GMAT Tip of the Week: Ball So Hard...

If it’s March, it must be Hip Hop Month in the GMAT Tip of the Week space, where this week we’re going to skate to one song and one song only.

What can Jay and Ye teach you about your GMAT study and test day strategy? Let’s call their message “Scholars in Paris” (perhaps their mission is to attend HEC or INSEAD, or to just take an international spring break trip from Kellogg, Booth, Stern, or Columbia in their hometowns). And let’s have Kanye deliver the first lesson with one of his lyrics from that song:

“She said, ‘Ye, can we get married at the mall?’ I said, look, you need to crawl before you ball…and show me why you deserve to have it all.”

Yeezy’s advice is critical for most GMAT students, who often try to ball before they crawl. The bestselling Veritas Prep book on Amazon, for example, is “Combinatorics and Probability” — a subject that students crave. But often students will lament after a good-but-not-great GMAT performance that “I just didn’t see as many of the hard questions as I thought I would” and “I was ready for some impossible permutations problems but I saw a lot more problems about division and factors”. Look – you need to crawl before you ball, for a few reasons:

1) While topics such as factors, multiples, quotient/remainder, linear algebra, etc. may not sound “grad school” level challenging, the GMAT makes them challenging. And, actually, one of the main themes in permutations questions is….factoring. N!/(N-K)!, for example (the base formula for permutations) yields quite a bit of repetitive multiplication in numerators and denominators – those who have mastered factors/multiples/divisibility can often breeze through the math on those harder problems and use divisibility rules and understanding to leverage the answer choices. Deep conceptual understanding of the basics is often more important than technical knowledge of the “hard stuff” even on the hardest questions. But students often shortchange their study of the fundamentals while they chase the “baller” topics, and in doing so they shortchange some important abilities that will be important on nearly all problems.

2) “Show me why you deserve to have it all” could be a lyric authored by the GMAT scoring algorithm itself. In order to even see the hardest problems, you have to prove to the scoring algorithm that you can handle the above-average problems. And if you have some holes in your game and make mistakes on the 60th percentile problems, you may struggle to break through to the top-shelf problems that you’ve studied. The GMAT scoring algorithm ensures that everyone comes down to earth at some point – everyone will miss questions and need to build back up from their “floor” to try to reach their “ceiling”. If you haven’t solidified your floor, you’ll lose out on opportunities to climb to your ceiling.

3) As Kanye has noted in his earlier work on the aptly titled “College Dropout” album, it’s possible to ball TOO hard. Meaning, of course, that if you spend too much time on difficult problems on the test, your score may drop you out of contention for MBAs at the top colleges. Examinees who become stubbornly attached to the hardest questions often ruin their exams by investing 4-5 minutes on an impossibly-difficult question, and then running out of time to spend on the ever-important “floor” questions. Even if you reach the ceiling on question 20 or 25, if the floor drops out because you’re running out of time and either blindly guessing or making silly mistakes on the lower-difficulty problems that you should get right, your score will suffer. It’s like climbing Mount Everest – if you reach the summit but don’t have enough time to finish the entire journey safely, the trip can be a catastrophe. On the GMAT, if you spend too much time chasing summits, the bottom can drop out on you in the last 10 questions.

So Kanye has some good advice for you — learn to crawl before you ball. Do not neglect a deep conceptual understanding of the core GMAT content and strategy in order to foolishly chase the fleeting hard problems. And Jay-Z, unsurprisingly, agrees. As a man who has reached the summit of his craft, Hova knows a thing or two about life in the 99th percentile. His advice in lyric form?

“Y’all don’t know but don’t sh!t faze me. The Nets could go 0-for-82 and I’d look at you like ‘this sh!t’s gravy.’”

Naturally, Jay is talking about those 99th-percentile, freakishly-difficult, looks-like-nothing-you’ve-seen-before questions at the top end of the GMAT algorithm. He even supplements that thought with this one: “We ain’t even ‘spose be here”. Meaning, of course, that those top-shelf problems are just gravy – you’re not supposed to get those all right. If you’ve built up to those questions and you can’t even get your mind around a three-set Venn Diagram problem or a several-variable, some-crazy-rule-must-be-necessary geometry problem that could take you 20 minutes, it’s like owning a professional sports team that has a losing record. Yeah, losing isn’t fun, but the whole experience is just gravy – you can comfortably let a few of those “that sh!t cray” problems go and know that you’re still scoring in the stratosphere.

Again, stubbornness is the enemy of a high score on the GMAT. ‘Tis better to get a top-shelf question wrong in one minute than to get it right in five. Even those top-one-percenters who have scored 770+ multiples times can tell you about the handful of questions that they had to let go. And they may even quote another Watch the Throne lyric “no one knows what it means, but it’s provocative!” – on some questions, very few will ever unlock the secret to solving them in around 2 minutes, but several times as many will be provoked into losing several minutes trying. Those questions get the people going…and the GMAT can make a geometry problem your personal Waterloo.

So listen to Jay and Ye. Learn to crawl before you ball. Accept that a few of those insanely difficult (dare we say cray?) problems are just gravy. The test doesn’t want to let you get in your zone…but heed this advice and you’ll get there.

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