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### Parlez Vous Mathematique?

“Many a true word is said in jest.”—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

Once upon a time in America, when I was a boy, my father, an engineer, said to me, “You can make numbers do anything you want them to do.”  This was the beginning of my cynicism.  But never mind that.  My father was fluent in four languages: English, German, French, and Algebra.  My father was also a very honest man.  His comment relied on the fact that most people can’t read Algebra—he just let people fool themselves.  Teaching GMAT classes, I combat the fact that many people can’t read Algebra.  Like my father, the GMAT exploits that weakness and lets—nay, encourages—people to fool themselves.  Thus, for many, preparing for the quantitative portion of the GMAT is akin to studying a foreign language.  (I know that even many native speakers feel that preparing for the verbal portion of the GMAT is also akin to studying a foreign language.  But that’s a different topic.)  In any case, you want to make your Algebra as fluent as your French. . .yes, for most of you, that was one of those jokes.

I know that some of you disagreed with the above and feel that the problem is an inability to understand math.  But that’s not true, at least on the level necessary to succeed on the GMAT.  If you really didn’t have enough synapses, they wouldn’t let you out without a keeper—because you couldn’t tip, or comparison shop, or count your change.  It’s a literacy problem.  Think about the math units in the course.  Truthfully, the first one is often a death march.  By the end, as country folk say, I often feel like I’m whipping dead horses.  On the other hand, the lesson concerning probability and combinations, putatively a more advanced topic, usually goes really well.  Why?  Because folks can read the words and understand their meaning.  Conversely, folks just stare at the algebraic symbols as if they were hieroglyphics.  The problem is that putting a Rosetta Stone in the book bag would make it weigh too much. . .kidding.  But if you can’t read the hieroglyphics, the mummy will get you—just like in the movies.

It really is a literacy issue and should be approached in that fashion.  You still don’t believe me?  You want specific examples?  I got examples, a pro and a con.  On the affirmative side, I once worked one on one with a man who came to me because his math was in shreds.  Because he couldn’t read what the symbols were saying.  Partly because his mother had once said, “Your sister is the one that’s good at math.”  As far as the GMAT is concerned, she was wrong, and so was your mother, if she said that.  Anyway, one day I gave him a high level Data Sufficiency word problem concerning average daily balances on a credit card.  He looked at it for about 30 seconds, and he didn’t write anything on his scrap paper.  Then he turned to me and said the answer was blah blah.  And he was right.  I looked at him and said, “How did you do that?  You’re not that good.”  (Yes, this is also an example of how mean I am to private students.)  But—and here’s the real punch line—he said, “It was about debt; I understood what the words meant.”  And there you go.  As a by the way, he worked very hard, became competent although not brilliant quantitatively, scored 710—97%V, 72%Q*—and went to Kellogg.

### Paranoia Runs Deep, Into Your Heart It Will Creep

I know what Statement 2 is telling me; it’s saying ˜Become a carpenter!’

Why is this question here? Why am I here?  When’s the civil service exam?  Garbage men still have a union. . .

Have you lived that movie?  Paranoia is only human and the old saying is true: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  Paranoia is a primal reaction, developed to help protect humans from animals with sharp, pointy teeth.  Unfortunately, it is not helpful when one is facing questions with sharp, pointy teeth.  Even though the GMAT is out to get you.  Failing to control your paranoia is a hidden reason for underperforming on the actual exam.

On this blog, I and others have discussed many factors crucial for success: foundation skills, strategies, timing, precision, and so forth.  And it’s like I say about L.A.—everything you ever read [here] about it is true.  However, after honing these skills, after achieving mastery, too many test takers succumb to their paranoia and thus revert when taking the actual exam, especially for the first time.  Even 99th percentile skills will crumble if undermined by irrational panic and the results will not be gratifying.  (Have you ever watched the Chicago Cubs play a post season series?)   To succeed, folks must understand the difference between dispassionate, objective analysis—I’ve never gotten a combinatrics question right in life, why do I think I’ll have a divine inspiration today?—and irrelevant fear—They’re going to tattoo a scarlet L on my forehead.  Just as folks plan question and timing strategies, they must develop tools to banish their internally generated negative visualizations.

