Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

Folks don’t score as well as they should on the GMAT for a variety of reasons. One major reason for this is that folks worry about the wrong thing.  They worry about what they know, but they should be worrying about what they do.  They should worry about the reality of doing.  As an athlete does physically and as a method actor does mentally.  (Wait for it.)

The GMAT is an aptitude test, not a knowledge test.  It tests the same logic system throughout—in both the math and the verbal.  In both sections, the modus operandi is to be specific, don’t assume, and don’t rationalize.  Be more precise than in life; notice the exact meaning of the words.  It takes classes three weeks to open their third eyes and notice the difference between precision and hoping.  Second, no outside knowledge or assumptions are allowed.  However, the hardest part for GMAT test takers is not to rationalize.  The questions ask what MUST be true, not what COULD be true by adding opinions.  Folks want to demonstrate the depth of their thoughts, but the questions ask what must follow—-so, whatever you do, don’t think. . .much like in life.  Just do.

A student, who was accepted to both Harvard and Stanford, once said to me, The funny thing about the GMAT is that the math is the verbal and the verbal is the math.  Because it is one logic system, there is a truth to this—the verbal is the math because you must not only be as precise as, but also as systematic as you are in quantitative work.  On the other hand, the math revolves around noticing exactly what the words say, as well as and reading and writing with symbols.  Doing the arithmetic and algebra is the moral equivalent of reading English—it is taken for granted and not tested per se.  This is a double edged sword. Folks are ruined because they concentrate on challenging math topics but their shoddy mechanics cost them at least half a minute per problem.  That, however, is a separate reason for, and separate article about, why folks do not score as well as they should.

Leaving aside foundation work in the math and grammar, The GMAT remains an aptitude test, not a knowledge test.  The level of difficulty has a low ceiling—a top scorer will not get a question that reads, Why don’t you rotate that curve around the third axis and tell me the volume of the resulting solid.  Thus, the test has to try to trick people through nuances of meaning.  That is why one must be more specific than in life. Frustrated students sometimes say to me—What do the GMAT and business have in common?  I always say, They’re both based on the same principle—never give a sucker an even break.  Folks who are not more precise score poorly because they miss questions that they know but don’t really do, not because they miss ones that they don’t know how to do.

Because people worry about the wrong thing, they also prepare incorrectly.  They study information, as they did in college, but that only suffices for the foundation work.  Preparing for the exam is much more like practicing a sport or a musical instrument.  Worry about form and precision.  The Manhattan GMAT program gives students a collection of efficient repeatable motions—how to identify and respond to specific types.  One can’t succeed by reinventing the wheel on every problem.  If you don’t have a collection of efficient repeatable motions, you end up like Dontrelle Willis.  (If you don’t follow baseball, just ignore that joke, I’ll try something else later.)  In any case, see the difference in perspective—preparing for this exam is like working on your serve or your jump shot.  Engineers sometimes attack the math as math rather than identifying types and responding accordingly.  They suffer for it.

For example, last summer, a sad and depressed student says to me, I took a practice CAT and scored 710.  I think, He’s unhappy with a 710. . .psycho killer, qu’est-ce que sais?  But I say, Yeah?  He says, I got a 97% in the verbal, and a 72% in the math.  I say, I told you it works that way.  (Another separate essay.)  He says, But I’m a MECHANICAL ENGINEER.  There you go.  Drink the Kool-Aid.

Furthermore, like a concert pianist or an Olympic gymnast, a high scorer must have that kind of mastery of these efficient repeatable motions.  To do so in an intellectual rather than physical endeavor, one must have a mental discipline akin to that taught in method acting.  Method acting can be defined as living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.  To live truthfully, one has to specifically and really do things, not merely go through the motions.  Acting coaches would say, Watching someone really do something, like thread a needle, is interesting, watching someone pretend to do something isn’t.  I worked with someone who eventually scored 770.  One day, I asked him what happened on a problem he missed.  He said, Well, I read it and I figured. . .  I said, That’s where you went wrong, quit figuring and start doing things.  On paper.  Translate.  Pick values.  Apply rules and patterns.  On the GMAT, really doing such things is successful but merely pretending to do them isn’t.  Figuring is pretending.

To do so fully and within the time constraints, one needs to automatically react appropriately.  When I was young and pretty, I went to a method acting school.  Those guys were hard asses, as I am trying to be here.  Carved over the front door was a Goethe quote:  I wish the stage were as narrow as a tightrope—so incompetents would fear to tread on it.  If one wants to rock out the GMAT, one must similarly view it as a tightrope.  And have a mastery of form and precision to stay balanced.  Like a gymnast.

An acting school demonstration of responding truthfully—read as precisely—was called the pinch and the ouch. The coach would pinch one of the women—because actresses don’t sue—and she would say ouch.  The coach would say, See, that’s a truthful response.  It is the same on the GMAT.  If a sentence correction split is between run and runs, that’s a pinch.  The ouch is What’s the subject? If the problem says, x is a prime number greater than 2, that’s a pinch.  And the ouch is x is odd.

The reality of doing is behavioral modification—training yourself to do things, to get your hands dirty as it were, instead of figuring.  If a question says 31 < x < 37, doing something is discovering on paper that that means x equals 32, 33, 34, 35, or 36.  That will be successful.  Staring at it and then looking heavenward and saying, Give me a clue, I’ll run twenty red lights in your honor will not be successful.  Reading an argument and asking yourself, Do the exact words of this choice make the exact words of the conclusion less likely? is doing something and leads to success.  Looking for a choice that you think makes sense is the primrose path straight to [test] hell.  I have told the people in NYC that it could be a five session course if they would send me a cattle prod. . .Don’t behave that way!. . .ZAP!

Chris Berman

Chris Berman graduated from Northwestern with honors in European diplomatic history, a field both unfashionable and tedious to his listeners. Mr. Berman has taught college mathematics and worked as an editor and writing coach (â€œHave annoying comments, will travelâ€). Eventually moving to Hollywood (itâ€™s all true!), he has continued to tutor, while also writing screenplays -- sometimes for money -- and working on â€œthe novelâ€. (Once in a while, he still acts in indie films.) He joined Manhattan GMAT early in 2003 and teaches company classes and private students in Los Angeles and Orange County. He has over 15 years of GMAT teaching experience, and a 790 official GMAT score.

4 responses to The Reality of Doing

1. sharon shahinian January 15, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Great article! If this doesn’t put the GMAT taker in “the moment” then nothing will. Great interesting read.

2. Thanks for a great article.

Would you be able to write an article that outlines those “efficient repeatable motions” for each question type.

3. I have always said, GMAT is a pattern-recognition test. There is so much win in this article. Develop “muscle memory” and you are all set.

On the other hand, it goes to show that adcoms have no idea when they place such a heavy emphasis on the GMAT score. You want to know aptitude and work ethic, look at the GPA, interview people rather than reading the fairy-tale applicants write on their essays.

4. Quite a perspective..!!