What Does the GMAT Test?

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Last week, I wrote the following:

The most general rule--one that I've already repeated on this blog, and will doubtless bring up again and again--is that the GMAT is not designed to test your computation abilities. It tests your ability to think through problems and solve them quickly, and very often, old-fashioned computation is most certainly not the most efficient method.

Since it is so important to understand what the testmaker is after, I didn't want to wait any longer to fulfill my promise to "bring it up again and again." One of the easiest ways to waste your limited study time is to prepare for the wrong test--that is, think about the GMAT as if it were a high school geometry exam or a college literature quiz.

What's the Purpose of the GMAT?

Most of us have learned to be cynical when it comes to standardized tests: everyone knows (or at least has heard stories about) someone who bombed the SAT, yet went on to be a great student in college. Because we don't trust the system to test what it sets out to evaluate, we fall into the same mindset most of us had when preparing for the SAT: put your nose to the grindstone, learn some vocab words, study your algebra and geometry notes, and practice, practice, practice. Thinking really doesn't play a big part in the process.

I don't want to come across here as an apologist for the test--I'm not. But I do play with the hand that I'm dealt, and all successful GMAT students do the same. I've watched some people keep a destructive seed--"It's not fair" / "I don't test well" / "I don't see what this has to do with business school"--in the back of their mind for months. Don't do it. If today's tip helps you get over that, I've accomplished a big part of my goal.

The GMAT, of course, is a standardized test, and it's not perfect. One of the toughest things about tutoring the GMAT in Manhattan is that virtually everyone I meet seems, at first, to be impressive, accomplished, and intelligent. (Maybe I'm just a generous-minded guy.) However, as I work with some students, their thinking skills appear more clearly, and while some students continue to impress, others make me wonder where I can get a business suit that overstates my competence so overwhelmingly.

Business schools, at least in the aggregate, have quite a bit of say over the content of the GMAT, and they seem to like it. The official line spouted by the testmaker and B-schools alike is that the exam tests your thinking skills. Obviously, future business leaders need to have thinking skills, right?

Why Do I Need to Memorize Stuff, Then?

To elaborate on that "thinking skills" bit: consider what the GMAT really expects of you:

  1. Accuracy
  2. Efficiency
  3. Creative thinking
  4. Performance under pressure
  5. A solid grasp of the English language
  6. An understanding of several basic math concepts

So many students get caught up with #6 that they forget about the other five. The most common self-study trap I've witnessed is that of students who allot a day or two of studying for each math content area (algebra, geometry, number theory, etc.) right up until test day. It's like making a plan to write a book and setting aside the entire time for research. The GMAT is not a rote memorization test: those math skills are just your foundation.

For some students--especially those for whom English is not a primary language–#5 raises the same issues. Some of these students spend weeks studying vocabulary and memorizing grammar rules only to find that making inferences--perhaps the most elusive skill on the verbal portion of the GMAT--is beyond them.

To put it simply, the GMAT tests your ability to analyze. However, you can't analyze much of anything with a whole lot of background knowledge. It's undoubtedly true at your workplace (even if you take your background knowledge for granted), and it's probably the case in just about every aspect of your life.

How Should I Prepare for the Test?

Knowing what I've just told you shouldn't change your approach too drastically. But instead of viewing foundational knowledge (formulas, grammar rules, etc.) as the be-all end-all of your study time, view the list above as a hierarchy. You can't engage in creative thinking about an algebra problem if you don't know how to FOIL a quadratic, and you may not be able to work through the problem accurately and efficiently without thinking about it creatively.

If you need a boot camp in the basics, do what you need to do: you can't get much of anywhere on this test without those requisite skills. But realize that relearning math and brushing up on grammar rules is just the beginning. Only after that can you get the most out of practice problems, trying various out-of-the-box problem solving methods, seeing what works, and streamlining your approach.



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.

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