GMAT Tip of the Week: Tri Your Best

They say that good things come in threes, so if you’re reading this GMAT tip blog post you’re in luck!  The GMAT is an act in three parts – an academic triathlon, if you will, and one that like a triathlon will test your abilities as well as your stamina.  In many ways, the GMAT is analogous to an endurance-length triathlon, and at Veritas Prep we’re fortunate to have experts on both.  As you attempt to be the Macca of the GMAT or do as well as Chrissie Wellington, here are some ways that the GMAT is much like an Ironman triathlon, and how you can use that knowledge to succeed.  Breaking from our typical third-person journalistic voice, we offer the first-person voice of Director of Academic Programs / Ironman Brian Galvin:

As I trained for my first Ironman, I had a lot of time to think while grinding out 100-milers on the bike, 20-milers on the run, and two-hour swim workouts.  And as I usually do (or at least what I tell my bosses I do when I ask for time off to train) I used a good amount of that time to think about my work as a GMAT instructor – training time is creative-thinking time for me and I get a lot of my better ideas that way.  I first noticed (man, is this some gratuitous use of the word “I” – sorry everyone!) that my long workouts were a lot like my students’ GMAT practice tests, and even more worrisome was that I was treating them exactly the way that I tell my students not to.


Students often – shoot, nearly always – put far too much emphasis on the results of their practice tests and not nearly enough emphasis on what they learn from them.  They’ll walk away from a 3.5-hour practice test with 2-3 pieces of knowledge:  “I scored a 620 overall and got 65% of my quant problems right and 70% of my verbal problems right”.  And then they’ll forget about that test, dwell on the score (“how will I get from 620 to 700? Am I doomed?”) and start all over again with a new practice test.  They’ll remember the scores but very little about the processes, and typically they’ll spend more time worrying about the downside (my 36 quant is too low) than anything else.

Maybe I didn’t understand fully until I took my own practice tests – like you may worry most about the quant, I was worried most about the bike, so my 100-mile bike rides were my practice tests.  And on my first such challenge, I worried about my “score” pretty much exclusively for the first 90 minutes I was on the bike, watching my speedometer and odometer like a hawk, fretting over the readings and worrying about what it meant for my performance.  It wasn’t until I passed the Veritas Prep office and started thinking about the GMAT that I snapped back – there could be all kinds of reasons that my average speed might be a little lower than I wanted (I was going slightly uphill most of the way into the wind, but I’d have to eventually turn around and get the downhill/tailwind to balance out).  And even more importantly, my average speed 10 weeks before the race wasn’t at all indicative of my average speed on race day – it was an opportunity to change my “final score” more so than any predictor of that score.  And so I started thinking about how I could learn from the experience: carrying speed with a bigger gear on the first part of an uphill was helpful, both for my momentum and for minimizing the toll on certain muscle groups; keeping my elbows loose would greatly lessen the pressure on my arms and keep me comfortable throughout; I wasn’t drinking enough water early in the rides – my body hadn’t warned me yet – and for that I was dehydrating and wearing down later.  And by learning these things, I ensured that my pace – which picked up almost directly as a result of my not stressing over it – would be much faster and consistent in future rides.

On GMAT practice tests, focus on what you’re learning about yourself and not just on the score.  You can change the score, but only by improving on those things you should be learning.  Are you rushing through “easier” problems and making the same silly mistakes frequently?  Are you not leaving yourself enough time to do the last 5-6 problems thoroughly?  Are you missing too many Data Sufficiency problems and should you therefore go back and emphasize that problem structure?  Do you find yourself mentally exhausted for the verbal and should you work on reading focus while you’re tired to compensate?  In practice, the experience is exponentially more important than the result, so emphasize the experience and take some real time to think about what you’ve learned after each test.

AWA – Swim

On race day, one of the spectators on the second half of the bike course – the triathlon progression is Swim-Bike-Run – had a sign that said “Do you even remember the swim?”.  As I passed, I laughed – I had totally forgotten about it by that point.  On the GMAT, the AWA is the swim – it comes first, and your goal isn’t so much to crush it as it is to use it as a warmup and get through it comfortably and efficiently.  The swim in a triathlon makes up an extremely small portion of your finish time – my swim was about 8% of of my total finish time and most people spend 10% or less on the swim.  The AWA has a similar impact on your score – a 5 on the AWA doesn’t hamper your b-school candidacy by any substantial margin compared with a 6, but the energy you expend and the stress you absorb could have a very negative impact on the more-important legs to come.  In an Ironman, the mantra for the swim is “stretch and glide”, staying aerodynamic and relaxed as you build toward the rest of the day.  On the AWA you should think the same way; write the essays, but do so calmly and efficiently.  If you write 75-80% of the word count that you might like to in an untimed situation, that’s fine and probably more than sufficient, and you’ll find that the energy you save will be much more important than the extra effort you could have expended.

