GMAT Tip of the Week: Bolting Your Way to GMAT Success

One of this weekend’s most popular barroom debates will be this: Is Usain Bolt the greatest sprinter of all time? The greatest Olympian of all time? The Muhammad Ali for this generation?

If you missed it, Usain Bolt tacked on another gold medal last night, winning the 200 meters in 19.32 seconds having eased up to celebrate in the waning meters. While this on-the-run celebration certainly cost him an Olympic record (19.30) and potentially even a world record (19.19), it didn’t cost him the race as he remained ahead of teammate Yohan Blake en route to the win. In doing so, Bolt laid claim with his back-to-back 100 AND 200 meter titles to his place as the Ali-esque Greatest of All Time. And, inadvertently, he may have helped you better understand how to perform on the GMAT with regard to pacing, as the 200 meter dash provides a nice parallel to how you should pace yourself on the GMAT.

Independent of their natural ability and conditioning, sprinters essentially have two assets in the 200 meters – energy and track. They need to use that energy appropriately to accelerate through the curve but save enough to finish strong. And “track” is an asset, as well – they only get 200 meters to separate themselves from the field, just as you only get 37 quant and 41 verbal questions to separate yourself from the GMAT field. How should you use your assets (time and “track”)? Much like Usain Bolt did. Here’s how each GMAT multiple-choice section is much like the Olympic 200 meters.

1) It’s critical to get off to a good start (but that’s not enough on its own)

“Track” is a perishable asset for sprinters, just as questions are a perishable asset for you. Last night, Bolt made up the stagger on the eventual bronze medalist within the first 40 or so meters – his start may not have been the absolute fastest in the field but it was certainly strong enough to give him a shot coming off the curve. This is why 100-meter sprinters (Bolt, Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Jesse Owens, Allyson Felix…) tend to more frequently excel in the 200 than do 400-meter runners like Michael Johnson. With only 200 meters to accelerate and separate, a good start is crucial.

The same is true of the GMAT. While it’s a myth that “the first ten questions matter more than the rest” in fact, there’s some under-the-surface truth to that statement: if you don’t get off to a good start, you’ll run out of questions to have a strong finish. From the first question, the CAT system begins assessing your ability level, and if you miss 4-5 of the first 10 questions the computer has a fairly low opinion of your ability. Coming out of the first ten questions with the computer thinking you’re an average-at-best test-taker is akin to coming off the curve in the 200 meters in 7th or 8th place, several strides behind the leaders. With only so many questions – so much “track” – to go, even if you’re nearly perfect the rest of the way you’re already playing catch-up. And the CAT algorithm is notorious for punishing a sluggish start – not because the first ten questions “matter more”, but because enough test-takers answer 7-8 of them correctly that if you fall behind early you may never “catch up”.

2) The start is only…the start. You need to accelerate and hold.

In the sprints, athletes take around 40 meters to get up to top speed, and then try to hang on as long as possible to that speed before they naturally fade. The top 200 meter times are approximately double the top 100 meter times only because the 100 meter dash is held back by the time it takes for athletes to get to that top speed. Note the 400 meter world record (in the low 43s) which is well more than double the 200 meter record – athletes slow down well before the 200 meter mark. The key in track is to hit that top speed relatively quickly, and then sustain it as long as possible.

The GMAT is quite similar – and this is why the “first ten questions matter more” axiom is a myth. The true key to GMAT success is to get to a high level and stay there as long as possible. Usain Bolt nearly never has the fastest start in the field – but by around 1/3 of the way through the race he’s at top speed along with the rest of the athletes (his top speed may be a bit faster even if it takes him slightly longer to get there) and he “pulls away” in the 75-150 meter phase because he slows down less than the others – he sustains his peak longer.

That’s the key on the GMAT – even if you only correctly answer 7 of the first 10 questions compared with 9 of the first 10 for another examinee, if you can hold that “pace” through question 35 while your competitor fades between questions 15-25, you’ll score higher. A good start is essential; a great start only works if it doesn’t come at the expense of your accelerate-and-sustain phase. And this is where test-takers often get their pacing wrong – they focus so much on their “start”, spending well over their targeted average-pace-per-question on the first ten, that they fade far too quickly from their peak and get “caught from behind” so to speak. Your start will only sustain you if you have enough time and energy left to keep up near your maximum ability well into the waning questions of that section.

3) If you’ve started, accelerated, and sustained at a world-class level, the last few questions may not matter as much. But if you haven’t, they may still matter significantly.

This is also where the myth gets propagated incorrectly. People look at their practice tests and see that they guessed incorrectly on the last 3-4 questions without much penalty, and infer that the early questions matter that much more. But, again, look at the 200 meters in which Bolt celebrated a bit early and cruised the last 10 meters. Why was he able to do that? He had already separated himself from the field by a wide margin – the field had already faded while he accelerated and sustained slightly longer and at a slightly higher level. In his case, that last ten meters wasn’t a big deal as long as he didn’t fade to a dead stop – inertia would carry him across the line in first place.

For your GMAT, recognize this – the first ten questions aren’t more important than questions 21-30, but quant question 3 is likely more important than quant question 36. Why? Because quant question 3 comes well into the acceleration phase, when you’re trying to prove to the computer that your top-end “speed” is high enough to justify harder questions. By question 36, most of your competitors have faded, too, and because you’re done accelerating – because only one more question’s difficulty depends on this answer – a wrong answer won’t hurt you all that much.

But again look at Bolt – the last few meters didn’t matter as much to him because he was already scoring a GMAT 790..he was already at the far end of the bell curve well ahead of the masses. This isn’t always the case, however, particularly when competitors are more closely packed together and that “lean” at the finish line is much more important. So recognize this for the GMAT – if you’re already scoring 750+, the last couple questions probably don’t matter much. But if you’re looking for that difference between 640 and 650, those questions will likely bear a bit more weight.

How can you use this information strategically?

-Remember that a good start is crucial, but that you can’t sacrifice your accelerate-and-sustain phase (questions 11-35 or so) to have a great start.
-Give that start a bit of extra due – invest an extra 5-10 seconds per question to double-check for silly mistakes, since you likely can’t post a great score with a lousy start. The start deserves a little extra attention – just not a lot of extra attention.
-If you do need to guess on the last couple questions because you invested extra time/energy in the start/accelerate phases, that won’t kill you. But remember that even Usain Bolt lost a shot at a world record because he coasted the last 10 meters, so don’t write off those waning questions either.

So is there truth to the myth that the first ten questions matter more? A little, but not as much as people think. The GMAT is like the Olympic 200 meters – you need to get to a top speed in order to sustain it, but if you can’t sustain it the top speed doesn’t do you much good. Usain Bolt is a legend because he gets to his top speed relatively quickly – not best in the world but good enough to give him a shot coming off the curve – and more importantly because his top speed and ability to sustain it are off the charts. Good start, sustained middle, and enough to hang on at the end – a recipe for success on the 200 meters and on the GMAT.

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By Brian Galvin