Let the Games begin! The 2012 Summer Olympics officially begin today in London with the Opening Ceremonies, and by the end of the weekend we’ll have seen two of the most-anticipated showdowns of the entire event: Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Locthe in swimming’s 400-meter Individual Medley on Saturday, and Phelps and Lochte teaming up against the world in the 4×100 Freestyle Relay on Sunday.

Phelps is already an Olympic legend, having won a record-breaking 8 gold medals in 2008, and with this Olympics he will most likely become the most decorated Olympian of all time. He’ll also supply you with an important GMAT lesson if you watch his races with a keen eye this week. How?

Watch Phelps swim and you may well be disappointed. He hardly looks like he’s trying – his strokes seem effortless above the water and when the race gets tight, as his 400IM showdown with Lochte undoubtedly will, you don’t seem to see extra visible *effort* from him. But that’s what makes him great – he doesn’t waste energy on the things that don’t matter. He’s arguably the most efficient swimmer in the world, which allows him to channel all of his available energy into what matters.

You may be just as frustrated watching your GMAT instructor or 700-scoring friend work through GMAT problems, because the same ideology applies. Elite GMAT test-takers are typically Phelpsian in their approach to hard problems – you don’t often see them poring over flashcards at Starbucks or feverishly working their scrap paper during practice tests. Much like Michael Phelps, they’ve become masters at efficiency, only expending energy where it’s most important.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Suppose a Data Sufficiency question were to ask:

For integers a, b, and c, a/(b-c) = 1. What is the value of (b – c)/b?

(1) a/b = 3/5

The approach for many students here is to look at statement 1 and then plug in values of a and b that have a ratio of 3 to 5. a = 30, b = 50; a = -3, b = -5, etc. But that’s time-consuming and may not have an end game in sight – students often plug in four or five pairs of numbers and then wonder “what did that actually tell me?”

The Phelpsianly-efficient approach here is to know the GMAT – to know that it rewards you for manipulating algebra in the statements AND in the question stem. And if you manipulate those statements in the question stem, you can take the first:

a/(b-c) = 1 –> becomes a = b – c

And plug it into the second:

(b – c)/b = a/b

And see that statement 1 now directly answers the question: a/b = 3/5, and since (b-c)/b = a/b, then we have our answer.

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The same type of efficiency is rewarded on the verbal side, too – consider this question:

All of the athletes who will win a gold medal in competition have spent many hours training under an elite coach. Michael is coached by one of the world’s elite coaches; therefore it follows logically that Michael will win a gold medal in competition.

Which of the following is an assumption required by the argument?

(A) Michael has not suffered any major injuries in the past year.
(B) Michael’s competitors did not spend as much time in training as Michael P. did.
(C) Michael’s trainer coached him for many hours.
(D) Most of the time Michael spent in training was productive.
(E) Michael performs as well in competition as he does in training.

Many test-takers quickly move to the answer choices and dissect each one, failing to recognize that a good portion of their success comes from truly understanding the stimulus. Here, if you can correctly identify the gap in logic, you know exactly what you’re looking for in a correct answer. The logic goes that there are (at least) two criteria necessary to win a medal – you have to have an elite coach, and you have to train with that coach for many hours. Michael has an elite coach (we see you, Bob Bowman), so therefore he will win. Well, what’s missing there?

The argument doesn’t tell us whether Michael trained for many hours. And answer choice C directly fills that gap. The other answer choices would all seem to help him win, but none of them fills the logical hole left by the argument, so none of them is REQUIRED. And since that’s what the question asks for, that needs to be our mantra with this question.

As you’ll see, the key to efficiency with Critical Reasoning is to have dissected Strengthen/Weaken/Assumption questions enough before you reach the answer choices that you have a very good idea of what the correct answer will have. That way you’re not as apt to be swayed by tempting-but-wrong answer choices – like Michael Phelps, you’ve focused your energy in a straight line toward *the* correct answer, cutting through the resistance (water for Phelps, distracting answers for you) that’s trying to keep you from your goal.

When you watch the Olympics, recognize how efficient the most elite athletes are – very few motions wasted and all of their training, energy, and effort focused on exactly those motions that allow them to perform at their peak. Let that be your mantra for the GMAT – learn to be more efficient and you, too, can go for the gold.

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By Brian Galvin