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A few quick questions:
1) Is ‘8x’ even?
2) Is y^2 positive?
3) What is √x + √y if x + y = 36?
4) What is the perimeter of triangle ABC below?
The answer to all these questions should be the same: “I don’t know.” 8x is even if we know x is an integer, but if x = 7/8, for instance, 8x = 7, and 7 is not even. y^2 is going to be positive for any value of y except 0, but y might be 0. √(x + y) does not equal √x + √y, so we can’t say ‘6’ to question 3. And triangle ABC looks like it might be a right triangle split in half, but we actually don’t know that for sure. We know triangle ABD is a 45-45-90, but we know nothing about triangle BDC besides the fact that it’s a right triangle.
I can guess what many of you are thinking right now: “You tricked me.” Even many of you who didn’t miss probably thought, “Oh, you’re trying to trick me.”
Expunge this thought from your vocabulary.
The GMAT is a test. It asks questions that some people get right and some people get wrong. These questions have been run through thousands of test takers before they’re put on an exam to determine their fairness. They do not have a will. They cannot trick you.
You made a mistake.
And make no mistake: separating yourself from your mistake is another mistake.
…That made sense, I’m sure of it.
It feels nice to put the blame on someone else. It spares us the psychological discomfort that inherently comes with being wrong. “Oh, it wasn’t my fault, the question was misleading.” No it wasn’t. Making the GMAT culpable for your mistakes is a real quick way to not improve on it. Because why should you have to improve, when the GMAT is unfair? Then it’s the test’s fault. Once the questions stop tricking you, the devious little elves, you’ll get them right.
Here’s the dirty little GMAT secret: there is no one tricked who doesn’t let themselves be so.
The GMAT gives information and asks questions. That’s it. If you bring in a bias (like “any number is a positive integer”), or if you mess up a rule (like saying “√(x + y) = √x + √y“), or if you misinterpret language in a Critical Reasoning problem (like thinking an increase in a proportion is the same thing as an increase in the actual amount), you will miss many of these questions, and that is nobody’s fault but yours.
But here’s the great thing: there is a real power in owning up to your mistakes. Taking responsibility for them shows that you recognize you can improve. Passing the buck is a subtle but powerful message to your mind: “You don’t really need to get better,” or worse, “you can’t get better, so what’s the point?” That attitude will limit you in many ways in life, but certainly so on the GMAT.
Passing the buck on your mistakes is an act of pride. But this is not a test for the proud. If you are incapable of being wrong, you shouldn’t take it, because no matter how good you get, no matter how much you study, you will be wrong often. That’s the evil beauty of the adaptive nature of the GMAT. But don’t give it more power of you than it already has. Don’t give it the power to trick you.
Learn to love making mistakes. Every mistake you make on a GMAT question is a clear, obvious arrow: “Here’s a way I can improve my score!” Don’t get defeated and deflated, like the test just beat you in a boxing match. It didn’t; you just tripped over your own feet. But you can get better at footwork. The test isn’t going to change. So learn and practice.
No doubt, the questions are ‘tricky,’ in that they require care and precision. But find the power in getting questions wrong because of your very own mess-ups. Put that question on your redo log and come back to it and remind yourself, “That’s right, I can’t assume x is an integer here because that information is not provided.” Soon you’ll come to another problem where the same bias could lead you astray, but you won’t let yourself follow that path.
George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on… you… If you fool me, you can’t fool me again.” But that’s not applicable here, because no one is ‘fooled.’ There is no liar, no swindler telling you falsehoods, no great deceiver. There’s just you and a question.
I start off my classes with some harsh truths of the GMAT, this being one of them. But I use these harsh truths to show how people can improve on the test with practice. You made a mistake? That’s your fault. That is such great news. What an opportunity to improve. 📝
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Reed Arnold is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in economics, philosophy, and mathematics and an M.S. in commerce, both from the University of Virginia. He enjoys writing, acting, Chipotle burritos, and teaching the GMAT. Check out Reed’s upcoming GMAT courses here.