value-conscious student, we could easily say “just talk faster” and pay for 2/3 of the time of our normal offerings, but ultimately that’s just not responsible.  So I think there’s a difference between cost and value, and I’d highly recommend to anyone to be a value-conscious consumer regardless of what you’re buying.

So with value as a driving factor, I’d say that the following are major elements of a good GMAT course decision:

Curriculum quality – what are they teaching you?  I think it’s almost insulting to the consumer to say that you have “tricks” to “beat” the test.  The GMAT is a hard test and it has to be a hard test – there’s a reason that top business schools around the world all value the results so highly.  To claim that there are tricks to beat the test just isn’t responsible; if it were that easy, then everyone would go to Harvard or Stanford (or, if they’re lucky, Michigan!).  So look for curriculum that’s well-constructed and well-explained.  There are plenty of resources out there – books are available in stores; company representatives post on blogs and forums to give you some insight; and companies offer free seminars, often online, to get a preview of the lessons and content.  Take advantage and pick an offering that is well-grounded in solid curriculum.

Instructor quality – I’m obviously biased because I’m part of an instructor hiring/training program that I think works well, but I do think it’s important to have instructors who are committed to teaching, talented at teaching, qualified to teach this particular test, and well-trained for that task.  There are a few companies that I know share our philosophy on that, and I do think that there is a marked difference.

Program flexibility – this one may be unsung, but life happens to people in our target age range.  Work becomes busier, social commitments pop up, roommates move in or out and disturb your living situation, etc.   I’d look for a program that is flexible and provides you with opportunities to join alternate schedules and retake the class if necessary, that offers plenty of study resources over a long period of time, etc.  I have a student in my class right now (November 2010) who had all kinds of unexpected events pop up in his life when we first met in a January 2010 class; he wasn’t doing homework, he was missing class, and it wasn’t his fault – family, work, they all had to take priority.  Now the guy is a dynamo, asking questions, completing homework…he’s finally in a position to succeed in the class and on the test and the difference shows, so I’m really happy that he was able to retake it for  free.

Convenience – akin to the above, if you’re not in a position to get the most out of class because the meeting times are hard to make or the location is hard to get to, you may not get the most out of the program.  Find something that fits with your learning style and ability to take advantage of the resources.  There are quite a few online options out there nowadays that make accessing classes more convenient, and obviously most of the larger American/Canadian markets are well-covered in-person by the top companies here.

GRE. Should all applicants stay well away (at least for the next couple of years)?

Ah, good question – here’s the thing about the GRE: it’s not as well-written a test as the GMAT, and almost everyone knows it.  The temptation for MBA applicants with the GRE is that it’s “easier”, but ultimately is that what you really want?  One big distinction that I think most people need to get is this – no one “deserves” to go to Harvard Business School or the Stanford GSB.  There’s no threshold that you hit that makes you “qualified”, and that’s it.  Those schools select the best applicants that help to further the school’s goals – attracting top recruiters to get students better jobs; attracting top students to attract top recruiters; attracting alumni donations to facilitate more ambitious facilities and programs; etc.  So a high GMAT or GRE score isn’t about showing that you deserve to be admitted; it’s about showing the schools that you’re an excellent candidate who will help them to further their missions by being a contributor in the classroom and to your classmates’ experiences; by being a stellar applicant in the job market and a fantastic alumni representative of the school in the future.

If you take the GRE because it’s the “easy way out”, that doesn’t fit with that excellence; schools accept the GRE because they don’t want to miss out on the phenomenal applicant who was originally thinking of a Master’s in Public Policy or Public Health but decided that an MBA might also be valuable.  But if your entire profile screams MBA and you’ve taken the GRE, that may well be a signal that you’re looking for an easy out.  Furthermore, the GRE is significantly easier…which doesn’t give you a great opportunity to differentiate yourself.  If you make just one mistake on the quant section of the GRE, you drop significantly because a healthy 5-6% of all test-takers have a perfect quant score.  So by taking the “easier” test, you may actually be stacking the deck against yourself.

Anything that you would like to touch upon?

