Does the GMAT Really Just Test Your Test-Taking Skills?

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - Does the GMAT Really Just Test Your Test-Taking Skills? by Chelsey Cooley

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There are a lot of things the GMAT can’t measure. It can’t measure your intelligence, your value as a person, or your ability to succeed. But is it really just about your test-taking skills? And if you’ve always done poorly on tests, are you doomed to GMAT failure?

The first time I really studied for a standardized test, I resented having to learn the “tricks.” By “tricks,” I mean things like plugging in the answer choices or picking the most “boring” answer on a Verbal problem. In my mind, the test wasn’t rewarding me for being good at math or good at English. It was just rewarding me for memorizing a bunch of silly, useless test-taking tricks that I’d never use anywhere else. And that didn’t seem right to me.

Now that I’ve been teaching standardized tests for close to a decade, I think about them a lot differently. I now think that the GMAT does do a very good job of measuring certain test-taking skills. If you reduce those skills to “silly, useless tricks,” you’re selling yourself and your learning short.

My mistake, when I started studying, was to think that admissions committees cared about whether I was great at math and English. Sure, the schools you’re applying to would like you to be comfortable with numbers and with formal, written English. That’s one reason that you need a basic level of math and verbal skill to succeed on the GMAT.

However, the content on the GMAT doesn’t go beyond a high-school level. That means that just about everyone who’s applying to business school, even those of us who hate math or grammar, can learn all of the math and grammar that the GMAT asks for. (And if you’re struggling to get started, why not check out Foundations of GMAT Math and Foundations of GMAT Verbal?) In that sense, the GMAT is a fair test: it doesn’t expect you to understand concepts, like quantum physics, that ordinary people can’t wrap their heads around.

When I resented having to learn “test-taking tricks,” I mistakenly thought that the test really wanted to evaluate my math and English skills, but the “tricks” were muddling everything up. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The tricks are the test, and succeeding on the “tricks” means developing test-taking skills that matter in business school.

Take estimation, for instance. Every time you estimate the answer to a Quant problem, you’re demonstrating two skills. First, you’re demonstrating that you know how to estimate. We aren’t born with that ability. But the ability to estimate is vastly more useful in life (and in business school) than the ability to, say, algebraically solve for the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Second, you’re demonstrating that you know when to estimate, and when you really need an exact answer. That kind of high-level decision-making—how precise of an answer do I really need?—is a hallmark of people who are great at solving problems in general, not just on the GMAT.

Or think about time management. A lot of people will make GMAT time management sound like a trick: “you’ll get a higher score if you take more time on the first ten questions.” “You should never skip more than three questions in a row.” However, the reality is that there isn’t just one simple trick to managing your time on the GMAT. Good time management requires strong executive reasoning skills. Someone who successfully manages their time on the GMAT is someone who can make difficult decisions, with limited information, while under stress, even though the consequences of those decisions aren’t immediately obvious. Doesn’t that sound like the kind of person who would succeed in business school?

Sure, the GMAT isn’t really about math or English. But that doesn’t mean it’s just about how good you are at taking tests. It’s really about a whole constellation of skills, some of which you already have, and some of which you’ll need to develop. They include:

There are dozens of other life skills that will help you on the GMAT. (And the GMAT, in turn, will help you develop many of these skills!) We’re not talking about tricks like “always guess C” or “pick the shortest answer choice” here—we’re talking about test-taking skills that will actually serve you well in business school and beyond. So take some time to cultivate them, and don’t get too bogged down in learning more and more GMAT content. Once you’ve studied the basics, it’s really more about what you do with your knowledge than about how much you know. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.

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