Why You Should Ditch Your GMAT Goals

Your whole life, you’ve been goal-oriented. It’s how you did well on the SAT, and how you got into a good college, and how you got that first job out of college. It might even be how you met your significant other… You spotted him or her across the room and thought, “I’m going to take that person out on a date.” You set a goal, you work toward it, and you achieve it. Now, your latest goal is to break 700 on the GMAT and get into a top-ranked MBA program. It’s what you do.

Before you go any further, read this sentence several times: Focusing on your GMAT goal may do you more harm than good. For the first time in your life, you may need to forget about chasing goals if you’re going to stand a chance of succeeding.

Confused? Don’t worry… Most GMAT students are puzzled when I tell them this. They’re used to checking off goals on lists and demonstrating progress. They’ll say things such as:

  • I have 500 flashcards, and my goal is to have all of this content memorized by the end of the month.
  • My goal is to complete 20 practice problems from the Official Guide for GMAT Review every day.
  • There is a list of more than 300 GMAT idioms posted on my bathroom mirror, and my goal is to memorize all of them by test day.
  • My goal is to get down to taking no more than two minutes on any problem on the Quant side of the GMAT.

Why are these goals bad? Because they focus on effort, rather than results. While it feels good to burn through Official Guide problems and to check off idioms on a list, these activities mostly generate a lot of effort, when results are really what you need on the GMAT. As the basketball coaching legend John Wooden famously said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”

Memorizing content and robotically completing practice questions can lead to a false sense of confidence that will lead right into the traps that the GMAT test makers use every day. In any given practice session, it’s not enough to count how many problems you got right or wrong. What matters is what you got wrong, and why you missed it.

Was it the first time you saw such a problem? If so, then be happy that you just found a new item to sink your teeth into. Take a few minutes to understand how the problem is structured and think about what you now know that you didn’t know before. If it’s not the first time, then don’t go any further until you understand exactly why you got it wrong again. To just mechanically plow ahead without incorporating a deeper understanding is to thoroughly waste your own time.

In your GMAT preparation, your goal should be to train your mind in the higher-order reasoning skills that the exam measures. No one will give you a medal for the number of practice items you completed, or for the height of your flash card deck, or for the amount of content you memorized.

Potential MBA employers don’t care about these things, so you can be sure that business schools also don’t care. And when business schools don’t care, neither does the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the GMAT. And, if they don’t care… You see where we’re going. Higher-order thinking is where it’s at, and thoughtfully studying 100 practice items can do far more to enhance your higher-order thinking skills than can burning through 500 problems as quickly as humanly possible.

Further, setting and obsessing over goals during the course of the actual exam has been the undoing of many a potential GMAT star. Consider another endeavor that requires endurance: When running a marathon, looking at your watch to let you know if you’re on pace or not can be helpful. The marathon is linear and predictable—each mile is just as long as the next—and you can time yourself and track your pace closely as you go. At no point are you left wondering how you’re doing.

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