Is Positive Thinking Enough to Actually Succeed on the GMAT?

QuestioningAt some point during each course I teach, I’ll ask my students if they’re familiar with this famous quote from Henry Ford “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”  Of course, they always know it. It’s a quote so popular it’s become a pedagogical cliché. Next, I’ll ask them if they believe the quote is true. They usually do. I’ll follow up with a series of GMAT-related questions. “Who struggles with probability questions?” “Who sees Reading Comprehension as a weakness?” Different hands go up for different questions.

They realize immediately that there’s a disconnect here. Why would anyone maintain the belief that he or she struggles in a given area if he or she subscribes to the notion that the pessimistic belief is a self-fulfilling prophesy? My sense is that this disconnect is rooted in our tendency to nod politely when greeted with popular aphorisms we’d like to be true, while at some level, not really believing them.

We can pay lip service to Henry Ford all we want. Our actual belief is something more along the lines of: sure, it would be nice if you could improve your performance via thought alone, but that doesn’t actually work. It’s a fantasy, one that is so appealing that we’ll collectively agree to pretend that it’s true.

 Part of my job as an instructor is to get my students to move past the cliché and somehow internalize the truth of the sentiment that our beliefs do matter. This isn’t a New Age chimera that we’d like to be true. It’s an area of extensive scientific research. In 2007, researchers at Stanford University conducted a study in which they tracked the development of 7th grade students who believed that intelligence was innate vs. students who believed that intelligence is a fluid phenomenon, something that can be cultivated and improved through dedicated effort.

The students who believed that intelligence is innate were deemed the “fixed mindset” group, and the group who believed that intelligence could be improved were deemed the “growth mindset” group. Most importantly, at the start of the study, these groups had similar academic background. Sure enough, over the next couple of years, there was a marked divergence in performance – the growth mindset group outperformed their fixed mindset peers by a significant margin (take a look at this study here).

One component of the growth mindset is the belief that adversity isn’t evidence of an inherent shortcoming, but rather, an opportunity to learn and improve. This is absolutely essential on the GMAT. Students will, on average, take about a half-dozen practice tests. It is extremely rare that every one of those practice tests goes well.

At some point, during every class I teach, I’ll get a panicked email, the general gist of which is that things had been going well, but now, after a disappointing practice test, the student has significant doubts about whether the previous successes were real. I’m often asked if it will be necessary to push the test date back. The growth mindset compels us to see this setback as a positive. Isn’t it better to uncover the need for a strategic tweak on a low stakes practice test than on the official exam?

 Sure enough, once my students are able to re-frame their beliefs from, “I’m just not good at X,” to, “Maybe I’ve struggled with X in the past, but with a little practice I can actual convert this former liability into an asset,” they improve. The student who struggled with probability wasn’t inherently bad at probability, but had a less than stellar teacher in high school or college and never learned the underlying concepts properly. The student who struggled with Reading Comprehension simply wasn’t taking notes properly.

Most importantly, the students who believed that they just weren’t good at standardized tests realized that the ability to do well on standardized tests is a skill that they simply hadn’t acquired yet. In the past, when they were convinced that they couldn’t do well on, say, the SAT, they hadn’t bothered to study, because what was the point of expending any effort if the result was going to be disappointment? Once they see that they their past struggles weren’t functions of innate deficits, but rather, of self-limiting beliefs, a world of possibility opens up.

Takeaway: how we frame our thoughts with respect to academic performance is extraordinarily important. Unfortunately, our culture generally pays lip service to the growth mindset while perpetuating the notion of a fixed one. We’ll thoughtlessly spout that Henry Ford quote, all the while thinking of people as high IQ or low IQ, not realizing that IQ is itself malleable (take a look at this idea here).

Think of someone you knew in high school who did unusually well on the SAT’s. You probably thought, “That person is great at standardized tests,” rather than “That person has been successful at cultivating a particular skill set that translated well in the domain of this one particular exam.” But the latter is true. So don’t set arbitrary limits of yourself, because, contrary to some our deepest intuitions, belief and performance are inextricably linked.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here