GMAT Tip of the Week: What Simone Biles and the Final Five Can Teach You About GMAT Math

GMAT Tip of the WeekOn this Friday, ending the first week of the Rio Olympics, your office has undoubtedly said the name “Simone” exponentially more than ever before. Michael Phelps’ blowout win – his 4th straight – in the 200 IM was incredible, but last night belonged to two Texans named Simone.

Swimmer Simone Manuel and gymnast Simone Biles each won historic gold medals, and if you’re at all inspired to pursue your own “go for the gold” success in business school (maybe Stanford like Manuel, or UCLA like Biles), you can learn a lot from the Olympic experience. Two lessons, in particular, stand out from the performance of Biles and her “Final Five” teammates:

Connect Your Skills
There’s no way to watch Olympic gymnastics and not be overwhelmingly impressed by the skills that each gymnast brings to competition. So at times it’s frustrating and saddening to hear the TV announcers discuss deduction after deduction; shouldn’t everyone at all times just be yelling, “Wow!!!!” at the otherworldly talents of each athlete?

Much like the GMAT, though, Olympic gymnastics is not about the sheer possession of these skills – at that level, everyone has them. It’s more about the ability to execute them and, as becomes evident from the expert commentary of Tim Dagget and Nastia Liukin, to connect them. It’s not the uneven bars handstand or release itself that wins the gold, it’s the ability to connect skill after skill as part of a routine. The line, “She was supposed to connect that skill to another…” is always followed by, “That will be a deduction” – both in Olympic gymnastics and on the GMAT.

How does that affect you?

By test day, you had better have all of the necessary skills to compete on the GMAT Quant Section. Area of a triangle, Pythagorean Theorem, Difference of Squares…if you don’t know these rules, you’re absolutely sunk. But to do really well, you need to quickly connect skill to skill, and connect items in the problems to the skills necessary to work with them. For example:

If a problem includes a term x^4 – 1, you should immediately be thinking, “That connects really well to the Difference of Squares rule: a^2 – b^2 = (a + b)(a – b), and since x^4 is a square [it’s (x^2)^2] and 1 is a square (it’s 1^2), I can write that as (x^2 + 1)(x^2 – 1), and for good measure I could apply Difference of Squares to the (x^2 – 1) term too.” The GMAT won’t ever specifically tell you, “Use the Difference of Squares,” so it’s your job to immediately connect the symptoms of Difference of Squares (an even exponent, a subtraction sign, a square of some kind, even if it’s 1) to the opportunity to use it.

If you see a right triangle, you should recognize that Area and Pythagorean Theorem easily connect. In a^2 + b^2 = c^2, sides a and b are perpendicular and allow you to use them as the base and height in the area formula. And the Pythagorean Theorem includes three squares with the opportunity to create subtraction [you could write it as a^2 = c^2 – b^2, allowing you to say that a^2 = (c + b)(c – b)…], so you could connect yet another skill to it to help solve for variables.

Similarly, if you see a square or rectangle, its diagonal is the hypotenuse of a right triangle, allowing you to use the sides as a and b in the Pythagorean setup, which could also connect to Difference of Squares…etc.

When you initially learned most of these skills in high school (much like when Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, etc. learned handstands and cartwheels in Gymboree), you learned them as individual, isolated skills. “Here’s the formula, and here are 10 questions that test it.” On the GMAT – as in the Olympics – you’re being tested more on your ability to connect them, to see opportunities to use a skill that’s not obvious at first (“Well, I’m not sure what to do but I do have multiple squared terms so let me try to apply Difference of Squares…or maybe I can use a and b in the Area calculation.”), but that helps you build more knowledge of the problem.

So as you study, don’t just learn individual skills. Look for opportunities to connect them, and look for signals that will tell you that a connection is possible. A rectangle problem with a square root of 3 in the answer choices should tell you “the diagonal of this rectangle may very well be connected to a 30-60-90 triangle, since those have the 1, √3, 2 side ratio…” The GMAT is about connections more so than just skills, so study accordingly.

Stick the Landing
If you’re like most in the “every four years I love gymnastics for exactly one week” camp, the single most important thing you look for on any apparatus is, “Did he/she stick the landing?” A hop or a step on the landing is the most noticeable deduction on a gymnastics routine…and the same holds true for the GMAT.

Again, the GMAT is testing you on how well you connect a variety of skills, so naturally there are places for you to finish the problem a step short. A problem that requires you to leverage the Pythagorean Theorem and the Area of a Triangle may ask for the sum of sides A and B, for example, but if you’ve solved for the sides individually first, you might see a particular value (A = 6) on your noteboard and in the answer choices and choose it without double checking that you answered the proper question.

That is a horrible and unnecessary “deduction” on your GMAT score: you did all the work right, all the hard part right (akin to the flip-and-two-twists in the air on your vault or the dazzling array of jumps and handstands on the tiny beam) and then botched the landing.

On problems that include more than one variable, circle the variable that the test is looking for and then make sure that you submit the proper answer for that variable. If a problem asks for a combination of variables (a + b, for example), write that down at the top of your scratchwork and go back to it after you’ve calculated. Take active steps to ensure that you stick the landing, because nothing is worse than doing all the work right and then still getting the problem wrong.

In summary, recognize that there are plenty of similarities between the GMAT and GyMnAsTics [the scoring system is too complex for the layman to worry about, the “Final Five” are more important than you think (hint: the test can’t really use the last five questions of a section for research purposes since so many people are rushing and guessing), etc.]. So take a lesson from Simone Biles and her gold-medal-winning teammates: connect your skills, stick the landing, and you’ll see your score vault to Olympian heights.

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By Brian Galvin.