Is the GMAT Hard?

As a GMAT instructor, I get asked a lot of questions about the exam. Most of these questions are about what can be done to prepare for the exam and what to concentrate on, but one of the simplest questions I get asked all the time is simply: “Is the GMAT hard?” Sadly, the answer is not very clean cut for a given prospective student, but I’ve spent enough time thinking about this test that I now have a definite answer that I think captures the heart of what is being tested. My answer is simply this:

The GMAT is not hard, the GMAT is tricky.

What is the difference between hard and tricky, exactly? (Good question! I’m glad you asked). The material covered on the GMAT is all high school level stuff, from algebra to geometry to using proper grammar. No university-level exposure is assumed or required to score highly on the GMAT. The reason for this is to put students on as even a footing as possible. If student A had spent the last four years studying differential equations while student B was working on a degree in biology, student A would do much better on a differential equations test by virtue of their exposure to the subject. By choosing high school level topics, the playing field is as fair as possible for everyone.

However, there is a downside to choosing material from high school: the material is not that difficult. One of my key pieces of advice on the GMAT is to (re-)learn the multiplication table, which you’re exposed to for the first time in the fourth grade at about age 10. Sadly, a lifetime of dependency on calculators and cash registers has ensured that most people don’t usually execute these types of calculations in their everyday lives, and therefore forget the simple concepts they learned many years before (Use or lose it).

The GMAT therefore has to offer difficult questions based on material that’s not inherently too difficult. What are some easy ways to make simple material more difficult? The first one is the timing aspect, so you have a limited amount of time to answer the questions, but moreover you feel the pressure of time running out on you constantly. If you had unlimited time to answer the questions, most people would score significantly higher on the GMAT, so managing your time is paramount to getting a top score.

Another way to make easy material more difficult is to remove the crutches most people use to avoid having to actually solve the question. That’s why there are no calculators in the quant section of the GMAT, although every conceivable situation in business school will have a calculator within your reach. This opens up a lot of space to make questions more difficult by just dramatically upping the math. Solving 33 + 32 + 31 can easily be done by just replacing the abstract algebra with the actual numbers. Solving 39 + 38 + 37 without a calculator is a decidedly more difficult task. The math is as complicated, but the size of the numbers makes the problem significantly harder to solve.

This is the same reason as to why there’s no spell check on the AWA. With a spell check, it’s a lot harder to differentiate between someone who has a mastery of the English language and someone who can just rely on the red underline (or my bane: the green underline). On the IR, a calculator is provided because the goal there is to interpret the data in a speedy way, so the omission of the spell check or the calculator is entirely by design. It also forces you to have to be cleverer in your approach. This is what the GMAT is looking for: an approach less dependent on brute force and more focused on understanding the situation presented.

To highlight these elements, let’s look at a very simple question that is nonetheless difficult to solve without a calculator:

What is the square root of 239,121?

(A) 476

(B) 489

(C) 497

(D) 511

(E) 524

The square root of 239,121 represents the number that, squared, will give you 239,121. With a calculator this problem is plug-and-play, and at most it will take 45 seconds to try all five combinations and see which answer is correct. Without a calculator to do all the heavy lifting, we have to get a little smarter.

The brute force approach will still work. Simply multiply 476 by 476 and find the product. If it is not 239,121, we rinse and repeat for all five numbers. This technique does work, but it will take a significant amount of time as it ignores the hints the exam is giving you to solve the question quickly.

A great concept to utilize here is the idea of the unit digit. If I multiply any two numbers, the unit digit will simply be the product of the unit digits of the two numbers. This is because there is no carry over from other positions possible. Hence, here we need a number that gives a unit digit of 1 when we multiply it by itself. Going through each option, we can eliminate A (6×6), C (7×7) and E (4×4). This should make a lot of intuitive sense because any even number multiplied by itself will give you another even number, so answers A and E were never in the running. Answer choice C could have worked, but 7×7 must yield a unit digit of 9, so it cannot possibly work.

Only two answer choices remain: 489 and 511. Unfortunately, they both give unit digits of 1, so we need a different strategy to determine which answer is correct. This is where the concept of order of magnitude can save us the trouble of actually having to calculate the numbers. It’s worth noting that at this point multiplying one of the numbers will either give the correct answer or the incorrect answer. Either option solves the question, and is a legitimate way of getting the correct answer. However, knowing that 5 x 5 gives 25 means that 500 x 500 must give 25 followed by four 0’s, or 250,000. Since our number is a little below that, we know the answer must be smaller than 500, but not by very much. Answer choice D is thus too big to be the correct answer, and answer choice B must be correct.

There are many questions like this one that can be solved without having to do any math whatsoever, simply by knowing how to apply mathematical properties. This is what makes the GMAT tricky. The questions will not ask for very difficult math to be executed, but figuring out the correct way to get the correct answer is never a question of blindly attacking the problem with a brute force approach. This is why there is a timing component on the GMAT: To avoid reliance on brute forcing the answer (also to allow multiple tests to be scheduled in the same day). Focusing your study approach on the how, rather than the what, will help you maximize your score.

An apropos comparison is to think of the GMAT as an industrial strength lock. If you try to force your way in, the resistance will be significant. However if you know the combination to the lock, it will open easily. The key (pun intended) is to ascertain how to approach each question and work on the skillful approach instead of the forceful approach. Best of all, inside the safe is a ticket to the business school of your choice. Your job is to find the best way inside the safe. The lock mechanism is designed to keep you out, but like a password that is just “password”, it only appears difficult until you crack the safe.

Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.

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