Well, first, thanks for the interview – this was fun!  And if you have other questions at any point I’d love to do it again. I think for my closing comments the biggest recommendation that I can make to prospective MBA students studying for the GMAT is this – learn to enjoy the process of taking the GMAT.  It’s a test of how you think, and much like the kinds of puzzles we all play on our smartphones (or in newspapers if we still get them) there’s a huge element of gamesmanship to them that can be a lot of fun if you buy in.  So study for the GMAT as a logic game and not as a set of rules.  Ask “why” a lot – “why did they ask it this way?”;  “why does that number property hold”; etc.  When I took the GMAT, I remember smiling a lot, and the proctor even commented on that after the test.  But I was playing a game with the authors while I was taking it – I was looking at the wording of the questions and chuckling at the trap answers; I was hitting the wall on a hard problem and enjoying the process of looking for the method that would make it easier.  On test day that’s hard – there’s pressure and that’s just how it is.  But while you study I really think you can enjoy the process, and I’ve always noticed that when students smile when we get to a hard problem in class, they almost always succeed in the long run.  That’s one of the things I love most about this new Essentials Course – we’re focusing on challenging problems and the thought processes that make them possible; we’re thinking like those who made the test and learning to use that to our advantage.  And if a lot of students are like you and enjoy that process, enjoy that class, I think it will be a rousing success. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Brian, Thank you for your time & for your candid responses. There's some great info & advice packed into this Q&A, and i'm sure that my readers will find the information and advice that you have meted out extremely useful. Thank you once again.

Signing off, Tray Sha.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Q&A with Brian Galvin - Part 3 (GMAT Essentials)

Moving on to the crux of the matter: the new GMAT Essentials course, which has been quite a hit. How did this come about? Was it something that you have been planning for quite a while now?

I thought you’d never ask!  Like I said, the evolution of our curriculum has  been on the table and really ongoing since I first interviewed for my current job, so many of the strategies that we cover have been in development or already in our program for a while.  This course, specifically, came up as a challenge based on what’s happening in the marketplace; there are a lot of options for the GMAT student these days, and many of them advertise shorter classes, more convenient schedules, and lower prices, and we wanted to compete in that market.  Now, we’ve always felt that one of our program’s strengths was how comprehensive it is – our standard offering is 42 hours over 7  weeks and covers everything from fundamental skills to higher-order strategies.  I’m still convinced that it’s the best way for most people to study for the GMAT and I can’t imagine us ever  tinkering too much with the format, other than making necessary adjustments to content coverage to stay in step with changes or trends in the actual GMAT.

However, when the challenge came out for us to create a course that could appeal to those in the market who just don’t have (or won’t commit to) seven weeks to take a Full Course, or who want to try to cut some costs by taking something a little smaller in scope, I wanted to take on that challenge.  Quite frankly, I think there are a lot of programs out there that just aren’t completely responsible in the way that they fit their GMAT curriculum into 20-25 hours, either trying to fit two unrelated topics into the same evening’s lesson (e.g. geometry and grammar on the same night) or sugarcoating content to allow people to perceive mastery in a short period when they’ve really just scratched the surface.  When we decided that we wanted to compete in the fewer-hours, shorter-term study market, I wanted to make sure that we could do so responsibly and in a way that would allow all of us who teach to feel that sense of pride and accomplishment when we leave the final lesson that we’ve set our students up for success.

So it was up to me to design a curriculum that I thought would fit responsibly in one weekend, and taking a lesson from what I’ve seen and disliked in the market, I decided along with a handful of top instructors that we couldn’t’ attempt to  teach ‘everything’ in that time so we’d better not try.  Instead, we looked at it this way – where do Veritas Prep instructors add the most value?  If you’re paying for a Veritas Prep instructor’s help, where do you need it most?  And that’s where the idea behind the Essentials Course really came from.  I’ll say this – I’m pretty good at teaching basic algebra and geometry, but I don’t feel quite comfortable allowing my one-on-one students to pay as much as they have to for my time if that’s what we’re covering.  So much of that, you could teach yourself or find community education resources to teach you for pennies (or free).  Where I think I’m really worth the investment, though, is in the fact that I’ve been studying for the GMAT for over seven years – those of us who teach it at our level have a degree of expertise with this test that you really can’t develop on your own.  I’ve seen hundreds of students make the same mistake and I know why they make it; I’ve had to write questions that would trick people in the same way as the GMAT does, and I’ve employed those same devices.  I’ve even talked with representatives from GMAC about trends I’ve seen in the test and how I’ve used them to predict what they’ll do next and they’ve agreed with me.  So that’s where I think the hard-to-find value comes from in our classes – we add the value of “convenience” to some of  the content-based items in that we teach you GMAT content in context with GMAT question types.  But the upper-level strategy is where we give the highest ROI, and if you’re asking us for a shorter class that’s where I want to spend the bulk of the time.

