You Can't Always Get What You Want, But What Do You Need For GMAT Success?

In today’s blog post, our author describes how to get what you need from your GMAT preparation… even if you don’t always find that you get exactly what you want.

“I saw her today at the reception…”

As an aspiring MBA reading a blog about the GMAT and MBA admissions, you may read that quote and immediately wonder: Who was “she”?  Was it Dee Leopold, dean of admissions at Harvard?   Or Soojin Koh, dean of admissions at Ross?  What did she say?  Did she give away the secret to a good career-changer essay?  Is round two actually better than round one? And what was this reception?  Why wasn’t I invited?

While you might take that ambiguous pronoun issue and fret about admissions information, most of the rest of the world (those of us whose iPods contain more than episodes of MBAPodcaster) would recognize it as the opening line to the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.  And that song may contain just as much value for you, an aspiring MBA student, as does an MBA Tour reception or MBAPodcaster interview.  Why?

The next line is important:  You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might just find, you get what you need.

GMAT students often have a pretty well-defined vision of what they want, but often times (as Mick Jagger predicted long before computer-adaptive testing took hold) what they want isn’t what they need.  The following are examples of what you may want, but what instead you might really need.

You Want: Detailed, step-by-step solutions to each practice problem.

You Need: Accurate solutions that help you better conceptualize and learn from the problem.

A recent GMAC survey found that the feature most-desired (but not achieved) by GMAT studiers was detailed, step-by-step solutions to practice problems.  But is that truly what studiers need?  GMAT problems are unique in that they’re not testing a specific method for answering, say, a ratio problem or a division problem.  They’re testing the user’s ability to conceptualize a seemingly-unique question.  There is no step-by-step solution that you can memorize and apply to the next problem; there are, however, guiding principles that you can carry forward as ways to think about a problem.  The best GMAT questions are those that force you to create your method; after all, simply remembering an existing method is a lower-level thought process, but applying concepts to create your own process is right in line with higher-order thinking.

As an example, consider a question that has been discussed in this space a few times:  When integer m is divided by integer n, the remainder is 14.  If m/n = 65.4, what is the value of n?

The problem with a step-by-step solution to this problem is that it leaves the concept a bit short.  One could say that, formulaically, in a division problem:

Dividend = Divisor * Quotient + Remainder

m = 65n + 14

and

m/n = 65.4

so, solving for m in the second equation:  m = 65.4(n)

then, plugging in for m:

65.4(n) = 65n + 14

.4(n) = 14

n = 14/.4 = 35

But that misses the point — what’s truly important to learn about the GMAT for this problem is that the exam is testing your ability to see that relationship between the remainder and the rest of the problem.  The remainder becomes the decimal points, and if you see that then you skip the memorized-formula and several algebraic steps.  As discussed in a prior post, you can use a small, parallel problem to test that relationship:

11/4 = 2, r 3

and 11/4 = 2 and 3/4

and 11/4 = 2.75

The remainder, 3, becomes .75 by taking it and dividing back by 4.  The quotient 2 is unchanged – the role of the remainder is to then divide back over the divisor to become the decimal points, so 14/n = .4 in the given problem.  We’ve shortcut several steps!

And what’s more, a particularly-astute student would notice that if the decimal place is .4, or four-tenths, or 4/10, then the correct answer must be a multiple of 5.  To get a clean decimal of .4, the farthest you can factor down that division problem is to 2/5, and so we’re stuck with a denominator that must be a multiple of 5.  In the given problem, only one such answer choice satisfies that, so one could actually do this quite quickly.

So while you might want one step-by-step solution to this problem, what you really need is the capacity to break it apart and play around with it.  Above, you’ve just seen three ways to solve this problem, any one of which could be quite helpful in seeing another problem on test day.  The odds are that you won’t see this same setup on your official test, but if you’ve explored divisibility, factors, and the reverse-engineering of math concepts, you can learn quite a bit from this problem.  So while you might want exactly one step-by-step method, you might just find that by thinking through and discussing this problem you get what you really need — a more comprehensive understanding of divisibility.

You Want: A list of idioms and formulas to memorize

You Need: Critical thinking skills and a handful of regularly-occurring concepts via which to apply them

For most of your life, you’ve studied by trying to remember everything you could from that chapter, then spitting it back to the teacher on your test.  But the GMAT isn’t a test of “what you know,” so a content-based study approach won’t take you that far.  Students often gravitate to the familiar, studying flashcards, memorizing grammar rules, poring over formulas lists, and even dismissing teachers as “lazy” for not keeping up step-by-step with them on such memorization.  But even those who write the test will admit that there is no list of vocabulary words or formulas that will take you over the top, and that they don’t test for the type of idiomatic knowledge that so many students seek.   Most students need to learn the hard way that the pool of “testable knowledge” for the GMAT is significantly shallower than they might think, but that the range of question constructions spreads much wider than most anticipate.

Any test for which you can memorize your way to success would fail to serve the purpose of the GMAT.  If the test were simply one of “how many hours can you study”, the truly-successful mid-twenties candidates desired by business schools would be at a supreme disadvantage.  Working a valuable job, volunteering a few times a month for a children’s charity, participating in alumni networking events, and valuing health and fitness don’t leave 20-30 hours a week to study Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  But business schools both want and need well-rounded critical thinkers over grammar hermits.  So it only makes sense that the exam will test critical thinking – an examinee’s ability to see logical errors (those that create sentences that just don’t make sense) and turn them into efficient decision points.

