How to Succeed on the GMAT

Competition is as inherent in nature as life itself.  Darwinian natural selection is an exercise in pure competition among and within various species.  War is an extension of this brand of competition.  War, it happens, has also contributed to some of the most momentous developments throughout history.  Not only have civilizations risen and fallen, some of the most incredible progress and regress has come from battles for supremacy.  Many of our oldest surviving texts were written to preserve the memory of major wars, and many technologies have arisen from the desire for victory, in battle or in life.  This notion of competition has evolved and spread into more modern forms — business, sports, politics, and even academics.  A wise student will see a similar kind of competition manifested in the GMAT.

At the 700 level, the GMAT is not a competition between you and every other test taker.  At this level, the GMAT is combat between you and the test maker.  And it’s a fair fight.  There are no dirty tricks (meaning no information will be false or contradictory to the situation at hand), no vague or open-ended answers (you always have five distinct answers presented), and nothing that can’t be solved with some reasoning or mastery of basic math.  There is always ONE answer choice that truly fits the problem at hand.

It’s a battle you can win every time.

Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, laid down some of the most timeless and potent principles on combat.  One was, “All warfare is based on deception.”  Given that the questions are fair, the test maker has only a few ways to defeat you.  They all involve a particular kind of deception – that of hiding and revealing just the right amount of information to make a problem difficult to assess.  To win the GMAT battle, you have to get into the mind of the test maker to some degree to figure out what it is they’re hiding and revealing.

So, how is information hidden and revealed?  Deceiving test takers is done in three ways – attacking what they know, what they don’t know, and what is useful for them to know.  The attack will target:

  • Test takers think they know something to be true that isn’t, or they’ve overlooked some fact that has been presented or is inferrable
  • Test takers don’t know a mathematical rule,  or they don’t know that they don’t see a critical gap in the information
  • Test takers fail to figure out what information would fill a logical gap, or they assume some information is more useful or sufficient than it really is

Essentially, in every scenario you must become actively aware of the best possible information to have, both known and unknown.  These are the fundamental keys to unlocking any high level GMAT problem.  There’s a common saying among soldiers: “You do not rise to the occasion in combat, you sink to the level of your training.”  Getting to a point where you are a ruthless machine at assessing “what do I have and what do I need?” with speed and accuracy takes training, and will make all the difference in the battle to come.

Try it with the following Critical Reasoning setup:

Since thermal vents deep below the Earth’s oceans emit large amounts of heat and nutrient-rich material into the surrounding water, the increased presence of marine life at these locations could be due to the warmth and nutrients the vents provide.  Some scientists, however, believe that most marine life can only thrive in areas with rugged terrain that affords them protection from predators.

Which of the following statements, if true, would most significantly strengthen the hypothesis of the scientists?

What do we know? 
We know deep thermal vents emit heat and nutrients, that there is more marine life at thermal vent locations, and that some scientists believe life can only thrive in rugged terrain.

What do we not know? 
We don’t know whether heat and nutrients alone are enough to sustain more life, nor whether rugged terrain is necessary to sustain more life by affording it protection from predators.

What is useful to know?
This involves looking at the question at hand.  Given that we’re looking for information that strengthens the scientists’ hypothesis, it would be useful to have positive information about the ruggedness of the terrain at thermal vents.  It might also be useful to know whether heat and nutrients are necessary to sustain life even whether there is rugged terrain, un-rugged terrain, or perhaps no terrain at all.  There may be other useful to-knows – what is the predator situation at thermal vents?, etc..  you get the gist.  By turning over the scenario in your mind, even before reading answer choices, you already have a better grasp of what the test maker is attacking, and where you’re looking to defend.

To develop confidence in this, actively look for this kind of information in your everyday analysis, and especially in your GMAT practice.  Ask “what do I know?” and take an inventory.  Ask “what do I not know?” and take a moment to consider anything which is definitely unknown with the given information.  Then ask “what would be useful to know?”  Take some time with this – it involves focusing on the question at hand, it is the most challenging level of reasoning, and it will help highlight the best and most sufficient answers more quickly.  As long as you are focusing on the challenge the test maker has presented you, you should be able to overcome almost any question you face.

The test maker knows the typical test takers and their weaknesses; make sure you know the test maker’s weakness as well – they have to reveal enough to make a problem solvable in a relatively short period, and they have provide an answer choice that is distinctly the only correct one among five.  Sun Tzu promises you, “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without jeopardy.”

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Joseph Dise has been teaching GMAT preparation for Veritas Prep for the last 4 years in Paris and New York City.