How do you tell the difference?  Objective analysis responds to the stimuli on the monitor.  Paranoia is a response to internal doubts.  (Notice how this is parallel to the nature of the exam—search for the answer on the screen, not in the opinions in your head.)  Sometimes, after you’ve read a question twice (everyone has a sinking feeling the first time), you hear yourself singing, I’ve got the ˜I don’t know where I’m going but I’m going nowhere in a hurry’ blues.  That’s the truth, not paranoia.  Bail out.  As one of my acting coaches used to say, Only schizophrenics don’t react to the reality around them.  Conversely, paranoia is when your thoughts of impending disaster revolve around your supposed shortcomings rather than the material on the screen.  As I’ve said before, if while taking the exam you find yourself thinking about how big a dumb ass you are, check the question—if it doesn’t read, Which of the following best describes how big a dumb ass you are?, you’re thinking about the wrong thing.  That is paranoia.  No kidding—you knew that.

Well then, why do people recognize the difference between analysis and paranoia but still succumb to the latter?  Because they try to do the impossible.  They try not to have thoughts of failure.  That’s impossible—you can’t override human nature.  I have feelings of paranoia, even though I’ve always scored in the 99th percentile.  I still have them”even though I don’t really care about my score anymore.  Instead, you have to recognize irrationality in yourself and laugh it off.  I say to myself, Save some of that craziness for menopause.  Then I giggle, read the question again, and really listen to the words.  And if I still don’t get it, I say, Screw them if they can’t take a joke.  And bail out.

Maybe some of you can’t make jokes to yourself during the exam because you’re worried about your entire future.  That’s part of the problem—if a chunk (or all) of your mind is thinking about things other than the words on the monitor, it will lower your score.  It’s the difference between worrying about being the hero or the goat and just seeing the ball and hitting the ball.  Feelings of failure while taking the exam are like stage fright.  That’s what stage fright is—standing up there thinking you look like an idiot.  You say, No, it’s much different—they give me a piece of paper that says I’m an idiot.  No.  Really.  It’s the same.  So, I’ve got another suggestion for you, if you didn’t like the first one.

### Dead Man’s Hand — A Holistic Guide To GMAT Scoring, Part Duh

Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

When I was a little boy, I didn’t want to be a fireman when I grew up.  I wanted to be a riverboat gambler.  Unfortunately, I didn’t because of a bad upbringing—utility stocks were too risky for my father. . .I do play poker and blackjack some though.  And I don’t try to fill inside straights.  On the other hand, I don’t play baccarat because I don’t understand the rules well enough.  The same principles apply to the GMAT.  The first part of this series—-Heart of Darkness—A Holistic Guide to GMAT Scoring —- highlights why test takers don’t score as well as they should because they don’t understand the rules of the game and thus often try to fill inside straights.  And, like a Greek tragedy, that post ends by lamenting how even test takers who know how to play baccarat are corrupted by the siren song of the ticking clock.  Yes, the clock.

Folks fail to understand that all their good work will be undone if they do not finish the sections in good order.  Leaving the last five blank will lower your score by as much as sixty points.  Roughly speaking, doing so in both sections will magically turn a 660 into a 550.  And you must not only finish, but also finish in good order.  If you blind guess the last five in each section, with average karma, your score will still drop sixty points.   Run the assessment reports on your practice exams—if your score is lower than the average difficulty of the questions that you missed, you have timing problems, even if you are finishing the sections.

How can you avoid this penalty?  Well, the easiest way is to have an angel on your shoulder and always guess right.  However, if you can’t count on that angel full time, you have to control the clock. In the first half of a section, the CAT computer is roughly approximating your ability level.  Thus, what is unforgiveable there is missing questions that you know how to do.  But test takers misunderstand—that is NOT the same as getting them ALL right.  If I take a GMAT, I’ll get ten of the first fifteen quants correct.  Maybe eleven.  Or maybe nine.  It doesn’t matter.  For me, after about the fourth one, they are all 800 level questions and, as part one discussed, you only need to be about 50% accurate at the score level that you want.  Trying to get them all right is a trap.  First off, as I implied a second ago, even if you are scoring 790, the computer will give you problems that you don’t know how to do.  So it’s hopeless on the face of it.  Equally importantly, attempting to do so uses up too much time.  The Catch-22 here is that you must answer those that you know correctly without disproportionally using the time.  Or you’ll turn your 660 into a 550.  What is the solution to this dialectic?  The envelope, please. . .

