GMAT Tip of the Week: How Watson Can Help You Keep Your GMAT Score Out of Jeopardy

If you were like many intellectuals around the world this week, you’ve watched or at least heard about the (let’s be honest… we can use the adjective “rigged”) Jeopardy! competition between the all-time greatest Jeopardy! champions and an IBM computer named Watson. And if you’re like most of those who watched, the experience probably left you feeling cheated.

First to the Jeopardy! game: Ken Jennings (74-time Jeopardy! winner) and Brad Rutter (\$3.5 million in winnings and never defeated) were not outsmarted by the machine — it was apparent that both humans knew the correct answer to just about every question on the board. Frustratingly, however, the machine was somehow able to buzz in ahead of the humans on nearly every answer. When the computer failed to buzz in or answered incorrectly the two Jeopardy! champions gave the correct answer nearly every time. If this were a fair contest — say a test of the same 50 clues given to each contestant with 15 seconds to answer (which is the Jeopardy! entrance exam by the way) both humans would have outscored the machine.

So how did the computer win? With an unfair advantage! And, more relevant to your situation, you should note that computers will always have this unfair advantage over humans, and because your GMAT will be administered by a computer, you can learn from that.

So how does knowing that not even the smartest people in America can beat the system help you on the GMAT?

1) You can’t outsmart the computer, so don’t even try.

Many GMAT students spend considerable time and energy trying to “crack the code” of the GMAT scoring algorithm: they construct elaborate theories about earlier questions counting more (they don’t); they try to interpret their scores by paying attention to difficulty level (which is way more often counterproductive than helpful); they count question types trying to glean insight into which questions are unscored and experimental (again, way more effort than it’s worth); they post Beat the GMAT threads trying to hypothesize scores based on number of questions correct or based on hypothetical quant/verbal scaled score mixes.

In the end, all this serves to do is waste time and mental energy. The GMAT scoring system is Watson-level sophisticated. It has a great deal more data than you do, and it can process it exponentially faster. If you think that you can construct a plan to outsmart the computer and game the system, you’re sorely mistaken, and you’re also using valuable study time and mental energy beating your head against a wall. You don’t have a chance of outsmarting the computer, but you do have a pretty good chance of thinking like the humans who write the questions. Just as the Jeopardy all-stars’ only chance was to stay in the game and hope to answer the Daily Double and Final Jeopardy questions correctly, your only chance of success on the GMAT is being able to answer GMAT questions correctly. Fortunately, it’s much easier to think like the testmaker and anticipate the ways in which they’re constructing the questions than it is to try to outthink the computer. Which brings us to:

2) When you can get questions right, you need to get them right.

What has frustrated Jeopardy viewers most is that the computer had a built-in buzzer advantage over Jennings and Rutter, who had to buzz in with the limitation of human reaction time and not a pre-programmed algorithm that would help them to buzz in precisely at the first moment of availability. Their only hope, then, was that Watson would miss questions and lose money while they as contestants would answer the questions on which they did buzz in first correctly. They simply had to answer questions correctly, keep the scores close, and then win from behind on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. And it could have worked — in game one, Watson botched the Final Jeopardy question (“This US city… ” cannot be Toronto, genius supercomputer!), but alas the game was a runaway by that point and Watson had already sealed the win.

On the GMAT, you’re in the same position — the computer is programmed to test the threshold of your ability level with harder questions each time you answer correctly, and your downfall is missing the questions that you can answer correctly; when you miss a question that you should answer correctly, the algorithm provides you an easier question and a lowered “scoring opportunity” to go with it. Accordingly, when you are provided with lower-difficulty questions — and you will be, as the test format guarantees that almost everyone misses multiple questions per section — you have to answer them correctly. Rushing hastily through what you perceive as an “easy” question to save time for harder questions is a strategy wrought with potential for error, and missing a question that should be at your lower threshold of difficulty will push that limit even lower.

Essentially, although your psyche tells you to save time for the harder questions, in practice doing so can lead you to the types of errors that ensure that you don’t even see many harder questions because you’re unable to break through the middle tiers of difficulty. It’s akin to swinging for home runs and striking out, failing to make contact, get on base, and keep the inning alive. When a question is in your wheelhouse, you should spend the extra 5-10 seconds to double-check potential errors. Make sure that you’ve solved for the correct variable or question; pay attention to those commonly-occurring traps like “percent of” (2x = 200% of x) vs. “percent greater than” (2x = 100% greater than x). With a total of 78 multiple choice questions facing you on the GMAT, it’s much more a test of consistency than you think, and an erratic performance that contains too many “silly” errors will crush your score much quicker than having to guess your way through 2-3 impossibly-difficult questions will.

3) Pay attention to the specific question being asked.

Here is where you can learn from Watson’s mistakes. As mentioned above, Watson nearly cost himself the game on a silly error, answering “Toronto” to a question that began with “This U.S. city… ” (both Jennings and Rutter correctly answered “Chicago”). While the true meat of the question had to do more with airport names (the question continued .”.. has two airports, one named after a World War 2 hero and one named after a prominent battle”), the qualifier “U.S. city” was nonetheless a crucial part of the question — a definition critical to the answer and an asset for those who could reason by narrowing their mental scan of potential airport names only to those in the United States. Watson made a critical GMAT error that you must avoid: when a definition is present, even if it seems inconsequential as part of background information, you must take it into account.

Many a GMAT question includes a word embedded at the beginning of a question that is easy to forget as you break down the details:

“For integers x, y, and z… ”

“If true, which of the following… ”

It’s critical that you note these specifics when answering questions, as the GMAT loves to create incorrect answer choices that suck you in if you omit them or infer your own (students are apt in many cases to infer their own “only” or “first” in Critical Reasoning conclusions, for example).

Simply put, it’s not enough to know the information — you have to be able to play the game. He’s no Watson, but another Veritas Prep instructor, Dave, knows this all too well. While leading Jeopardy going into a Final Jeopardy question that essentially described his major — “European History” — he made a fatal GMAT-themed mistake and lost over \$20,000 in the process. To the question (or, rather, answer):

“In the late 19th century, the British fought a series of wars over a plant from this family”

He answered “Opium,” the plant upon which the Opium Wars centered, and not “Poppy,” the family and the correct answer to the question. Wishing he had that question back — he knew the answer but didn’t play the game correctly — he made it his mission to always double-check the question before submitting his answer on the GMAT. If x were 6 and 6 were choice B, it was just as likely that the GMAT was using that as a trap and instead asking for the value of y; Dave learned the lesson the hard way, but hopefully you won’t have to. On the GMAT, the “right answer to the wrong question” is the oldest trick in the book. Frankly, it’s elementary my dear Watson…

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