2) Knowledge alone isn’t enough.
Let’s go back to the math that you need to know for the GMAT. It’s almost entirely contained within the coursework you took before you got a driver’s license. The GMAT isn’t just another “Who’s Who Among American High School Students” book or a talent search for valedictorians. It’s a next-generation test, using high school level skills to test preparedness and, more importantly, potential for success in graduate school. Simply possessing the ability to make the honor roll at a college prep high school isn’t enough to qualify you for admission to Harvard Business School.
So what else is the GMAT about? It’s about reasoning. And this is another place where “just showing up” may have cut it in the past but won’t on the GMAT. Even if you know how to do every question in the Official Guide for GMAT Review, the official exam will show you questions that you’ve never seen before. That’s its job – business education exists to prepare you for the problems of tomorrow, not those of yesterday. When you work through a business case about the logistical dilemma facing IBM in the late 1970s, you’re not preparing to become the CEO of a late 1970s computer company – you’re learning business principles that you can someday apply to a logistical problem in an industry that may not exist until a decade after you earn your MBA.
Similarly, as you study for the GMAT your job isn’t simply to memorize the question structures and be ready for them, it’s to consider the line of reasoning behind them and be ready to apply it to questions that look unique at first glance. The GMAT is more about ability and reasoning than it is about knowledge, so as you study try to think beyond “what is the answer” toward “what does this teach me.”
3) Embrace the struggle.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this article is this: the GMAT is difficult because it’s designed to be difficult. And, accordingly, most of you will need to build toward success on it. If you’re reading this article and thinking of scores above 700, there’s a very high likelihood that many academic principles came relatively easy to you in most phases of your academic career. Those are the kinds of people who take the GMAT – those who have traditionally done well enough in school that they continue to see further success in school as a probability. But at this stage, that doesn’t make you unique.
In order to do well on the GMAT you will have to manage uncertainty and adversity on test day – the questions you see in that upper quintile territory are difficult, designed to force even the most elite test-takers to miss questions. So in your practice, you will similarly have to manage adversity. You’ll miss problems and struggle to understand them. You’ll need to ask for another explanation, be it after a class you’re taking, in an online forum you’re using, or from a friend who may not fully understand it either. Your pursuit of a high score is just that – a pursuit. Much of academia is like much of success in life – 80% of it is just showing up.
But the other one-fifth is what the GMAT is really about. You can’t simply “show up” your way to success on the GMAT by seeing a problem, immediately clicking with the explanation, and moving that “% Complete” toolbar over a few notches toward 100%. You’ll need to make mistakes, not fully understand why, and then analyze what that uncertainty can teach you. You’ll need to hold yourself accountable for putting in not just time and effort, but real reasoning and thought. Top 10% mastery won’t come easy, so you’ll need to embrace the struggle and that mantra of those who undertake yeoman challenges: “If it were easy, everyone would do it”. 700+ is by definition not available to everyone – only 10% can do it, so it cannot be easy. Your competitive advantage? Knowing that many of your competitors expect that it will be easy, and that they’ll quit before you do.
In order to succeed on the GMAT, which does test probability, you’ll need to understand enough probability to realize that not everyone can score in the top 10%. The challenge for most GMAT students is that the pool of GMAT test takers consists mostly of those who have always been in the top quarter of their class. They don’t always realize that the GMAT doesn’t measure your percentile compared with the general population; it measures your percentile compared with the population of “other GMAT test-takers”. And that’s a high starting point.
To this point in your life you’ve been deserving of academic success, but how much of what you’ve earned is simply the price of entry to sit for the GMAT? The GMAT is your opportunity to separate yourself from others in a very competitive pool. Don’t simply assume that you’ll succeed because you’ve always succeeded. Don’t simply assume that you’ll succeed because you’ll “put in the work”. If you’re expecting to hurdle a high bar, hold yourself to a higher standard. Put in the time and effort to meet the high competitive standard at the skill level; don’t assume that simply having those skills is enough; and embrace the challenge of working through difficult problems. Another common myth, so to speak, about the GMAT is that it’s a test, a hurdle you have to jump on your way to campus. In fact, it’s an opportunity for those who see it that way – it’s a chance to separate yourself from the similarly successful masses with whom you’re competing. To many, the GMAT will be what you make of it. Make it count by making yourself live up to the challenge. You don’t necessarily deserve a 700, but if you work up to it you might.
Brian Galvin is Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep, a GMAT prep and graduate school admissions consulting provider. Galvin writes a monthly column for Poets&Quants, offering typically contrarian advice for GMAT test takers.