As a social media user, you’re probably very away that today – October 21, 2015 – is “The Future,” the day from Back to the Future II when Marty McFly and Doc Brown (along with a sleeping Jennifer) visit Hill Valley 30 years in the future. And while we don’t yet have hoverboards and while the bold prediction that the Cubs will have just won the World Series seems to be slipping away, the Back to the Future trilogy does offer some incredibly valuable GMAT lessons. How can Marty McFly help you better understand the GMAT and increase your score?
1) The Space-Time Continuum
Throughout the Back to the Future series, Doc Brown was keenly aware of the impacts that any slight alteration to the past would have on the future (as it turns out, stopping your parents from meeting or allowing the scores of all future sporting events to fall into the hands of your family’s mortal enemy could have disastrous results!). The GMAT works on a similar premise: because the GMAT is adaptive, each question impacts the future questions you will see – the events are connected and sequential. Which means:
A) You can’t go back and change your answers. That would violate the “Space-Time Continuum” nature of the GMAT (changing #5 would mean that questions 6-37 would all be different, so it’s just not an option). And THAT means that you have to make good decisions in real-time – you need to double-check for careless errors before you submit, because if you realize later that you blew it, that question is gone.
B) You can’t afford a disastrous start. It’s not that the first 10 questions matter exponentially more (as the old myth goes), but they are slightly more important if only for this reason: a strong early performance means that you’re seeing harder questions once you’re in your groove, and a poor early performance means that you’re seeing easier questions and have a much lower margin for error. Throughout each section you’ll make a few mistakes and you’ll hit a lucky guess or two.
If you’ve done well and avoided careless mistakes early, then your mistakes and lucky guesses will be on harder questions. If you haven’t, then those mistakes come on easier questions and pull down your score all the more. It *is* possible to recover from a poor start…it just requires you to be a lot closer to perfect and that can be hard to do on test day. Please note: you don’t need to get all 10 right to consider it a good start! 6 or 7 will probably put you on a track you’re happy with; the key is to just make sure you’re not making too many silly mistakes early and missing the questions that you should get right.
2) Save the Clock Tower!
Back to the Future taught a generation the importance of timeline, and that’s critical on the GMAT. You need to be mindful of time and ensure that you have enough to finish each section. Just like in the movies, where mismanagement of time and unforeseen events created precarious situations (would Doc get the wire connected before lightning struck? Would Marty get to that point at the proper time? Would Doc reach Clara before the train tumbled off the cliff?), the GMAT offers you plenty of opportunities to waste time and get off schedule (and maybe your score falls off a cliff, or you’re the one stuck in the past…an era when master’s degrees were far from the norm).
You need to conserve time on the test so that you don’t find a catastrophe waiting at the end. Which means that sometimes you have to let a hard problem go so that it doesn’t suck up several minutes of your time (even if the hard problem seems to be calling you “chicken”!). Like Marty should have done in most time-travel situations, have a plan for how you’ll address events in a timely fashion and stick to it. If you want to have 53 minutes left after 10 questions and you have 51, know that you’ll probably have to guess soon to get back on track.
3) Find Your Skateboard
1985 was easy for Marty, like a 400-500 level GMAT problem. If he needed to quickly get from one place to another, he’d hop on his skateboard and grab the back of a truck. But 1955 and 2015 were quite different – there weren’t conventional skateboards for him to use, so he had to improvise either by breaking a scooter in two or learning how to handle a hoverboard.
The GMAT is similar: the tools you’ll use to solve problems (find skateboard, let a Tannen chase you, veer off at the last second leaving him to crash into a pile of manure) are extremely similar, but just different enough that it may not be obvious what to do at first. Your job as you study is to learn how to look for that “skateboard.”
On exponent problems, for example, the key is almost always getting the given information to a point where you can perform the rules you know. And since those rules are almost always requiring you to deal with exponents with the same base and that the terms are being multiplied or divided, your “finding the skateboard” process usually involves factoring non-prime bases into prime factors and factoring addition and subtraction into multiplication. Much like Marty McFly in a new decade, you’ll find yourself seeing slightly-familiar, but yet totally different situations on the test – your job is to focus more on the similarity and seek out a couple steps to get it to where the rest is rote.
4) Be a Man (or Woman) of Action
In the original Back to the Future, you saw how the entire future changed with just one action: the ever analytical and incredibly intelligent George McFly just wasn’t a confident or action-oriented man, and so despite Marty’s best efforts to talk him up to Lorraine and to get him to be a bit more debonair, the McFly family future was fading quickly. Until…George had the opportunity to stop analyzing and just “do,” telling Biff to “get your damn hands off” Lorraine and ultimately punching Biff in the mouth. From that point on, the George-and-Lorraine romance was on (again?) and the future was just a matter of density. I mean…destiny.
If you’re reading a blog post about the GMAT you’re certainly not the type that Principal Strickland would call a slacker, but there’s a good likelihood that you’ll perform on test day like the “old” George McFly: intelligent and capable, but timid and over-analytical. Particularly with the timed nature of the GMAT, you often just have to go with an instinct and try it out, whether that means writing down an equation and then double checking that you like your math (as opposed to reading the question again and again) or testing your theory that you’re allowed to cross-multiply there (test it with small numbers and see if you get the answer you should).
The biggest mistake that the truly-capable make on the GMAT is one of paralysis by analysis; they’re afraid to put pen to paper to “try something” and then they become acutely aware of the time ticking past them and panic all the more. Avoid that trap! Be willing to try, to take action, and you’ll find that – like the owner of DeLorean time machine – you have plenty of time.
On this 30th anniversary of Marty’s journey to the future, plan for your future 30 years down the road. The way you study for the GMAT, the way you manage your time and confidence on the test – they could have a major impact on what your future looks like. Heed the lessons that Doc and Marty taught you, and you could leave the test center saying, “Roads? Where I’m going, we don’t need roads,” of course because most elite b-school campuses are all about sidewalks.
By Brian Galvin.