“Many a true word is said in jest.”—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.
It’s a funny thing—folks get good at doing OG problems at their desks. Then they take a practice CAT, with the clock on the monitor running down, like sands in the hourglass. Suddenly they are seized by amphetamine psychosis. Like NFL rookies, the big adjustment is to the speed of the game. When you’re taking the test, if you can’t do it* in two to three minutes, you can’t do it.* However, timing problems are an effect, not a cause. People have timing problems because their math foundation sucks. People have timing problems because they don’t get a good rephrasing. People have timing problems because they don’t compare SC choices vertically. People have timing problems because they don’t have the discipline to guess. And so on. All of these problems are fixable. Like most GMAT issues, timing problems are the result of either a poor foundation or bad behavior.
Take foundation work. . .please—that’s a joke from your grandparents’ day. When I say 7 times 13, you say 91. Think of it as a rap. When you see .625, you say 5/8. Woot. All seriousness aside, people waste 30 seconds a question in the quant because they don’t know their times tables or squares or the fractional decimal percentage equivalencies. Or their algebra isn’t smooth and silky. Think about how much time that uses up during the section. How do you fix that? “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” That’s a New York joke—LA classes hate it. You have to want it enough to do the work that you need to do. That amount varies, person to person.
Okay, this is the tough love part of the evening: people have to not kid themselves about what they want the most. I had an acting coach who said, “You can have anything you want if you’re willing to sacrifice everything for it.” Hear the second part. When I was a young I considered going expat in Paris, even though I was decades too late, but, never mind. I didn’t go because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice things that I ultimately considered more important. It wasn’t a failure; it was a choice. It’s the same with y’all. If you don’t want to put in the effort that it would take you to score 700 and instead go to a [good] program that requires a 600, it’s a choice. Maybe even the right choice. Even if you decide to throw your hands up altogether, it’s not a failure—it’s a choice. Maybe even the right choice. Just don’t kid yourself. If you want most to max out on this exam, do the amount of foundation work that you need. I have worked with folks who started from zero and went to Kellogg and Stanford and Harvard and other such programs. They worked real hard for as long as it took, and I admired their dedication. Do the work. You can. I am trying to be encouraging here, but I was raised by Germans, and it’s not part of the culture of my people. And, the older I get, the more respect I have for “what is.”
Where did everybody go? What did I say? Just kidding. . .I hope. People generally associate foundation work with the math, but there also such work in the verbal. Most test takers take reading English for granted—note: that’s how facile the algebra should be— but the verbal requires the same rigor as the math. Foundation work there includes finding conclusions, main ideas, and paragraph topics efficiently. The sentence correction requires a mastery of the rules in the same sense that one masters geometric formulas. Because y’all are educated, too many of you resist the drudgery of learning how to articulate the rules as questions to apply to the choices. Sounds better ain’t good enough. If you want to max out. Remember the * above? If you didn’t notice that the GMAT idiom is “do so”, there’s room for improvement in your grammar mastery. I know I’m an old, cranky jerk.
Other timing problems involve behavioral modification. Beyond the foundation work, have you mastered the strategies in the guides? Do you almost instantly recognize the types and efficient approaches or do you reinvent the wheel? When you see a rate problem, do you automatically set up an RTD chart? Do you know the classic rephrasings? Do you work the SC choices vertically and apply rules to comparable parts? Do you catch a ball if I toss it to you? In an ideal world, it should be the same thing, just as automatic. Think of it as a sport or musical instrument—your coaches show you the best form and you give yourself wholeheartedly to perfect it. It’s the same here—don’t resist the processes. Besides, it’s easier than thinking. And more efficient. Ask Henry Ford. And like an Olympic gymnast—“Since I was 7, I practiced. . .”, you have to want it enough.
Some behavioral mistakes are subtler. Many of these are based upon a misunderstanding of the scoring system. That topic is another post, but remember the somewhat opposing goals of doing the problems that you know fully and accurately while also finishing the section. Above all, remember that you will answer around 60% correctly whether you score 400 or 700. Zeke, the man who founded Manhattan GMAT, used to say, “Have the discipline to guess.” To ensure accuracy on the winners, you must guess on the losers—don’t keep hope alive. It’s not high school algebra, it’s the stock market—invest in the winners, not the losers. Think Facebook. I worked with a woman whose math percentile rose from 45 to 69 in the week before her exam. How? I slapped her. Just kidding—only verbally. “Why are you spending five minutes each on three questions in the first ten that you have no business attempting?” She found the discipline to guess and thus had the time to nail those she could do—combined with a 99% verbal, she scored 720. At the halfway point, if you’re three minutes behind the pace, you should be delighted if you don’t know how to do #17—make an educated guess and pick up at least a minute. At that point, the time is more important than the yardage. Throw the ball away. Don’t win the Romo award. [Don’t mind me---I wanted to touch base with the opening NFL metaphor.]
“How do I know which ones to bail on?” can be a difficult question and, honestly, one that instructors sometimes overlook. In acting school, the coaches used to say, “Only schizophrenics don’t react to the reality around them.” If the reality around you is that you don’t know how to do #7, react to that. You have to notice what you’re doing. I sometimes say that I haven’t gotten married for the same reason that I don’t watch TV: I turn on the TV to see if there’s something I want to watch, so I usually say, “Nope,” and turn it off. If I turned on the TV to find something to watch, it would end differently. See? It can be hard to notice. Have you heard the Woody Allen joke about psychoanalysis? “One session to figure out what’s wrong with you and 20 years to stop doing it.” When taking a CAT, ignore the generalized fear—that’s just human paranoia. I feel that way even now when I’m unofficially taking a CAT. It’s only craziness. Furthermore, the test is deliberately psychologically stressful. especially if you’re doing well; you feel like you’re being beaten like a baby seal—just an expression. Ignore the paranoia. However, after you’ve read a question twice, if you hear a calm, little voice say, “This is not going to end well,” listen to that voice. That’s not paranoia, that’s the truth. And that’s how you tell. If I were** with you on a brownstone roof in Manhattan, and I said, “Let’s jump over to the next roof,” you wouldn’t do so if you weren’t sure you could make it. It’s the same thing. Once again, don’t kid yourself. I often receive emails from folks that say, “Once I quit kidding myself about the ones I couldn’t do, my math percentile went up 20 points.”
A final thought on “having the discipline to guess”: instructors guess shamelessly and score very high because they understand the scoring system and because they don’t doubt themselves. Let go of that and save another 15 seconds per question. I tell students, “Check the question if you find yourself thinking about how big a dumb ass you are. If it doesn’t read something like, ‘The passage suggests that which of the following best describes how big a dumb ass you are’, then you’re thinking about the wrong thing.” Hang tough. The theme is “hot as a pistol but cool inside.”
PS In re **, it used to be that saying “if I were” instead of “if I was” was the mark of an educated person. When I was a little boy, if I said, “if I was”, my mother would burn me with her cigarette. Just kidding—she’d only roll her eyes like she’d spawned an idiot and correct me. But my mother was an old school hard ass about grammar. So is the GMAT. And if you didn’t recognize that “if I were” above is correct, there’s room for improvement in your foundation. Yes, I’m still an old, cranky jerk.
PPS When I was a really little boy, if I said “kids”, my mother would say “kids” are baby goats, the word is “children.” Both my mother and the GMAT gave up on that one, but it’s a good example of the perfectionism that comes from wanting it enough.