Be the Tiger Woods of Testing: Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice


Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born. (“The Making of an Expert” by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007)

gmat deliberate practiceStandardized test-taking is a skill–like winning a chess game, swinging a golf club, or playing a Bach concerto. And to master a skill, you need high-quality practice. Of course, the more content you know the better, but no matter how much you study for the GMAT, you won’t improve without practice. (I tried reading a book about snowboarding before my first time on the slopes, with predictably laughable results.) According to the scientific research, the most efficient and most effective kind of practice-the way Tiger Woods become the golfer he is today–is called “Deliberate Practice.”

If you spend time reading motivational blogs such as LifeHacker you’ll see many articles about “Deliberate Practice.” You may have even heard of whole books–Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin or Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell–about exceptional individuals such as Bobby Fischer and Tiger Woods. All those blogs, as well as Colvin and Gladwell, base their ideas on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and probably the world’s number-one expert on expertise. His good-news thesis can be summed up as follows:

New research shows that outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate talent or skill. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

First of all, relax. You may have heard about Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule. Apparently, it takes about 10 years and 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to achieve true mastery. Yes, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, Mozart, and other one-in-a-million people needed 10,000 hours to get to where they are. Luckily, the GMAT is much less difficult to master than golf, chess, or composition. Also, you’re not looking to be one in a million–at best 1 in 100 (a score of 760-800)–so you don’t need 10,000 hours. Maybe a few hundred hours, depending on how much you want to improve.

But what is “Deliberate Practice?”  And how do you apply it to the GMAT? At the end of this article, I’ve given you a few links, but to save you time, I’ve pulled my favorite Ericsson quotes and applied them to the GMAT:

1) Get motivated.

The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. Psychological Review. 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3)

Moving outside your traditional comfort zone of achievement requires substantial motivation and sacrifice, but it’s a necessary discipline. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

If you’re reading this, you want a higher GMAT score. You’re already motivated. If you need more motivation, research schools. Take a diagnostic test and see how far you are from your dream school’s median. After that, the best way to get motivated is to sign up for the real GMAT a few months from now. (How many people don’t lose weight until they schedule the wedding or high school reunion?)

2) Schedule your practice.

Our empirical studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout. (Ericsson et al., “The Role of Deliberate Practice . . .”)

Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

If you don’t schedule it, you won’t show up. Get out your datebook or your iPhone calendar and schedule your daily practice times now. Keep the times short but frequent. Start with 30-minute sessions once or twice a day. Work your way up to practice sessions of 2-3 hours a day after several weeks. Any more than that will be counterproductive.

3) Set clear goals and design your practice. 

When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

These studies revealed subjects’ active search for methods to improve performance and found that changes in methods could often be related to clear improvements. (Ericsson et al., “The Role of Deliberate Practice . . .”)

Before you start, pick a specific, narrow skill you need to improve (use your test results as a guide) and set a goal. Keep the goal as narrow and specific as possible. Remember, it’s not about outcome (a high score) but about process (how you’re going to get there).

Weak/vague goals: “I want to get faster.”

Good goals: “Today I’m going to master number testing on Y/N data sufficiency by memorizing a clear step-by-step method and practicing it until it’s second nature.” Or: “Today I’m going to practice reading, annotating, and summarizing reading comp passages to get faster and more accurate with general questions.”

4) Get Feedback.

In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects.  (Ericsson et al., “The Role of Deliberate Practice . . .”)

We’ve observed that when a course of action doesn’t work out as expected, the expert [chess] players will go back to their prior analysis to assess where they went wrong and how to avoid future errors. They continually work to eliminate their weaknesses. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

If you do ten practice tests and the whole Official Guide for GMAT Review without checking your answers or changing your behavior, you’ll get exactly the same score after hundreds of hours of practice. So get immediate feedback and look for ways to improve and change.

When you’re trying to improve, you need to know where you’re making mistakes as soon as you make them. When you’re on your own, this means checking your answers right away, but it also means timing yourself, studying your scratch paper, and taking notes on your performance. Our GMAT Navigator is an amazing tool for this kind of feedback, but an answer key, a stopwatch, and a critical eye will work wonders as well. For the highest quality feedback, you need a coach:

The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

Even at the highest levels, you may want to sign up for a class or hire a good tutor. Tiger Woods still works with coaches every day, so why don’t you?

No matter what, take notes on yourself. Don’t rely on your memory. When you make an error, immediately write down what you should have done and then do the whole question again the right way. After that, write down the question number so you can come back and do it again the next day. If you made a small careless error, put that piece of the problem on a flashcard so you can practice it again. Speaking of…

5) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Deliberate practice would allow for repeated experiences in which the individual can attend to the critical aspects of the situation and incrementally improve her or his performance in response to knowledge of results, feedback, or both. (Ericsson et al., “The Role of Deliberate Practice . . .”)

In fact, [golf] professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

Repeat tough questions again and again until you can do all the steps quickly and efficiently. Every time I tell a student to do this, I hear, “but I already know the answer, so isn’t that a waste of time?” NO, it’s NOT!! To me, that’s like a golfer saying, “but I know where hole is, why would I practice putting?” Or a violinist saying, “but I know what the concerto sounds like, why would I practice it?”

Do your scales. If you thoroughly understand the content of the GMAT but you’re still struggling with time or careless errors, go back to the Foundations books and practice the basics (fractions, exponents, equations) until you’re 100% accurate and lightning fast. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary. On that note…

6) It’s going to be tough. Sorry.

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

It’s going to be hard. Getting better at anything is difficult and strenuous. Yes, it’s ultimately rewarding, satisfying, and fulfilling, but it’s also unpleasant. If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not learning. Pay attention to the areas of your practice you find annoying, boring, and stressful; the areas you’re avoiding are probably the areas you need to work on the most.

To sum up:

Test taking is a skill. To develop that skill you need practice. The right kind of deliberate practice will save you time and headache. So get to work: schedule a practice session, set a goal, do some tough work, get feedback, and repeat until you’re a master.

I’ll leave the final words for Ericsson himself:

The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks. When these conditions are met, practice improves accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks. (Ericsson, “The Role of Deliberate Practice…”)


Additional Reading:

(Your coach says: Don’t waste your time with the links below. Get to work!)

  • “The Making of an Expert” by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007 //
  • “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. Psychological Review. 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3 //
  • “Why Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin //



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