Once upon a time, in an America of long, long ago and far, far away, corporate executives often spent their careers with one employer, with little threat of termination, and then a fixed benefit pension. Think of the client company guys on Mad Men. And the living was easy. Let me point out that even though I’m old and cranky, this was way before my time—my father was one of the last to get away with it. Anyway, back then there were still books about how to succeed in business. You know, books——-primitive information delivery systems that people used during their time off the butter churn. One of these books was called The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle suggested that executives were promoted until they reached their level of incompetence; once they achieved a position beyond their abilities, they would stagnate there for the rest of their careers. As fascinating and amusing as this is, why should you care? Because, in essence, that’s how the GMAT is scored.
The GMAT computer is searching for the difficulty level at which the test taker is about 50% accurate. The test taker’s level of incompetence. Simply put, to achieve whatever score you want, don’t screw up very many questions below that level and run 50/50 at that level. The questions harder than your percentile goal don’t matter. Many test takers sabotage their scores by rising to the bait and overinvesting in difficult questions, while too glibly dispensing with easier ones. This is backwards. The hard ones don’t matter, the easy ones matter. If you don’t answer the easy ones correctly, the computer will peg your level of incompetence there and not let you near the harder ones. Understand the Peter Principle.
Actually, folks do understand the Peter Principle. At the first class, students intellectually understand what I say—that whether a test taker scores 540 or 740, that test taker will miss more than a third of the questions. However, when students take a CAT, they strive for 80 or 90% accuracy and lock themselves in death spirals with top level questions, and that ruins their scores. Why do people do so? Because people, after years of living under the high school/college rubric of 90% accuracy, cannot emotionally accept the scoring system. Furthermore, folks, at least subliminally, want to demonstrate their brilliance by nailing the hard ones. But you can’t win any game if you ignore how it’s scored! Not Monopoly, not Scrabble, and not the GMAT.
Time for an attitude adjustment. In life, most people find it relatively easy to excuse failures caused by circumstances beyond their control. Far more galling are disasters that are entirely one’s own fault. I think I broke a toe last Sunday, and I resent it—since the only cause was that I’m a clumsy dumb ass. Try to feel the way that you feel about your performance in life when you evaluate your performance on a CAT. When you review it, suffer most when you say, Of course that answer is correct and the one I picked is insane. Those are the mistakes that are unforgiveable. Because those are the questions that you have to get right. Not the ones that you don’t know how to do. Don’t cut yourself slack for silly mistakes. Think of it as a sport—you’d never give a coach these lame excuses:
Test taker: I knew how to do it.
Coach CAT: You lost.
Test taker: I could have done it.
Coach CAT: You lost.
Test taker: It was a stupid mistake.
Coach CAT: You lost.
What? You never played sports? Oh. I see. Well. . .there’s a great old movie in which Jimmy Stewart is flying a third rate passenger plane across the North African desert and has to crash land during a sand storm. He writes in the flight log that the radio had broken, so he received no warning and the engine air filters hadn’t been cleaned, so he didn’t have a chance. Then he violently crosses it all out and writes, Cause of crash: pilot error. That’s how you have to feel about the questions that you should have gotten right. Don’t cut yourself slack.
Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.
It’s a funny thing—folks get good at doing OG problems at their desks. Then they take a practice CAT, with the clock on the monitor running down, like sands in the hourglass. Suddenly they are seized by amphetamine psychosis. Like NFL rookies, the big adjustment is to the speed of the game. When you’re taking the test, if you can’t do it* in two to three minutes, you can’t do it.* However, timing problems are an effect, not a cause. People have timing problems because their math foundation sucks. People have timing problems because they don’t get a good rephrasing. People have timing problems because they don’t compare SC choices vertically. People have timing problems because they don’t have the discipline to guess. And so on. All of these problems are fixable. Like most GMAT issues, timing problems are the result of either a poor foundation or bad behavior.
Take foundation work. . .please—that’s a joke from your grandparents’ day. When I say 7 times 13, you say 91. Think of it as a rap. When you see .625, you say 5/8. Woot. All seriousness aside, people waste 30 seconds a question in the quant because they don’t know their times tables or squares or the fractional decimal percentage equivalencies. Or their algebra isn’t smooth and silky. Think about how much time that uses up during the section. How do you fix that? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. That’s a New York joke—LA classes hate it. You have to want it enough to do the work that you need to do. That amount varies, person to person.
I’ve written a lot “ and you’ve read a lot “ about timing already, but I want to address something that I’ve been hearing lately from students particularly those who have been studying for a while and are really struggling to make progress on practice tests.
My best timing was on my very first practice test
I’ve spoken with a few students lately who’ve told me that they felt more comfortable with the timing before they started studying all of this stuff. How is that possible?
Actually, it’s fairly common. Here’s what happens: on your first practice test (before or shortly after you started studying), you know what you don’t know and so it’s much easier to let go of the too-hard questions. Once you start studying, you’ll see something and think, Oh, I studied that! I can get this one! But it turns out that one is still too hard only, this time, you won’t let go when you should. Do that a few times and the whole situation snowballs: you realize you’re behind on time, you start to panic and rush, that causes careless mistakes. Then you get stuck on another because you feel like you’re getting a bunch wrong so you don’t want to get this one wrong too now you’re wasting even more time, and then the section ends with a bunch of guesses or even blank questions.
I’m fine with OG / untimed / with shorter problem sets
I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that you’re better when the timer isn’t ticking. We all are. Unfortunately, the real test is timed, so our untimed performance doesn’t matter. Lots of people also discover that everything’s fine when doing sets out of the Official Guide, especially shorter problem sets. This, again, is to be expected “ the OG isn’t adaptive (so you aren’t getting harder questions when you do well), and it’s easier to keep track of your global time for 5 or 10 questions rather than 37 or 41.
So what do I do?
It’s always disheartening when we have a score drop, whether it happens on a practice test or (worst case scenario) on the real test. If this happens to you, the most important thing to do next is figure out why this happened. If you can figure out why, then you may be able to do something to prevent a score drop from happening again.
This article contains the questions to ask yourself as you try to figure out why your score dropped.