The GMAT is an exam that aims to test how you think about things. Many people have heard this mantra when studying for the GMAT, but it’s not always clear what it means. While there are many formulae and concepts to know ahead of taking the exam, you will be constantly thinking throughout the exam about how to solve the question in front of you. The GMAT specializes in asking questions that require you to think about the solution, not just to plug in numbers mindlessly and return whatever your calculator tells you (including typos and misplaced decimals).
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As the Donald Trump sideshow continues to dominate American news, politics is again being pushed to the forefront as the country gears up for an election in 15 months. The nominees are not yet confirmed, but many candidates are jockeying for position, trying to get their names to resonate with the American population. This election will necessarily have a new candidate for both parties, as Barack Obama will have completed the maximum of two elected terms allowed by the Constitution (via the 22nd amendment).
I’ve often heard from people studying for the GMAT that they would score much higher on the test if there were no time limit to each section. The material covered on the exam is not inherently complicated, but the combination of subtle wordplay and constant stress about time management creates an environment where test takers often rush through prompts and misinterpret questions. Unfortunately, time management and stress management are two of the major skills being tested on the GMAT, so the time limit isn’t going away any time soon (despite my frequent letters to the GMAC). Instead, it’s worth mastering simple techniques to save time and extrapolate patterns based on smaller samples.
It is often said that outside knowledge is not required on the GMAT. The idea is that everyone should be on relatively equal footing when starting to prepare for this exam, minimizing the advantage that someone with a B.Comm might have over someone with an engineering or philosophy degree. Of course, it’s difficult to determine at what point does outside knowledge begin and end. Knowing that there are 26 letters in the (English) alphabet or that blue and red are different colors is never explicitly mentioned in the GMAT preparation, but the concepts certainly can come up in GMAT questions.
Everyone who writes the GMAT must speak English to some degree. Since English is the default language of business, the GMAT is administered exclusively in that language. Some people feel that this is unfair. If you take an exam in your mother tongue, you tend to do better than if you took the exam in your second, third or even fourth language (I consider Klingon as my fourth language). However, even if you’re a native English speaker, the GMAT offers many linguistic challenges that make many people feel that they don’t actually speak the language. (¿Habla GMAT?)
Interpreting what is being asked on a question is arguably the most important skill required in order to perform well on the GMAT. After all, since the topics are taken from high school level material, and the test is designed to be difficult for college graduates, the difficulty must often come from more than just the material. In fact, it is very common on the GMAT to find that you got “the right answer to the wrong question.” This phrase is so well-known that it merits quotation marks (and eventually perhaps its own reality show).
In life, we often see certain patterns repeat over and over again. After all, if everything in life were unpredictable, we’d have a hard time forecasting tomorrow’s weather or how long it will take to go to work next week. Luckily, many patterns repeat in recurring, predictable patterns. A simple example is a calendar. If tomorrow is Friday, then the following day will be Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards (credit: Rebecca Black). Moreover, if today is Friday, then 7 days from now will also be Friday, and 70 days from now will also be Friday, and onwards ad infinitum (even with leap years). These patterns are what allow us to predict things with 100% certainty.
Reading comprehension questions on the GMAT are primarily an exercise in time management. If you gave yourself 30 minutes to complete a single Reading Comprehension passage along with four questions, you would find the endeavour very easy. Most questions on the GMAT feature some kind of trap, trick or wording nuance that could easily lead you astray and select the wrong answer. Reading Comprehension questions, while occasionally tricky, are typically the most straightforward questions on the entire exam.
On the GMAT, as in life, you have multiple choices you can make at every juncture you face. On the standardized test, your choices are limited to only five, which is more manageable than the plethora of choices you encounter every day. However, even five answer choices can cause a lot of frustration for people who have difficulty differentiating among them.
When looking through answer choices on Critical Reasoning questions, there is always one correct answer to the question. After all, it wouldn’t be fair if two different answers were both legitimate responses to the query being posed. However, just because the other four answers are incorrect, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t tempting. In fact, there is usually one choice the exam is pointing you towards selecting, even though it isn’t the correct option. This is often referred to as the sucker choice.
