As we enter the final weekend of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, plenty of drama remains. Will Canada clinch the ice hockey gold medal on its home ice? Will it do so against the rival Americans? Will Lindsey Vonn withstand the pain of another injury – this time a broken finger to go with her badly bruised shin — to add another medal to her haul? Will Bob Costas ever look older than 29? Will Bode Miller summon the magic one more time to erase his Torino disappointment with an unexpected (or perhaps just delayed… we expected this from him in 2006) display of overall alpine mastery?
As Vonn and Miller attempt to add to their legacies, they will need to employ a strategy that you should be thinking about as you gear up for your peak performance on the GMAT. The last race for each is the slalom, an event in which skiers are required to navigate a series of gates making quick side-to-side turns while keeping their momentum focused as straight downhill as possible. A daunting challenge, to be sure — just like those of you taking the GMAT, these skiers must be aware that losing time on any one gate (or question) can be catastrophic, and must also keep in mind that, upon the successful navigation of one challenge, another will be approaching just as quickly.
How do they (and how should you) cope?
If you watch slalom skiers, you’ll notice that they seemingly take wide turns around each gate — instead of taking a straight line from one gate to the next, which would require them to make an abrupt change of direction at each gate, they swoop in from wide of the gate, building speed through the turn toward the next flag. The rationale behind this strategy is that, by employing it, skiers can use the position of the next gate to set up the previous turn, always thinking further downhill and being prepared far in advance to avoid having to make last-second, ice-crunching, turn-on-a-dime turns that kill a skier’s speed and waste valuable time. If the skier uses the downhill gates to set up his movements uphill, he can take as direct and efficient a line as possible, and maximizes his chances at success.
The GMAT affords you the same opportunity — you’ve already noted that each question contains within itself five answer choices, but you may not have thought about using those “downhill” answer choices to set up your work.Consider:
- If multiple answer choices include the square root of 3, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to use a 30-60-90 or equilateral triangle, as those triangles lend themselves naturally to sides with the square root of 3.
- If answer choices, similarly, include the square root of 2, you’ll probably want to look for an iscosceles right triangle (45-45-90), for which the hypotenuse is going to have a side the length of the other side multiplied by the square root of 2.
- Other answer choices can guide you in the right direction, as well – look for clues such as denominators (do you need to end up with something divided by 3?), exponential terms (do you need to factor to get everything in terms of 2 to a power?), etc. If you let the answer choices be your guide, you’ll often find that they provide you a template of what your mathematical goals should be.
As an example, consider the question:
What is 38 + 37 – 36 – 35?
(E) None of the Above
The initial statement may not lend itself at first to any type of manipulation that would make it any clearer, but if you look at the answer choices, you
If you’re watching the Winter Olympics, you’re likely amazed at the body control of moguls skiers, the grace of figure skaters, and the creativity of aerial skiers and snowboarders. You might also, however, find yourself becoming particularly critical of those around you, a byproduct of listening to Olympic announcers describing the mistakes made by these all-world athletes:
She didn’t stick the landing; unfortunately, that’s going to be a deduction.
His knees came apart on that turn…every time you do that, that’s a deduction.
With the judged sports, the unfortunate nature of the elite level of competition is that the scoring system seems to assume perfection, and deduct from there, instead of rewarding excellence at each turn. In some cases, the system just isn’t set up to reward that excellence — Jonny Moseley’s infamous “Dinner Roll” maneuver in the Olympic mogul skiing competition was too new and too unique to fit the scoring system, and he lost the 2002 gold medal as a result, even though most competitors would agree that his run was the most impressive of all.
The GMAT, in a lot of ways, is scored similarly: questions are structured so that you receive “deductions” in the form of incorrect answers for making minor errors. You can perform admirably on a difficult question, but if your answer contains one of those small mistakes, you’ll be punished for it.
Because of this, in your waning days of GMAT preparation before the exam, you should put an emphasis on minimizing those “deductions” by practicing those little things that tend to give you trouble. With a few days before your exam, you’re more likely to improve your score by perfecting the things that you do well than you are by adding new tricks to your repertoire. Track your common mistakes, and you’ll likely find that you often:
- Answer the wrong question, solving for a value that is slightly different from what the question asks for
- Make assumptions regarding a number (say, that it’s an integer, or that it’s positive) and thinking that you have more information on a Data Sufficiency problem than you really do have
- Misread the conclusion of a Critical Reasoning question and choose an answer that strengthens your alternate conclusion, but not the official one
- Set up equations incorrectly when working quickly
If you catch yourself making these, or other mistakes, frequently, make a note to slow down in those situations to “stick the landing” and avoid the deductions that the GMAT will take from you if you’re not careful.
As Biggie would have said, “It was all a dream…” for Pierre de Coubertin. The youth of the world, representing dozens of nations and all sorts of backgrounds, coming together in the spirit of competition to fulfill lifelong dreams. While he could have been dreaming about the GMAT, his project was the Olympic Games, which begin the latest installment of the Winter Olympics tonight in Vancouver. Much like the GMAT, these Olympics feature the best from around the world, all of whom have put in extensive preparation for this shot to prove to the world and to themselves that they belong, and that they can excel.
Much like the GMAT, as well, the Olympics take months of preparation and turn them in to a series of bllink-and-you’ll-miss it moments that determine one’s fate. Michael Phelps’ quest for perfection two years ago came down to a hundredth of a second; if he fails to famously take that extra stroke, he loses his shot at immortality. The potential darling of these Winter Olympics, Lindsey Vonn (labeled by some the “Phemale Phelps” for her expected medal haul), may have already seen her moment come and go, suffering a shin injury in training that may prohibit her from even making a run at a historic Olympics.
Perhaps the fates were cruelest to Dan Jansen, the holder of multiple world records in speedskating with a wealth of expectation to match, who was shut out of the medals in his first two Olympics in 1988 and 1992, and lost his first of two races in his last Olympics in 1994. Jansen, whose non-Olympic record makes him one of the greatest skaters of all-time, slipped and fell in both of his 1988 races, and in his first race of 1994 slipped enough to ruin his race in a cruel reprise of his failues of the past. Like a test-taker with near-perfect practice scores who blanks under pressure, Jansen went in to his last race frustrated, defeated, and, positively, with nothing to lose:
“I finally told myself, ‘Just don’t expect things anymore, and just go out and see what happens.'”
Perhaps because he finally took the pressure off of himself, Jansen dominated the 1,000 meter race – his last chance at Olympic glory – setting a world record in the process of finally winning a gold medal.
How does this relate to the GMAT?
As did Jansen, you’ll have multiple attempts to achieve success on the GMAT – schools, with very few exceptions, will only care about your top score. Also like Jansen, you’ll typically achieve that success when you distance yourself from the pressure of needing to excel, and instead allow yourself to just do what you already know how to do. The Olympics, like the GMAT, carry with them a lot of artificial pressure, but when broken down to the essentials – remaining aerodynamic and getting full power from each stride in skating; identifying the crucial elements of the question and carrying out your strategy on the GMAT – the tools to succeed under pressure are exactly those that allow you to be successful when the pressure is off. If you can emphasize the process of answering each question, rather than allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the situation as a whole, you can retain that inner calm of knowing that you’ve accomplished each task dozens of times before. And if you keep in mind that delayed success can be just as rewarding as immediate glory – you can always retake the test if you need to – you may be just as relaxed your first time out as Jansen was on his last. In the end, on the GMAT as in the Olympics, having accomplished your goal is reward enough, regardless of the journey that it took to get there.