I’ve taught skiing for decades; GMAT prep for just years. Skiing happens outdoors, in the cold, pitting the body against elemental forces of gravity and weather. In contrast, GMAT is indoors, warm (depending on the HVAC at the test center), and almost exclusively cerebral. So I was surprised to discover useful parallels in these contrasting challenges.
Indeed, as I began to think about it, I realized that the initial major obstacles in each even look alike – for skiers, it’s the fear of falling, while for GMAT takers, it’s their fear of failing. Okay, so the conceit is a little contrived, but in reality, both kinds of fear can turn into paralyzing impediments. Either way, you need to embrace the challenge. And once you do, you quickly realize that the anticipation is far more daunting than the reality. Of course, that doesn’t mean either activity is painless or even risk-free. As I tell my GMAT classes, in skiing we have a saying: “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” Which brings us to the first parallel:
1. Take risks
In your prep class, don’t wait to volunteer until you’re absolutely sure you know the answer. So what if you don’t get it right? Apply the tools you’re l
earning to the best of your ability; your coach (that is to say, your teacher) will help you perfect your technique. But she can’t suggest adjustments if you won’t show your stuff. If you’re having difficulty grasping a concept, it’s more than likely that some of your classmates are struggling with the same issue. By taking a chance, you’re aiding other, less daring students. Remember, it doesn’t cost you anything to make a mistake in class. That’s not true for Test Day. As a matter of fact, the more feedback you get in class, the greater the value you’ll realize from your investment in test prep. And if for any reason you don’t feel safe actively participating, by all means tell your teacher. She will try to accommodate your concerns and thank you for adding to her understanding of your class.
Remember that mistakes are your best teachers. With each mistake you are telling yourself what you need to work on. And that leads to the second parallel:
Whether you’re carving through a mogul field or slicing through a combinatorics problem on question 30, you simply don’t have time to think about each detail of what you’ve got to do next. Your command of the fundamentals must come from “muscle memory” born of extensive practice. You begin your prep by mastering individual components. On the GMAT, these components are content (subject knowledge), process approaches, critical thinking and time management. A good prep regimen will hone your facility with each one. Once you’ve mastered the components individually, your next challenge is to seamlessly integrate them during practice tests. Again, the more practice the better. My Kaplan students take between 11 and 19 full-length practice tests before Test Day. In skiing terms, that’s a lot of runs.
One note here: don’t put off taking practice tests because you feel you don’t know enough. A key function of the practice test is to identify what you don’t know so you can budget your study time most effectively. By putting off the tests, you are only impeding your progress.
Our next parallel addresses one way to mitigate the seemingly overwhelming challenge of huge mountains and 90th plus percentile scores.
3. Set realistic expectations
In the terms of our skiing analogy, don’t expect to be able to run double black diamonds on day one. Start out slowly on the bunny slope. In fact, even if you’re confident of your basic knowledge, you might be surprised at what you can learn during a review of the fundamentals. I had been skiing for about 10 years when I decided to become an instructor. Over the three years just prior, I had skied pretty much every weekend and taken lessons on most of them. On the first day of my instructor training, we had to demonstrate skiing in a wedge. In this most basic speed control technique, the skier keeps the tips of his skis together while pushing the tails apart, forming a – you guessed it – wedge. My trainer observed that my weight was distributed disproportionately towards the back of my skis, something I had apparently been doing – unrecognized – for 10 years. A minor adjustment changed my life on the slopes. If I hadn’t gone back to check the basics, I would still be fighting that bad habit today. For the GMAT you will need to reacquire knowledge and skills that have sometimes been long dormant. Budget enough time to warm them up and to master the new techniques you’ll be learning.
Lots of practice also cultivates another critical skill:
4. Recognize patterns
Proficient skiers learn to read the hill for telltale signs of the challenges below. Sun glinting off a shiny patch is likely treacherous ice. Dark areas signal that the ground – or worse, a rock – is poking through the snow cover. Similarly, GMAT questions contain patterns that you should learn to recognize. A descriptive phrase set at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma signals a possible sentence correction modification error. An out-of-format number alone among the answer choices to a problem solving question is likely a trap. There are scores of such patterns on the test. Learn to recognize them and you’ll move safely – and much more quickly – through the questions.
Our final parallel is the corollary action to pattern recognition:
On the mountain, good skiers always want to know what’s behind the crest where the slope drops out of sight. Which way does the trail break beyond that curve? By anticipating the possibilities, skiers and test-takers can prepare to respond appropriately to rapidly approaching challenges. For example, as soon as you know you’re looking at a critical reasoning, weaken question, you can prepare to identify the conclusion, evidence and the central assumption in the stimulus, but you can also be ready to recognize a cause-and-effect relationship that will enable you to directly pre-phrase an answer. Anticipating likely scenarios makes you agile.
There’s one more technique that contributes equally well to success in skiing and GMAT prep. It may seem incongruous – it certainly caught me off guard when I first heard it. As my certification course concluded, I was riding the lift with one of my trainers. I had just completed a pretty good run. My instructor told me that I had truly mastered the necessary skills but that there was still one more thing I needed to do to really own the mountain. Anticipating some new nuance of edge control or torso extension, I asked him what that was. He said – “Smile”.