As a true Canadian, I’m always on the lookout for questions that are specifically about Canada. Sometimes a question is about trains travelling from Toronto to Montreal, and other times a Reading Comprehension passage deals with a certain Canadian prime minister. Sometimes, the question is just very polite!
While preparing for the GMAT, there will be certain question types that will appear over and over again. If you’re studying math, you know that you’ll see at least a couple of exponent problems that you’ll need to solve through algebra. If you’re studying sentence correction, you know that you’ll see at least a couple of misplaced modifiers that need to be modified in the correct answer choice. Some question types are so obvious that you know you have to prepare for them, even if you somehow manage to not see a single one on test day (kind of like fishing).
After studying for the GMAT for a few months (or years, in my case), you start to form expectations of exam questions. If you’re doing sentence correction, and you see a pronoun, there’s a good chance that the various answer choices will have different pronouns to ensure that you pick the correct one. If you’re doing math with three or four digit numbers, there’s a good chance that you have to deal with unit digits in order to shortcut the calculations. And if you’re doing geometry, there’s a good chance that the Pythagorean Theorem will show up, directly or indirectly. (My money is on directly.)
With the summer blockbuster season around the corner, it’s easy for your studying motivation to wane. After all, the GMAT doesn’t have the same allure as the big budget Hollywood movies people line up to see every summer. However, while seeing a movie can be a welcome distraction, there is a lot we can learn from movies when studying for the GMAT.
The concept of abstraction involves taking things from specific values to general ideas. On the GMAT, abstraction is one of the simplest ways to turn an easy problem into a difficult one. A simple example would be to ask someone what “5 times 6” would be, and then to expand that to “x times y” or “odd number times even number.” Abstraction helps by giving broad strokes to concepts, but it also requires a deeper understanding of the underlying principles. (This is the same principle as abstract art… apparently).
When preparing for the GMAT, most prospective students start thinking about the schools they want to attend, the jobs they want to land and the opportunities they want to seize. After all, embarking on a new degree is an adventure that must be carefully prepared and thought out. Some students with long term thinking even begin thinking about something that most people dream of regularly: retirement.
If you’ve ever walked into a conversation that was in progress, you know how hard it can be to figure out what’s going on without starting at the beginning. People often timidly ask “What are we talking about?” or “Could you please start over?” in such situations. This is because being parachuted into an ongoing conversation can be quite disorienting.
When dealing with strengthen or weaken Critical Reasoning questions, it’s important to have a rough idea of what the correct answer should look like. This process is often called “predicting” the correct answer, and it helps tremendously to avoid tempting but incorrect answer choices. It’s important to note that you won’t always be able to guess the exact answer choice provided, but you can get within the ballpark. After all, the correct answer is something that will hinge on the inevitable disconnect between the conclusion stated and the evidence provided in the passage.
Habitually, data sufficiency questions give students cause for concern on the GMAT quantitative section. This is primarily due to the fact that data sufficiency questions are rarely seen in high school and college, and are therefore relatively unknown to most prospective test takers. If you remember the first data sufficiency question you encountered while studying for the GMAT, it may have looked like it was written in another language.
One of the hardest things about Sentence Correction is that it tests so much more than just grammar. Many students erroneously conflate Sentence Correction problems with high school grammar problems, and this can lead to avoidable mistakes on test day. Indeed, the rules you learned in high school still apply, but you must be able to recognize them among various other potential problems. It’s fairly simple to spot an agreement error on a verb (there are one problem) or a misplaced comma (good, job bro), but sometimes you have to eliminate an answer choice because the sentence just doesn’t make sense.
One of the hardest things for people to get used to on the GMAT is that there is no calculator for the quantitative section. The reasoning behind this is simple: human beings will not be faster than machines at pure calculations. Human beings, however, will be better at logic, reasoning and deduction than a machine (at least until Skynet is developed).
