GMAT Tip of the Week: The Detroit Lions Teach How NOT to Take the GMAT

GMAT Tip of the WeekIf you’re applying to business schools in Round 2, you’re looking for good news (acceptance!) or a chance to advance to the next round (you’ve been invited to interview!) or even just a lack of bad news (you’re on the waitlist…there’s still a chance!) in January or February. Well if those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it, you’d be well served to avoid the pitfalls of the Detroit Lions, an NFL franchise that hasn’t had January/February good news or a chance to advance since 1991.

Any Detroit native could write a Grishamesque (same thing year after year, but we keep coming back for more) series of books about the many losing-based lessons the Lions have taught over the years, but this particular season beautifully showcases one of the most important GMAT lessons of all:

Finish the job.

Six weeks ago, this lesson was learned as Calvin Johnson took the game-winning touchdown within inches of the goal line before having the ball popped out by Seattle Seahawks star Kam Chancellor. And last night this lesson was learned as Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers completed a 60+ yard Hail Mary pass on an untimed final down.

On the GMAT, you have the same opportunities and challenges as the Detroit Lions do: stiff competition (there are Rodgerses and Chancellors hoping to get that spot at Harvard Business School, too) and a massive penalty for doing everything right until the last second. Lions fans and GMAT instructors share the same pain — our teams and our students are often guilty of doing absolutely everything right and then making one fatal mistake at the finish and not getting any credit for it. Consider the example:

A bowl of fruit contains 14 apples and 23 oranges. How many oranges must be removed so that 70% of the pieces of fruit in the bowl will be apples?

(A) 3

(B) 6

(C) 14

(D) 17

(E) 20

Here, most GMAT students get off to a great start, just like the Lions did going up 17-0. They know that the 14 apples (that number remains unchanged) need to represent 70% of the new total. If 14 = 0.7(x), then the algebra becomes quick. Multiply both sides by 10 to get rid of the decimal: 140 = 7x. Then divide both sides by 7 and you have x = 20. And you also have your first opportunity to “Lion up”: 20 is an answer choice! But 20 doesn’t represent the number of oranges; that’s the total for pieces of fruit after the orange removal. So 20 is a trap.

You then need to recognize that 14 of that 20 is apples, so you have 14 apples and 6 oranges in the updated bowl. But Lions beware! 6 is an answer choice, but it’s not the right one: you have 6 oranges LEFT but the question asks for the number REMOVED. That means that you have to subtract the 6 you kept from the 23 you started with, and the correct answer is D, 17.

What befalls many GMAT students is that ticking clock and the pressure to move on to the next problem. By succumbing to that time/pace pressure — or by being so relieved, and maybe even surprised, that their algebra is producing numbers that match the answer choices — they fail to play all the way to the final gun, and like the Lions, they tragically lose a “game” (or problem) that they should have won. Which, as any Lions fan will tell you, is tragic. When you get blown out in football or you simply can’t hack the math on the GMAT, it’s sad but not devastating: you’re just not good enough (sorry, Browns fans). But when you’ve proven that you’re good enough and lose out because you didn’t finish the job, that’s crushing.

Now, like Lions fans talking about the phantom facemask call last night, you may be thinking, “That’s unfair! What a dirty question to ask about how many ‘left over’ instead of how many remaining. I hate the GMAT and I hate the refs!” And regardless of whether you have a fair point, you have to recognize that it’s part of the game.

The GMAT won’t give you credit for being on the right track — you have to get the problem right and be ready for that misdirection in the question itself. So learn from the Lions and make sure you finish every problem by double-checking that you’ve answered exactly the question that they asked. Finish the job, and you won’t have to wait 24 years and counting to finally have good news in January.

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By Brian Galvin.