When preparing for the GMAT, there are many different types of questions that you must master. You know the verbal section will force you to answer questions about tedious passages, strengthen dubious arguments and correct unclear sentences. The ability to juggle these three elements will be paramount to your success as the question types are interspersed throughout the 75 minute verbal section. You cannot break down the exam into 25-minute sections each based on one broad topic and then move on. You don’t know what type of question is coming next, so you have to constantly be ready for any of the three major topics.
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The GMAT is an exam that primarily tests your use of logic. One of the most consistent methods used to evaluate your use in logic is to take away your calculator and ask you “difficult” math questions. More specifically, questions that seem really difficult, but break down to simple concepts once you understand what is actually happening.
On test day, you will see 78 different questions designed to test how you think, how you approach a given problem, and how well you manage your time in a stressful environment. Most of these questions are unknown to you. You’ve probably spent tens of hours poring over hundreds of GMAT problems and trying to dissect questions from every possible vantage point. However, there is one question you are guaranteed to see on test day, and the question is deceptively simple. At one point, in the verbal section, you will simply be asked: “What is the primary purpose of this passage”
There are certain numbers that will show up on every GMAT. Some of these numbers you need to be able to manipulate, and some others will just lie there like the rocks of Stonehenge: static and immovable. Numbers like π and √2, which can be converted into decimals but generally simply encumber the equation.
Two weeks ago I wrote an article about whether the GMAT was hard. It is a question I get asked regularly from many different students with many different interpretations of what “hard” actually means. On test day, you may get a question that seems impossible to solve, and yet most other students get it right. This means that the question wouldn’t be considered difficult by the GMAT (say a 500 level question), but for you it seemed exceptionally difficult. The notion of difficulty is thus subjective, and while many would argue that the GMAT is hard, I have a much simpler explanation I have been postulating for the past couple of years:
One of the main goals of the GMAT is to determine whether or not you can analyze a situation in front of you and determine the information needed to solve the question. In this way, the GMAT is testing the same skills required to solve a business case. The numbers in front of you are not important, but your method of solving the question is. Crunching numbers and measuring hypotenuses are not useful skills in business; you’ll have a calculator (or an abacus) to do that. Understanding how to approach and solve problems is the true skill being tested.
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:
Everyone who takes the GMAT wants to get a good score. The exact definition of “good” varies from student to student and from college recruiter to college recruiter. However no one can argue that scoring in the top 1% of all applicants can be considered anything less than a good score. Getting into your local university’s business program may not require a terrific score, but it can’t hurt to have one.
The GMAT is an exam that students generally study for over a few months, but it can be argued that students have been preparing for it their entire lives. From mastering addition in elementary school to understanding geometric properties and reading Shakespeare sonnets, your whole life has arguably been a prelude to your success on the GMAT. You might not need everything you’ve ever learnt on this one exam, but you will already have been exposed to everything you need to be successful.
Sequence questions come up fairly regularly on the GMAT quantitative section. One of the biggest problems students report on these questions is that they can’t determine what the terms in sequence should actually be. As such, the first important thing to determine is the value of the first few elements of the sequence. Without this information, the question seems much more abstract and difficult to follow.
Properly identifying incorrect modifier constructions, which are common errors in Sentence Correction, is a key component in achieving a high score on the GMAT. Knowing that modifier errors are among the most common errors seen on the GMAT, the astute student carefully studies the rules of correctly using modifiers. These grammatical constructions, among the most difficult to spot at a glance, confuse students and frustrate test takers who haven’t adequately prepared for the exam.
Certain skills help make the math portion of the GMAT much easier. For example, being at ease with multiplication and factoring can help you on all kinds of questions that aren’t even about multiples or factors. In fact, questions about one and only one topic are few and far between. A GMAT question will never ask you what 8 x 7 is explicitly, but it could easily ask you the area of a triangle with a base of 16 and a height of 7. (Recall that the formula for the area of a triangle is ½ Base x Height).
One of the Critical Reasoning questions that students struggle with the most is the Roles of Boldface questions. This may be because they’re scarce (like diamonds), and therefore you aren’t likely to practice them as much as other question types. Or it may be because they ask you to differentiate among multiple definitions that all start to sound the same after a while. Is the first a position or is it an opinion, and is there any difference between those two? (Hint: there isn’t).
On data sufficiency problems, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the abstract possibilities presented by the question. Since you don’t actually have to calculate an exact solution, frequently you are faced with problems that would be too tedious to solve without a calculator. However, just because you don’t have to actually solve them, doesn’t mean it isn’t comforting to do so when faced with abstract problems (just add a little concrete).
It has been said that everything is relative. Without getting too deep into the theory put forth by my friend Al(bert Einstein), your relative position and situation shapes your perception of things. A very common example of this is when students ask me “what difficulty level is this question?” I may find a question difficult and proclaim it’s a 700 level question. Another question seems more straightforward so I deem it a 500 level question. Granted, I have some credibility vis-a-vis GMAT difficulty level, but my opinion will be tainted by my relative strengths. I tend to consider arithmetic problems as simple and geometry problems as difficult primarily because of my personal preferences and abilities.
