How Difficult is Each Question? It Doesn't Matter.

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One of the many shortcuts that GMAT test-takers try to employ is analyzing the difficulty level of each question. The thinking behind that, I suppose, is that if you know how hard a question is, you can determine which tools you need to answer it.

It's certainly a common-enough practice: Some test-prep companies tell their students to identify "buckets" of questions. For instance, you may recognize a question as a "600-700 level" question, and act accordingly.

This is wrong and misguided. For one thing, you don't need even more things to worry about during the GMAT. For another, most students are not very good at it. And finally, many questions can't be categorized by difficulty level until after you've done them.

Keep it simple

It's quite enough to focus on watching the clock and answering questions correctly during the exam, without also considering difficulty level and, by extension, the GMAT algorithm. You can't outsmart the algorithm--all you can do is answer as many questions as possible correctly and manage your time effectively.

Difficult is As Difficult Does

What's difficult for you may be totally different from what's difficult for the person sitting next to you. Some 680 scorers will look at a 600-level problem and find themselves baffled; some 580 scorers will see a 700-level question and nail it in 60 seconds.

If anything, the only benefit of identifying a question as particularly challenging is that you can consider skipping it. If it looks hard to you and you don't have a method to solve it, you're probably not going to discover one. It doesn't matter whether it's a 720-level question or a 520-level question: If you don't know how to do it, you're probably not going to get it right.

Difficulty is Retrospective

If we only consider questions that you do know how to do, does it matter which ones are harder or easier than others? For me, having done GMAT questions of all difficulty levels for years, it's a purely academic question. I look at test items, figure out what the likely approach would be, and when I assign the difficulty level, I'm thinking about students I've encountered and how likely they would be to answer the question correctly.

This gets back to my previous point: analyzing difficulty level isn't easy. At the very least, you need to know how to do the problem (and hundreds of other problems) to know how hard it is. And if you know how to do the problem, why are you concerned with the difficulty level? As I've said, there's no outsmarting the GMAT algorithm.

Moving Forward

Despite the fact that every question on in the GMAT CAT is classified as, say, a 650-level question or a 560-level question, thinking that way does you no good.

However, it's very valuable to immediately recognize the relevant content areas. If you see keywords that indicate a ratio question, that's a strong clue towards how you'll solve it. If a Sentence Correction question contains a list, you'll probably be checking for parallelism.

All that matters on test day is whether you get a question right or wrong. Trying to determine difficulty level doesn't help you do that. Focus instead on the underlying content that will help you answer more questions correctly, and your GMAT score will follow.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Math

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Quant section. It's "far and away the best study material available," including over 300 realistic practice questions and more than 500 exercises!
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