Date: October 28, 2021
The GMAT is one of the greatest challenges that many people face on the road to their MBA acceptance, but it doesn’t have to be. For many, the anxiety surrounding the GMAT is due to it being a largely misunderstood challenge. Contrary to what you might think, the GMAT represents an opportunity to illustrate your creativity and improve your critical and creative thinking skills, not just revise your knowledge of high school math and grammar. When properly preparing for the exam you’ll develop:
- new ways to approach solving problems of all sorts
- novel techniques for organizing and characterizing information
- the ability to curate your own thought process to become a more effective thinker
With this in mind, I’d like to discuss five key points to help you get into the correct mindset for a successful (read: transformative) and low-stress GMAT preparation experience.
1. You are not your GMAT.
Many people use their GMAT score to define their abilities across a range of fields, their value as an applicant, or, even more insidiously, in a greater self-esteem context.
You are not your GMAT!
Your GMAT score doesn’t represent how smart you are or how capable you are as a person, student, or professional. It certainly doesn’t deliver the distinct mix of characteristics that make you, well, you. What admissions committees are seeking when they look at your GMAT score is a set of skills that are valuable in a number of ways (more on this later), but tying your self-worth up in a number is perilous, to say the least.
Putting the self-esteem aspect aside for a moment, identifying yourself with your GMAT means that you are giving short shrift to who you are as a person outside of a testing environment – you know who I’m talking about, the badass who has already achieved so much and is on track for so much more. There is no need to put additional pressure on yourself to perform well on the GMAT to prove to yourself, or to your family, friends, or an admissions committee how “valuable” you are, how smart you are, or how capable you are.
From our perspective as teachers, we also see this occur frequently in the other direction, with tutors who apply to work with us. They define themselves by their GMAT success rather than their ability as educators. We reject many potential tutors out of hand, despite their having a 770+ score, because a score is simply a number on a piece of paper; we seek people who understand others, are strong communicators, and who are always growing as educators.
Takeaway: By focusing on your score, rather than developing stronger critical and creative thinking skills, you’re missing the point of the GMAT.
2. The GMAT is both easier and harder than you think.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me.
The stigma of the GMAT – that it’s a terribly difficult exam – affects the performance of most test takers. This hyperbole can cause you to freeze up and underperform. The people who make the GMAT out to be more difficult than it is, in the end, hold themselves back by placing it on a pedestal and treating it with too much reverence.
The GMAT is certainly an exceptionally challenging exam that will push you to your limits. There is no mistaking that. Further, it compares you to your peers – people who have similar levels of skill and experience, hence gaining a competitive edge seems nearly impossible without working harder. However, because most people make it out to be harder than it is, they end up holding themselves back.
Conversely, the GMAT is easier than you think because it rewards informality and creative thinking, especially on the math side. A successful GMATter can use intuition and clear, logical reasoning in order to solve the most intractable problems.
Because of this seeming dichotomy, test takers bring to the exam a paradigm of thought that is very restrictive. By not looking for an accessible or intuitive answer – the most efficient answer of methodology to solve a problem – they restrict their options and make their task all the more challenging.
Once you free yourself of the academic restraints that come from the burden of too formal an education, whether with math or language, and utilize your intuitive reasoning mind, all of a sudden GMAT problems become much more simple and straightforward.
Let’s look at an example:
Since implementing new work protocols at the start of 2020, every employee’s efficiency in the factory has increased by 33%, leading to layoffs of 25% of the workforce. Assuming no other changes, and that each worker has the same level of productivity, if the factory produced $20 m worth of widgets in 2019, what value of widgets did it produce in 2020?
- $10 m
- $13.3 m
- $16.75 m
- $20 m
- $33.25 m
It’s very easy to dive into doing a lot of math here, but the real skill is finding what’s important, and realizing that there’s little math to be done.
First, focus on only the important information: Efficiency +33% and Workforce -25%.
Second, realize that you’re not constrained to using percentages: Efficiency +⅓ and Workforce -1/4.
Finally, understand that these changes are built upon the existing base. Efficiency 4/3 as much and Workforce ¾ as much. These changes cancel out! The more problems you do, the more sensitive you become to the ways that simple truths can be communicated in unnecessarily complex ways, but if you just keep hitting the math you’ll never get there.
Takeaway: The most challenging part of the GMAT is dehabituating the solutions paths that you’ve locked in through your training at school and allowing yourself the mental flexibility to really explore, be creative, and go with your gut.
3. Don’t force it. It’s not a knowledge test.
There is a great misconception that the GMAT is just about knowing how to solve every problem that they might throw at you, and knowing how to do so before you’re actually sitting in the exam.
In fact, while you need to know all the concepts that are being tested, the exam is not testing your knowledge of these mechanics. Rather, the exam tests your depth of knowledge. The contextual relationship between the rules and the correct answer is often hidden in the space between two concepts, as in the example above. Examining how those rules can be bent, or broken, or how they relate to other rules, can lead to new insights that you wouldn’t think were otherwise there.
Takeaway: It’s a conversation, not a play. There is no script. Being prepared means being able to handle the unknown challenges that will come your way, not knowing exactly what to say in advance. You’ll never be totally prepared, because you’ll never know what the other person will say.
4. Most performance issues are not intellectual.
Many high achievers come to the GMAT and find themselves plateauing in the mid-upper 600s or low 700s. They think that a lack of fluency or a deeper understanding of the material is what’s holding them back.
True GMAT success is governed by the recognition that it is a test of acuity, confidence, and temperament. For example, being comfortable in uncertainty, making decisions quickly, and finding out of the box solutions are all highly rewarded skills in this exam.
A general understanding of the dynamics of a problem, rather than a precise answer, are often the characteristics that allow people to truly excel, especially on the most challenging questions. So much of success on the GMAT at the highest levels is about managing the emotional and behavioural stresses, not the intellectual challenge. Being able to regulate your anxiety, self-confidence/questioning, and overall comfort can impact your GMAT score significantly once you’re past 700, where each second and every unique approach can mean extra points.
Takeaway: Once you’re in the upper 600s, improvement comes from focusing on non-intellectual elements. Preparing for these challenges from the start is what makes for the most rapid, fluid, and meaningful preparation.
5. Most people don’t do it alone
The dirty little secret that no one talks about is that nearly every high-achiever seeks assistance to obtain a great GMAT score. This is all the more true in those places where the smartest people congregate. People don’t speak about getting help because they are usually in environments, whether academic or professional, where they are valued for their intellectual ability and feel that it is a mark of shame to not be able to “go it alone.”
We have so many clients that come to us from McKinsey and BCG, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanely, Google, Apple, et cetera, who are not comfortable sharing with their peers or family the fact that they have sought help. This is because they fear that their admission will in some way diminish their achievements or their cachet in the eyes of those they respect most.
There is no shame in seeking help, even if it is the first time you’ve ever needed to (for many of our top performing clients, we’re the first tutor they’ve ever needed in their lives). You may have found yourself at a great school or already landed your first job and thus consider yourself exceptionally successful. But the GMAT is pitting you against those who are of a similar ilk and so going it alone is fraught with difficulties. One of these difficulties being the ability to gain a competitive edge after being homogenized for so long in academic or corporate environments.
This can often lead to frustration, sadness, and sometimes missing the boat entirely on the next stage of your life. It is important to recognize that everyone, all those people that you respect and admire most, at one point or another, have needed help, and have had to ask for help.
Takeaway: Don’t hesitate to ask for help. That’s what strong people do. It’s what leaders do. It’s what those who are the most successful do. Never go it alone.