Going For Gold On The GMAT Test

The Olympics and business school have long shown parallels. Like business schools, the Olympics are often used by developing nations to showcase their up-and-coming status for the world; like business schools, the Olympics value international diversity even if they tend to be dominated by the traditional world powers; and like business school, the Olympics offer fascinating studies in marketing, having developed cutting-edge sponsorship programs and business models (for more, we highly recommend you read last week’s Economist).

The Olympics, and one competition in particular, will also offer you great insight into your upcoming GMAT competition. The decathlon is arguably the best Olympic parallel to the GMAT for a handful of reasons:

  • Very few people truly understand how the final score is calculated
  • Each has a bit more importance than it may deserve: the GMAT is typically thought of as the most important factor in MBA admissions; and the decathlon winner gets the title “World’s Greatest Athlete”
  • Endurance is a bigger key than most realize – you can excel at the “events” that come toward the end, but if you’re not ready to perform while tired, it may not do you much good
  • It is much more important to “not lose” any one event than it is to “win” any one event

So let’s discuss that last point, the most actionable among all of these and the one that ties back most directly to marketing. In early 1992 leading up to the Barcelona Olympics, Reebok invested millions into an advertising campaign based on the decathlon – its Dan vs. Dave campaign sought to market Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson well in advance of the Olympics, generating excitement and garnering public support for Reebok’s athletes. But then this happened at the Olympic Trials – Dan, who would later go on to set the decathlon world record and win gold at the 1996 Olympics – “no-heighted” the pole vault and failed to even make the team.

The marketing fallout makes for a great business case, but how does this relate directly to the GMAT?  It didn’t matter how great Dan was at the other nine events in the decathlon – by failing at one of them he ruined his chance at stardom (or, rather, delayed it four years…either would be a massive disappointment to your B-school candidacy). And this can be the case on the GMAT, as well – because the test is scored in an adaptive fashion, it is much more important for you to not miss the easiest questions you see than it is for you to succeed on the most difficult questions you see.


Consider the way that the GMAT scoring algorithm works – its goal is to constantly assess your ability level, assigning your next question based on how the previous question changed its view of your ability. When you get questions wrong, the computer infers limits on your ability and shows you easier questions trying to determine where you fall. And when you get questions right, the computer gives you harder questions in an attempt to see how high your upper limit is. And all the while, the computer knows that around 20% of the time, if not more, you’ll guess correctly giving it false positives. Where it’s not as concerned is with the “false negatives” – if you should get a question right, it’s your own failure and not random chance that accounts for that “false negative”.

So where does the decathlon come in?

Much like Dan O’Brien, you have more to lose from an easy mistake below your ability level than to gain from a question above your ability level.  If you answer an easy question incorrectly, your next question is easier, meaning that you now have to get two questions in a row right (the next question that’s even easier and the following question that’s presumably closer to where you left off) to get back to where you started.  On the upper end, keep in mind that if you get just one question right above your ability level, the computer will find you out pretty quickly as the questions get harder…and more time-consuming.  And because of random chance, the computer isn’t as “impressed” with the occasional above-your-ability correct answer – it’s programmed to not be fooled by correct guessing.


Experiments with the GMATPrep official software bear this point out – students are often surprised by:

  • How many questions they can miss late in a section and still end up with a very high score
  • How few questions in a row they can miss in the first 10-12 questions and still end up with a high score