GMAT Tip of the Week: It's Not the End of the World

So here we are. December 21, 2012. If the Mayans are right, you’re absolutely wasting your time reading this, as if this really is the end of the world then b-schools will cease to exist, too, so why are you thinking about applications and GMAT scores?

Probably because it’s not actually the end of the world. If, like most rational thinkers, you realize that today is not the end of the world, you might as well heed Fleetwood Mac’s advice and not stop thinking about tomorrow. Here’s where you have a leg up on the competition – you realize that today is not the end of the world, and that attitude will help you on the GMAT, where because of the adaptive scoring algorithm missing a question is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s far from it.

The way the scoring algorithm is structured, everyone misses questions. The algorithm’s job is to determine your ability level by showing you questions that will provide it with more information about your level. If your previous answers suggest that you’re somewhere between the 70th and 80th percentile, the test will likely ask a question for which people at the 80th percentile or above usually get it right and those at the 70th or below usually get it wrong. Based on your answer, the algorithm has a better feel for the probability that you’re nearer to the 80th percentile or the 70th. But even if you get it wrong, that only changes the probability…it doesn’t flat out tell the computer that you’re incapable of scoring above that mark. You will have opportunities to overcome that mistake by getting future questions right – the algorithm is self-correcting and focuses much more on probabilities than absolutes.

The converse is also true – a correct answer only tells the computer that your probability of a score above that mark is higher than initially thought. But many a test-taker has won the battle but lost the war so to speak – a right answer that takes you more than 3-4 minutes is often much worse for your score than a wrong answer in a minute, because it almost ensures that you’ll get another question or two wrong later on as you begin to run short on time.

So what does this all mean for you?

  • Don’t sweat a handful of questions that look impossible. Almost everyone guesses at least a couple times, and everyone misses questions. This isn’t just a self-esteem affirmation (“even though this question is hard I’m still smart…”) it’s just sound strategy.
  • Don’t let any one question become your Waterloo – if you don’t see where you’re going in 45 seconds to a minute, it’s not worth spending several minutes to probably still get it wrong. Make an educated guess and move on.
  • Whether a question seems too easy or too hard, remember that no one question is the end of the world. You get plenty of opportunities to counterbalance one mistake, and the worst thing you can do is let doubt or frustration creep into your mind.

If you’re reading this today, December 21, we promise that the sun will come out tomorrow. And whenever you take the GMAT, remember that whatever your answer to the question you’re on, the next question will come…unless you let that one question take enough time to last until the end of the test. That’s the only way that any one question will become the end of the world.

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