There Is a Solution To Every Problem On the GMAT

by on October 15th, 2012

This article by David Newland is the latest in a series of Veritas Prep articles on overcoming “Test Anxiety” and other problems that limit your ability to perform on test day.

Problem (noun): any question or matter involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty.

I think about the GMAT a lot. I was watching a lecture by Dr. Wayne Dyer, the spiritual and positive thinking guru, and, naturally, I started thinking about the GMAT! Dr. Dyer said that there are no true problems in our relationships, that everything we see as a problem is only based on a failure of understanding. He then concluded that every problem has its own solution carried within it.

Now Dr. Dyer was talking about life and relationships, but I was thinking about the GMAT and everything that he said seemed to be directed at GMAT test-takers. You see, on the GMAT there truly is a solution to every problem. Is that not an amazing thought?

There is a solution, a correct answer, to every “problem” and you have the power to find that solution.

There is nothing you will see on the GMAT that cannot be solved – everything is possible! What’s more, the GMAT adapts to you so that most of the problems you will see – both quantitative and verbal – are within your possible reach.

In fact, when the people at GMAC, the company responsible for the GMAT, talk about GMAT questions they do not call them problems at all; they call them “items.” This may sound like corporate doublespeak, but it actually makes sense when you think about a problem as something that holds you back.  Looking at the definition from the beginning of this article you can see that the items on the GMAT are not really problems “involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty” they are questions that have clear answers that you can find as long as you keep a clear head.

I might put it like this, “On the GMAT there no ‘problems’ only ‘opportunities.” The only actual problems (as in doubt, uncertainty and difficulty) that test takers have on the GMAT are the ones that each person brings with them.

Problems are not the items that appear on the screen; problems are the things in your head that prevent you from correctly solving the items on the screen.

The title of this article is “There is a Solution to Every Problem”. This not only means a correct answer to every GMAT item, it also means that there is a solution for every kind of limitation that you carry with you into the test center.

Here are possible ways to address two of the problems that people bring into the test center:

1) Negative self-talk

I am starting with this topic not only because it may be the most common “problem” but also because I suffered from this the last time I took the GMAT (yes that’s right GMAT experts and veteran instructors can suffer from this, too). Negative self-talk during the test can take the form of statements such as “I am really bombing today”, “I can’t believe how badly I am doing”, “How can I be so stupid” and “I am never going to business school now.”

Sound familiar? These are destructive statements that cannot possibly be of any help to the person thinking them. These statements take up space in the brain and get in the way of answering questions correctly.  So by definition, negative self-talk is a “problem” but what do we do about it?

Remember the facts:

  • Everyone misses questions on the GMAT. Let me say that again, EVERYONE misses questions on the GMAT. What a wonderful thought that is! We are all in the same boat. The 99th percentile and 39th percentile have this in common – we answer questions incorrectly. We all feel “stupid” sometimes. In fact, people who score a 49 or a 50 on the quant section may well have missed 12 questions out of 37. That means lots of opportunities to confront questions that you do not understand, and yes, lots of reasons for self-doubt.
  • On my way to earning a 770 last year I allowed myself to have some doubt and negative self-talk during the quantitative section only to learn that I had performed quite well – not perfectly, but quite well. The negative self talk did me no good and – as is true in many cases – I was performing much better than I thought.  Remember the facts and do not become so negative when you fail to understand certain questions! It happens to everyone and you might still be doing much better than you think.

It is much better for you to have an optimistic mindset: 

  • If you do end up with a score that is lower than you were hoping for you can deal with it then. 
  • While you are taking the test keep telling yourself that you are getting questions right and that you are doing well, this will allow you to perform your best, without the distraction that negativity brings.
  • When you do choose to guess at a question you might as well say to yourself, “It is my lucky day and I just guessed correctly” after all you may have done so and what matters most is your mindset going forward.
  • If you get a question that seems very difficult to you then say, “I am doing very well so far, while I might not get this one, I will get the one after it and keep doing well.”
  • And when you get a question that seems easy you can say, “Yes! Another problem that I can answer correctly, it is my day to shine.”

