The GMAT Is Slippery…So Use the “Handrails”

by on October 11th, 2012

Today’s article comes courtesy of Veritas Prep GMAT instructor and Beat the GMAT expert, David Newland.

Think about the weather for a moment…When it is a nice day outside you take the stairs quickly, casually, no thought of slipping. You run up to the building confidently, you might even wonder why there is a handrail for you to grab on to. But when it is raining and the steps are wet, or even worse, when there is snow and ice, that’s when you reach for that handrail and make your way carefully down those stairs. You no longer show off or even hurry, it is not worth it. You simply want to navigate the stairs safely.

So it is with the GMAT. When practicing questions in the safety of your home you can do all kinds of fun things:

  • You can perform complex calculations in your head and laugh when you are off by a few hundreds,
  • You can look at a data sufficiency question and say that you have seen something like this and you “predict” that answer choice C is going to be correct on this one (just to see if you really do have psychic powers)
  • My favorite show-off is to have people read me Critical Reasoning questions out loud and stop them at the correct answer.

But do you think that these are good ideas for test day? Of course not! On test day it is worth a little extra time and attention to make sure that you answer correctly on the questions that you can get right.

The Case for “Handrails”

Many people, and even many GMAT experts, are enamored with the idea of shortcuts for every problem and of doing the math and the verbal reasoning in their heads. They seem to think that finishing with 20 minutes to spare and returning the notepad blank since they “never had to use it” is the ideal GMAT performance.

You should know better. You are given very few resources on the test and 75 minutes of time and the plastic notepad are two of the most important – so use them! I have worked with many students who did not want to use a systematic approach to questions. They did not want to follow the “tedious” procedures of writing down the question on math problems, of identifying the main idea of each paragraph on reading comprehension, of keeping track of their progress on Data Sufficiency, etc.

They preferred to use a more free-flowing style that did not involve writing down much of anything. Many of these students were very bright and could answer correctly on some very difficult questions. But here is the problem; this style of test-taking only works when everything is going just right and even then the results are inconsistent. If most of the work is done in your head, if you do not take the time to do the small things like writing down the question that you are actually trying to answer, you are much more susceptible to tricks and traps and this means missing questions that you could have gotten right – possibly even questions that are of lower difficulty and that a less capable, but more thorough test-taker will get right.

What I call “handrails” – those little checks and procedures that keep you from getting lost and from making silly mistakes – are all about helping you to get the best score that YOU are capable of getting.

Each of us has a band of scores that we might achieve on a normal test day. Perhaps your band of possible scores is between 650 and 720. If you do the best that you are capable of doing, with very few “unforced errors” then you will rise to the highest level that you can master. In other words if you can generally get questions right up to the 720-level and if you manage your time and your efforts correctly and don’t make too many silly mistakes you can rise to the top of your current potential and get that 720.

However, if you do make lots of careless errors, if you rush through the problems that you could get right and get lost in the ones that are not going well for you on that particular day, then you will score at the bottom of your range. Most people would say that the person who scores 650 and the one that scores 720 must be very different in their capabilities. But this is not true. They can be equally capable, with one test-taker a little more pro-active and methodical than the other.

The “Handrails” on Data Sufficiency

When you are practicing and just having fun you can afford to show off and take shortcuts, but on the actual GMAT you have to know how to use the handrails. On Data Sufficiency there are number of procedures that you can use to keep track of the problem and to make sure that you are avoiding those careless errors.

