Instinctively Wrong

March 31, 2010

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You've probably heard the phrase, "Trust your instinct." In some areas of your life, that may be good advice. On the GMAT, don't be so sure.

As you get better at GMAT questions, you will find that you instinctively lean toward certain answer choices. You may start to develop a sense of how the numbers fit together on Quant items, or what sort of sentence constructions tend to be wrong in Sentence Correction. That's a good sign.

But as you gain that sense, maintain a skeptical mindset. As GMAT questions get harder, they are more likely to be ever more complex variations on other questions you've seen. Just because a question reminds you of others that you've seen doesn't mean that it can be answered in the same way.

Developing instincts

Think of the things you understand instinctively, like basic arithmetic. You don't have to think about the sum of 2 and 3; you just know that 2 + 3 = 5. At some point, it wasn't automatic--you had to think about it.

Take something more complicated. In middle school, and perhaps again in your GMAT training, you learned that with two equations, you could solve for two variables. When you first learned the rule, you probably weren't presented with a lot of exceptions--you just practiced applying that rule.

But in that case, there are exceptions. The two equations must be linear equations. They must be distinct linear equations. It's easy to develop an instinct before you know the whole story. I've seen students apply the "two equations/two variables" rule in a matter of seconds, ignoring a relevant exception, and getting it wrong.

That's just an example. You may have mastered all of the ins and outs of the two equations/two variables rule. But you almost certainly haven't mastered all the ins and outs of everything the GMAT will test. On some aspects of the test, your insticts will be wrong.

Stay skeptical, slow down

If you maintain a steady pace when you take the GMAT, it doesn't matter whether your first instinct is right or wrong. You never have to answer a question in ten seconds, so don't do it!

Answering too quickly can be just as dangerous as taking too long to complete a question. You don't need to spend exactly two minutes on every single question, but if you're spending less than 30 to 45 seconds, you may be missing something crucial--perhaps you're relying on an instinct that isn't sufficiently developed.

The more you practice, the better your instincts will be. After all, there are only so many topics the GMAT tests. But at no point should you assume that you've seen it all. The test-makers are always trying to stay one step ahead of the very best test-takers, and they are very, very good at their jobs!



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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