You can turn any situation throughout the test into either an optimistic or a negative thought – you have no way of knowing which is true until the test is over so practice thinking positively during your practice tests and get rid of the negative self-talk.

2) Test Anxiety

This is a similar problem to the negative self-talk in that it comes from a place of fear rather than from reality. Test anxiety is heightened by the idea that you may not be able to perform the way that you need to when the time comes. However, test anxiety is often based on a misconception – namely that everything depends on you performing at your absolute best throughout the test. Instead, you should understand that you can rely on your training and on your procedures, techniques, and methods.

To use a sports analogy, think about a golf swing. A golf swing is all about using the same technique every time. That is how those professional golfers can place the ball within a few feet of the desired location, even though they are 200 hundred yards away. Yes, the pressure is on but what the champions do in response to that pressure is to perform exactly what they would do in practice. Same routine, same stance, same swing. Sometimes they get lucky and a good shot turns out to be great, but the point is that success does not require anything extraordinary – just the ability to keep doing what they have practiced so many times.

How can you do this on the GMAT? How can you perform under pressure in the same way that you would at home doing practice questions? The answer is reliable habits that you have practiced so many times that- like the professional’s golf swing – they do not fail you when you need them most.

Reliable, Repeatable Techniques and Methods are your Secret Weapon

Do you have techniques and methods for each of the five question types? Do you know what you are going to do during the first 30 seconds of a Critical Reasoning problem? Do you have a method of beginning each data sufficiency? Having procedures in place so that you get started on each new question in a predictable way (rather than panicking) can help your test anxiety!

I have always found team sports where everyone is working together – like basketball, soccer, and football – create much less anxiety for me than individual sports. Stepping up to serve a tennis ball with people actually watching is very nerve-wracking. Running around the basketball court with 9 other people creates much less anxiety. The GMAT, however, seems to be the epitome of an individual sport: just you and the questions (and the timer) (and your nerves).

However, you can turn the GMAT from an individual sport into a team sport. Your team mates are the procedures and the habits that you have developed and practiced as you prepare for the test. When Veritas students confront data sufficiency questions they have a set of tools that they can use. The list of “five number properties” will help them avoid any errors. They have the “data sufficiency toolkit” to help them to think of ways to address the problem. And they have what I call “handrails,” the set of techniques and procedures to avoid the traps inherent in this question type. See the article “The GMAT is Slippery…so use the “Handrails.”

Anxiety often comes from the idea that everything depends on you and that you have to go it alone. Studies show that when people feel like they have support, when they have allies, their anxiety is much less EVEN WHEN THE PROBLEMS THEY CONFRONT ARE GREATER. Don’t attempt the GMAT alone. Let your procedures and techniques be your teammates and you will never feel like you have to do it alone. You don’t even have to do anything extraordinary on test day in order to achieve your dream result. Remember, to be a champion in golf you do not want to suddenly start hitting the ball a different way just because things are getting intense. Just keep doing what has worked for you in practice and consciously work to push the anxiety away.

You see there is a solution to every problem and those a few solutions to two common problems!

Continue the Discussion

What “problems” do you or people that you know bring into the test center? Do you have solutions to those problems? Are you trying to find solutions? Use the comments box if you would like to continue the discussion. What “problems” do you need help with? Or what solutions to problems would you like to share? Remember with Beat the GMAT you do not have to do this alone!


  • Excellent Article! Wayne Dyer is great too!


    I just finished the questions for quant section and I was feeling so sad and demoralized that I am still making mistakes ( 6 out of 37 ) . But, after reading this amazing article and after knowing that "EVERYONE misses questions on the GMAT", I am full with all my energy again.

    Thanks a lot !!. Your article is so amazing that after reading this I really want to say" Cm'on GMAT,  give me any question you have, I am READY! "

    I have bookmarked this article and I promise I will read this article atleast twice before going for my exam.

    • ( 6 out of 37 ) means I am making 6 mistakes ....not that I am getting 6 out of 37.. lol

  • Greetings! Thanks for this nice article which builds confidence.

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