In a Valentine’s Day surprise yesterday, the standard Thursday Veritas Prep staff meeting was crashed by a lovable intruder. Cookie Monster – yes, the one-track-minded carnivore from Sesame Street – barreled into the meeting with a singing telegram for our Director of Admissions Consulting and Worldwide GMAT Instructor of the Year, Travis Morgan. Bearing a message of love and his standard message of “me want cookie”, he also reminded the GMAT staff of why Cookie Monster would fail miserably at the GMAT:

On the GMAT, you cannot have a one-track mind.

If you grew up watching Sesame Street you know all about Cookie Monster’s one-track mind – in his zeal to eat as many cookies as humanly possible (a pretty realistic goal for the toddlers who adore him) he’ll eat absolutely anything: chairs, tables, flowers, whatever you put in front of him. And in a way this caricature of a food-crazed lunatic looks a lot like many GMAT test-takers, who in their zeal to solve quantitative problems will calculate anything that’s put in front of them.

But just as Cookie Monster is designed to be absurd, so is the idea that you must get the right answer to every problem no matter how many calculations similarly absurd. The GMAT will punish that one-track-mindedness the same way that stomach pains will someday punish Cookie Monster’s.

GMAT problems are designed in many cases to waste your time, or rather to waste the time of those not astute enough to see that trap. Some questions are structured so that there’s an easy out for those who recognize it, like:

What is the square root of 5929?

(A) 67

(B) 72

(C) 75

(D) 77

(E) 83

Here you *could* try to square each answer choice, but that math could be pretty time consuming. This type of question is designed to reward you for recognizing that B and C cannot produce a number ending in 9 when squared, and that A is too small (70^2 would be 4900 so 67^2 will be far less than 5929) and E is too big (80^2 would be 6400, so 83^2 will be far too big), leading you to answer choice D.

Other questions may waste your time simply because you fail to see the “missing link”. This happens quite often in geometry – if you don’t see that there’s a direct relationship between supplemental angles or you fail to notice that the radii of a circle must be equal leading to an isosceles triangle in the figure, for example, you could work for several minutes to no avail. But that one-track-mindedness of “I’ll solve this problem or run out of time trying” has befallen many a would-be high-scorer. Years ago the holder of a PhD in engineering from MIT called the Veritas Prep offices in near tears, having well underperformed his expected quantitative score. The reason? He spent close to eight minutes on a problem early in the quant section and knew for certain that he had answered it correctly…but was good enough at math to realize that with an average of 2 minutes per question he had put himself in trouble by spending 4 times that amount on just one question, and he panicked from there.

Similarly, one of the chief architects of the GMAT at GMAC headquarters recounted to us recently that he – a PhD in statistics – encountered the same situation while taking the GMAT for R&D purposes last year. Seeking a perfect score to brag around the office, he encountered a geometry problem that took him several minutes to solve, and at a certain point he had to laugh that “for a living I tell people not to fall into this bottomless pit of time, yet here I am”. When he dub into the administrator account to view his test item-by-item he found this: while he did ultimately get that question right in several more minutes than he’d advise anyone to take on it, it turned out to be an unscored, experimental question that didn’t even count toward his score.

So here’s today’s GMAT lesson, brought to you by the letter C: don’t have a one-track mind on GMAT quant questions. If the calculations look to be too time-consuming or labor-intensive:

1) Try to find a more efficient way, often by considering the answer choices to see if an estimate or a number property can help you avoid the work altogether

2) Know when it’s time to make an educated guess and move on. Pacing is personal – some students can afford 3-4 minutes on one question because they’re so efficient on others, but must cannot. Take practice tests and get a feel for your own pacing and your own barometer for when it’s time to guess and move on. The GMAT is a war, and it’s easy to lose a war when your goal is to win every single battle. Nearly all of us need to retreat on a question here or there to regroup for the ones we can win. Don’t have that one-track “me want correct answer” Cookie Monster mindset – a more flexible frame of mind is your best path to be on your way to where the air is sweet, be it Cambridge, Palo Alto, or whatever campus you want to get to.

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