Heart of Darkness — A Holistic Guide To GMAT Scoring

Chris Berman —  May 29, 2013 — 1 Comment

Once upon a time, in an America of long, long ago and far, far away, corporate executives often spent their careers with one employer, with little threat of termination, and then a fixed benefit pension.executive  Think of the client company guys on Mad Men.  And the living was easy.  Let me point out that even though I’m old and cranky, this was way before my time—my father was one of the last to get away with it.  Anyway, back then there were still books about how to succeed in business.  You know, books——-primitive information delivery systems that people used during their time off the butter churn.  One of these books was called The Peter Principle.  The Peter Principle suggested that executives were promoted until they reached their level of incompetence; once they achieved a position beyond their abilities, they would stagnate there for the rest of their careers.  As fascinating and amusing as this is, why should you care?  Because, in essence, that’s how the GMAT is scored.

The GMAT computer is searching for the difficulty level at which the test taker is about 50% accurate.  The test taker’s level of incompetence.  Simply put, to achieve whatever score you want, don’t screw up very many questions below that level and run 50/50 at that level.  The questions harder than your percentile goal don’t matter.  Many test takers sabotage their scores by rising to the bait and overinvesting in difficult questions, while too glibly dispensing with easier ones.  This is backwards.  The hard ones don’t matter, the easy ones matter.  If you don’t answer the easy ones correctly, the computer will peg your level of incompetence there and not let you near the harder ones.  Understand the Peter Principle.

Actually, folks do understand the Peter Principle.  At the first class, students intellectually understand what I say—that whether a test taker scores 540 or 740, that test taker will miss more than a third of the questions.  However, when students take a CAT, they strive for 80 or 90% accuracy and lock themselves in death spirals with top level questions, and that ruins their scores.  Why do people do so?  Because people, after years of living under the high school/college rubric of 90% accuracy, cannot emotionally accept the scoring system.  Furthermore, folks, at least subliminally, want to demonstrate their brilliance by nailing the hard ones.  But you can’t win any game if you ignore how it’s scored!  Not Monopoly, not Scrabble, and not the GMAT.

Time for an attitude adjustment.  In life, most people find it relatively easy to excuse failures caused by circumstances beyond their control.  Far more galling are disasters that are entirely one’s own fault.  I think I broke a toe last Sunday, and I resent it—since the only cause was that I’m a clumsy dumb ass.  Try to feel the way that you feel about your performance in life when you evaluate your performance on a CAT.  When you review it, suffer most when you say, Of course that answer is correct and the one I picked is insane.  Those are the mistakes that are unforgiveable.  Because those are the questions that you have to get right.  Not the ones that you don’t know how to do.  Don’t cut yourself slack for silly mistakes.  Think of it as a sport—you’d never give a coach these lame excuses:

Test taker: I knew how to do it.

Coach CAT:  You lost.


Test taker: I could have done it.

Coach CAT:  You lost.


Test taker: It was a stupid mistake.

Coach CAT:  You lost.

What?  You never played sports?  Oh.  I see.  Well. . .there’s a great old movie in which Jimmy Stewart is flying a third rate passenger plane across the North African desert and has to crash land during a sand storm.  He writes in the flight log that the radio had broken, so he received no warning and the engine air filters hadn’t been cleaned, so he didn’t have a chance.  Then he violently crosses it all out and writes, Cause of crash: pilot error.  That’s how you have to feel about the questions that you should have gotten right.  Don’t cut yourself slack.

One arguably legitimate source of such mistakes stems from a cognitive misunderstanding.  On questions that folks find easy, their minds precisely and automatically do every step fully, faster than they can notice.  Then, on harder questions, test takers’ minds can’t automatically process the information, but the test takers mimic the speed with which they did the easy ones rather than manually making their minds go through the process.  There’s the rub.  Ask yourself if that is the trap that you fall into.  If not, there is another, less justifiable, possible cause. . .

Time for another attitude adjustment.  Some people miss questions that they are capable of doing correctly because they have a fear and arrogance problem.  While you do need both fear and arrogance to succeed on the GMAT, once again, many people are backwards.  What the hell am I talking about?  Well, people fear getting their hands dirty doing the work on paper and thus evade it, but have an often unjustified arrogance about their glib assumptions.  Like a high school quarterback, if you know what I mean.  This attitude is backwards.  You should have an arrogance that you can do the [foundation] work without taking forever and a fear of being punked by the CAT.  Don’t settle for Oh, it’s that—I remember from the passage or Both statements should work.

The higher you want to score, the more rigorously you have to apply that standard.  Have another analogy. . .although this is turning into movie week.  When I was in acting school, one of the coaches brought in an out take of Brando doing the Heart of Darkness speech from Apocalypse Now.  Let me hasten to point out that while I’m old, I’m not that old—it was an old movie even then.  And it doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen it.  Anyway, Brando finishes and just looks at the dirt, but the camera keeps rolling.  Then he looks up and says, That’s all I got.  You want more?  Get a better actor.  And that illustrates the right mix of fear and arrogance—arrogance about one’s ability to come to grips with the work coupled with fear of not being truthful [precise] enough.  Don’t fear what you don’t know—fear being played for a fool.

Avoid those sudden fits of inspiration.  They are symptomatic of backwards fear and arrogance.  When you think, I see it!, often you are seeing what could be.  But the question is asking what must be.  Actually, you can’t really stop yourself from having those thoughts.  I have them.  However, as I wrote earlier here, you must recognize what you’re doing.  Open your third eye—recognize the difference between knowing and figuring.  When I’m doing GMAT problems, my third eye is usually open and I say to myself, Self, you don’t know that for sure, you’re just making it up.  Do the work and see if it’s really true.  That’s why people have to stay focused.  It’s hard.  Sometimes, I read half an argument before stopping, and saying, Idiot Boy, good to see you.  You were just moving your eyes instead of listening to the words.  Start again.  It’s really hard.  Once in a while my third eye closes and I make a mistake.  And then I say, Cause of crash: pilot error.

Nobody’s perfect—but the best make very few unforced errors.  That’s a far more important goal than demonstrating brilliance on the hard questions.  Thus sayeth the Peter Principle.  Remember how the game is scored.  However, there is one more catch.  I have deliberately skipped an important, albeit self-defeating, reason that folks’ fear and arrogance is backwards: the timing pressure.  To score well, you must finish the sections.  Thus, the ticking clock sings a siren song that encourages folks to substitute figuring for doing.  And, like those mythic sailors, they run aground and come to grief.  Test takers have to combat the time pressure not only by bolstering the fluency of their foundation work, but also by investing in the winners and having the discipline to guess.  That topic, along with a discussion of how important the verbal is to the overall score, merits its own post.  So there will be A Holistic Guide to GMAT Scoring, Part Duh.  Great, huh?  For today though, that’s all I got.  You want more?  Get a better actor.



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 (“Have annoying comments, will travel”). Eventually moving to Hollywood (it’s all true!), he has continued to tutor, while also writing screenplays -- sometimes for money -- and working on “the novel”. (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.

One response to Heart of Darkness — A Holistic Guide To GMAT Scoring

  1. Guru Chris Berman, namaste. I love your style and wisdom. Thank you :)

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