Unlocking The GMAT: Outscoring Rivals

Katz Students

Katz Students

GMAT scores are rising, and top schools are receiving record numbers of applications. As a business school hopeful, you must do what you can to outshine your peers. A sure way to stand out in this crowd is to earn a competitive GMAT score. In this second installment of “GMAT Unlocked,” you’ll learn simple, actionable strategies for securing that desirable score.

Let’s begin by talking about the brain, which happens to be your greatest asset on the GMAT. Most students could add at least 30 points to their GMAT scores, if they better understood their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Since most of your peers won’t take time to understand these characteristics, you have an opportunity to understand the fundamentals of how you think and learn. You’ll also identify the mistakes you’re likely to make and how to fix them.

Be more systematic: Don’t trust your intuition alone

When making decisions, your intuition can lead you astray. For example, using just your brain (no pen and paper), solve the following problem:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

  1. 10 cents (B) 5 cents (C) 3 cents   (D) 2 cents   (E) 1 cent 

This problem was originally created by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner who changed the thinking about judgement and decision making. Although a bit too easy for a GMAT question, Kahneman’s problem illustrates the need to improve our GMAT critical thinking skills.

Did you choose “10 cents?” If so, you likely took the easy way out, falling prey to your intuition and giving in to non-rigorous thinking. The correct answer is 5 cents. Why do so many choose 10 cents? According to Kahneman, many people are overconfident and place too much faith in their intuition, while avoiding cognitive effort as much as possible. In other words, people probably choose 10 cents because 10 cents is the easiest deduction to make; that is, 10 cents just seems correct. On the GMAT, you must avoid the simple deductions and inferences that appeal to intuition alone and “just seem correct,” because they often are incorrect. Instead of using intuition, follow a systematic process. In the next few articles of this series, we’ll talk specifically about working systematically on quantitative, verbal, and Integrated Reasoning questions.

Make a movie out of a GMAT question

When solving GMAT questions, many of your peers will be less-than-active participants, letting information wash over them. This is your opportunity to be more focused, aware, and engaged.

“Working memory” is the cognitive function we use to hold and process information with which we’re currently working. Research suggests that working memory is crucial for reasoning, problem solving, learning, and reading comprehension – all of which are skills demanded by the GMAT. Have you ever been confused by a complex word problem or had to retest numbers in a data sufficiency question? Have you forgotten the differences among the answer choices in a sentence correction problem, or had to re-read the conclusion of a critical reasoning question? If so, you’ve likely experienced limitations in your working memory.

Over the years, I have worked with many students who have experienced these types of limitations. Methods for improving one’s working memory often conflict. However, one thing seems certain regarding learning and problem solving: the more vigorously we engage our brains, the better we tend to perform.

Numerous students have been able to improve by engaging in visualization. One way to visualize is to turn a GMAT question into a movie. In other words, when you are working through a question, visualize what you’re reading as if it were a movie. See the text of a reading comprehension passage as if it were a movie playing in your head. Who are the characters? What are they doing? Why, when, and where are they doing it? Do the same for tough word problems and critical reasoning questions. By engaging more of your brain, I think you’ll find that you’re faster and more accurate.


Scott Woodbury-Stewart

Scott Woodbury-Stewart

Scott Woodbury-Stewart is Founder and CEO of Target Test Prep, one of the fastest growing GMAT test prep firms on the market. Scott is writing a special four-part series for Poets&Quants with advice for the GMAT. He and his team can be contacted for a personal consultation.


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