Now, again I thought about a lot of this from the perspective of “responsibility”, and I certainly can’t justify a class that doesn’t teach the content of the test as “responsible”, so we needed to include that component, too.  Everyone who takes and Essentials Course has access to all of the Veritas Prep books and video On Demand lessons so that you have plenty of resources for the fundamental skills behind the test.  But in class, we’re going to focus on high-level strategy taught primarily from 650+ level questions, because that’s where the value is added.

So that’s what you get – plenty of resources for all of the fundamental skills behind the exam, and 15 hours of pure strategy from the experts in the best position to give it to you.

What is the structure of the GMAT Essentials course?

The way we’ve conceptualized the GMAT, you can really break it down into three elements sort of in a pyramid structure.  There are skills – the “what” behind the test, things you have to know like verb tense conjugations and exponent rules; there are concepts, which are big-picture content items like “solving equations” or “finding Critical Reasoning conclusions”; and there are strategies, such as looking out for trap answers on Data Sufficiency questions.  The Essentials Course is going to cover the most important concepts and all of our strategies, and we’ll give you some self-study strategies (and all of our full-length resources) to work on  the skills and on solidifying the concepts.

We go for two days over a weekend.  On Saturday morning, we cover Essential Math Concepts – the big-picture math “knowledge” that we know they test frequently, and that section is designed on making sure you not only get the concepts but you also see how and why they like to test them.   This one frustrates me – I remember in high school being taught the “what” all the time, memorizing formulas and steps but never really knowing “why” I did them.  Which was fine – it got me As on the unit tests and served me well enough to do well on the final exams – but it’s a cursory level of real knowledge.  In this section we want to emphasize why these concepts are important and show you how they’ll be tested, and we do that by  featuring difficult problems and breaking them down into their core concepts.

So as not to overwhelm people with too much math all at once, we do a Critical Reasoning lesson next, and the focus of that lesson is on systematically breaking down GMAT logic.  We do that by showing how they create traps in difficult problems and by noting how following the same procedure will keep you within the narrow scope of “correct” and help you to avoid those traps.  Our logical discussion in that lesson segues nicely into Data Sufficiency, the last lesson of the first day, which is a great opportunity to cover the fact that Data Sufficiency questions are much more “logic questions that involve math” than they are “math questions that feature logic”.  I’ve always loved the blend between those question types and relish the opportunity to teach them together.  Here, we also focus on higher-level strategies…one of my favorites is showing people first to be wary of “easy” answers and second how to test for the “harder” answers once you’ve identified that you’re probably being trapped.

On Sunday, we start with Reading Comprehension and move on to Sentence Correction; our goals for both lessons are to demonstrate that both question types are much more about “big-picture” understanding than “minor detail” things.  In Reading Comprehension, we show you how to read passages with an objective – answering their questions – in mind so that you read at the proper level and take inventory of the most important concepts.  For Sentence Correction, I’ve long been a believer that “it’s not about the grammar”, or at least not as much as many think that it is.  We break down Sentence Correction from a logical perspective to show you the major error categories and demonstrate how to check for them without diving too deeply into the nitty-gritty of grammar.  This has been one of my passions for a while now – I had a student named Will who just couldn’t crack Sentence Correction but would talk circles around me with grammatical terminology.  He knew so many subtle nuances that he had memorized, but in the end he knew too much and just couldn’t stay out of his own way; we stripped it down to just the logical framework and he finally bumped up to 700 based on strategy and methodology (which we also cover in this lesson) and logic; he just graduated from Wharton.

