The GMAT Tutor: Cheating at Solitaire


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Lots of GMAT conventional wisdom, including material found in test prep books, chatter in online forums, and even other blog posts here on this site, emphasizes error analysis. And there’s a very good reason for that: Error analysis should form the core of any GMAT student’s preparation efforts.

If you stop and think about it, here’s why: The GMAT, particularly the Quant section, tests a finite range of concepts. Yes, the numbers and the exact configuration of questions can change, but the themes are way more limited than the GMAC wants you to think. Every time you conquer a new conceptual question type, you’re closing the gap between what you know and what the test can possibly throw at you.


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The more times you can repeat that process, the closer you get to mastery.

Sounds somewhat intuitive, right? It should. Students sometimes ask me, “When will I be ready to take the GMAT?” and the best answer I can come up with is this: “When you really know how to solve every problem in the OG, the OG Quant and Verbal Supplements, and the online material that GMAC provides on” That’s a pretty straightforward prescription, but what trips people up is the difference between doing and really knowing.

Just going through the motions of solving the aforementioned problems is not enough. In fact, I would fear that a student rushing to make his or her way through all those problems might be mistaking action for accomplishment. The future 700+ scorer is more likely to be the student slowly picking the questions apart, limb-from-limb. Can she solve the problems with new numbers, or different variables? Can she see the solutions conceptually as well as mathematically? Most important of all, could she turn around and explain the solution to someone else? Answering those questions affirmatively takes more time than just flipping to an answer key, but the payoff is ultimately larger. As military snipers like to say in training, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

What gets in the way of this process, though, is a phenomenon I call “Cheating at Solitaire.” In an actual game of solitaire, if you didn’t really mean to draw that next card before catching the red-on-black play in front of you, you can just sort of undo the error with a wee bit of sleight of hand. No one’s really watching anyway, right?

I think of that metaphor every time I hear a GMAT student say something like this: “Igot 15 quant questions wrong on that practice CAT, but I really only got four wrong, because 11 of them were just dumb errors.” As an experienced GMAT tutor, I’ve learned to cringe every time I hear that. There are very few statements that a student could make that scare me more.

In your own mental accounting system, sure, you can say you only got four wrong in that scenario. However, if you’re taking the real GMAT on a real computer in some sterile PearsonVUE testing room, you don’t have that luxury. You’ve moved from the solitaire hand on your kitchen table to a major Vegas casino, and now there’s simply no ‘take-back’ option available.

As a prizefighter training for your bout with the GMAT, you need to take every mistake seriously. Even if you quickly see why you got a question wrong, you still need to make a 3x5 flash card to add to your pile. You need to review and re-review that problem until the synaptic connections between the neurons in your brain that are triggered by that problem are so strong that you won’t get it wrong again.

That process isn’t pretty. It’s repetitive. It takes discipline. It also leads to high scores.
In the short-term, it’s much easier to tell yourself that half your errors weren’t really errors. If you truly care about your GMAT score, however, you need to treat every error seriously.


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