GMAT Tip of the Week: Big Sean Says Your GMAT Score Will Bounce Back

Welcome back to Hip Hop Month in the GMAT Tip of the Week space, where naturally, we woke up in beast mode (with your author legitimately wishing he was bouncing back to D-town from LAX this weekend, but blog duty calls!).

If you have a car stereo or Pandora account, you’ve undoubtedly heard Big Sean talking about bouncing back this month. “Bounce Back” is a great anthem for anyone hitting a rough patch – at work, in a relationship, after a rough day for your brackets during next week’s NCAA tournament – but this isn’t a self-help, “it’s always darkest before dawn,” feel-good article. Big Sean has some direct insight into the GMAT scoring algorithm with Bounce Back, and if you pay attention, you can leverage Bounce Back (off the album “I Decided” – that’ll be important, too) to game-plan your test day strategy and increase your score.

So, what’s Big Sean’s big insight?

The GMAT scoring (and question delivery) algorithm is designed specifically so that you can “take an L” and bounce back. And if you understand that, you can budget your time and focus appropriately. The test is designed so that just about everybody misses multiple questions – the adaptive system serves you problems that should test your upper threshold of ability, and can also test your lower limit if you’re not careful.

What does that mean? Say you, as Big Sean would say, “take an L” (or a loss) on a question. That’s perfectly fine…everyone does it. The next question should be a bit easier, providing you with a chance to bounce back. The delivery system is designed to use the test’s current estimate of your ability to deliver you questions that will help it refine that estimate, meaning that it’s serving you questions that lie in a difficulty range within a few percentile points of where it thinks you’re scoring.

If you “take an L” on a problem that’s even a bit below your true ability, missing a question or two there is fine as long as it’s an outlier. No one question is a perfect predictor of ability, so any single missed question isn’t that big of a deal…if you bounce back and get another few questions right in and around that range, the system will continue to test your upper threshold of ability and give you chances to prove that the outlier was a fluke.

The problem comes when you don’t bounce back. This doesn’t mean that you have to get the next question right, but it does mean that you can’t afford big rough patches – a run of 3 out of 4 wrong or 4 out of 5 wrong, for example. At that point, the system’s estimate of you has to change (your occasional miss isn’t an outlier anymore) and while you can still bounce back, you now run the risk of running out of problems to prove yourself. As the test serves you questions closer to its new estimate of you, you’re not using the problems to “prove how good you are,” but instead having to spend a few problems proving you’re “not that bad, I promise!”

So, okay. Great advice – “don’t get a lot of problems wrong.” Where’s the real insight? It can be found in the lyrics to “Bounce Back”:

Everything I do is righteous
Betting on me is the right risk
Even in a ***** crisis…

During the test you have to manage your time and effort wisely, and that means looking at hard questions and determining whether betting on that question is the right risk. You will get questions wrong, but you also control how much you let any one question affect your ability to answer the others correctly. A single question can hurt your chances at the others if you:

  • Spend too much time on a problem that you weren’t going to get right, anyway
  • Let a problem get in your head and distract you from giving the next one your full attention and confidence

Most test-takers would be comfortable on section pacing if they had something like 3-5 fewer questions to answer, but when they’re faced with the full 37 Quant and 41 Verbal problems they feel the need to rush, and rushing leads to silly mistakes (or just blindly guessing on the last few problems). And when those silly mistakes pile up and become closer to the norm than to the outlier, that’s when your score is in trouble.

You can avoid that spiral by determining when a question is not the right risk! If you recognize in 30-40 seconds (or less) that you’re probably going to take an L, then take that L quickly (put in a guess and move on) and bank the time so that you can guarantee you’ll bounce back. You know you’re taking at least 5 Ls on each section (for most test-takers, even in the 700s that number is probably closer to 10) so let yourself be comfortable with choosing to take 3-4 Ls consciously, and strategically bank the time to ensure that you can thoroughly get right the problems that you know you should get right.

Guessing on the GMAT doesn’t have to be a panic move – when you know that the name of the game is giving yourself the time and patience to bounce back, a guess can summon Big Sean’s album title, “I Decided,” as opposed to “I screwed up.” (And if you need proof that even statistics PhDs who wrote the GMAT scoring algorithm need some coaching with regard to taking the L and bouncing back, watch the last ~90 seconds of this video.)

So, what action items can you take to maximize your opportunity to bounce back?

Right now: pay attention to the concepts, question types, and common problem setups that you tend to waste time on and get wrong. Have a plan in mind for test day that “if it’s this type of problem and I don’t see a path to the finish line quickly, I’m better off taking the L and making sure I bounce back on the next one.”

Also, as you review those types of problems in your homework and practice tests, look for techniques you can use to guess intelligently. For many, combinatorics with restrictions is one of those categories for which they often cannot see a path to a correct answer. Those problems are easy to guess on, however! Often you can eliminate a choice or two by looking at the number of possibilities that would exist without the restriction (e.g. if Remy and Nicki would just patch up their beef and stand next to each other, there would be 120 ways to arrange the photo, but since they won’t the number has to be less than 120…). And you can also use that total to ask yourself, “Does the restriction take away a lot of possibilities or just a few?” and get a better estimate of the remaining choices.

On test day: Give yourself 3-4 “I Decided” guesses and don’t feel bad about them. If your experience tells you that betting your time and energy on a question is not the right risk, take the L and use the extra time to make sure you bounce back.

The GMAT, like life, guarantees that you’ll get knocked down a few times, but what you can control is how you respond. Accept the fact that you’re going to take your fair share of Ls, but if you’re a real one you know how to bounce back.

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By Brian Galvin.