Sunday afternoon we finish with more math – problem solving strategies and a lesson I call “Playing Chess, Not Checkers” which demonstrates how to outwit the authors of the GMAT by using high-level strategy.  Much like the emphasis on gamesmanship in the Data Sufficiency lesson, we talk about how to use the GMAT’s tendencies against it and how to recognize trap answer choices, all the while emphasizing those core concepts as guiding principles.

What is the target audience for the GMAT Essentials course? Beginners/ Intermediates/ Pros/ All of the above?

That’s a really good question, Tray, and honestly it’s still a little bit of a work in progress.  Like I said, we tried to create it from a perspective of “how can we best add value” with this course and not to label it specifically “beginner” or “advanced” but rather focus on what we can give students that we don’t think they can really get anywhere else.

I think it’s a perfect course for advanced students – so many of our instructors have commented upon glancing at the syllabus that “this is the class that I would have taken”  - because the goal is to spend time on strategy and not as much (or really at all) on basic skills and fundamentals.  We’ll teach from challenge-level problems and focus more on big-picture takeaways than on smaller problem-centric details, just to make best use of the time.  If you’re already pretty up to speed on the fundamental skills behind the test, or if you just trust yourself to be able to pick that up as you go, this class is a terrific use of your time and probably a perfect option for you.

But I don’t think that it means that the Essentials Course is not a good choice for intermediate or even beginner students, and here’s why – I think that most people study inefficiently, focusing too much on the “what” and not the “why”.  Even if you’re just getting started or you know that you’ll need some work and repetition afterward, this class will set you up with the strategic framework for approaching the test, and also provide you with all of the study resources that you’ll need afterward.  Again, our goal with this class is to give you the strategic insights that we just don’t think are available elsewhere; when we cover concepts in this class we refer to them as “guiding principles” – even if you need to further develop certain skills and concepts, if you do so with those guiding principles in mind you’ll be more efficient.

What I think is important for people to recognize – and a reason that I’m really thankful that you’re giving me the space to talk about this, Tray – is that this course is designed to cover the “Essentials” but not in that one weekend itself to be fully comprehensive, as that’s just not possible.  For that, everyone is going to receive all 15 of our full-length lesson books and the companion video lessons online; they’ll get all of our practice tests and midterm diagnostic quizzes; they’ll have access to our homework help resources; and all of our students are welcome to join a second class for free, so if you did realize afterward that you have a lot of work to do and would benefit more from some of those strategies once the skills are in place, you can go back to study more and then rejoin the class later.  So, theoretically, if you’re a beginning student you can use this class as “bookends” to your study – a jump-start to thinking the right way, then a collection of resources to study, then a capstone refresher and reframing of big-picture strategies before the test.

The course is quite intense. Personally, I had a blast. What has been the general opinion of the course? Were there any who gave it a negative rating?

Glad you enjoyed it – as an instructor I loved the whole experience, too.  We’ve been thrilled with the feedback – we’ve seen a few public reviews on Beat the GMAT and other sites in addition to your review on this site, and they’ve all been really positive.  More informally, we’ve received even more positive feedback from students and from our instructors who have reviewed the recordings and the books, so the general consensus is that the course is doing exactly what we designed it to do.  The few pieces of constructive feedback that we’ve received are all very much in line with what we expected, too – one review mentioned that the student wished he had been more  brushed up on the fundamental skills before taking the class, and we know that people will often feel that way, which is why we offer the full complement of resources along with the class.  The biggest positives to me were this – no one felt that the class was too easy at any point, yet no one reported feeling overwhelmed by anything even if they did recognize certain areas that they needed to study more.  Our goal was to challenge people – if you only have a limited amount of time you definitely don’t want anyone to be bored or feel that time was wasted, but obviously you need to make sure that people can see tangible progress and bring home important takeaways.  My main goal every time I teach is to make the difficult look manageable, and that’s the main goal of the question selection that we made for this course; the fact that people could overwhelmingly report that we accomplished that was very satisfying.

Managing to retain the participants’ attention in an online setting for 8 consecutive hours is quite a feat. How do you think you managed it?

