The Counterproductivity of Goal-Setting

by on September 7th, 2011

It’s not uncommon for GMAT test-takers to be “goal-oriented.”  For most of your life, mentors and superiors have told you to set goals and work to achieve them, so why should the GMAT be any different?  But heed these words – for some of you reading this, a focus on your GMAT goal will be counterproductive, so you would be well-advised to consider, perhaps for the first time in your professional/academic life, a happy-go-luckier approach to achieving your goals.  Here’s why:

If your goal is to get an A in your AP Biology class in high school, you have benchmarks along the way to help you reach that goal.  If your class average is 87% halfway through the semester, you know that you need to take advantage of extra credit, put as much effort as possible  (maybe borrowing time from your English Lit class, in which you have a 96% average), and buckle down for the final exam.  That 87% average is a great benchmark – it tells you that you need to average 93% the rest of the way to net out at 90.  And because biology tests are “linear,” if you know you need a 93% and you’re 95% accurate with your flashcards and review sheets, you can be pretty confident that you will get there on the next test.

Similarly, if your goal is to run a 5-minute mile, you have benchmarks in training and during the run itself.  During training, you can follow your times as you get closer, and break down your lap splits to determine which lap is your laggard.  During the race, if your first quarter mile is above 1:15, you know you need to pick up the pace; if it’s under 1:10, you know you have some time in the bank and may want to slow up to save some energy for the kick at the end.

But the GMAT is not linear and, especially during the test, there are no benchmarks.  65th percentile on a practice test does not mean that you got 65% correct.  Not all 65th percentiles are created equal – if you missed 4 questions by making essentially the same mistake (making assumptions in Data Sufficiency or misreading the conclusion in Critical Reasoning), you can fix that one mistake and make a quantum leap in your score.  But if you gave it your best, did not make any unconscionable mistakes, and hit 65th on your practice test, you have a tougher road to hoe as you try to improve that.  (Note – it’s nowhere near insurmountable! But correcting recurring silly mistakes is that much easier, so that’s the point of comparison)  So while a goal is certainly helpful as a motivator to buckle down and study, it is less useful in what it tells you about how you should study.  On the GMAT, your study goals need to be more tailored to subject-based outcomes (I need to become stronger with Data Sufficiency; I need to become faster with Reading Comprehension) than to numerical outcomes.

More importantly, on the test itself a focus on your goal can only hurt you; it cannot help you. In the mile run, looking at your watch to let you know if you’re on pace or not can be helpful, but on the GMAT there are absolutely no benchmarks to help indicate your performance – there are only false benchmarks and landmines!  Never in the recorded history of the GMAT has a student been helped by predicting the difficulty level of a question.  If you say “wow, that is  an easy question; I must be doing poorly,” there’s no way that that inference can help you – but it can certainly hurt!  If that “easy question” causes you to lose confidence, or to waste time on the next 2-3 questions overthinking them to somehow get back the points that you might have lost (but didn’t necessarily), that prediction of your current score level will tank your future score. In reality, that “easy question” is probably one of two things – either an unscored, experimental question that the GMAT needs to test on high scorers (yeah, it’s easy, but it’s not part of the adaptive algorithm) or a hard/moderate question for which you completely missed the difficulty.  It looked easy, but it wasn’t as easy as you thought.

Many a GMAT student has mentioned that the longing for 700 has caused her anxiety and grief on test day:

  • Oh no, I’m 2 minutes behind on time – there goes my 700!
  • This question looks too easy – I must be doing way worse than I thought.
  • This is a hard question but it’s the kind of question I absolutely must get right in order to score 700 so I have to spend the extra time no matter what it takes.
  • That question was easier than it looked – I thought I was doing well but maybe I’m slipping below 700.
  • I don’t think this is going very well… I wonder if I should think about canceling my score.

None of those statements above are productive in any way, and for most examinees those thoughts during the test will drag their scores down.  With only 75 minutes per section and some very hard questions facing you, you don’t have the time or mental stamina to spare to waste time on “your goal”.  The score will be what it will be – the only thing you can control is your performance on the remaining questions.  Any extra pressure you put on yourself or negativity you allow yourself to feel can only hurt with your task at hand.  But GMAT test-takers routinely fall into these traps of negativity and anxiety, burdened on test day by goals that, if you really think about it, are arbitrary.

Have you ever convinced a kid to give up his chair or get you a drink from the fridge by promising him “500 points”?  It works almost every time even though there’s no value ascribed to those points, which aren’t redeemable for anything but satisfaction.  Ultimately, “700 points” on the GMAT is similarly an arbitrary number – the only value that it carries is derived by the fact that it measures your performance against that of others.  700, quite frankly, is a worthless number – it could just as easily be 7000 (why not add another 0?), 70 ( the GMAT doesn’t use units digits, anyway), or 168 (on the LSAT scale).  What really matters is what the number says about your performance, and your performance is what you can control.  And your performance will simply not be aided in any way by thinking about that number 700.  So get it out of your head!!

On test day, many examinees are held back by their goal orientation.  That number in their minds takes up such a large portion of their brainpower that it becomes a significant obstacle to the kinds of proactive, efficient thought that the GMAT requires.  So let your goal go and focus on your performance.  In other words, do not let your goal be the very obstacle that keeps you from your goal.


  • Hi Brian: I like to take the non-goal oriented approach myself when it comes to testing. However, for the GMAT specifically, would it not be good to have certain time-based benchmarks, such as an average of 2 minutes per Quantitative question, seeing as how cruel the GMAT can be if you run out of time and don't answer a few questions?


    • Hey Navin,

      It's certainly a good idea to have time targets, so yes. Although I'd definitely recommend making your targets a little more general (20 minutes for 10 questions) than specific (2 minutes each) so that you're not weighted down by that constant ticking of the clock (and wasting time checking it so often).

      And don't let the lesson from this article be "don't set goals" - it's just that it's much, much more important to focus on the process that leads to the accomplishment than the number embedded in the goal. I've seen in a lot of students that "weight of 700" on their shoulders that pretty much guarantees they won't score well because they're so distracted by trying to track their progress that they just don't make much progress.

  • Good approach...performance not the goal shld be at the back of our mind. Goal is automatically taken care off!

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