When preparing for the GMAT, you may notice that studying for one subject makes you better in other disciplines as well. For example, practicing your algebra tends to make you better at algebra, arithmetic tends to make you faster at picking numbers and the entire quant section helps you significantly in integrated reasoning. This is due to the fact that many subjects overlap and have common elements. More formally, you can say that the GMAT is an exam with a lot of synergy.
The most common complaint I hear from students about Reading Comprehension is that the text is mind-numbingly boring. This is due to two common factors. First, the texts are frequently mind-numbingly boring! Second, even if they’re somewhat interesting, the fact that you’ve been staring at a computer screen for about three straight hours (not counting the two eight-minute breaks) means you’re likely not completely focused on the task at hand. In fact, many a student has confided in me that by this part of the test they were already dreaming of lunch at McDonalds (okay this may have just been my personal experience).
One of the most common misconceptions on the GMAT is that you have to solve every question in about 2 minutes. This of course stems from the fact that you have 75 minutes to answer 37 quantitative questions (or ~2.03 minutes per question) and 75 minutes to answer 41 verbal questions (or ~1.83 minutes per question). Both figures can be approximated to roughly two minutes per question on average; however, this does not mean that every question will take you 2 minutes to solve.
On the GMAT, there is often a fine line between a statement possibly being true and a statement always being true. Inference questions ask about which statement must be true, and often provide many statements that each seem to be correct. However, must be true is a high standard to achieve, and many statements fall short of this benchmark despite being perfectly reasonable assumptions on their own.
In Data Sufficiency, the GMAT is asking you to determine how much information is required to make a decision. If the information provided leads you a definite yes, then you have sufficient data to take decisive action. Similarly, if there is enough information to lead to a definite no, then you can also take decisive action. The only time trouble arises is when the information could lead to a yes or to a no; this situation leaves you in a position where you may have to guess (I’ll take Door #1, Bob).
When evaluating critical reasoning questions, you often notice multiple answer choices that all seem plausible. The GMAT testmakers are experts at creating answer choices that are plausible and could potentially be correct, given slightly different circumstances. When evaluating strengthen or weaken questions, it is best to predict an answer from the stimulus before looking at the answer choices. That way you won’t be swayed by logical but out of scope questions (plus it’s a surprise!)
One of the most important concepts on the GMAT quant section is the notion of factors. Because there is no calculator on the exam, the multiplications and divisions tend to heed integer numbers. Dividing 100 by 2 might be trivial, but dividing 1100 by 22 might hinge on your recognition of the common factor of 11 to avoid tedious and time-consuming calculations.
In many ways, critical reasoning questions best exemplify what the GMAT is all about. The exam is primarily an exercise in applying logic to various different situations. In the quant section, you must either find the correct answer or determine whether you have sufficient information to make a decision. On the verbal section, you must find the answer choice that logically completes the information given in the question stem. Even on the AWA and the IR, logic is again paramount to knowing how to proceed and getting a good score.
Percentages represent one of the most underestimated question types on the GMAT quant section. Absolute numbers are helpful to give concrete information (I spent 70$ on the latest Grand Theft Auto game), but percentages give a better indication of relative amounts of time (I spend 68% of my free time playing GTA V). Based on the first, you may find that I overpaid for the video game, but based on the second statistic, I probably got a very good return on my investment.
Critical Reasoning questions on the GMAT are primarily about strengthening or weakening the author’s conclusion. The stimulus of the question will describe some event or issue and then purport some conclusion, often one that is strikingly unsupported by the evidence.
Your job is usually to determine which answer choice would either enhance or undermine the professed conclusion. Sometimes, the question asks you to infer something that must be true from the text. The answer choices for these inference questions tend to have very high standards to meet because they must be true at all times (and not just when the moon is in Aquarius).
When looking at geometry problems on the GMAT, it’s important to take all graphs with a grain of salt (low fat, though). The graphs used on the GMAT are simply there to help visualize the problem at hand. No concerted effort is made for the graphs to be accurate or exact, and the graph should be evaluated based on what you know to be true, not on what you see or what the graph seems to imply. This all means that trusting your eyes on the GMAT is like trusting a car mechanic: you may have an honest mechanic or you may be getting taken for a ride!
Some concepts on the GMAT are absolute, while others can be a little nebulous. For example, the fact that there are 37 quantitative questions and 41 verbal questions is uncontestable. However, not all issues are as cut and dry.
I’ve read a strategy guide that recommended spending extra time on the first 10 questions because they’re worth more. I’ve read other guides saying that all the questions are weighed equally. Of course none of these books are the Official Guide, but even when I put it down, you know I’ll be back. When studying for a known test like the GMAT, it’s important to know what to look for and what to avoid (and also to be literate).