  1. Write out the question that you are answering and note if it is a “specific number” or a “yes/no” question. This may seem very simple but it is one of the most important things that you can do, especially for yes/no questions. By writing out the question – in your own words and symbols and in a way that is most meaningful to you – you not only ensure that you will not answer the wrong question, but you also get started in the right direction by focusing on the actual question.
  2. Separate the “facts” that you are given in the question stem from the actual question itself. Do not write your question as “What is the value of positive even integer x?” It is too easy for you to lose track of that valuable information. Instead write the question as “x = ?” and then bring the facts out so that they are right there in front of you: “Facts) x is even, x is positive, x is an integer.” When you bring out the facts in this way you minimize the potential of overlooking this valuable information.
  3. Write something down for each statement. Even if you only write “x is positive” or some other seemingly obvious thing it is important that you write something. It keeps the information organized. Between writing out the question, separating the “facts,” and now clearly identifying the information in each statement you are ensuring that you do not get confused as to the information that you have and where it came from. This is crucial because many of the mistakes that occur on test day are based on a misunderstanding of what information is there and of where it came from. And remember; when you are writing something for each statement – just as when you are writing out the question – be sure to put the information in a form that is useful to you. Write it as an equation (x +2y = 40), or write out the values that are possible (z = 4 or 7), whatever you do just make the information work for you.
  4. Be sure to keep track of sufficient/ not sufficient. Once you have evaluated each statement, you will want to indicate whether that information (combined with the “facts”) is sufficient to answer the question. I write “S” or “NS” next to each statement to indicate “sufficient” and “not sufficient.” If each statement is not sufficient that means that I need to evaluate the two statements together in order to decide between answers C and E. By keeping track of this you will always know where you are in the problem and what the next step is and you can avoid the common mistake of literally getting confused on which combination of statements is sufficient. You might think that you could never make such a mistake, but on test day it can easily happen.
  5. Use mental checklists. Data sufficiency may seem endlessly devious, but there are actually a limited number of things that come into play. For example, in the new edition of the Veritas Data Sufficiency book we list the five number properties that you should always consider on data sufficiency questions. We also describe the techniques used to prove sufficiency in the “data sufficiency toolkit.” When organizing the information you should have checklists of things to consider for every question, such as “positive/ negative, odd/ even, integer/ non-integer” and you should understand the ways that sufficiency can be tested. A little organization goes a long way on data sufficiency.

This may seem like it is a lot of work. It may even seem tedious. But it is what it takes to eliminate those errors that put you at the low end of your potential.

Problem Solving

Many of the techniques described above are important for problem solving as well, such as always writing out the question that you are solving and keeping your information organized. It is also important to do most of the calculations on the notepad (unless you do complex math in your head on a daily basis). Look for a future article on the “handrails” for problem solving.

Verbal Section

The verbal section has its own “handrails.” These range from simply making sure that you have  A – E available on sentence correction so that you can keep track of the answer choices that you have eliminated to writing the main idea of each paragraph on reading comprehension to writing out the conclusion and the “most important premise” on critical reasoning. (For a detailed look at this process for critical reasoning see “MIP: Critical Reasoning the Tim Duncan Way”)

What you do in Practice is what you will do on Test Day

It is often said that in athletics the difference between an amateur and a professional is that the amateur practices just enough that it is possible that he will do things right on game day, while a professional will practice until he cannot do them wrong.

That is where you need to be. The pressure can be intense during the test and most people will resort to doing what they are most comfortable with –what they have spent their time practicing. It simply is not possible to switch on test day from a free-flowing style where questions are missed due to simple mistakes to a more methodical style based on “handrails.” You need to make the change now if you want to do it on test day.

I suggest the following:

  1. Analyze each question type (Problem Solving, Data Sufficiency, Critical Reasoning, Sentence Correction and Reading Comprehension).
  2. Establish reliable and efficient procedures for each question type.
  3. Create your “handrails” within your procedures. I have given you the example of data sufficiency above.
  4. Practice those procedures until you can do them every time.
  5. Take “simple errors” very personally – in terms of your score these are the worst mistakes that you can make. If you make a silly mistake be sure to emphasize those procedures that will prevent such a mistake in the future.

People often wonder why their actual GMAT scores are 50 or even 100 points lower than the scores from their practice tests. The answer is often a lack of reliable procedures; procedures that can keep you safe when the going gets tough. Add these “handrails” to your strategy and earn the highest score that you are currently capable of earning. Remember, the GMAT is slippery…so use those handrails.

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