Think Like The Testmaker: What Failure Can Teach You About GMAT Success

For all of its business relevance — stock tickers in the student lounge, presentations by top executives, excused absences for job interviews, school visits by haberdashers — business school remains school.  It’s an educational venture, directly affiliated in nearly every case with a top university of higher learning and granting with it not merely a stamp of pre-approval for job candidates but also a master’s degree and its connotation of educational excellence.  Business schools exist to teach, and the application process exists in large part to determine which students are most apt to learn.  And with that in mind, the following New York Times article about character education may be important to prospective MBAs:

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

The article proposes the idea that skills related to educational character may be significantly more important factors in a student’s future success than are items of traditional academics.  Education reformers in the KIPP schools have recently begun emphasizing, in addition to the pure “reading/writing/’rithmetic” skills, these character items:

zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity

And the article surmises that many of these skills present in the KIPP schools are absent (or not as pronounced as they could be) in the more prestigious prep schools that focus on high college placement rates at elite schools.  In the absence of qualities like grit and curiosity, grades may exist less as measures of learning and more as ends of themselves, with students expecting high grades or working simply toward those grades without having obtained the corresponding knowledge that should accompany the process of pursuing those marks.

As predicted in the article, students focused primarily (if not exclusively) on “getting an A,” or in the GMAT world “getting a 700,” often miss the point of that pursuit.  Grading solely as a sorting mechanism of “items known/learned” fails the educational process in ways that grit and curiosity can accelerate it.  Students whose sole question is “what’s the answer” miss out on the learning that naturally accompanies the curious question: “why is that the answer?”.  Further, at the high school level in particular, grading as a means of achievement lends itself to entitlement as students (and even more so, parents) seek the “sufficient” means to that desired end without fully absorbing what else may be there to learn.

Enter the GMAT, which as we’ve discussed regularly in this space is a test of “higher-order thinking” – not “knowledge” (the lowest rung on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives” but rather the abilities to apply, analyze, and create based on knowledge.  Those higher-order objectives thrive on “character” qualities like curiosity, grit, optimism, and awareness.  As the article indirectly predicts, if it’s possible for elite high school students to obtain “successful” grades while leaving valuable education on the table, it’s possible that the GMAT exists in part to expose that, in a way.  The GMAT, to the frustration of many test-takers, does not reward simple memorization or “knowledge” but rather rewards the type of mental flexibility that comes from curiosity and grit.  Knowing “the answer” to a GMAT problem does not alone mean that one can apply or analyze one’s way to the answer to a similar problem.  A student who looks up a formula or rule is often at a severe disadvantage compared with one who, through grit, curiosity, or optimism, plays with the problem for several minutes until she has figured out the rule for herself.

For example, as seen on this blog before, the GMAT finds multiple ways to test the concept of a remainder, but almost never in its base form of “what is the remainder when 11 is divided by 4?”.  It may ask “for what positive value of x, when x < 4, ensures that 11 – x is divisible by 4?”.  Or it may ask “when x/y, the remainder is 3, and x/y = 2.75.  What is the value of y?”.  The student who has memorized how to divide – getting an ‘A’ in arithmetic back in grade school but never thinking much past success on that chapter test – may never see those relationships that “3 must be subtracted from 11 to come up with 8, which is divisible by 4” or that “the remaining 3 has to be divided by y to form the decimal 0.75”.  But the “gritty” student who struggles through a few division problems will likely see those relationships, and the “curious” student who asks “how else could they ask this question?” will on her own create several more links between those concepts, perhaps involving ratios or factorization rules.

What does this mean for you?  Don’t neglect those character virtues in your pursuit of knowledge-based education en route to business school.  Pragmatic study leads to knowledge, but curiosity and grit lead to the higher-order items that the GMAT and business schools truly seek.  “The answer” to your homework question is important, but exponentially less so than what you learn from it.  Take a lesson from those educational reformers and grade your own study not merely on your % correct, but also on your educational character.  Have you lived up to your own expectations there?

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