For those considering higher education this week, Robin Williams’ memory looms large. The lessons he taught in Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting have made their way around the internet more quickly and in more contexts than even Williams’ genie character from Aladdin could throw out references.
But for GMAT test-takers, perhaps the greatest lessons a Robin Williams character can teach come from Mrs. Doubtfire.
Mrs. Doubtfire Lesson One: Look at Verbs!
Why was Mrs. Doubtfire even called Mrs. Doubtfire? Fans of the movie will remember – when Williams’ character was on the phone applying to be the nanny for his children, he needed a fake name and looked at the newspaper on the table. The San Francisco Chronicle headline that caught his eye: Police Doubt Fire Was Accidental.
And your favorite movie from your childhood could have been called “Mrs. Firewas” or “Mrs. Accidental” or even “Mrs. Crumrise” (trivia question: what was the name of the author of that article?). But Robin Williams – once an English teacher at a New England prep school, then a professor at MIT – knew what GMAT test-takers need to know on Sentence Correction:
Look for the verb.
He looked for the verb – “doubt” – and hence movie history was made. Mrs. Doubtfire became an instant classic, and if you’d like to meteorically rise to prominence at elite New England schools like so many Williams characters, you, too, should learn to look for the verb. Why? Because verbs come with two extremely common and extremely actionable GMAT decision points: verb tense and subject-verb agreement. You can become an expert on those two items much more easily than you can become an expert on other, more nuanced facets of grammar, so look for the verb first. For example:
So devastating the fire, so specific its victim, that police doubt the fire was accidental.
(A) So devastating the fire, so specific its victim, that police doubt the fire was accidental.
(B) The fire was so devastating and had such a specific victim that police doubts the fire was accidental.
(C) So devastating was the fire and its specific victim that police doubted it is accidental.
(D) So devastating the fire, so specific its victim, that police had doubted it accidentally.
(E) The fire was so devastating, its victim so specific, that police doubts it was accidental.
If you read this sentence from left to right, you may well dislike the initial wording (So X, So Y, that…) and try to fix that. But you’re likely not an expert on “unique grammatical structures” – the structure in the original sentence is, indeed, valid (called anaphora). But you don’t need to know that, either – if you look to the verbs (doubt/doubts/doubted and was/is) toward the right hand side of each answer choices, you’ll notice that B and E screw up the subject-verb agreement and C and D botch the tense/timeline. The verb decisions are much easier to make than the structure decision, and if you use the verbs properly the only structure left is A. So learn from Mrs. Doubtfire – look for the verb!
Mrs. Doubtfire Lesson Two: GMAT Questions Often Dress In Drag (or at least in disguise).
Just as Robin Williams donned a mask, wig, and dress in order to appear more kind, friendly, and nurturing, so many GMAT questions are designed to look calming and “easy” when in fact they’re quite difficult. So while your instinct when you see an “easy” problem may well be to rush through it and create some doubt about how you’re performing on the computer-adaptive test, make sure you keep Mrs. Doubtfire in the back of your mind – the question that seems like Mary Poppins might actually be a little darker and scarier (like Williams’ character in One Hour Photo). Paraphrasing Williams’ Good Will Hunting co-star Matt Damon in his Rounders role “if you can’t spot the sucker in the first short while, you probably are the sucker.” Meaning that easy questions – those you might see as absolutely no problem and be able to answer in 30 seconds or so – may deserve a second look. Behind that comforting exterior might well be a trickier question (or your ex-husband who hates Pierce Brosnan).
Consider as an example:
Because he’s taxed by his home planet, Mork pays a tax rate of 40% on his income, while Mindy pays a rate of only 30% on hers. If Mindy earned 3 times as much as Mork did, what was their combined tax rate?
If your mind immediately thought “the average of 30% and 40% is 35% – C!” you’re not alone…but you may be falling for the old Mrs. Doubtfire routine, mistaking a more-difficult question for one that’s sweet, nurturing, and easy. Because Mork & Mindy don’t earn the same amount, their average must be weighted, meaning that the correct answer is A (since Mindy’s income carries 3/4 of the weight, the weighted average will be 3/4 of the way toward her income). And the lesson – when a GMAT question seems a bit too easy, don’t merely assume that it’s easy and that you’re doing poorly. Think about Mrs. Doubtfire playing soccer in the park and Aerosmith singing “Dude Looks Like Lady” (or “Hard Looks Like It’s Easy”…same rhythm) and see if you’re falling for a hard problem disguised as an easy one.
Robin Williams will be remembered for the many ways he inspired us and the many lessons he taught us. While, sadly, you won’t be able to have a conversation with him on a park bench in Boston Common, remembering his Mrs. Doubtfire character on the GMAT will help you on your quest to find similarly-inspiring professors of your own.
Thank you, O’ Captain.
By Brian Galvin