It’s Opening Day – Play Ball! Or Take the GMAT…

Forgive me for another sports-themed post, but on this weekend before Opening Day (sorry, Sox Nation, but baseball hasn’t officially begun until the Detroit Tigers take the field) I got to thinking about the incredibly-entertaining and business-school-relevant book Moneyball and its teachings as they relate to the GMAT. (Note to potential test-takers: That run-on sentence wasn’t a result of laziness on my part – that’s the kind of monster sentence you’ll need to correct on the verbal section!)

In a nutshell, Moneyball tells of the Oakland A’s uniquely-effective strategy of statiscally analyzing baseball statistics to determine which attributes in a player were most cost-effective and correlated to winning. Surprisingly to some, the findings were that less-sexy stats such as On Base Percentage and Walks were actually more conducive to winning than were the oft-romanticized Home Runs and Runs Batted In; unsurprisingly, players who specialized in the former statistics commanded much lower salaries than those who hit for power and filled the stands.

The logic behind OBP and Walks and their effect on winning is that players who can work the pitch count and still get on base will not only create scoring opportunities for their teams, but also wear down the opposing pitchers and eventually create opportunities to take advantage of poor pitches and poorer pitchers serving in relief.

How does this relate to the GMAT? I see two ways you can employ Moneyball logic to help you better approach the exam:

(1) Your own Moneyball strategy – When facing difficult questions on the GMAT, your first inclination is often to ‘swing for the fences’, seeking a monster, one-shot equation to solve the problem-solving question, trying to solve a sentence correction question by reading through each sentence as a whole, etc. Students often find themselves overwhelmed trying to make a yeah-or-nay decision on each answer choice all at once, or brainstorm the single equation to make sense of the entire paragraph-long word problem.

While you may hit a few homers with this method, you’ll also strike out more often than you’d like. If you instead try and “work the count” and “wait for your pitch”, you can more patiently work through questions in a step-by-step manner:

-Don’t swing at the first pitch – if you can’t definitively eliminate answer choice A on a verbal question, let it pass and come back to it after you’ve seen a few other choices to better calibrate your tolerance for correct/incorrect answers.

-Put the ball in play – hitting a single and manufacturing a run counts the same as a solo homer, just as solving for intermediate variables and creating 2-3 smaller problems, rather than tackling the entire problem in one fell swoop, will still get you a correct answer with less risk. With sentence correction questions, you can hit singles by correcting one error at a time, rather than deciding on each question as it comes.

-Own the plate – effective batters will take ownership of the plate and the strike zone, and foul off pitches that don’t fit in to their sweet spots. Similarly, effective test-takers will make each question their own by putting equations in their own terms, anticipating questions before reading passages, etc. Don’t simply react to the question you’re given – proactively make it your own so that you can keep it in your ‘sweet spot’.

2) The GMAT uses Moneyball strategy – students typically try to determine question difficulty by looking for the GMAT’s “home run” swing, and are vulnerable to the fact that the GMAT acts more like a cagey leadoff hitter than a cleanup slugger.

The test is designed to wear you down, not knock you out – beware the questions or passages that bait you in to wasting time, as making you spend 4 minutes on a correct answer isn’t much worse for the test creator than having you spend 2 minutes on an incorrect one. Those extra 2 minutes mean you’ll have less time for a future question.

The test is often a contact hitter – while you may be looking for the monster permutations and data sufficiency question, the test is just as likely to create a high-difficulty question that hinges on a small technicality. Does x have to be an integer or prime number? Does the conclusion feature a superlative term like “only” or “always”? These devices elicit incorrect answers, often just as easily as the horribly convoluted questions, so look out for the unassuming question in the weeds.

The test is built for the long haul – Moneyball theorists contend that wearing out a pitcher over the first 5-6 innings will produce a high-scoring few innings later in the game with a worn-out starter or less-talented reliver. Similarly, the test is designed to sap your time and energy early so that you make errors later on. Bide your time on the AWA section, take your breaks, and prepare to dig in for the entire exam so that you don’t throw a no-hitter through the first 20 questions but struggle to finish.

Also relevant to the beginning of the baseball season is the timing – the work you put in during April and May on the GMAT will pay dividends as you focus on your applications through the dog days of August, and triumphantly submit your applications in the “Fall Classic” deadline season of October. Best of luck over the summer – like the 2008 Detroit Tigers, may you relax this winter as a champion!

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