GMAT Tip of the Week: Test Day Should Not Be Labor Day

GMAT Tip of the WeekAs we head into the Labor Day weekend here in the U.S., it seems a fitting time to talk about labor.  Precious few people consider the GMAT to be a labor of love; to most aspiring (and perspiring?) MBAs, the GMAT is a lot of hard work.  And while, to earn the score that you’re hoping for, it’s likely that you’ll have to put in a good amount of sweat and a few tears (but hopefully no blood…), it’s important to recognize that test day itself should not be a Labor Day!

Your hard work should take place well before you get to the test center, so that on test day you’re not overworking yourself.  Working too hard on test day takes time (which is a precious resource on the exam), saps your mental energy (which also tends to be in short supply as you get later into the test with only two 8-minute breaks to recharge), and leads to errors.  Accordingly, here are a few tips to help you take the heavy labor out of your test day:

1. Only do the math you absolutely have to do.

The GMAT rewards efficiency and ingenuity, and has been known to set up problems that can be awful if done “by the book” but relatively smooth if you recognize common patterns.  For example:

  • Answers are assets! If the math looks like it’s going to get messy, look at the answer choices.  If they’re really far apart, you may be able to estimate after just a step or two.  Or if the answer choices are really “clean” numbers (0, 1, 10…these are really easy numbers with which to perform calculations) you may be able to plug them into the problem and backsolve without any algebra.
  • Don’t multiply until you’ve divided. Working step by step through a problem, you may see that you have to multiply, say, 51 by 18.  Which is an ugly thing to have to do for two reasons: that calculation will take time by hand, and it will leave you with a new number that will be hard to work with for the following step.  But the next step might be to divide by 34.  If you save the multiplication (just call it (51)(18) and don’t actually perform the step), then you can divide by 2 and 17.  Which works out pretty cleanly: 51/17 is 3 and 18/2 is 9, so now you’re just multiplying 3 by 9 and the answer has to be 27.   The GMAT goes heavy on divisibility, so keep in mind that you’ll do a lot of division on this test…meaning that it usually makes sense to wait to multiply until after you’ve seen what you’ll have to divide by.
  • Think in terms of number properties. Often you can determine quickly whether the answer has to be even or odd, or whether it has to be positive or negative, or what the first or last digit will be.  If you’ve made those determinations, quickly scan the answer choices and see how many fit those criteria.  If only one does, you’re done.  And if 2-3 do but they’re easier to plug in to the problem or to estimate between, then you can avoid doing the actual math.

2. Don’t take too many notes.

Particularly with Reading Comprehension passages, GMAT test-takers on average take far too many notes.  This hurts you for two reasons: first, it’s time consuming, and on a question type that’s already time consuming by nature.  And second, very few of the notes that people take are useful. People tend to take notes on details – you generally write down what you don’t think you’ll remember – but the test will typically only ask you about one detail per passage.  And the passage stays on the screen the whole time, so if you need to find a detail it’s just as easy to find it on the screen as it is in your notes (plus you’ll want to read the exact way that it was written, which your notes won’t necessarily have).  So use your time wisely: use your initial read of the passage to get a feel for the general direction of the passage, and then you’ll know which area/paragraph to go back to if and when you do need to find the details.

3. Stay flexible.

The GMAT is a test that rewards “mental agility,” meaning that it often designs problems that look like they should be solved one way (say, algebra) but quickly become labor-intensive that way and then reward those who are able to quickly change approaches (maybe to backsolving or picking numbers).  When it looks like you’ve just set yourself up for a massive amount of work, take a quick step back and re-analyze.  At this point are the answer choices more helpful?  Should you abandon your number-picking and go back to doing the algebra?  Does re-reading the question allow you to set it up differently?  Generally speaking, if the math starts to get labor-intensive you’re missing a better method.  So let that be your catalyst for re-assessing.

As you sit down to take the GMAT (to get into a great business school to become a more valuable member of the labor force), those 4 hours you spend at the test center probably won’t be a labor of love.  But they shouldn’t be full of labor, anyway.  Heed this advice to lighten your labor and the GMAT just might feel like more of a day off than anything (like, you know, Labor Day).

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By Brian Galvin