Beating the GMAT: Intelligence Is Insufficient

by on July 27th, 2017

table_tennisUndoubtedly, the GMAT can be a frustrating test to learn how to beat. Most who find themselves in battle with it end up following a red herring by questioning what the heck this test has to do with business. Entertaining this line of inquiry is a fool’s errand and takes the focus off the necessary work. Further, getting distracted by a why-do-I-have-to-what-does-this-have-to-do-with-anything mindset constructs cognitive walls that impede progress.

Rest assured: the GMAT is a valid and useful tool for assessing your business school application package. If you want more information as to the how-and-why of GMAT validity. Despite the legitimacy of the exam, I always like to offer brief comments to my students regarding the relevance of GMAT questions and tested skills to managerial acumen when the opportunity arises. The reactions I get are seldom revelatory, but I like to sow a lot of different seeds in the minds of my students; one simply never knows what will take root.

Data Sufficiency Strategy

I recently wrote a post that breaks down Data Sufficiency (DS) questions and offers tips for achieving mastery with this oft loathed question format. When writing that post, I was reminded of what I say to my GMAT students when I introduce DS questions in class. As noted above, trying to tie the GMAT to business can be a distraction, but doing so can nonetheless help a student clear some intellectual space to make quicker progress toward conquering the exam. On DS questions, I frequently say something like this:

“As managers, you will set your direct reports to tasks and the fruit of their labor will result in information for you. With that information you will be expected to make a decision. But, a preliminary judgment must first be made: Do you have enough information to make your decision? Or, should you send your direct reports back to gather more information so you can make a decision?”

GMAT students are successful, highly educated, and ambitious. They generally do not respond well to being “stumped.” Often, the perception is that intelligence is all that is needed to answer the questions posed by this test. The reasoning goes that since they are intelligent people, answering a Data Sufficiency question is a matter bearing down on it with a tested combination of smarts and willpower.

Very soon, everyone must come to terms with the necessity of building skills they do not yet possess. If the GMAT was a physical skills test—say, ping pong—then it would be naturally accepted that, in order to win a difficult match against a very strong opponent, hard training over a long period of time is absolutely requisite. However, because the GMAT is a cognitive skills test, people naturally assume that since they are smart they will be able to beat the test handily. Sure, one might have to recall how to factor a quadratic equation or that 2 is the smallest and only even prime number, but that won’t take long. Relearning the mechanics is easy enough to do and it is sufficient to come out on top.

Unsurprisingly, such is simply not the case . . .

  • While mechanical mathematic skills are necessary, they are by no means sufficient to beat the GMAT.
  • Similarly, the ability to put different spins on a ping pong ball will not win the match.
  • Neither will an understanding of how scoring works nor the facility to keep track of who serves when.
  • Sure-footedness and the shoes to enhance it will not win the match either.
  • A good night’s sleep, consistent hydration, a positive attitude, sound strategy, etc., etc., etc. will also not win the match.

Instead, the challenger must be able to bring those and so many more variables to work together in harmony. Moreover, the challenger must respond in real time to the honed and formidable skillfulness of the opponent.

Just like the person at the other end of the ping pong table, the GMAT is beatable. And, in keeping with the table tennis example, dedicated, arduous, expert training is the only way to win. The GMAT is a skills test, and skills tests are always very difficult. They command more than content knowledge. They command methodological, tactical, and strategic proficiency.

Data Sufficiency questions are a hard serve, a bent trajectory, a bounce off the back corner of the table. The interpretation and resulting action of the challenger must be swift, deft, efficient, and, above all, accurate. So, since the big match is coming the only thing to do is train.

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