The GMAT is a complex exam. It feels like an academic test—math, grammar, logical reasoning
—but it’s really not! At heart, the GMAT is a test of your executive reasoning skills.
Executive reasoning is the official term for your ability to make all kinds of decisions in the face of complex and changing information. It makes sense, then, that graduate management programs would want to test these skills. It’s crucial for you to understand how they do so because that understanding will impact both how you study for the GMAT and how you take the test.
You do need to know various math and grammar facts, rules, and concepts in order to do well on the GMAT—and this makes the test feel similar to tests that you took in school. There’s one critical difference though: When your teachers gave you tests in school, they tested you on material they expected you to know how to handle. Your teachers wouldn’t put something on the test that they expected you to get wrong. That would be cruel!
Well, it would be cruel if the main point of the exam was to test your mastery of those facts, rules, and concepts. But that isn’t the main point of the GMAT. Rather, the GMAT wants to know how well you make decisions regarding when to invest your limited time and mental energy —and when not to.
In other words, the GMAT wants to know how you make business decisions. And no good businessperson invests in every single opportunity placed in front of them, just because it’s there. A good businessperson evaluates each opportunity, saying yes to some and no to others. That’s what you’re going to do on the GMAT, too. You’ll invest in a majority of the problems presented to you, but you will say no to some—the ones that look too hard or seem like they’ll take too long to solve. These are literally bad investments.
So the GMAT will offer you questions that it thinks you will not be able to do. How does it accomplish this? The GMAT is an adaptive test; that is, it adapts to you as you take it, offering easier or harder questions based on how you’re doing on the test. Ideally, you’ll do well on the material that you know how to answer in a reasonable amount of time. Your reward? You’ll earn questions that are too hard for you to do—either they’ll take too long to answer or they’ll be so hard that you wouldn’t be able to do them even if you had unlimited time.
Then what? If you try to use a “school mindset” on the test, you’ll keep trying to answer the questions even though you really can’t do them. You’ll waste a bunch of time and then, later, you’ll have to rush on other questions. As a result, you’ll start to miss questions that you actually do know how to answer and your score will go down. This is the business equivalent of spending most of your annual budget by August…and then not having enough money left to run the business well from September through December.
Instead, use your “business mindset” to carry you through the exam. When the test finds your limit, acknowledge that! Call it a bad investment and let that problem go (ideally before you’ve spent very much time on it). Choose an answer, any answer, and move on.
Extend the business mindset to your studies as well. If there are certain topics that you really hate, decide that you’re not going to study them in the first place. You’re just going to bail (guess quickly and move on) when one of those “opportunities” comes up. (One caveat: You can’t bail on huge swaths of content. For example, don’t bail on all of algebra; that represents too great a portion of the Quant section. You can, though, bail on a subset—say, absolute values and sequences.)
Start orienting yourself around your business mindset today. You aren’t going to do it all. You’re going to choose the best opportunities as you see them throughout the test. When you decide not to pursue a particular “investment,” you’re going to say no as quickly as you can and forget about it—don’t waste precious resources on a poor investment opportunity! Move on to the next opportunity, feeling good about the fact that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do on the GMAT: making sound investment decisions about what to do and what not to do.
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, EA, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests.