[Editor's Note: This is the first post by Manhattan GMAT Instructor Ryan Jacobs! Welcome him in the comments.]
Have you ever heard of a guy named Brad Gilbert?
Brad Gilbert was a professional tennis player in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He was not particularly skilled or highly ranked. Tennis champion Andre Agassi says, “Every shot Brad hit, you were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ His shots aren’t pretty. The first time we played, I was convinced the guy couldn’t play tennis.” But Gilbert was known for his surprising victories over some of the best tennis players in the world, most notably John McEnroe. When Gilbert retired from tennis, he became Agassi’s coach and helped Agassi beat superstar talents such as Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter. The way Gilbert won despite having less raw physical capability than his opponent, and the way he taught Agassi to do the same, is important to understand if you’re a tennis player.
It’s also important to understand if you’re a GMAT student.
Gilbert’s big idea was that superior strategy can beat superior talent. Sampras had a tremendous serve, so Agassi’s strategy was to become a great serve returner. Agassi would be content simply to get the ball back in play and make Sampras win points using his ground strokes instead of just relying on his powerful serve. To do this, Agassi had to practice returns from many different angles, on both sides of the court, with many different types of spin.
Have you ever been studying for the GMAT and just felt like everything was too hard, and that you simply weren’t smart enough to reach your dream score? Have you ever talked to another GMAT student that just seemed to understand algebra in a way that you feel you never will? You know that the GMAT compares you to other test takers, so you might think that if you weren’t a math major, you are destined for a lower quant score than those who were.
Brad Gilbert would disagree. If Gilbert were your GMAT tutor, he might tell you that instead of attempting to make your algebra flawless, you should develop other strategies like picking numbers or backsolving. Instead of trying to fill in all your geometry diagrams with x’s, y’s, and z’s, maybe you can just draw what you think is a reasonably accurate picture and eyeball the answer. You might not get the problems 100% right using these strategies, but you’ll do them much faster than the talented test taker who feels like he must use his talent all the time.
I’m not trying to convince you that algebra and geometry theory are unimportant – after all, there’s a reason McEnroe was #1 in the world and Gilbert was not. However, if you feel like you’ve studied your fundamentals as much as you possibly can and you feel like you’re hitting a wall, remember that the GMAT also tests the way in which you apply these fundamentals. Can you be flexible in the way you approach problems? Can you estimate the answer in 30 seconds, when a more “talented” student would spend 3 minutes proving the answer? Every GMAT student feels at some point like they just aren’t good at this stuff. At that point you have a choice: give up because you don’t have the talent other people do, or start solving problems in inventive ways using the talent you already possess. The GMAT will reward you well for choosing the latter.