What do you want to get wrong on the GMAT?


gmat-test-prepRight now, you might be thinking, “Wait, what? I don’t actively want to get stuff wrong!”

In fact, yes, you do. Let me take you on what might seem like a tangent for a moment.

Would you agree that one of the marks of a strong business person is the ability to tell the difference between good opportunities and bad ones? And the ability to capitalize on those good opportunities while letting the bad ones go?

Yes, of course—that’s a basic definition of business. What does that have to do with the GMAT?

The GMAT is a test of your business skills. They don’t really care how great you are with geometry or whether you know every obscure grammar rule in the book. They care whether you can distinguish between good and bad opportunities and whether you can drop the bad ones without a backward glance.

If you want to maximize your score on the GMAT, then you will have a short-list of topics that you want to get wrong fast on the test. My top three in math are combinatorics, 3-D geometry, and anything with roman numerals.

How do you decide what your categories should be? Let’s talk.

But I don’t really want to get stuff wrong… that’s just a metaphor, right?

No, it’s not a metaphor. I really want you to plan how and what you’re going to get wrong! If you haven’t already, read my post about what the GMAT really tests. (You can go ahead and read it right now; I’ll wait.)

In a nutshell, the GMAT is set up to force us to get some of the questions wrong. No matter what you can do, they’ll just give you something harder.

Ultimately, they want to see whether you have the makings of a good business person. One way to test that is to force you into a situation where your choice is between spending extra time and mental energy on something that’s too hard—likely causing yourself to run out of time and energy before the test is over—and cutting yourself off when appropriate.

How do I cut myself off?

First of all, put yourself in this mindset:

You’re at the office, working on a group project.

A colleague of yours is the project manager.

The manager annoys you because he (or she) keeps assigning too many tasks, some of which are not all that important.

Sometimes, you’re rolling your eyes when your colleague tosses a certain piece of work at you; you’re thinking, “Seriously, the client meeting is in 3 days. This is NOT the best use of our remaining time.”

Got that? Okay, now during the test, put yourself in that mindset. The test itself is your annoying colleague. When he drops a roman numeral question in your lap, or a 4-line sentence correction with every last word underlined, you’re already rolling your eyes and thinking, “Are you serious? Come on.”

Here’s the key step: let yourself get just a little annoyed—but with the test, not yourself. You’re not feeling badly that you don’t like the problem; you don’t feel as though you’re falling short. No way! Instead, your colleague is trying to get you to do something that is clearly a waste of time. Roll your eyes. To appease your colleague, figure out whether there’s enough here for you to make an educated guess. Then pick something and move on to more important tasks.

How do I know when to cut myself off?

Quick: name your top three annoyances in quant. Now do the same in verbal. Here’s another one of mine: an RC detail EXCEPT question on a really technical topic with very long answer choices. (In other words, I have to find the four wrong answers in order to find the one right answer… and the topic area is very long and annoying.)

That’s your starting point: you already know you dread these areas. Back this up with data: make sure that these really are the worst ones for you. “Worst” is defined as “I rarely get these right and even when I do, I still use too much time and brain energy.”

Next, check to see how commonly tested the particular topic or question type is. You can’t afford to blow off algebra—that’s too broad a topic. You can, though, blow off sequences.

For some topics, you do want to try to be able to answer lower-level questions. For instance, if one of my students just hates polygons (triangles, squares, rectangles), he has my blessing to blow off harder questions—the ones that combine shapes, for example, or that move into the 3-D arena. He does need to learn the more basic formulas, though, so that he isn’t missing too many lower-level questions.

Your particular mix of pet peeves will almost certainly change over time. Initially, I had some other things at the top of my list, such as weighted averages. Then, I discovered a much better way to do those problems, so 3-D geometry took its place.

Some topics, though, will always be weaknesses. I’ve never liked combinatorics and doubt I ever will. That’s perfectly fine, particularly when the topic is not that commonly tested anyway!

Sound off in the comments below: what areas do you hate the most? Your new strategy is to get those wrong fast and redirect that time and mental energy elsewhere!

  1. SW March 2, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Hello Stacy, Thanks for writing this post, its helpful to get these tips. I had this strategy in mind for Verbal section – as RC section is time consuming I was thinking of skipping the huge essays questions altogether. Not sure if its a good idea to completely leave RC as my CR and SC are weak as well. I was thinking if I do spend more time in CR and SC may be I could get them right. RC – is too time consuming, takes lot of time but yes the probability of getting the RC questions right after spending time on the passage is more than SC, CR – for these there is a possibility that answer could go wrong.

  2. Stacey Koprince February 23, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    As of Feb 2014 (because this can change over time and this blog post will be here forever!), the most INfrequently tested topics are:
    – anything in our “Extras” chapters (if you have our books)
    – Geo: anything 3D; more unusual polygons such as rhombuses
    – NP: combinatorics and probability
    – Alg: functions, sequences
    – WP: consecutive integers (unless they’re also testing median or mean); 3-part sets (for which you’d need a Venn)
    – FDP: digits, decimals

    If any of those are your weaknesses, feel free to not study and skip (guess immediately) when you see on the real test. :)

  3. Cosmas February 21, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Hi Stacey,

    Nice article. I for one have to admit that I have faced serious challenges in letting go of questions. My weakest topics are probability and combinatorics, coordinate geometry, and functions.

    Am weak in RC generally but cant really let go. I have been an avid follower of your articles and this piece, among others has helped me quite a lot. I will practice this on my MGMAT CAT and see how it goes.

    Would you mind listing the most frequent topics in Quant on the GMAT Stacey?