GMAT Tip of the Week: Eye of the Tiger

As difficult an evening as last night was for New York Yankee fans, it wasn’t a picnic for Detroit Tigers fans either. En route to a 3-2, series clinching victory, Detroit watched an early 2-0 and then 3-0 lead evaporate, turning into 3-1 and then 3-2 with the bases loaded in the heart of the Yankee batting order. No doubt, Yankee fans endured a sleepless night thinking of what-could-have-been, but Tiger fans endured a lifetime of stress in the bottom halves of the late innings, as each pitch had the potential to be the backbreaker.

Adding to the gut-wrenching agony of what-looks-like-victory-but-might-soon-be-defeat was the Yankee mystique, playing sports’ most storied franchise in its own stadium with reminders of Yankee greatness and the defeat of would-be challengers past looming throughout The House That Looks A Lot Like The House That Ruth Built. Even in victory, Tiger fans had to taste defeat over and over again. One could say it was a lot like taking the GMAT…

Much like Yankee Stadium, the Pearson/VUE test center at which you’ll take the GMAT possesses quite a bit of mystique. They call the Yankees the Evil Empire (“They” meaning jealous Red Sox fans. We’ll miss you, Jesse. — Ed.), and many feel the same way about the GMAT — it’s an entity that looms larger than life, intimidating in its permanence as a hurdle for those who wish to achieve greatness. You know it will get all the breaks and have all of the intangible advantages over you. Its aura alone inspires fear and forces those who challenge it to make mistakes they would never make in other circumstances.

A recent 770-scorer recounted his experience with the GMAT by saying that at several points during the quantitative section he felt hopeless. The computer-adaptive algorithm ensures that most will feel that way, as it is designed to continue to show you questions that challenge your ability level. In order for the CAT scoring system to do its job, it needs to feed you questions that you will answer incorrectly — it has to find that upper limit. In other words, you’ll feel like a pitcher protecting a one-run lead with the bases loaded and a batter’s count. Our 770-scorer mentioned that, on multiple questions, he had to cut his losses, register a guess, and hope to get the next one. Already possessing a 700+ score to his credit, he was searching for an even-higher score and with the way that the test was challenging him, he considered giving up…in his mind, he was underperforming his expectations and didn’t have much reason to fight on.

By the time he reached the verbal section, he was finishing the test more to prove to himself that he “wasn’t a quitter,” not because he thought he’d achieve his highest-to-date score. He relaxed on his use of verbal strategy, made a few errors that he knew he shouldn’t, and prepared for what he knew would be a great score by most standards but a numerical symbol of a rough outing in his own mind. And when the score appeared, lo and behold he had scored his highest score to date and, surprisingly, nearly aced the quant section that had frustrated him so mightily.

The GMAT does that — to succeed on the GMAT you’re more likely to feel like you eked out a potentially-disastrous victory than to feel like you dominated thoroughly. So remain calm and confident regardless of circumstance. Pressure is inevitable, and you will get questions wrong. The key is to not lose your composure; in baseball, a pitcher can load the bases and get to a 3-0 count on a batter but still close the inning without surrendering a run. And a 3-1 lead allows a pitcher to even walk in a run without losing the game — when the game is done, a 3-2 win is every bit as valid and determinant as a 10-1 win. Similarly, your path to 700+ will almost certainly require you to “load the bases” or “surrender a run” here or there. Your mission is to manage the entire game and not allow yourself to be derailed by a question or two gone awry.

The GMAT has a mystique about it and many a worthy challenger has succumbed to the pressure that it poses. So take a lesson from the Detroit Tigers: bend, but don’t break. Accept that a perfect game is nearly impossible, but that a good-enough outing is all you really need. You’ll feel the stress and you’ll give up a few questions that you wish you hadn’t, but if you focus on what you can control — that question in front of you, your pace, and your confidence — you can get through a rough stretch and surprise yourself with the result. The road to 770 is littered with mistakes and challenges, but those who manage those challenges succeed in the end.

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