Why The GMAT Poses ‘Gotcha’ Questions

Consider the story of Steve Jobs and Apple. One could argue that Apple spent much of the 1990s as not much different a business from Dell or Compaq or Hewlett-Packard. Apple made and sold computers and started to branch out into other digital devices like the mp3 player. The “integer” in its space was the hardware device – consumers had an appetite for desktops, laptops, and mp3 players that were inexpensive, up to date, and easy to use. The “noninteger” that Apple saw, however, was the link between them all – if people were downloading music to a computer and then transferring it to walk around with, why couldn’t Apple vertically integrate to sell them the music itself and optimize the experience?

With the advent of the iTunes Store, which begat the App Store for phones and tablets, Apple opened an entire new revenue stream and gave consumers an extra reason to further immerse themselves in Apple computers and devices. All because Steve Jobs and his team didn’t just see the obvious opportunities in the space (the positive numbers, the integers) but instead looked for the more-hidden opportunities.

(Note to Apple fanboys – we get that that was a broad-strokes gloss over of Apple history, so forgive us.  Walter Isaacson declined our request to co-write that paragraph, but we do feel that the analogy holds even if a few details are flimsy.)

On the other side of things, companies like Tower Records and Borders Books & Music fell victim to the noninteger/negative-number trap. The “obvious” opportunities in their space all dealt with retail experience – comfortable stores, wide selections, helpful staff, convenient parking. But, the “negative numbers” in their space related to technology like the iTunes store and the Kindle – by failing to adequately anticipate the not-so-obvious threats to their business (again – for analogy purposes we’re not digging into details of the actual business cases) they failed.

Admittedly, the GMAT is a crude microcosm of these kinds of business situations and has to approximate them in an easy-to-standardize/easy-to-administer fashion, but in your frustration over the Simon Says/gotcha traps that befall you on practice tests and homework sets you should see the parallel. The GMAT rewards the kind of (excuse the buzzword) outside-the-box thinking that is rewarded in business, and punishes the kind of tunnel vision (ignoring “unique case” numbers like negatives, fractions, and zero) that can doom businesses.

Why are the traps so maddening? Because the GMAT isn’t as concerned with your mastery of high school math as you might think, and because it’s more concerned with assessing your critical thinking skills than you might realize.

Perhaps a more meaningful takeaway for your GMAT studies is this: much like in the world of business, you can see those unforeseen cases as threats or as opportunities. But those who see them as opportunities tend to reap far greater rewards. As you fall into trap answers in practice, see the value in what the exam is trying to assess and learn that what some of your competitors will see as a trap you can see as an opportunity to differentiate yourself on the test.

Brian Galvin will run the free seminar

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.

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