For the past couple years, the Graduate Management Admissions Council has been referring to this June’s release of the new-and-improved GMAT as the “Next-Generation GMAT”. But with all due respect to GMAC, “next-generation” is a bit of a misplaced or at least misaligned modifier (albeit one that wouldn’t quite meet the standard of an incorrect Sentence Correction answer!). The only true change to the test is the replacement of one Analytical Writing Assessment with the new Integrated Reasoning section, hardly a groundbreaking enough change to justify calling this new GMAT “GMAT 3.0” – it’s more like GMAT 2.1.
With that said, “Next-Generation GMAT” makes a good bit of sense if you look beyond June 2012 and learn about what the Integrated Reasoning section means about both the present and the future of the GMAT as a whole. The GMAT has always been about reading between the lines – finding calculation shortcuts, noticing subtle wordplay, etc. The following inferences read between the lines of the Integrated Reasoning section to provide you with insight that will help you better understand and ultimately defeat the GMAT.
1. The GMAT is, has been, and will continue to be a reasoning test
About the time that the folks at GMAC began promoting the Integrated Reasoning section, their verbiage for the rest of the test subtly evolved as well. In presentations and conference calls, they began referring to the “Quantitative” and “Verbal” sections as the “Quantitative Reasoning” and “Verbal Reasoning” sections. Further, they carefully named the new section Integrated Reasoning, a term that can be broken down to show you the true intent of the test. “Integrated” is an adjective that shows that two or more items are blended together – the new section combines the very same quantitative and verbal concepts as the other sections, but just makes you use them both together. “Reasoning” is the operative noun, and note that it’s significantly different from “knowledge.” Reasoning refers to your ability to think – to apply knowledge and create solutions, not just to “remember”. The GMAT is a test of how you think, not of what you know, so in order to be successful you need to sharpen not just your content knowledge, but also your reasoning ability.
For the Integrated Reasoning section, this means that while it will be important to familiarize yourself with common types of graphs (for example, for the Graphics Interpretation question type), it will be just as important to train yourself to read those graphs critically: does the scale of the graph provide you with a skewed visual representation? Check the legend: does the graph illustrate absolute number data or ratio data?
For the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections, this means something similar: “What you know” is only as useful as “what you can do with it.” Knowing the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, is helpful; recognizing that circles, squares, and three-dimensional objects often lend themselves to right-triangle diagonal distances is what separates you from the rest – to succeed, you need to be able to find unique opportunities to employ your knowledge. And the fact that GMAC has been so emphatic with its use of the term “reasoning” should prove that to you.
2. You can guess pretty accurately on the GMAT
Even the GMAT knows that your odds of guessing correctly are high. Look at the Two-Part Analysis questions: By and large they are either Critical Reasoning or Problem Solving questions with a small twist. Instead of levying one answer from five choices as you would on the Quantitative or Verbal Reasoning section, you need to choose two answers, one in each column, from five or even more answer choices in each column.
Why would the GMAT release a “new” question type if that is the only real difference from its existing question type? There are really two reasons: For one, Two-Part Analysis does allow for a slightly different assessment of your ability, because it forces you to consider the same problem from multiple angles. But just as importantly, it uses the computer-based testing technology to transcend the standard multiple choice format – it allows the GMAT to minimize “false positives” (correct answers that you really don’t deserve) in scoring by making it much less likely that anyone can guess their way to a score that’s higher than their true ability level.
While this may be a bit frustrating to you on the Integrated Reasoning section, look at what it means for the ever-more-important sections that contribute to your score out of 800: Even if you cannot solve a problem in the allotted time, you can strategically eliminate answers and make educated guesses to achieve a higher score. The future GMAT – the true “Next-Generation” GMAT 3.0 – may well eliminate this opportunity, but for now you have an excellent chance to earn an extra score bump by recognizing that educated guesswork has value.
3. We all struggle when it comes to reasoning with statistics
Visual learners can use the Integrated Reasoning section to boost their Verbal Reasoning score significantly. How? By paying attention to the mistakes you make with the Graphics Interpretation questions, they’ll show you visually the kinds of traps you’re falling into with Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning. As Mark Twain said, there are three types of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” When you’re presented with statistics, the critical thinking part of your brain is quite often lulled to sleep and baited into poor conclusions and decisions. And Graphics Interpretation questions will do this to you visually.