I think a lot of this goes back to the design of the course, which is to keep things challenging enough that everyone is interested but to provide enough strategy and explanation that people can work through it.  If I could graph the “intensity level” of the class, or at least how we designed it to be, it would be a series of peaks followed by gradual declines leading to another peak (ugh, I’m such math teacher that I describe emotions in graph form).  Those peaks are the questions themselves – I want everyone to look at most questions and think “wow, that’s tough”…the questions should be attention grabbers.  But then I want everyone to feel that can-do spirit of “that’s tough, but like the instructor said we can at least get started by ______”.  If we’re doing that routinely, people will begin each question interested by what they don’t know, but then quickly fall into a problem-solving routine of identifying what they do know and working from that.  Challenging problems with clear, manageable explanations that lead to student confidence and understanding– to me that’s the key to good curriculum design.

As far as the intangibles of keeping attention…I’ve been really lucky to have some amazing teachers in my life.  One of my proudest moments was going back to show my middle school teacher, Mrs. Franklin, my NBA championship ring – I was obsessed with sports as a kid and she would always find a way to use my interests to help me learn whatever it was she was teaching at the time.  It was great to get to go back and show her that I had taken what she taught me and turned it right back into a way to capitalize on my interests.  So in teaching any class, and particularly one that runs for an extended time or one that meets in a seemingly less-personal venue like online, I think it’s important to keep people entertained and engaged by using what’s on their minds to present analogies or background support for what we’re learning.  I’ve always thought that you teach people, you don’t teach algebra, or history, or whatever the subject is.  So one goal is always to keep things entertaining while also keeping them productive; the other is to draw knowledge out of people rather than throwing it at them.  If we’re asking short questions about intermediate steps for problem solving, we can demonstrate to people that they know more than they think they do…that we’re providing the framework via which to apply their own skills and abilities.  When people are active participants in the learning process they’re much more engaged and it’s much more productive.  One of my favorite teachers of all time is a professor I had in grad school, Jeff Stanzler; he was the best active listener I’ve ever seen – when you were talking in class he was zoned in and focused on you, and regardless of what you’d say he’d find a way to link it to something ten times more articulate and valuable.  He’d say, “what I hear you saying is…” and then restate what you actually said, then use it as a springboard to a larger point.  And I’ve never forgotten that – even on the path to a wrong answer people are using proper and productive thought processes, and as a teacher it’s your job first to encourage them to think, and then second to direct that thought process to be more efficient and effective.  To teach effectively you have to encourage and reward participation, and everyone benefits that way.

When’s the next GMAT Essentials course? Any plans to tweak the format?

We’re going to run a full series of them – in most of our major cities in-person and also a Live Online version, which I’ll be teaching – the weekend of December 4-5, and then we’ll do another set in mid-February.  We’ll continue to make minor tweaks – I’ve replaced 1-2 problems of the around 100 in the course with examples that I think better fit exactly what we want to cover – but the reception to the initial round has been so positive that I don’t want to fix what’s not broken!  It’s been really amazing – the more that instructors see the course books and view the recordings of the actual sessions, the more on-board everyone gets.  We’re all chomping at the bit to teach these, so we’ll obviously welcome our instructors’ comments and suggestions, but I don’t think we’ll tweak much more than 5% or so of what we have anytime soon.  The main adjustments will probably be the swapping out of a few questions here or there.

Part 4 of our Q&A with Brian Galvin coming up tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Q&A with Brian Galvin - Part 2

Director of Academic Programs. Word has it that you are head honcho over at Veritas Prep. Mind running us through  what your responsibilities include?
It’s a fun job.  My biggest responsibilities are to work with all of our instructors around the world – I recruit, hire, and train everyone, and then make staffing decisions about who teaches what and when; I’m also the main point of contact for all of our instructors, so I get to talk to them pretty frequently about their students, their teaching strategies, and inevitably their thoughts on the world in general.  We have an incredible faculty of smart, engaging people so I relish the opportunity to work with everyone and to learn from what they have to say about really any topic.  I’m also the first and last line of defense on our curriculum, so I get to sift through all of our instructors’ recommendations, listen to student feedback, and propose ways to continually improve and evolve our lessons, course offerings, practice problems and tests, etc.

