GMAT Gurus Speak Out: 5 Tips from John Wooden

GMAT Gurus Speak OutFormer UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was famous for winning numerous NCAA championships in the 1960s and 1970s.  A number of the life lessons and phrases that he passed on to his players (Woodenisms) have become well known.  I have sometimes found myself quoting these from time to time in my GMAT prep classes. Wooden saw himself as an educator even more so than a coach, and therefore his lessons extend to all facets of higher education, whether your goal is to make it to the NBA or to achieve an elite MBA.  So regardless of your goals, heed the wise words of the Wizard of Westwood to raise your performance.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”   John Wooden

The GMAT is just not a place for perfectionists.  You can really shoot yourself in the foot on this exam if you spend an inordinate amount of time on a given problem.

Test takers need to know that the test is adaptive and the better you are doing on the test the harder this is going to become.   Sometimes you will run into a problem that you just have to move past.

Even the best test takers will make mistakes on this exam and knowing that going in will put you in a stronger position and give you a greater comfort level when you run into a problem that you cannot handle right away.  Time is precious and if you cannot solve a problem within 2 minutes (or maybe 2.5 minutes or 3) then you might as well not be able to solve it at all.  There are a number of problems where after 2 minutes or so you will have narrowed the potential answer choices down to a few choices. Often in these cases simply guessing one of these is a better strategy than investing additional time trying to further separate the remaining choices (for really difficult problems 50/50 or a one third chance of getting this correct will still benefit you over the course of the test).

(The other way that I have seen perfectionism hamstring some of my students is being so cautious that they will never actually pick a date for the test until they are scoring nearly perfectly on the practice exams.  This may end up being a long wait!   My advice to you is to pick a target date relatively early in the process and start to work backwards.   I sometimes think of setting a date for this test like setting a date for a wedding: if you are reluctant to choose a date, the event may be less likely to actually happen.)

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”  John Wooden

The two obvious question types where I think this can be applied to the GMAT are data sufficiency and critical reasoning.

When attacking data sufficiency questions keeping a tally of “what information is contained where” is essential.  Keep track of what information is in the question, what is in statement #1, and what is in statement #2.

I sometimes tell students to approach these problems (particularly when first doing them) to sketch out lines on their paper indicating what information came from which source.  A common pitfall on these problems is to import particular assumptions on a problem that are not listed.  (One of the most common I have seen in class is to assume something has to be an integer when this is never referenced.)

For critical reasoning the detail issue is often one of scope.  Test takers need to focus on the narrowness of the argument.   Often the answer choices will contain an answer that addresses some of the issues at hand but is simply too broad of an answer and another that might address something that is too narrow.   One of the more common traps here involves picking an answer that addresses financial aspects of a problem when money has never been mentioned before or choosing an answer choice that may benefit a certain group (such as children you are trying to shield from lead poisoning) but doesn’t actually address the argument at hand.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”  John Wooden

As a Veritas instructor one of the most common questions I am is asked is how much study time is needed to improve the score by a certain amount.  We have a number of resources that address this issue, but I would stress the importance of getting beyond the amount of time allocated and focus on the need to try and match the intensity of the exam.  Remember that this test is in many ways as much of an endurance test and a concentration test as it is a problem solving test.  Studying the material in a lackadaisical setting with many distractions around is just not going to be enough for the real thing.  Students also need to focus on trying to emulate the real test taking environment as much as possible.  (I will point out here the particular importance of starting to work on your timing early in your preparation process).

I will also note that while students often want spend their time shoring up their weaknesses, there is also nothing wrong with investing a portion of their time (not a majority) in improving even more on their strengths.  Greed is a good thing on this exam.

“Be quick, don’t hurry.” John Wooden

Time is of the essence on this exam and speed is really crucial when handling the math.  Being able to do algebraic calculations quickly and efficiently is essential, but pushing yourself to the point that you are error prone is obviously counterproductive.  You want to push yourself to the point where you are walking the line between speed and accuracy, but don’t go past it.  Often on math problems, the key is looking for a shortcut or a way to narrow down your selection of answers.

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  John Wooden

I think this last one is perhaps more applicable to life than the test, but I will note here that this is a problem solving test and not a knowledge based exam.  Try to think like a testmaker when attacking problems.  Students are sometimes intimidated by reading comprehension questions that address areas outside of their knowledge sphere, but students are perfectly capable of handling a hard technical passage even without being familiar with the topic.

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Frank Ethridge is a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Raleigh. He received his MBA from Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, and he now serves as a session professor at UNC and works on a variety of consulting projects with the university’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

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