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Common GMAT Myths Debunked by GMAC

Regrettably, there is abundance of fake news surrounding the GMAT also. Some of them invented and perpetuated by test prep companies. In this article, we not only cast light on GMAT myths, but we debunk them.

Common GMAT Myths Debunked by GMAC

An abundance of myths surrounds the GMAT, many invented or perpetuated by test prep companies. Before you read these myths and facts, we want you to take a few minutes to type some key tips, tricks, and study strategies you’ve been told about the GMAT. If you’ve already spent a significant amount of time studying, you will be shocked to find out how inaccurate much of the lore is.

Now, here are some common myths that have been officially designated as untrue by GMAC (some by Larry Rudner, GMAC’s former lead psychometrician), with some of Josh’s comments.  Myths that Josh personally dispels follow.

Myth: “You can game the scoring algorithm by playing with timing” (such as spending less time on the first questions and spending more time on the last questions).

Fact: The GMAT does an excellent job of measuring your true ability. That is why business schools use it, and why it costs so much to take the exam. Playing with time only makes you miss questions below your true ability, or get questions more difficult than your true ability (at the expense of time you need to solve all the other questions). It is ok, however, to “throw away” a really difficult question you have no clue how to solve, in order to invest more time on questions that are at your ability level. But only do this once, and be careful that it’s actually a difficult question.

Myth: “The first 10 questions count more towards your score, and you should devote more time to them.”

Fact: The scoring algorithm considers all of the questions you answer, and their difficulty level. This myth came from misinterpreting the large initial variation in your score estimate when you’ve only answered a few questions to mean that they play a larger role in determining your score. The truth is these fluctuations get averaged out by the later questions. Even though the algorithm finds your true ability pretty quickly (by around question 20), it still evaluates your entire question profile.

Myth: “The more questions you get right, the better your score.”

Fact: The algorithm evaluates your performance holistically, taking into account the difficulty level of the questions you were given. If student A missed 9 questions and had more difficult questions, they would have a higher score than student B who missed 7 questions but had easier questions. Actually, no matter what your score, you’ll miss 20-30% of the questions due to the adaptive nature of the test (you’re given less/more difficult questions for getting questions in/correct).

Myth: “I only need to study the hardest questions.”

Fact: It is best to study those questions that are only slightly above your current level. Missing easy questions harms your score more than getting difficult questions right helps. Even if you start getting more of the difficult questions correct, spending too much exam time on tough questions (and consequently missing questions you would otherwise answer correctly) will harm your score. Find the difficulty level where you miss 25% of the questions, and work on making that 10%. Repeat as necessary. (But keep in mind that for large score increases, it’s not just a matter of doing practice questions–You’ll need to strengthen your foundations as well.) And remember: We build from the ground up, not from the sky down.

Myth: Missing an easy question destroys your score.

Fact: Outliers do not affect your score that much. The test gets a pretty good sense of your ability level and discounts outliers in either direction. That being said, if you miss several easy question, they are no longer outliers and better reflect your true score.

Myth: I need to be a math genius to do well on the Quant section.

Fact: The math background required for the Quant section does not extend past high-school level math. The difficulty lies in how you apply those foundations.

Myth: If I see an easy question, that means I missed the last one.

Fact: There is some degree of random variation in the difficulty level of the questions you get. There is only an overall tendency to get more difficult questions if you’re getting questions right, or get easier questions if you are missing questions.

Myth: It’s more important to respond correctly and leave items blank than to finish with guesses

Fact: Unanswered questions are far more heavily penalized than incorrect ones.


GMAT Myths Dispelled by Josh

The next ones come from my experience as an educator, although I am sure GMAC would agree.

Myth: My GMAT improved 120 points in only 3 weeks with X Tutoring company.

Fact: No tutoring company is responsible for results like that, and those tests weren’t real GMAT tests. 120 points in 3 weeks is only possible for someone who can study full time for the GMAT, and even then it’s extremely difficult to do even with expert help. Moreover, some test preparation companies will rig the tests so that you get a more difficult test the first time and an easier one the second time, to make it look like you’ve improved rapidly because of the course. If you do see such a large score jump from your first to second practice test, with very little study time (<200 hours) in between, that is probably largely to do with your increased familiarity with the timing and content of the exam. The GMAT does a great job measuring your true ability, and you can’t game it that much in such a short period of time. After you’ve reached some baseline level of familiarity with the test, a 120-point jump amounts to hundreds of hours of self-study. So did you learn something in those 3 weeks? Probably. Was it 120 points’ worth? Absolutely not!

