If you’re like…probably most human beings this week, you’re at least aware and likely excited for the 2014 World Cup, which began this week in Brazil. As this article is being written, in fact, the 2010 finalists, Spain and the Netherlands, are doing battle in the event’s third game (congratulations to Brazil and Mexico, winners of the first two). And if you’re streaming this game or others at work or if you’ve taken days off to enjoy, you can learn quite a bit from what’s going on in these early group-stage games – lessons that can help you better understand the GMAT scoring system and better plan your test-day and study strategies.

How? There are two major parallels:

It doesn’t matter how prepared you are for the finals; you have to get there
Take Spain and the Netherlands today – two of the world’s most elite sides. If the game doesn’t end in a draw, one of these sides will have “wasted” an entire match with no points to show for it, meaning that it will face must-win (or at least cannot-lose) situations in its remaining two contests against Australia and Chile. Each team has the potential to advance back to the final, but neither is immune from the “mundane” group stage. A team that loses in today’s game will have its work cut out for it well before the tournament rounds begin…much like you’ll see on the GMAT.

On the GMAT, many would-be-Spains – students shooting for the 700+ stratosphere – have spent months preparing, attacking challenge problem after challenge problem, learning obscure formulas and math shortcuts to help them save time for that monster word problem or geometry exercise. But the GMAT scoring algorithm can be fickle – much like World Cup group play, the “easier” questions may preempt you from ever seeing the bigger “games” that you’ve prepared for. When you miss easier questions, the system has substantial reason to doubt your ability – not just that “you aren’t as smart as we thought you were” but even “and maybe your ability is even lower than this question might have indicated”. So the system shows you a slightly easier question, assessing your “floor” and wasting one valuable question that might otherwise have been an opportunity for you to prove yourself worthy of an even higher challenge. Silly mistakes hurt you twice – they reduce your score in the moment *and* they prompt the system to check your ability on even-easier questions. So your top-end ability might not matter much at all if you don’t “survive pool play” and successfully navigate those problems that may seem beneath you.

So what does that mean? You simply MUST get questions right if you can get them right – you can survive a slip-up or two but if you rush through the “easier” questions and make careless mistakes you run the risk of staying mired in that band of difficulty toward the lower end of your ability range, never earning enough opportunities to really test yourself on those extremely-challenging problems you’ve practiced. So make sure that you don’t leave yourself a leaky floor as you push to raise your ceiling – if you make mistakes in practice, address them; if you make them more than once, make a mental note to double and triple check for them on test day. Don’t let silly mistakes – those careless errors that are so easy to write off as “well that was just dumb…I knew that” – hold you back from your true potential. In other words, make sure that you don’t focus so much on tournament play that you find yourself surprised in group play.

Sometimes a draw – or even a close loss – is a cause for celebration
In World Cup group play, your primary – if not only – goal is to advance to the tournament. Accordingly, going for the win but also exposing yourself to a loss – playing too aggressively on offense that your defense becomes vulnerable – can be wildly problematic. You’ll find some of the most elite teams in the Cup playing very conservative soccer in certain games, playing specifically for the draw and the “guaranteed” points to ensure that they survive the group stage. You’ll also find teams that weren’t predicted to advance becoming thrilled when they draw with a world power like Brazil or Germany, having saved a point when it seemed like none were possible and having slightly-but-significantly outpaced the other two teams in the group. And when there are ties in the standings during group play, the tiebreakers are based on goal differentials, meaning that a 1-nil loss to a world power might be a real triumph if your competitors have lost even worse.

Similarly, on the GMAT you may need to play for the “draw” on extremely challenging questions. When a question could easily cost you 3-4 (or more) minutes en route to a guess or mistake, recognizing that it’s safer to play defense – to guess relatively quickly and save your time for the problems that you could get right – is often a smart move. This saves time to ensure that you get the problems within your wheelhouse right, and although it may not seem satisfying in the moment it helps you to avoid those silly mistakes that often come from poor pacing and a need to rush in the end.

There are plenty of GMAT lessons to be learned from the World Cup – coaches even instruct players to “form triangles” on the field (ensuring that the ballcarrier has two options at all times) much like you should look to form triangles when geometry problems get difficult – so as you watch these upcoming matches pay attention to the strategy. American audiences are often confused by the happiness of opposing fans at a draw and by the international strategies that seem less than aggressive, but the elite soccer community knows that they produce results. The same is true of a slightly conservative strategy on the GMAT.

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By Brian Galvin