One of the most common things you’re going to do on the GMAT is to infer things. Inferring things is something we inherently do on a daily basis as human beings. If your friend tells you they’re preparing for a big presentation, you generally automatically infer they’re presenting to an audience and are nervous about public speaking. However, on the GMAT, inferring carries a little more baggage than in your everyday life. What if your friend is in charge of logistics for the presentation, or running the slideshow behind the presenter? Perhaps they are being presented in the debutante ball definition of the term? (niche, I know). On the GMAT, inferences have a high threshold they must always attain: the inferences must be true.
One way in which the GMAT differs from most tests is that you only need to find the correct answer to the given question. There are absolutely no points for your development, your reasoning or indeed anything you decide to write down. This is completely contrary to much of what we learned in high school and university, where you could be rewarded for having the correct algorithm or approach even if you didn’t get the correct answer. On most math problems, if you got the wrong answer but demonstrated how you got there, you could at least get partial credit, especially if your approach was perfect but the execution lacked (like passing on the 1 yard line).
Many people think that finishing the GMAT verbal section on time hinges on quickly solving Sentence Correction problems. This is because these questions tend to have the shortest stimuli of any question type. Even if you’re a speed reader (hopefully you never ordered Mega Reading by Kevin Trudeau), it will still take a minute or so to sift through a passage that’s a few hundred words long. Sentence Correction problems sometimes have stimuli that are two or three lines, and therefore are prime candidates for quick dispatching.
When preparing to take the GMAT, you often solve hundreds or even thousands of practice problems. As you solve more and more of them, you start to realize that almost every question is testing something specific. There’s a geometry question about right angle triangles that’s really all about Pythagoras’ theorem, and an algebra problem that is easy to solve if you expand the difference of squares. However, there are some questions that make you scratch your head and wonder: “What in the world?” Some questions make you think you missed a section of material that you need to review (are there triple integrals on the GMAT?), or at the very least that you don’t know the correct strategic approach. I will euphemistically call these “WTF” questions, which of course stands for “Want To Finish”.
When it comes to Critical Reasoning on the GMAT, one question that continues to frustrate people is the assumption question. Quite simply, the question is asking you which answer choice is required to support the conclusion that has been drawn in the passage. To successfully navigate these questions, you should use the Assumption Negation Technique, which requires a negation of the answer choice to determine whether or not it was actually required. More than that, though, the correct answer choice must be within the scope of the question. An answer choice that goes too far will not be the correct answer to the question.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the GMAT is that you are not allowed to use a calculator for the quantitative section. This is uncomfortable because, throughout your everyday life, you are never more than about 5 feet from a calculator (yes, even in Death Valley). Almost everyone has a cell phone, a laptop, a desktop or a GMAT guru nearby to compute difficult calculations for them. Even high school students are generally allowed their calculators on test day. However, the lack of a calculator allows the GMAT to test your reasoning skills and time management skills much more easily than if you had access to electronic help.
As a GMAT aficionado, I often find GMAT themes in everyday things. This is what happened last week when I was listening to the radio and Ariana Grande’s “Problem” started playing. I’d heard the song before, and despite its catchy melody, there is a glaring grammatical error in the chorus. This may not be that surprising: songs in general are dubious sources of grammar to begin with, and R&B songs often take additional liberties with their lyrics (Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” jumps to mind). However this error is the kind a lot of people make in their daily speech, so I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to improve our grammatical skills beyond what we hear on the radio.
Over the holiday season, you may have taken the time to go see the Hobbit, the much-hyped precursor to the Lord of the Rings movies which breathed life into the seminal Tolkien books published over a half century ago. If this sentence looks familiar, it’s because it’s the same one I used two years ago to begin an article about the similarities between the first Hobbit movie and the GMAT. Lo and behold, a couple of weeks ago I was watching the final installment of the Hobbit trilogy, and I noticed more parallels to the GMAT. I decided then to pen a follow up to my original article to finish the comparison between the two disparate, yet often overlapping events.