Myth: My Quant percentile is low but my Verbal percentile is high, therefore I should only study Quant.

Fact: Your percentiles do not factor into your 800 score; Your raw, 51-point score does. Someone with 80th %ile in both Quant and Verbal is actually doing well in Quant but only ok in Verbal. This corresponds to something like Q48V37, which means there are only 3 more Quant points available, but 14 Verbal points available! The reason the percentiles are skewed has largely to do with the number of nonnative English speakers with strong quantitative backgrounds.

Myth: I don’t need to study Verbal much/at all.

Fact: Unless you have a V48 or higher, you are leaving many points on the table. Actually for most score ranges, every Verbal point is another 8 points on the 800 scale. One of the biggest pitfalls that catches GMAT takers off-guard is the Verbal section. We think “I’m a native English speaker (or even English major!), I’ve written many essays before, I got this”. But the Verbal section measures a different set of skills than we’re used to demonstrating. Moreover, some conventions we use outside of the GMAT do not apply to the GMAT SC. For example, there are times when a pronoun could refer to an antecedent before a sentence, or even to a noun that appears after the pronoun (and even to an absent noun clear from the meaning of the sentence!) Since GMAT SC is about individual sentences, this does not apply. See OG2015 SC #89 C,D,E. But never fear, as the Verbal section of the GMAT is pretty logical, and is in truth also “integrated reasoning”. It is arguably one of the more easily teachable aspects of the test, since it does not draw on as many skills as the Quant section, but instead relies on a few core skills and strategies I will help you improve. The key is that the Verbal section heavily emphasizes structure: of individual sentences, of arguments, and of passages.

Myth: I should take a dozen practice tests.

Fact: You should only take 2-4 practice tests, and at predetermined points in your study (beginning and end, possibly at the middle). Practice tests are only useful as a) score diagnostics (which you only need to do a couple of times) and b) to get you used to timing, which you can work on with practice questions outside of the timed exam. Once you have the timing down, there is little point in taking more practice tests. Avoid repeatedly taking practice tests without significant (100+ hours) study in between, even if they are nonGMAC, as that time is better invested studying how to get questions right in the first place, before trying to get them right quickly. It does not make sense to time yourself as you are doing many different problem types you haven’t learned yet, since it could take you 10+ minutes to learn how to do a new problem type, but once you master it with us, less than 2 minutes. This relates to the next myth:

Myth: “All I need to do is a bunch of practice problems.”

Fact: Even if your foundations are very strong (meaning you’re already at Q44+ and V44+) you still have to learn GMAT exam-specific strategies which you don’t pick up solely from answering practice questions. And if your Q and V scores are less than 44, you need to work on content mastery first, before doing practice problems. We learn most efficiently when the ideas are presented as a coherent whole, organized by themes, rather than as a bunch of random problems (even a bunch of random themed problems). In other words, see the big picture first, then look at details. Don’t try to assemble the big picture out of a bunch of minor details. That is the absolute least efficient way of approaching a high score, aside from doing nothing at all (and is akin to trying to jump while you’re in the air, rather than with your feet firmly planted on the foundation). The misguided “practice-problems-only” approach is so common among students (and even among so-called expert GMAT teachers) that I had to include it here. Actually, this relates to the next myth.

Myth: “All practice GMAT questions are created equal.”
Fact: Some are far better than others. In fact, even GMAT questions from the makers of the test are not created equal. Compare the earliest questions to the latest questions and you will see what I mean. GMAC has continually improved their questions over the years, spending millions of dollars to do so. But aside from the variation in quality of GMAC GMAT questions, test prep materials also vary wildly in quality, with none of them coming close to the real deal (which is why I always suggest finishing with real GMAT questions). Test preparation company verbal questions in particular are very weak compared to Official GMAT questions.

Myth: I already used the Official GMAT Guide and the GMATPrep tests, and therefore have nothing to gain from revisiting GMAC’s materials.

Fact: If you don’t have the score you want, then you haven’t mastered the official materials. Most students only get about 20-30% of the benefit from the official GMAT questions, even if they did every single question and read all of the answer explanations. GMAC spends thousands of dollars constructing every single question. They hire a team of psychometricians to first determine what skills they want to measure in a given question, how to exquisitely phrase the question to fit within all the constraints, and what psychological tricks to include in CR and RC. They then have to sample the question with many students, analyze data, refine the questions, and so on. You are leaving many points on the table unless you put that level of analysis into your study and thoroughly dissect every single question, genuinely understand every single nuance to every single question, and can perform the full Exam-mode question answering process efficiently (often <60s for the most difficult questions), and not simply from memory (having seen that the answer was D). You have to unpack everything GMAC packed into the question. Speaking of which,

Myth: I have mastered a given official GMAT question because I got it correct.

