GMAT Tip of the Week: There’s a Hole in the Bucket… But Not in Your GMAT Score!

GMAT Tip of the WeekIf you’ve ever attended a summer camp or roasted marshmallows over a campfire, there’s a good chance you know the popular children’s singalong song “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.”  Sparing you the repeat lyrics, let’s take a look at the ridiculous (and GMAT-relevant) musical conversation between Dear Henry and Dear Liza:

Henry: There’s a hole in the bucket (dear Liza, dear Liza, dear Liza…)

Liza: Then fix it (dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry…)

Henry: With what shall I fix it?

Liza: With straw.

Henry: The straw is too long.

Liza: Well, cut it.

Henry: With what shall I cut it?

Liza: With an axe.

Henry: The axe is too dull.

Liza: Then sharpen it.

Henry: With what shall I sharpen it?

Liza: With a stone.

Henry: The stone is too dry.

Liza: Then wet it.

Henry: With what shall I wet it? (Editor’s note: really, Henry?)

Liza: With water.

Henry: With what shall I fetch it?

Liza: With a bucket.

Henry (and his redemption): There’s a hole in the bucket.

<Repeat over and over again>

Now, what makes that song such a children’s and family favorite?  In some part it’s popular because it repeats upon itself, but mostly it’s popular because even small children have to laugh at Henry’s heroic lack of critical thought.  Henry simply can’t function unless Liza directly hands him the specific next step.

…and Liza and Henry’s conversation is not all that much unlike many GMAT tutoring sessions.

Among the pool of GMAT test-takers, there are plenty of Henrys.  And as much as you may laugh at him, you’re playing the part of Henry just a little too much when you:

  • Stop working on a problem in less than 2 minutes and flip to the back of the book for the solution. (“With what shall I solve it, dear textbook, dear textbook…”)
  • Give up on the calculations without first checking the answer choices to see if they afford you a shortcut. (“The calculation is too long, dear GMAT, dear GMAT”)
  • Frustratedly ask “but how am I supposed to see that I should do that?”. (“But how should I know that, dear teacher, dear teacher…”)
  • Write off the question as flawed because you disagree with the correct answer. (“The solution is just wrong, dear answer key, dear answer key…”)

Eavesdrop on a GMAT tutoring session at your local library or coffee shop and there’s a good chance you’ll hear more Liza-and-Henry than you’d expect.  Students frequently ask for the rule but not the lesson, and tutors often simply oblige.  But to avoid Henrydom on test day (this conversation should last 3-5 seconds, not be a song that kids will sing for an entire field trip bus ride.  Figure it out, Henry!) you need to train yourself to ask and answer those questions for yourself.

We at Veritas Prep suggest the “toolkit” approach as opposed to a “if it’s this kind of problem I will steadfastly use this method without critical thought” mindset.  When the bucket has a hole or the straw is too long, ask yourself what other tools are in your toolkit.

For example, if you blank on a rule, try proving it with small numbers.  Unsure whether Even + Odd is Even or Odd?  Just try 2 + 1 (an even plus and odd) and recognize that the answer is 3 (Odd!).  Or if the algebra looks too messy, see if you can plug in an answer choice to get a better feel for the solutions’ relationship to the problem.

What makes “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” funny is what could ultimately make your own GMAT test experience miserable: you (and Henry) have to employ a combination of critical thinking, trial-and-error, and patience to solve problems. The exam simply isn’t testing your ability to memorize a “Liza List” of steps to solve each problem; many hard problems are designed specifically to reward those who overcome the adversity of the “obvious” method leading you down a rabbit hole of awful algebra or those who find a familiar theme in a completely unfamiliar setup.  So to train yourself to be an anti-Henry:

  • Force yourself to fight and struggle through hard practice problems. The written solution isn’t likely to be nearly as helpful as your having had to struggle to gain understanding.
  • Think in terms of your “toolkit” – if your first inclination doesn’t lead to success, rummage around your toolkit to see what other types of concepts might apply to that problem.
  • When you don’t know or can’t remember a rule, test the concept with small numbers to see if you can retrain your brain or prove the relationship to yourself.
  • Hold your tutor accountable – they should be asking you probing questions like Socrates, not handing you one-time solutions and steps like Liza (she’s not totally innocent in this either…she enables Henry way too much!)

The way the song goes, there will be a hole in Henry’s bucket forever, but if there’s a hole in your GMAT score you can fix it with a new study mindset (even if the straw is too long…).

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By Brian Galvin.