GMAT Tip of the Week: Where's My Snare?

Welcome back to Hip Hop Month in the GMAT Tip of the Week column, where we created this week’s tip by quoting Too Short in our production meeting. In short dog’s classic “Blow The Whistle” (also central to this article) he rhymes the fact that he’s in Miami, Houston and ATL with the line “Ask Dave Chappelle”. So we asked Dave – Dave, who’s a rapper who has something important to say about GMAT performance? And while at first he listed his top five as “Dylan, Dylan, Dylan…” he eventually pointed out the foibles of a former up-and-comer named Fisticuffs, whose struggles as a rapper directly parallel many GMAT students’ battles with the GMAT. If you haven’t seen Chappelle’s Fisticuffs skit, take a look:

Now, Fisticuffs may have been a 700+ scorer as a rapper, but we’ll never know. Why? Because he struggled to get started. He kept waiting for the perfect situation, stopping and stalling and asking to get restarted and getting just about to flow when the beat dropped unexpectedly. He botched his rhythm and his pacing because he just couldn’t hit the ground running.

Sound familiar?

If you’ve struggled with GMAT pacing, there’s an extremely high likelihood it’s because you’re spending too much not-valuable time at the beginning of each question. Do you find yourself:

-Writing down enough notes on each Critical Reasoning question that you’ve almost transcribed the entire stimulus before you ever really start thinking?
-Reading a word problem all the way through before you actually engage with it, reading just enough to have to take a deep breath, say “wow that’s a lot”, and start reading once more to get started?
-Reading the entire Sentence Correction prompt before ever scanning the answer choices

If so, you may well be leaving valuable time on the table, Fisticuffs style, as you delay getting started. As you start reading GMAT questions you should be critically-thinking from just about the first word. Many a GMAT student averages 30+ seconds per math problem before his pen starts moving, or 30+ words per SC prompt before she starts comparing answer choices. You can do better – as Too Short would say, blow the whistle. Fire the starter’s pistol. Get moving. Here’s how:

-For Critical Reasoning questions, read the question stem first. Know your job before you ever start reading about farm maintenance, community center renovations, or whatever the topic matter is. Most questions ask you to either strengthen or weaken a conclusion – in those cases, you should already be reading critically, knowing that your job is to identify the conclusion and find the gap between it and the premises. Be proactive – by the time you hit the stimulus you should already be in attack mode, and if you do choose to take notes they should be directly pertinent to the conclusion of the argument and the precise wording of the conclusion and the premises.

-For quantitative Word Problems, read actively – start assigning variables and identifying relationships while you read. Look specifically for those subtle-but-critical details in the wording – does it ask for a ratio or an absolute number; is it “percent of” or “percent increase”? Many of us read the paragraph the first time through and don’t have anything to show for it; it’s on our second read that we start writing and thinking, and if you’re running short of time that can be the major reason.

-For Sentence Correction questions, stop at the first sign of a major Decision Point and get to work. If the sentence begins with a modifier that touches the underline, go directly to the answer choices and eliminate misplaced modifiers. If the underlined portion contains a pronoun like “it”, scan the answer choices to see if you find its complement (“their”) and make your decision. Great test-takers can get through several SC questions without ever reading the sentence the whole way through, saving valuable time for dense Reading Comprehension passages and for more time-consuming SC questions that require a more careful read outside the underline.

To practice with all of this, let’s return to Too Short and “Blow the Whistle”, much like your high school sports coach blew the whistle when it was time to run windsprints – try this drill for Problem Solving questions:

-Set a timer for 45 seconds
-Do 10 quant practice problems, giving yourself 45 seconds each to get started. Force yourself to get something on paper.
-When you’re done with that “Quick First Step” drill, go back and finish the problems and note whether you made any mistakes setting up equations or identifying variables – if you realize that rushing through ratio problems, for example, is particularly error-prone for you, you’ll know that you have to take those slow. But this drill will also help you learn to get started more quickly – it’s the equivalent of track workouts in sports helping you develop speed bursts.

The time you allot per question may vary by user (many like doing it in 30 seconds, others need 45 or more to really feel like they’re getting anything accomplished), but the goal is to train yourself to get started more quickly, to start engaging with and thinking critically about the problem in the first 20-30 seconds so that you don’t succumb to Fisticuffs’ problem of never really getting yourself on track.

Time management is a critical part of the GMAT, and you can learn from Fisticuffs’ mistake that even the greatest among us will look foolish if we take too long to get down to business. Heed this lesson, practice your quick first step, and your GMAT score may well go double uranium, son.

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