The GMAT is an exam that evaluates how you think. The test is designed to measure your reasoning skills and gauge how successful you will be in business school. This means that the test is not simply trying to ascertain how much you already know. This is similar to the mantra of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. If you happen to already know that 144 is 12^2, then any question that asks about this specific number becomes much easier. However, if the exam starts asking about 13^2 or 14^2, and you only know 12^2, then you must find some method to take your knowledge and apply it to new and unscripted problems.
Studying for the GMAT can take over your life. I’m sure many of you are nodding your heads as you read this. If you’re not, you probably haven’t gotten there yet. I sincerely hope that you never do, but it is an almost unavoidable part of studying for this test. Eventually, you start correcting artists in songs (I got one less problem without you… more like one fewer problem) and wondering if your table number is a prime number (how about table 51… oops that’s divisible by 3). The first time you catch yourself using a GMAT specific term, you know you’re really deep in studying for this exam.
On the verbal section of the GMAT, students invariably spend more time on Reading Comprehension questions than on either Sentence Correction or Critical Reasoning problems. In fact, I’ve seen score reports where people spent more time on Reading Comprehension than on the other two question types combined! Students spend a lot of time on these passages because they are consistently packed with pointless information, run-on sentences and dense technical jargon. Attempting to untangle these passages can lead to a lot of frustration for test takers (Fortunately, there’s an app for that).
One topic that always makes me think on the GMAT is geometry. It’s not that geometry is particularly hard, or even particularly easy, but rather that it’s particularly irrelevant! Having done an MBA in the past few years, I can virtually guarantee you that you will never have to calculate the area of a rhombus or the volume of a cone during your graduate studies. It’s possible that you have to calculate various geometric shapes in your career after graduating (say you run an ice cream shop!), but during your education the entire discipline seems somewhat superfluous.
The holiday season is upon us in North America, as many families unite for Thanksgiving, some decadent shopping, and the imminent Christmas season. While Thanksgiving and Christmas are independently two of the biggest holidays of the year, the fact that they always come together and are so habitually linked makes me think of the GMAT (yes a lot of things make me think of the GMAT, it’s what I do). Just as the thought of Christmas makes a lot of people think of Black Friday deals and line ups at their local stores, some elements on the GMAT are as inextricably linked together.
When going through the quantitative section of the GMAT, you will often be confronted by numbers that are, shall we say, unwieldy (some people refer to them as “insane”). It is common on the exam to see numbers like 11!, 15^8, or even 230,050,672. Regardless of the form of the number, the common mistake that many novice test takers make is the same: They try to actually solve the number.
In life, you are often given binary choices. This is true even if the word binary isn’t something you recognize right away. Binary comes from the Latin “bini”, which means two together, and is used to regroup decisions in which you have exactly two choices. On forms, you might see categories such as “smoker” or “non-smoker”, and you are prompted to answer exactly one of the options. At a restaurant, you might get asked “Soup or salad?” (super salad??), and you are expected to make a decision as to which appetizer you want. Very frequently, these two choices cover the entirety of your options. There is no third option to select.
If you’ve ever built a puzzle, you probably know that you can’t expect to start at a certain point and build the entire puzzle without moving around. You may find two or three pieces that fit together nicely, but then you find three pieces that fit together nicely somewhere else, and then work to connect these disparate sections.
When dealing with questions that ask us to compartmentalize information, there are two major sorting methods that we can use on the GMAT. The first, and perhaps more familiar concept, is the Venn diagram. This categorization is very useful for situations where information overlaps, as it allows a visual representation of multiple categories at once. However, if the information provided has no possible overlap, such as indicating whether something is made of gold or silver, or if they’re male or female (Bruce Jenner notwithstanding), the preferred method of organization is the matrix box.
Last year, I wrote an article for this blog discussing the pros and cons (and pros and cons and pros) of cancelling your GMAT score. At the time, you had to sit through an entire 3+ hour exam, go through every question asked and then be offered the possibility of cancelling your score without ever knowing what your grade would have been.