When looking at questions on the GMAT, it’s very easy to fall into the mentality that there is only one correct answer. If I’m searching for some number xyz multiplied by another number abc, I don’t necessarily know the answer, but I know there’s only one value that will correctly satisfy the equation. The entire concept of multiple choice is predicated on having only one correct answer (also on knowing the alphabet), so it seems counter-intuitive that two values could both be the correct answer.
In critical reasoning, several factors can give away a potential incorrect answer choice. If the question is asking you to strengthen or weaken the author’s argument, the correct choice must always provide new information that either reinforces the author’s main point or calls into question its validity. However, certain answer choices give the illusion of talking about the subject without really saying anything conclusive about it (what one of my former professors colorfully called hand waving).
Of all the topics on the GMAT quant section, few get students as confused as the concept of combinatorics. The concept of going to the store and picking up one of four possible gifts for a niece is pretty straightforward (she generally likes Barbies© or My Little Pony© toys), but picking up two toys out of four for your twin nieces and then deciding which one gets which often deteriorates into an exercise of brute force combinatorics.
A quote often attributed to (2nd US President) John Adams states that “facts are stubborn things”. In everyday life, we are often confronted with various personal opinions or subjective viewpoints on everything from politics (more horses and bayonets or less?) to fashion (can you believe what Miley Cyrus wore last week) to love (you complete me). However everyone understands that personal opinions are, well, personal. They vary from one individual to another and two people can have completely different beliefs on the exact same issue.
When studying for the GMAT, some questions will undoubtedly bring back fond memories of high school math classes, cramming for exams and wondering if that classmate you had a crush on even knew you existed (note: this may also remind you of Dawson’s Creek). Algebra and Geometry concepts evoke these feelings of nostalgia, because unless you’re an engineer or an architect (perhaps Art Vandelay?), you probably haven’t thought about the concepts in a decade or two.
On the GMAT quantitative section, you have just over 2 minutes on average to answer each question in front of you. Sometimes, those two minutes go by in a flash and you feel like the question should take at least 4 minutes in order to even make a reasonable guess. Other times, you think you can solve the question in a matter of seconds, and wonder why anyone would take a full 2 minutes on a question that you can eyeball without putting pen to paper (or marker to dry erase board). Because the 2 minute benchmark is an average, not a maximum, figuring out how much time to spend on each question is a crucial part of doing well on this test.
When reading through Reading Comprehension texts, there are a few important concepts to keep in mind in order to be able to swiftly answer the upcoming questions. Every passage will have explicit information regarding the subject matter at hand, but some information will come from the author’s attitude and writing style. One of the most important things to do while reading a Reading Comprehension passage (other than staying awake) is determine the author’s tone.
Just as all roads lead to Rome (well, all roads in Europe anyways), there are many ways to solve math questions on the GMAT. Any question can conceivably be solved in a variety of ways, but they must always be logical. No method is inherently superior to any other, so often it’s a question of which method will solve this particular problem in the most efficient way possible.
Many GMAT students have likened themselves to Sherlock Holmes at one point or another while studying for this test. It is a natural comparison: you are a detective looking for clues in order to reach a conclusion that must be true. Unfortunately there’s no Dr. Watson to help guide your efforts, but you can inspire yourself from the super sleuth in your quest to solve the nefarious puzzles of Professor G. MoriArTy.
As a GMAT instructor, I frequently find myself perusing the GMAT Official Guide, dare I say, “for fun”. The OG is a terrific indication of the types of questions you can expect to see on the GMAT, and the solution is usually a great method to get to the right answer. However, sometimes I find myself surprised at the official answer because I would solve the question in a completely different way and get to the answer in significantly less time than the OG method.
Many concepts covered on the GMAT come up in every day conversation. One of the common mistakes frequently tested on the GMAT that people make mistakes with in colloquial speech is that lack of agreement between a subject and verb when the verb is placed before the subject (There’s a lot of reasons this happens…) People make this mistake regularly and no one really seems to notice it, but the GMAT thoroughly tests this type of mistake, so you likely will have had sufficient exposure to this scenario by test day.
When answering data sufficiency questions on the GMAT, the key is to successfully determine when you have sufficient information to make a decision with 100% certainty. I often equate data sufficiency with determining whether the competition is stealing from you. If you’re sure they are not, then everything is fine and you are competing in a fair and balanced environment. Similarly, if you have definitive proof that they are hijacking your million dollar idea (possibly for pet rocks or the duck commander), then you can pursue legal action to remedy the situation.
There is a lot of value in keeping things simple. Simplicity is a beautiful thing, especially when combined with functionality. Think of the designs Apple comes up with (or at least did when Steve Jobs ran the show): products were simple, sleek, stylish, and routinely worked flawlessly. The appeal and popularity of these machines is steeped in how effortlessly they perform their functions, combining reliable functionality and timeless elegance.