### Heart of Darkness — A Holistic Guide To GMAT Scoring

Once upon a time, in an America of long, long ago and far, far away, corporate executives often spent their careers with one employer, with little threat of termination, and then a fixed benefit pension.  Think of the client company guys on Mad Men.  And the living was easy.  Let me point out that even though I’m old and cranky, this was way before my time—my father was one of the last to get away with it.  Anyway, back then there were still books about how to succeed in business.  You know, books——-primitive information delivery systems that people used during their time off the butter churn.  One of these books was called The Peter Principle.  The Peter Principle suggested that executives were promoted until they reached their level of incompetence; once they achieved a position beyond their abilities, they would stagnate there for the rest of their careers.  As fascinating and amusing as this is, why should you care?  Because, in essence, that’s how the GMAT is scored.

The GMAT computer is searching for the difficulty level at which the test taker is about 50% accurate.  The test taker’s level of incompetence.  Simply put, to achieve whatever score you want, don’t screw up very many questions below that level and run 50/50 at that level.  The questions harder than your percentile goal don’t matter.  Many test takers sabotage their scores by rising to the bait and overinvesting in difficult questions, while too glibly dispensing with easier ones.  This is backwards.  The hard ones don’t matter, the easy ones matter.  If you don’t answer the easy ones correctly, the computer will peg your level of incompetence there and not let you near the harder ones.  Understand the Peter Principle.

Actually, folks do understand the Peter Principle.  At the first class, students intellectually understand what I say—that whether a test taker scores 540 or 740, that test taker will miss more than a third of the questions.  However, when students take a CAT, they strive for 80 or 90% accuracy and lock themselves in death spirals with top level questions, and that ruins their scores.  Why do people do so?  Because people, after years of living under the high school/college rubric of 90% accuracy, cannot emotionally accept the scoring system.  Furthermore, folks, at least subliminally, want to demonstrate their brilliance by nailing the hard ones.  But you can’t win any game if you ignore how it’s scored!  Not Monopoly, not Scrabble, and not the GMAT.

Time for an attitude adjustment.  In life, most people find it relatively easy to excuse failures caused by circumstances beyond their control.  Far more galling are disasters that are entirely one’s own fault.  I think I broke a toe last Sunday, and I resent it—since the only cause was that I’m a clumsy dumb ass.  Try to feel the way that you feel about your performance in life when you evaluate your performance on a CAT.  When you review it, suffer most when you say, Of course that answer is correct and the one I picked is insane.  Those are the mistakes that are unforgiveable.  Because those are the questions that you have to get right.  Not the ones that you don’t know how to do.  Don’t cut yourself slack for silly mistakes.  Think of it as a sport—you’d never give a coach these lame excuses:

Test taker: I knew how to do it.

Coach CAT:  You lost.

Test taker: I could have done it.

Coach CAT:  You lost.

Test taker: It was a stupid mistake.

Coach CAT:  You lost.

What?  You never played sports?  Oh.  I see.  Well. . .there’s a great old movie in which Jimmy Stewart is flying a third rate passenger plane across the North African desert and has to crash land during a sand storm.  He writes in the flight log that the radio had broken, so he received no warning and the engine air filters hadn’t been cleaned, so he didn’t have a chance.  Then he violently crosses it all out and writes, Cause of crash: pilot error.  That’s how you have to feel about the questions that you should have gotten right.  Don’t cut yourself slack.

### Games People Play…Or Don’t

Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

I think that Critical Reasoning is my favorite part of the exam because it is the purest of the pure.  I’ve written before that the GMAT is an aptitude test rather than a knowledge test.  On the simplest level, in both the quant and the verbal, the exam tests a logic system: be specific, don’t assume, and don’t rationalize.  Nowhere is this more true than in Critical Reasoning—there is no mathematical foundation work nor are there grammar rules.  As Gertrude Stein used to say, There is no there, there.  Of course, she was talking about Oakland. . .fill in your own joke.  When I’m being* mean to students, I say, If you know what all the words mean, you should get them all right.

