How to (Jeremy) Lin-prove Your GMAT Score (But Not Necessarily Your Pun taLINt)

Everybody’s talking about Jeremy Lin, so we might as well, too. And if you’re like most casual Lin-thusiasts, you haven’t had much of a chance to see him play other than on SportsCenter highlights and YouTube clips, but that’s all right. Most scouts don’t quite know how he’s doing it; if they did, they’d either be able to gameplan against him better, or would have drafted/signed him themselves. No, the key to following Jeremy Lin’s footsteps — from Harvard’s campus to the pride of Midtown Manhattan — as an MBA student doesn’t require much knowledge of his game, just a little bit of insight into his story. More than anything else — his jump-shooting, court-vision, ball-handling — Jeremy Lin can credit one element to his meteoric rise, and it’s one that will serve you well on the GMAT:

He took advantage of his limited opportunity.

Think about it — if Jeremy Lin had posted a “trillion” (basketball slang for this stat line — a 1 in the “minutes played” category followed by zeroes in every other statistical column) in his first few games, or had posted more turnovers than assists his first three nights, or dribbled his precious few opportunities off his foot and out of bounds, by now he’d be a candidate for an MBA and not a star in the NBA (not that there’s anything wrong with that…). He got his opportunity because no one else on the Knicks had capitalized on theirs, and that 10-day-contract scrap heap of NBA talent is a crapshoot — if the scouts thought you were any good, they’d have signed you to a legit contract, so they don’t have much patience for you if you don’t surprise them early. Jeremy Lin had just a few games to make something of his opportunity, and he did. And on the GMAT, you’ll live through a similar story.

Note: This isn’t a post about the first ten questions mattering more (GMAC has debunked that myth) or an attempt to incite fear, but rather just a fact about your limited opportunities on the test. You get 37 math questions and 41 verbal questions to show the CAT algorithm what you can do. And by nature of the scoring algorithm:

  • A handful of those questions are unscored, experimental questions
  • By design, several will be above your ability level (more on this in a second)
  • For most test-takers, due to the timed nature of the test, at least a couple questions will require a time-saving guess

So from 88 multiple-choice questions on your journey-to-700+, it’s safe to say that only something like 50-60ish of them are true opportunities for you to succeed in a way that increases your score. Here’s how the scoring algorithm roughly works:

When you answer a question correctly, the algorithm raises (or confirms) its estimate of your “floor,” the lower end of your ability, and sends you a harder question. When you answer a question incorrectly, the algorithm recognizes that it has started to find your ceiling, and sends you an easier question
Sometimes the test simply needs to gather information about the difficulty level of a question, and it throws you an unscored, experimental question that does not impact its view of your ability, or its determination of what question to give you next

By the end of the test, theoretically, you should exhibit a pattern of just about Right, Wrong, Right, Wrong, Right, Wrong as the algorithm has found your level (85th percentile? Right. 90th? Wrong. 85th? Right. 90th? Wrong. 86th? Right. 89th? Wrong. –> you’re somewhere in that 88th percentile range).

How does this factor into the Jeremy Lin theme (other than SEO utility, of course)? It’s this:

You should expect that you will miss quite a few questions, those that are designed to find your ceiling. And so on those questions designed to find your floor, you have precious few opportunities to make mistakes without the bottom dropping out.

Or, in other words, if you want to “raise the roof” in celebration of a high GMAT score, it’s probably best to raise your floor on the test. To continue the Lin parallel, what was most important for his NBA career wasn’t really his peaks — the 27 points, 12 assists games have been huge for his Q-rating and his jersey sales — but rather the way that he has avoided troughs. In GMAT speak, if he had “guessed right” and had a monster game in his second outing, but his first, third, fourth and fifth games were filled with turnovers, missed shots, and frustrated teammates, he’d likely be a fun footnote in New York Knicks history, but little more.

What’s been more important for him has been that he hasn’t had bad games — on his worst nights he’s still been productive in the Knicks offense and not much of a liability at all on defense. He won’t make any money off of jersey sales or (relatively) salary this year, but his staying power means that he’ll be around for a better contract and some endorsements this summer and beyond. And the same is true of your GMAT score — guessing right on a hard problem doesn’t help you much, as the test will find out your true ability when you miss the next 4-5 in a row, lowering your floor. But when you can get questions right — when they’re still assessing your floor — you have to make the most of those opportunities.

Consider this — if you’re remotely lucky and relatively sharp, you have a 20-25% chance at worst of guessing correctly on hard problems, and you can likely do a lot better than that. On the questions that test your ceiling, even if they’re beyond you, you should hit about every 3rd or 4th question correctly just based on luck and intelligent guessing. But on your floor, the expectation is that you’ll be about 100% — when you miss those, not only are you missing opportunities to artificially raise your ceiling by getting another of those 1/4 or so probabilities of a right answer that pushes you up, you’re also going to “waste” the next question or two on questions that don’t help you, but only serve to raise you back to your floor so that you can try again to raise that ceiling.

Simply put, when you miss a hard question, you lose less — you go back toward your floor and get a slightly easier question that, if answered correctly, gives you another shot to advance your ceiling. But when you miss an easier question, you lose a lot more — you reduce your floor and have to waste multiple of your precious-few opportunities at advancement while you work your way back to “normal.”

Strategically, that means this: while many students think that they will improve by raising their ceilings — by chasing obscure rules and shortcuts, by studying diabolically-hard problems, and by spending precious time getting bogged down in problems well above their (or anyone’s, often) ability level — most will see greater improvement by raising their floors. This is done by minimizing mistakes, spending time double-checking answers, polishing up loose fundamentals, and letting go of hard problems before they waste too much time.

Ever the Harvard grad, Jeremy Lin knows this — Madison Avenue wants him to work on his no-look passes, his longer-range jumpers, and his ability to dunk just a little more like Blake Griffin, all of which raise his marketing ceiling ever higher. But Madison Square Garden needs him to solidify his floor — to improve his defense, to minimize turnovers, to become a slightly-better ballhandler with his off hand. And that is what Lin will do, as should you. You have more to gain by raising your floor than by raising your ceiling. And whether you’re looking to stick in the NBA or maximize the value of your MBA, solidifying your fundamentals provides the higher return on your Lin-vestment.

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