My biggest challenge has always been trying to manage a team of people who are all in the 99th percentile of intelligence, or at least GMAT intelligence.  I was pretty intimidated when I first started and an instructor would call with a question or because she needed something and I’d look at the file: “PhD from an Ivy League school; MBA from a top 10 school; etc.”   But as I’ve grown into it it’s been a blast and really educational for me – I get to learn how amazingly smart people think, and that’s something that we’ve tried to add to our lesson materials as often as possible.  I’m always looking for reasons that concepts come easy to our instructors (and our students) so that I can build a lesson around it.  Actually, working with everyone on our team has been really instructional for me on how to teach because I was so initially intimidated by intelligence that I needed to do a lot of – it’s education-speak, but “scaffolding”, or building intermediate steps of knowledge – to make sure that I was on their level.  It was all that “asking why” that helped me to really solidify what I knew to feel comfortable talking with people to whom it probably came a lot faster, and that helped mold the way that I teach and that we’ve evolved our curriculum.

Nowadays, I absolutely love and look forward to all of our curriculum discussions and instructor development sessions because I get to see how often we all agree.  As we were developing the Essentials Course, for example, I enlisted the advice and feedback of a handful of our best and most experienced instructors in the world – David Newland in Boston, Chris Kane in New York, Cliff Smith in San Francisco, Frankie Beecroft in Chicago, Mia McIver here in Los Angeles, among others – and we pretty much all agreed in different words on everything.  The discussions were all to the extent of “I love teaching it that way – but I like your phrasing a little better” or “you know, you could combine these steps into a 3-point list that covers everything”.  That agreement demonstrates to me that we’re on to something as our lessons evolve – if I’ve found that students click with a particular explanation and 2-3 of our other top instructors have either independently made the same conclusion or just come to recognize after hearing it that it works pretty well, I think we’ve made a huge stride in our effort to give students the absolute best GMAT education.  It’s rewarding on a personal level – if “brilliant minds think alike” and I’m thinking the same way as Chris, Frankie, Cliff, et al, then I must be doing okay – and collectively we all thrive on finding better ways to teach and stay ahead of the evolution of the GMAT.

A day in the life of Brian Galvin
…begins with breakfast!  I can’t believe how many people I know don’t eat breakfast in the morning.  I typically sit down with breakfast and a cup of coffee and run through a few online news sites and blogs online to  get my mind set for the day.  Ever since I was about 3 I’ve read the newspaper with breakfast in the morning, but I’ve finally migrated online.  I need to be up on the news because the first 20-30 minutes of my day at the office is a blast – we have a terrific team at Veritas Prep headquarters and we always start the day with some discussion over our first cup of coffee.  I love working with smart, worldly people…there’s so much to learn (or just so many opportunities to make sarcastic comments).

Once work has started, I typically spend the first hour reviewing emails from our instructors and my students, conscious of the fact that 9am in California is already the afternoon in New York and the early evening in London, so our instructors may have been waiting a while to hear back.  From there, the day can fork in different directions – I’ll interview instructor applicants, I often lead instructor development workshops in which we’ll meet online to share strategies, tips, favorite study problems, etc.  I think you may have seen, Tray, that I’m a frequent contributor on websites like GMATClub and Beat The GMAT, so I try to chime in with a few forum posts each day and work on blog posts (I love writing for our own blog,, because I get to inject a little more personality there – I’ve negotiated that my first paragraph can be about whatever I want – hip-hop, sports, politics, TV – as long as I link it back to the GMAT in paragraph two), and I find that to be really helpful for managing the way that we teach, as often I’ll find that there are topics out there that the masses just aren’t getting, or that no one is really explaining as well as we could.

By the end of the day I’m usually scrambling to get things done that I want to – we’re pretty ambitious so there’s never a shortage of projects in queue and I’ve been around the company long enough – since 2003 as an instructor and 2006 full-time – that I usually have something to contribute regardless of the project, so I’ll get sidetracked and then need to get back on top of things.  After work, I’ll often have a class to teach, one of our free seminars to host, or some tutoring to conduct, and I try to hold at least a couple nights a week free for running or biking so that I can stay active in endurance sports.  And often some of my best brainstorms come when I’m out running and just have time to think.

Part 3 of our Q&A with Brian Galvin coming up tomorrow. Stay tuned!