But students don’t get them all right.  Even those who know what all the words mean.  Why is that?  Because people think.  They assume, they rationalize, and they inject opinions.  Why is this bad?  Because it’s a game.  Critical Reasoning doesn’t take place in reality.  Here’s an analogy I thought up all by myself, so it isn’t in the Strategy Guide: Critical Reasoning bears the same relationship to reality that Monopoly does.  When you play Monopoly, you don’t think about how reasonable free parking or building hotels is, you exploit the rules.  It’s the same thing.  A lot of OG arguments involve medical issues, but you hardly ever care whether people live or die because that’s usually not the conclusion.   Play the game.

As a by the way, if students struggle with the CR, it’s often half of their trouble in the quant.  Folks are not specific; they read the question or the given incorrectly.  And they don’t recognize the types and patterns.  In other words, they don’t play that game.  However, folks fail to notice these mistakes because they are too consumed with worry about their math foundations.  Conversely, engineers with strong foundations also suffer here, especially in the DS because they try to use brute mathematical force instead of playing the game.  It is a behavioral problem.  People don’t do; they think.  Don’t think—much like in life, it only gets you into trouble.

### Time Keeps Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’…Into The Abyss

Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

It’s a funny thing—folks get good at doing OG problems at their desks.  Then they take a practice CAT, with the clock on the monitor running down, like sands in the hourglass.  Suddenly they are seized by amphetamine psychosis.  Like NFL rookies, the big adjustment is to the speed of the game.  When you’re taking the test, if you can’t do it* in two to three minutes, you can’t do it.*  However, timing problems are an effect, not a cause.  People have timing problems because their math foundation sucks.  People have timing problems because they don’t get a good rephrasing.  People have timing problems because they don’t compare SC choices vertically.  People have timing problems because they don’t have the discipline to guess.  And so on.  All of these problems are fixable.  Like most GMAT issues, timing problems are the result of either a poor foundation or bad behavior.

Take foundation work. . .please—that’s a joke from your grandparents’ day.  When I say 7 times 13, you say 91.  Think of it as a rap.  When you see .625, you say 5/8.  Woot.  All seriousness aside, people waste 30 seconds a question in the quant because they don’t know their times tables or squares or the fractional decimal percentage equivalencies.  Or their algebra isn’t smooth and silky.  Think about how much time that uses up during the section.  How do you fix that?  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  That’s a New York joke—LA classes hate it.  You have to want it enough to do the work that you need to do.  That amount varies, person to person.

### The Reality of Doing

Many a true word is said in jest.—I don’t know, but I heard it from my mother.

Folks don’t score as well as they should on the GMAT for a variety of reasons. One major reason for this is that folks worry about the wrong thing.  They worry about what they know, but they should be worrying about what they do.  They should worry about the reality of doing.  As an athlete does physically and as a method actor does mentally.  (Wait for it.)

The GMAT is an aptitude test, not a knowledge test.  It tests the same logic system throughout—in both the math and the verbal.  In both sections, the modus operandi is to be specific, don’t assume, and don’t rationalize.  Be more precise than in life; notice the exact meaning of the words.  It takes classes three weeks to open their third eyes and notice the difference between precision and hoping.  Second, no outside knowledge or assumptions are allowed.  However, the hardest part for GMAT test takers is not to rationalize.  The questions ask what MUST be true, not what COULD be true by adding opinions.  Folks want to demonstrate the depth of their thoughts, but the questions ask what must follow—-so, whatever you do, don’t think. . .much like in life.  Just do.

A student, who was accepted to both Harvard and Stanford, once said to me, The funny thing about the GMAT is that the math is the verbal and the verbal is the math.  Because it is one logic system, there is a truth to this—the verbal is the math because you must not only be as precise as, but also as systematic as you are in quantitative work.  On the other hand, the math revolves around noticing exactly what the words say, as well as and reading and writing with symbols.  Doing the arithmetic and algebra is the moral equivalent of reading English—it is taken for granted and not tested per se.  This is a double edged sword. Folks are ruined because they concentrate on challenging math topics but their shoddy mechanics cost them at least half a minute per problem.  That, however, is a separate reason for, and separate article about, why folks do not score as well as they should.