Fact: Simply getting the answer right is not enough. For Quant you need the most efficient solution, the 30 second solution when most people would take 2 or even 3 minutes. You also need to know multiple approaches to solving every single problem, because if you tend to gravitate toward certain approaches (using algebra, plugging in numbers, etc.) you will encounter situations in which those techniques fail.

For Verbal:

In CR and RC you have to learn how to recognize the wrong answers, and identify what exactly makes every wrong answer wrong, what exactly in the phrasing made us hesitate, and how they made the right answer sound incorrect.

In SC, even though one strong error may be enough to eliminate an answer choice, you still need to find the smaller errors in that choice, because in the difficult questions, you’re only going to have small errors to go by! If you’re not sensitive to them early on, you’re just going to burn through real GMAT questions and then run out of quality questions at the end.
True mastery means you can analyze the question from the point of view of the people who made it.

Myth: I have mastered a given official GMAT question because I read the answer explanations.

Fact: Reading the answer explanations is not enough. The answer explanations were not written with exam thinking in mind–They only serve to show you what is going on in the question. There are several precise steps you need to take after reading the explanations, steps GMAC did not mention. GMAC is not going to teach you how to beat their test.

For Quant, their solutions are almost NEVER the most efficient approach.

For Verbal, they only tell you what to look for in the right answer. They do not tell you how they made answer choices deceptive and tried to fool you into thinking the incorrect ones are correct, or the correct one is incorrect. They also do not describe how they try to distract you and bring you off topic, or confuse you with abstract language.

If a GMAT-taker thinks in the exact manner the solutions were written, they will have a very hard time scoring over 700 for 2 reasons: 1) They will run out of time in Quant and likely also even in Verbal. 2) In Verbal, they won’t have an explicit sense of how to eliminate answer choices in a strategic and efficient manner.

Myth: I don’t need any materials besides GMAC’s (OG, GMATPrep, etc).

Fact: That is only true if you are already within 40 points of your target score, and your target score is under 720. Otherwise, a more efficient use of those precious resources is to start with other materials (which I provide for you), then finish with GMAC materials so you’re back in GMAT mode. Another thing to note is that the solutions in OG are not the best/fastest. They only tell you why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answers incorrect, not the thought process/ best way to select the correct answer.

Myth: “I should memorize a bunch of formulas or problem solving strategies.”
Fact: That will not help your score much. (Maybe 10 points?) What matters is how you *apply* it. Familiarize, don’t memorize. While you will be expected to know some fundamental formulas, memorizing is far from sufficient to get a good score. Memorizing problem solving strategies can even harm your score. I’ve seen students claim they’ve memorized the entire OG, yet still not break 700. You need to be able to think flexibly and adapt to whatever is thrown at you. While there is a certain flavor to the questions, there are also many types of questions, and it is neither practical nor helpful to memorize them all. The road to success is a long one–There are no shortcuts in this case; only effective studying and enlisting my help!

Myth: The GMAT doesn’t measure anything valuable.

Fact: Not only do business schools find the test a very helpful candidate assessment tool, but so do the top management consulting firms: Bain, BCG, and McKinsey.

Why else would they use it? These firms won’t take applicants seriously unless they score in the 99th %ile. Of course an 800 on the GMAT does not guarantee that a person will become a billionaire CEO (and does not even guarantee that a person won’t end up homeless), but a 750+ scorer will tend to have a more refined set of skills than someone who scored below 600, a set of skills that *is* relevant for business success. To name a few such skills:

-Making decisions under time constraints,

-Optimally allocating resources: time and energy in this case,

-Determining what information (resources) is necessary to solve a problem (or even whether there is a solution), but not actually investing your time as manager working toward the solution (Leave that to your team!),

-Using sound logic to evaluate an argument, identify its underlying assumptions, what information strengthens or weakens it, and what inferences can be drawn,

-Achieving the best practical outcome rather than inefficiently allocating resources while chasing after unattainable perfection,

-Maintaining focus, unaffected by minor failures, and continually moving forward.

If those last two aren’t relevant for business (and life even), I don’t know what is.


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