GMAT Approach: Think Like a Computer

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - GMAT Approach: Think Like a Computer by James Brock

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The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test, so it makes sense that to beat it, you might need to think like a computer, right? It really is true, but maybe not in the way that you would expect. You might think that a computer is really smart and could solve lots of problems on the GMAT. Actually, the problems on the GMAT require a fair amount of creativity and critical thinking that would be hard for a computer. For solving problems, you need your own human brain.

But here’s where a computer would excel on the GMAT: the computer can’t get flustered and will always make completely rational decisions. That’s the part of computer thinking you want to emulate.

If you’ve been studying the GMAT for a while, you’ve probably heard that the GMAT is a test of executive reasoning. It may look like a math test or a grammar test, but it’s really a decision-making test. Can you follow the proper process for each question type? Can you let go of a challenging problem and invest your time in problems you’re more likely to get right? Can you choose to skip problems when you’re behind on time?

In many ways, these are all fairly straightforward decisions with clear answers, but it’s hard to execute them under pressure. This is when the computer brain excels and you want to train your brain to function the same way.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of the test and you’re struggling. You know you’ve missed four questions in a row and then a crazy, convoluted exponents question pops up. You remember your instructor saying that if you don’t understand a problem or you don’t have a plan or you know it would take a really long time, it’s not worth doing. But you’ve already gotten 4 in row wrong!! Surely you can’t miss ANOTHER one, so you dive in and try to work it out. Three minutes later, you have to give up, even more frustrated and discouraged.

That’s your human brain at work, unwilling to give in to five in a row wrong and irrationally hoping against hope that you’ll be able to pull this one out. But the computer doesn’t care, the computer is totally rational about it. The computer brain says, “Right now at this time, I’m looking at a question that I’m not likely to get right, so the best thing to do is to let it go and save my time for another problem.”

And the computer is totally right here, as you can see looking in from the outside. Rationally, there is little chance of getting this question right, so all you gain by trying it is frustration and the loss of two to three minutes spent working it out. The computer knows that’s not a good bet, so it just takes a guess and goes on to the next problem.

And that’s just one example. For another, the computer brain doesn’t care that you studied rates last week and really SHOULD know how to do this rates problem in front of you. It only cares what you DO know how to do right now. And if right now, you don’t know how to do the rates problem in front of you, it’s time for a guess. The computer brain takes the guess and feels good about it.

There are more, of course, but that’s enough for this post! The more you can simplify your GMAT decision-making to concrete rules and then apply those rules rigorously without getting caught up in the emotion and stress of the moment, the better off you will be. Happy computer thinking! 🧠📝


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James Brock is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Virginia Beach, VA. He holds a B.A. in mathematics and a Master of Divinity from Covenant Seminary. James has taught and tutored everything from calculus to chess, and his 780 GMAT score allows him to share his love of teaching and standardized tests with MPrep students. You can check out James’s upcoming GMAT courses here.

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