The job of the GMAT authors is to require you to think and not allow you to get by on memorization.  Which is why the idioms prized by so many studiers tend often to be the bait, not the key to success.  And with math questions, the challenging problems are those in which you can apply a fairly common math rule but you don’t see right away the ability to do so.  Recently a group of Veritas Prep instructors found themselves together discussing a problem posed by a student (it may or may not be a live GMAT question, so we’ll refrain in the name of caution from publishing it here).  The problem, on the surface, seemed impossible to calculate, but within seconds each instructor had recognized that in a roundabout way a few common rules of exponents would solve it in under a minute. 

No one would ever volunteer to write a step-by-step solution to this problem and even if one were to do so most students would find it incomplete (“why would I know to do that??”).  But that’s what made it such a great question — those who weren’t asking “what is THE next step” or “what is THE rule” were flexible to explore “what do I know about this concept and how could I use one of those things to make this information more useful”, and those with the patience and capacity to do so both solved and loved the problem in under a minute.  THAT is the GMAT — the more you  try to memorize it, the less you’re able to succeed at it.  What you know is only the groundwork for how you can creatively apply that knowledge.  You want a list of rules to memorize — but you also want a graduate degree.  Memorizing rules can get you a GED; MBA programs need someone who can use that knowledge to achieve something greater.

You Want: Practice Test Scores that Accurately Predict Your Final Score

You Need: Practice Tests that Allow You To Practice

Another common lament among GMAT students is that “my practice test scores are inconsistent”.  Check a thread on Beat the GMAT or GMAT Club and you’ll see lists of scores – 620, 650, 610, 650, 600, 630 – and users wondering why their scores are “all over the place”.

There is a pretty easy explanation: practice tests are not designed for precision scoring.  Such precision requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development (GMAC spends ~$3,000 per question for its test items, and has an extremely deep pool of questions that differentiate test takers at granular ability levels) and even the official GMAT itself admits a 20-point margin of error.  More importantly, predicting your score is not nearly as important as improving your score.  And improvement comes from analyzing your performance under similar conditions.  Whether your practice test score is 600, 660, or 690, if you missed four Data Sufficiency questions by not considering how a negative value of x would impact the answer, you need to learn to consider “special case” numbers like negatives, fractions, and 0.  The lesson from that test isn’t “I scored 660″ — it’s “in order to improve my score I need to stop making this same mistake” and “Data Sufficiency questions often hinge on whether you’ve considered all available values.”

Practice tests are quite good at helping you gauge your pacing, your stamina, and your time-sensitive, heat-of-battle performance.  If you can determine how to better allocate your time; if you can learn how to stay focused throughout a 4-hour exam experience; if you can analyze why you’re making mistakes or which concepts you don’t quite have mastered when it truly counts, then you’re in a great position to improve your score.  So although you want to know your score right now, what you really need is a method to help you maximize the only score that counts, your final score on test day.  Practice tests serve that necessary goal quite well.

You Want: To Feel 100% Prepared And Confident For Every Single Problem On The Exam

You Need: To Get More Than Half The Questions At Your Ability Correct

If you’ve read this far, you’re pretty serious about your GMAT success (and we commend you!).  And as such, you’re probably treating the GMAT like your high school and college exams – you’re trying to master every single  bit of information and stressing about the details that you haven’t quite mastered yet.  But remember this about the GMAT scoring algorithm – it doesn’t require (and actually tends to punish the pursuit of) perfection.  You’re supposed to miss questions, and you’ll still score freakishly high if you get most of the upper-level questions right.  So you can afford to relax a bit – even though you want to be perfect, you don’t need to be.  You can relax on test day and guess on a handful of questions that just aren’t clicking.  You can stay confident throughout your test knowing that challenging questions are a good thing – if you’re at a point where you’re missing 1 out of every 2 or 3 questions, you’re pushing your upper limit of potential.  You can take the test knowing that your job is to give it your best and control those things you can control.  Perfectionists struggle on the GMAT, because they’ll never get everything you want.  But you know better than that.  And if you try sometimes, you might just find that you get the score you need.

Veritas Prep has GMAT prep courses starting around the world every few weeks. Take a look and see how we can help you break 700 on the GMAT. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

2 Responses

  1. Kenneth says:

    I stumbled on to this wonderful explanation of how to conceptualize the GMAT along with the great examples. I regret to share this not the way information is communicated in the class. Perhaps due to time constraints. It is also likely the materials has changed since I took the Veritas class in Atlanta ’09.
    I found myself lost in the class because I could not determine how the instructor and a minority of students mentally determined answers so quickly (referencing math particularly). Now I recognize there were simple math concepts I knew but did not consider employing. Of course, .4 is = to the given remainder of 14 (re: m/n = 65.4), but I calculated the problem step by step.

    I believe the format used in this blog for GMAT prep is awesome. These concepts would be an asset to future students should you integrate it effectively in your books and instructor teaching methods. Love your pursuit for excellance in your program methods.
    Best,
    KW

  2. Kenneth says:

    Sorry did not know that response would be for all to see.

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