How Students Feel About the GMAT and Why They’re Wrong

It’s the first day of class, and students are volunteering what they think of the GMAT.  The typical sentiment goes something like:  “Tough!” “Tricky stuff, hard to get a grasp on the logic,” or “I like ___ but really have trouble with ___.”  Some just have a knowing smile that says “yeah, it’s a clever exam, but I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

But my favorite sentiment is the mildly exasperated “It’s a test of math and English, but there’s more to business.  Business is about people skills.”  I’m right there with you!  Indeed it would be nice to have a similar exam, or a section of the GMAT itself, that tested for emotional intelligence in an objective way.  Yes, that’s largely what the business school interview is for, but why not standardize it a little?

I think what bugs people deep down is that, for many, the subject matter on the GMAT feels obscure, marginally useful, or even counterproductive.  Recent studies, though questionably designed and with mixed interpretations, purport to show that the GMAT actually favors those with cold, calculating dispositions over those with warm, caring ones.  One imagines our grinning nemeses in GMAC’s underground lair rubbing their hands and cackling with delight at what they hath wrought.

However, we might take a more generous view: the GMAT is about more than stamping a % on a person to tell you how savvy he or she is.  From the point of view of the test maker, they want to design a test that will help determine a person’s preparedness to make well-reasoned decisions quickly.  Business is about a lot of things, yet those things all have one aspect in common:  they favor the person who can balance information to make a good decision that helps solve a particular problem.  See the parallel to the GMAT?

Thus, the subject matter of the GMAT is meant to reflect these desired skills.  Each section and question type is there for a reason.  We know business schools almost universally find GMAT scores to be useful assessments of talent.  But why that is so is a seldom explored question.  What is it business schools really want to know about you through your score?  Each subject is designed to accurately determine something important.  These you should work to develop:

Reading Comprehension is probably the most self-explanatory of question types.  The better you can comprehend the motivation of an author and the relationships in a set of information, the better you’ll be able to devour communications of all kinds, written and spoken.

Arithmetic is all about assessing your ability to break information down and rebuild quickly.  Adding up, dividing out, factoring, etc. are exercises in being nimble at compartmentalizing and manipulating known information, so that you can shape it into the form that works best in a given situation.

Algebra is largely challenging your ability to conceptualize dynamic systems.  Given certain unknowns, variables, and constraints, how well can you visualize different trends and stay aware of limitations?

Sentence Correction is really testing how clearly you can communicate an idea.  Even when it isn’t presented well in the original, the idea itself is always understandable.  This question type is testing your ability to determine the best (most clear, precise, and concise) way to present the idea.

Geometry is testing your ability to leverage assets, deduce hard realities from potentially abstract figures, and look at things from different angles.

Critical Reasoning is all about your sense of situational issues.  In every problem, there’s a brief situation that has a certain logic.  How well you can understand the reasoning and determine the validity of any conclusions is going to be useful to making good business—and life—decisions.

The important takeaway is this: these are all distinct skills that, when well developed, will serve you well throughout your life.  They also happen to be skills that are clearly useful in business, where numbers, analytics, situational reasoning, communications, dynamic systems, clarity of ideas, and leveraging assets are all a part of operating a well-oiled, human machine.

Bonus: Statistics, Permutations/ Combinations, and Probability.  Not for the faint of heart, these questions are testing your ability to comprehend big data concepts.  These concepts are useful for common business problems like “what is the likelihood of success?” “how long will it take to test or sort through all options?” and “how well does our data represent what we’re looking for?”  This sounds daunting, but not to worry: the GMAT is merely scratching the surface to see whether you can understand the basic logic, not testing massive spreadsheet-style calculation.   Avoid overdoing the study of these, but do prepare enough to have a good grasp on how they work!

So whenever you’re feeling under-motivated to study because the test is “just about math and English,” remember that, actually, developing these skills is going to bring you confidence and advantage on everything related to them, for all the many years ahead!

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Joseph Dise has been teaching GMAT preparation for Veritas Prep for the last 6 years in Paris, New Brunswick, and New York City.