Dead Man’s Hand — A Holistic Guide To GMAT Scoring, Part Duh


Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.


When I was a little boy, I didn’t want to be a fireman when I grew up.  I wanted to be a riverboat gambler.  Unfortunately, I didn’t because of a bad upbringing—utility stocks were too risky for my father. . .I do play poker and blackjack some though.  gmat card gameAnd I don’t try to fill inside straights.  On the other hand, I don’t play baccarat because I don’t understand the rules well enough.  The same principles apply to the GMAT.  The first part of this series—-Heart of Darkness—A Holistic Guide to GMAT Scoring —- highlights why test takers don’t score as well as they should because they don’t understand the rules of the game and thus often try to fill inside straights.  And, like a Greek tragedy, that post ends by lamenting how even test takers who know how to play baccarat are corrupted by the siren song of the ticking clock.  Yes, the clock.

Folks fail to understand that all their good work will be undone if they do not finish the sections in good order.  Leaving the last five blank will lower your score by as much as sixty points.  Roughly speaking, doing so in both sections will magically turn a 660 into a 550.  And you must not only finish, but also finish in good order.  If you blind guess the last five in each section, with average karma, your score will still drop sixty points.   Run the assessment reports on your practice exams—if your score is lower than the average difficulty of the questions that you missed, you have timing problems, even if you are finishing the sections.

How can you avoid this penalty?  Well, the easiest way is to have an angel on your shoulder and always guess right.  However, if you can’t count on that angel full time, you have to control the clock. In the first half of a section, the CAT computer is roughly approximating your ability level.  Thus, what is unforgiveable there is missing questions that you know how to do.  But test takers misunderstand—that is NOT the same as getting them ALL right.  If I take a GMAT, I’ll get ten of the first fifteen quants correct.  Maybe eleven.  Or maybe nine.  It doesn’t matter.  For me, after about the fourth one, they are all 800 level questions and, as part one discussed, you only need to be about 50% accurate at the score level that you want.  Trying to get them all right is a trap.  First off, as I implied a second ago, even if you are scoring 790, the computer will give you problems that you don’t know how to do.  So it’s hopeless on the face of it.  Equally importantly, attempting to do so uses up too much time.  The Catch-22 here is that you must answer those that you know correctly without disproportionally using the time.  Or you’ll turn your 660 into a 550.  What is the solution to this dialectic?  The envelope, please. . .

Have the discipline to guess—Zeke Vanderhoek, founder of Manhattan Prep.  Truer words were never spoken.  In the first half, after reading a question twice, if you hear a little voice saying, This is not going to end well—listen to that voice.  You must bail out on the losers because you cannot rush the ones that you know or you will be gulled into a craftily laid trap.  (If you are gullible, come to NYC.  Play three card monte on the street to develop the correct attitude.  Which is, You’re tryin’ to trick me out of my money, aren’t you?)  Invest in the winners, not the losers—I know you think your Facebook shares are going to bounce back. . .but, really?  I have gotten countless emails that read, Once I quit kidding myself about the ones that I didn’t know how to do, my math percentile went up twenty points.

If you are three or four minutes behind the pace around question fifteen, it is not ideal, but it is sort of acceptable if the extra time was devoted to ensuring that the ones you knew were correct.  However, at that point, your primary goal is to get that time back.  You should be delighted if you don’t know how to do number nineteen because you can make an educated guess and recapture at least a minute.  Let me put it another way that some of you might better understand: At that point, the time is more important than the yardage—throw the ball away.  See how clear it is if you understand the rules of the game?  Remember, in the second half of the exam, if you answer every other question correctly, you will largely protect the score that you earned in the first half.  As long as you finish in good order.  Only losing streaks hurt you.  And the way to avoid losing streaks and so finish is to have the discipline to guess.

Folks often ignore the aforementioned advice and lose too much time around question twenty because they think that there’s plenty of time left.  But there’s not.  If you are seven minutes behind at question thirty, you are toast.  At least in the sense that you will have to make some virtually blind guesses.  You do have an angel on your shoulder, right?  And why are you running that far behind?  Because you invested in losers.  Because you tried to fill inside straights.  Well, it’s like the old song goes. . .

He used to be a gambling man, just like you,

Until he sank so low,

There was nothing that no one could do.

What is actually sinking is your score.  Have the discipline to guess.

So, in sum, in the first half, do answer all the ones that you know correctly.  Don’t invest in losers and thus fall behind the pace.  It’s hard to harden your heart and have the discipline to guess.  Maybe this will help—if your practice CAT score meets your goal, then you don’t need to answer questions that you don’t know how to do.  You’ve proven that answering the ones that you knew was sufficient to attain that score.  I know that many, if not most of you, are implicitly thinking about the quant right now.  Well, you want to know a dirty secret about GMAT scoring?  Everybody likes hearing dirty secrets, right?

If you want to rock out the GMAT, you must score well in the verbal.   In terms of your overall score, the verbal weighs more heavily.  I worked with a woman who scored 720”99%V, 69%Q.  Other scores that I’ve seen: 700”83%V, 83%Q and 720—81%V, 90%Q.   So, you see?  How do you achieve a high score in the verbal?  Well, when I’m feeling mean, I tell classes, Step one is quit screwing up the Sentence Correction”it’s just grammar and you guys have been to college and stuff.  Step two is to master assumption and strengthen/weaken questions in the Critical Reasoning because those normally account for 7-9 of your 13-14 CR questions.  Voila!  That’s practically a high score already.

I know that as soon as I said that a high verbal score is essential, some of you felt like changing your target school to The Devry Institute of Motorcycle Mechanics.  Or decided to take the sanitation test since they still have a union.  Don’t feel that way.  Many students discover that their strength is the opposite of their presumption.  In some ways, the verbal is the math because it requires a precise methodical approach—like mathematics—whereas the quant revolves around accurately reading the words, as the high school mathematical competence is taken as a given.  In particular, Sentence Correction is geometry”successful test takers apply the grammatical rules as they would geometric principles rather than taking the one that sounds best.  As for Critical Reasoning, well, if you can comprehend my blog posts, you have the foundation skills to succeed there.  Simply learn the question types and approaches, as you would formulas, and bring a mathematical rigor to their application.  Folks are too laissez faire in their approach to verbal questions and then blame their inaccuracy on the subject matter.  On the contrary, their failures stem from not employing a mathematical approach accompanied with a similarly precise technique.  Apply your mathematical prowess to your verbal approach.  And, for the group that I’ve lately ignored, aside from the necessity of rebuilding your mathematical foundation, since the quant requires exactly comprehending the words, you too can bring your strength to bear in the area in which you feel less confident.

Know the rules of the game, control the clock, have the discipline to guess, apply mathematical exactitude to the verbal, and have fun.  Okay, I was just kidding about the last one.  You do have to laugh though, when you see one that you can’t do—but that’s another post.

And, by the way, Dead Man’s Hand is black aces and black eights—that’s what Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot down.  That’s why I always sit with my back to the wall.  And we’ve already chatted about not trying to pull inside straights. . .





  1. soods26 July 8, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Very nice post….Can you please elaborate more on – “if your score is lower than the average difficulty of the questions that you missed, you have timing problems, even if you are finishing the sections.”

    Why should the case where one’s score is lower than average difficulty of questions they missed me attributed to timing problems so long as they are finishing the sections? This is something that has happened with me in one of the MGMAT CATs that I took!