Break – Transition

On the GMAT you get 8 minutes to change gears mentally and start the next section; in a triathlon you can take an hour if you want, but you’re hoping to get in and out since the clock is running!  In either case, there isn’t much value in thinking about the next phase until you hit that transition/break.  One thing that amazed me about the Ironman experience was how easy it was to compartmentalize the day.  I didn’t really think about the bike until I had pulled off my wetsuit and started gearing up in bike clothes, and by that point the swim was gone forever.  And even with a marathon looming after the bike, I never thought much about it until I was gliding my bike into the transition station.  Which was great news – there’s enough to think  about on each individual component that wasting time and mental energy on something currently out of your control can only hurt you.  The same is quite true of the GMAT, too – worrying about what comes next will come at the expense of your performance on the task directly in front of you, so stay focused on each task at hand and use the breaks to transition your mindset to the next phase.

Quant – Bike

Most triathletes spend more time on the bike than on either of the other  two disciplines – both in the race and in training.  And on the GMAT the quant is similar – most people work hardest on the quant and the quant section is the one that tends to cause the most stress.  At an Ironman, most people’s goal is to survive the bike and figure out the run; on the GMAT, the quant section has a similarly supreme role.

Again, one big key is to keep it compartmentalized.  You can’t ride all 112 miles at once and you can’t solve all 37 quant problems at once – you just have to calmly complete what you’re doing.  Having a timing plan is quite helpful.  If you try to gauge your pace with each question, you’ll do far too much irrelevant math and you’ll turn your focus too often to something you can’t really control.  So keep a simple calculation nearby – at ~2 minutes/question, you should have taken 20-25 minutes for the first ten questions, 42-46 for the first twenty questions, and something less than 63-64 minutes for the first 30.  If you realize that you’re behind that pace, find a difficult looking problem and make a quick guess to get back on track – accept that your Plan B is still a pretty good strategy and calmly adopt it without panic.

Your “training” is crucial here, too – by this point you should know what to do because you’ve done it before.  On Data Sufficiency questions you need to double-check whether you’ve made any assumptions or used information that you don’t actually have; on Problem Solving questions you should consult the answer choices quickly to see if you glean some insight into the steps you need to take (or that you can skip).  You should find it manageable to stay focused on each question – by this point you have enough to think about when you see each question that you shouldn’t find yourself easily distracted.

Verbal – Run

The run on an Ironman isn’t really a run at all – it’s a war of attrition.  You’re not so much running a marathon as you’re running a mile at a time between aid stations, maintaining your stamina and pushing through to the finish.  You’ve simply endured too much with the swim and the bike to make the run a “real” run.  Similarly, the verbal section of the GMAT isn’t a straight test of your reading comprehension abilities; because you’ve already done the AWA and the grueling quant section (on which most people use all 75 minutes), the verbal section has a definite endurance component to it that can’t be ignored.  You need to be able to focus and process information while you’re already tired and while your mind has already been stretched in multiple directions.  The verbal section of the GMAT should be prepared for as a war of attrition in parts – you have to train yourself to focus and think while you’re potentially exhausted.

A staple of any triathlon training program is the “brick” workout, in which an athlete does two disciplines in a row, usually bike-then-run.  This way, he will simulate that feeling of starting a run with tired leg muscles from biking, and know how his body will react to running in the same state in which he’ll perform on race day.  You should adopt this philosophy for your GMAT training, too – practice your verbal strategies after you’ve done some quant, or at least while you’re mentally worn down.  Reading a passage about botany or astronomy might be easy and even fun in the right mindset while you’re rested.  But after 90 minutes of quant homework and a full day’s work, you’re much more likely to be distracted or lazy while you read, and it’s a completely different task.  Practice for the way you’ll have to perform – like that of the Ironman marathon, much of the difficulty in the GMAT verbal section comes from its placement at the end of a long day, and you’ll need to be ready for that.

Stress Management

If it’s a big event that you’ve worked hard for, you should be nervous.  You’re much more likely to be nervous when you have a right to expect success than when you know it’s a total longshot.  Have you ever gotten nervous buying a lottery ticket?  Probably not, but you’ve almost certainly been nervous asking your supervisor for a well-deserved raise even though the financial stakes are much, much lower.  You’re nervous because you’re invested in the outcome and you truly feel that you’re deserving of what you want.  Well, that’s true of the GMAT – remember that the very reason that you’re nervous is the exact reason that you can afford to calm down.  You’ve worked hard for this and you’ve earned the right to expect success.  That’s where adrenalin comes from, and that’s why you’ll succeed on your big day.