Try this: If you have an iPhone, pull up the “Stocks” app on the main page of your phone. Select an index, fund, or stock and look at the line graph at the bottom of the page. It’s been a wild day in the market, right? Not necessarily – take a look at that y-axis scale. The design of that graph is to use all allowable vertical space. So even if the value only changed within half a percent, the line will touch the top of the screen at some point and the bottom of the screen at another. The graph will always give the illusion of an up-and-down performance – unless you look at the scale for reference.
Graphics Interpretation questions will exploit our human nature, that we tend to accept as true any conclusion that is backed by statistics. When you make those mistakes, remember that the GMAT does the same thing to you with Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension, too. It just does so more subtly with clever wordplay. When you make a mistake, for example, by reading the trend on a graph to mean that “School X has more applicants than School Y” when the legend of the graph notes that the graph represents a proportion (applicants per available seat) and not absolute numbers, recognize that. Pay attention to the nature of the statistics provided and to the nature of the conclusion. If the wording is slightly different, you’re being taken for a ride.
4. Integrated Reasoning is a glimpse into the future of standardized tests… but not necessarily into the future of your MBA candidacy
Educators should be fascinated by the Integrated Reasoning question formats. They represent the future of testing – using the computer-based format not just for adaptive scoring, but also for more authentic and dynamic assessment. Table Analysis problems force you not just to “do the math,” but to take real-world data and put it in a form that will allow you to do that math. Integrated Reasoning questions switch formats to suit the assessment: some questions involve radio button answers for true/false or multiple choice; others use drop-down menus; and the number of options per question can vary based on the number of tempting wrong answers the author can create.
In many ways, GMAC presenting you with the Integrated Reasoning section is a lot like a father giving his son golf clubs for his birthday. Yes, it’s a gift for the son… but it’s just as much a gift for the dad, who now has another excuse to hit the links on a Sunday morning. Similarly, GMAC is doing this new section partially for you and for schools as an extra data point, but also in large part for itself. It’s evolving the nature of standardized tests, using the computer-based format to create better questions, more authentic assessment, and better security (a not insignificant mention from the folks at GMAC for why they like the new section).
What does this mean for you? You can reduce your stress level a bit regarding Integrated Reasoning – in large part, you’re taking this section as a proving ground for the evolution of test prep, and so you’re not taking this entirely for the benefit of you and your application. Schools will consider this score, but they may need to be sold on its value. Integrated Reasoning is GMAC’s innovation for the future, but it’s not likely going to be the deciding factor in your application this year. Appreciate this section for what it is, but do not overvalue its importance to your candidacy. It’s more important that you “avoid a bad score” than that you “earn a great score” while GMAC researches and sells this question type to MBA programs.
5. Integrated Reasoning is a fantastic way to improve your overall score
From the above, you should recognize that Integrated Reasoning tests the same skills, concepts, and thought processes as does the 200-to-800 GMAT. And there’s a bonus – before you get to that all-important 2.5 hours that will determine whether you’re near, at, or above that magic threshold of 700, you’ll spend 30 minutes working through Integrated Reasoning. In a way, Integrated Reasoning is the best possible warm-up for the “segregated reasoning” Quantitative and Verbal sections (which are already a lot more integrated than most realize).
During the first hour of your test, which comes with substantially lower stakes than does that back 2.5 hours, you’ll need to use critical thinking, effective reading, and mental math skills. You’ll get to warm up those parts of your brain while working out those nervous test-day jitters, getting accustomed to your workstation, and otherwise becoming more comfortable with the test.
If you see it this way, Integrated Reasoning is a gift from GMAC to you – it’s 30 minutes of incredibly relevant warm-up so that you’re ready to hit the ground running when the stakes get even higher. Don’t see Integrated Reasoning as a threat to your goals of 700+. See it as an opportunity to ready yourself for that quest.
Much has been made over the past few months about the “new” GMAT, when in truth it’s much more the same than it is different. What is new, however, is the insight that the Integrated Reasoning section gives us into the core of the GMAT, most of which remains the same. Let these lessons that the Integrated Reasoning illustrates guide you to greater success on the GMAT as a whole.
Brian Galvin is Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep, a GMAT prep and graduate school admissions consulting provider. This is his second column for Poets&Quants.com. His contrarian views appear monthly.