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In our first post, we discussed what I would call the behemoth of big GMAT skills: reading with specificity and objectivity. Today, we’re going to focus on the latter of the two to delve into another one of the most important big GMAT skills: stripping yourself of biases.
But first, let’s play a game. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I have written a number less than 50 on a piece of paper. For one month after this blog post hits cyberspace and becomes the viral sensation I know it will become, you can email me once a day your guess for what this number is. I will give correct guesses a hundred dollars. This isn’t a joke.
But it’s a trick (or is it?).
I feel reasonably confident that I won’t be paying up, despite the fact that you’ll have 30 guesses for this number less than 50. If you’re wondering how I feel so confident, it’s because you are not seeing through your bias.
When I say ‘number less than 50,’ are you thinking 1, 2, 3, 10, 24, 41, etc.? Hey, that’s true, those are numbers less than 50. But you are a numberist, and your implicit bias is showing. For instance, I never said positive number.
In the words of Scooby Doo, “Ruh roh.”
Now there are infinite negative numbers you have to choose from.
I also never said my number is an integer.
“Alright, you little smart a—”
I know. I’m sorry.
Now you have all kinds of numbers to guess from. Fractions, negative square roots, powers of negative pi… Point is, I feel pretty safe no one is going to guess my number.
People have an inherent positive-integer bias. But you don’t want to let it blind you to what could be possible on a GMAT Quant problem.
When an equation lets us solve for x, our expectation is that x is the answer… But what if the problem asked for 3x? Obviously, this is related to ‘reading specifically,’ but it’s hard to read specifically when you’re letting your own expectations blur the language in the problem.
This is an especially important skill on Reading Comprehension. When you start a passage, even a bias like, “Ugh, I hate this topic” can affect your understanding. If anything, you’re not reading carefully—you’re thinking about how much it sucks that you have to read about the electrophoresis of DNA extracted from snapping turtles. Other topics will be about certain sociological topics that we are bound to have emotional responses to. This will bring with it a proclivity to read things a certain way, even if that’s not really what the passage says.
For Reading Comp, there are good ways to practice this skill of objective reading. Find an editorial arguing for something you disagree with from a news source you don’t much love. In today’s nigh utopia of political harmony, I just don’t know where you’ll find such a thing, but search one out. Read the article and try to quell the emotional response you’ll definitely feel rising. Read the article for the words that are written and express the ideas as coldly and non-judgmentally as you can. I bet that, sometimes, what you first thought you read wasn’t what was actually written. Then, find your favorite news source and an article arguing for something you agree with, but do the same exercise. Practice specifying exactly what the author is arguing. Different pieces about the same topic can have slightly different conclusions, so make sure you’re pinpointing what is really said.
Note that none of this need change your mind. You don’t have to suddenly start agreeing with arguments you didn’t before. It’s purely an exercise to get better at reading coldly and objectively. That’s hard enough on the GMAT, when the passages are rather removed from our day-to-day life, and it’s even harder when we make it personal. But by actively practicing suppressing your biases, you’ll improve your skills of reading specifically.
In Sentence Correction, you’re going to have a bias for the answer that ‘sounds good.’ And sometimes it’s right! Sometimes. One reason I think the GMAT wants you to learn grammar rules that no one really cares about is just to make sure you can apply rules and processes in situations that seem a certain way, because often they will turn out another. But if you always go with the answers that seem good, you’ll miss opportunities.
(Here, opportunities = GMAT points).
Biases are why √(x^2 + y^2) is so often simplified to x + y. In all our years of mathematics, nobody ever told us this was allowed (…hopefully). But it’s such a strong impulse because, dang it, it looks so nice and easy, it must be true. It’s why when a triangle looks isosceles, we assume it is. It’s why when a question asks for the ratio of x and y we might think, incorrectly, that we need the value of x and the value of y (when really, knowing x/y is enough). In general, don’t assume something is the way it is because it looks a certain way. Use the processes to verify.
No doubt, sometimes your biases will be right—but they’ll be wrong enough to keep your score down, unless you learn to see through them. 📝
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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.