When you think about studying for the GMAT, how do you feel? Determined, excited, and curious? Or anxious, exhausted, and resentful? Do you avoid studying, then beat yourself up over it later? Are you getting less and less out of each study session? Are your practice test scores in a downwards spiral? You might be struggling with GMAT burnout. Read more
Studying for the GMAT is a formidable undertaking. There are so many potential topics of study — and so much study time to be allocated — that it is often difficult, and may even seem impossible, to decide where to start or where to focus.
Still, there are some topics that are definitely less important than others — and, in the case of most students, simply not important at all. Probably the most prominent of these topics, in the minds of students, is “difficulty level”.
On the GMAT forums, I see many posts inquiring about the specific, numerical difficulty level of problems. While these numbers – if they can be nailed down at all – are an interesting curiosity, they are essentially irrelevant to students’ strategy; the only people who benefit from knowing specific difficulty levels are people who write the exams.
In other words: Do NOT worry excessively about the difficulty level of the problems.
You should NEVER bother trying to assign specific numbers to the difficulty of a problem; the only levels of difficulty that will ever affect you are “hard”, “easy”, and “just right”.
In fact, you should never give much thought to the difficulty level of the problems — no matter whether you are taking the actual exam or just studying. Here’s why.
When you study, an excessive focus on difficulty level will cause you to abandon the “big picture”, causing you to focus excessively on specifics. That’s not a good thing, because the only true purpose of studying is to discover general principles and techniques that will solve not only the problem at hand, but also OTHER problems — similar problems that may appear on future exams. (These general principles and techniques are what I have called “takeaways” on the forum and in classes.)
Here’s why “difficulty level” doesn’t really matter when you study: it’s quite possible to derive a takeaway from any easy problem, and then use it to solve a much more difficult problem in the future — or vice versa. Therefore, it is imperative that you study all problems within your grasp with the same intensity, without worrying about “difficulty level”; you never know which problems will give you the takeaways that you will need on your official test.
Then, there’s the matter of taking the actual exam. In this circumstance, it’s also not worthwhile to worry about the difficulty level of problems — because you will be completely unable to judge it with any accuracy. Therefore, if you even let your thoughts wander to “difficulty level”, not only will you be engaging in a completely unproductive thought process, but you will also be diverting mental energy away from the much more important task of answering the questions themselves!
Instead, your single most important mission during the official exam is to “MONOTASK” — i.e., to think about nothing other than the objective content of the problem in front of you, and the techniques that will solve that problem. Outside concepts — such as “difficulty level” — should not even enter your mind while you take the official test; they’ll do nothing but raise your stress level.
IS IT EVER APPROPRIATE TO THINK ABOUT DIFFICULTY LEVEL?
About specific difficulty level — trying to nail it down to the nearest hundred?
However, if you are studying from a source that is roughly ordered by “difficulty” — such as the Official Guide quant section — then it may be helpful to have a very general, very vague sense of the “difficulty” of the problems you’re working on. In particular, if everything in a given section just seems too hard, then move back a bit; if everything seems a bit too easy, then move forward.
This is pretty much the only situation in which the notion of “difficulty level” will help you. And note that it’s still not helping you solve the problems – it’s just helping you decide which problems to study in the first place. That’s not something that will transfer onto the official test.
Remember — monotask!
SO WHY DOES MGMAT TELL US SO MUCH ABOUT THE TESTING ALGORITHM?
Mainly, we give you this information in order to justify our advice about time management and overall planning.
When we tell our students things such as “NEVER spend too much time on one problem”, inquisitive students will sometimes want to know why — especially because this would be terrible advice on old-fashioned paper tests. This is the ONLY reason why we explain about “adaptive algorithms” and “difficulty levels” – because it’s the machinery behind our advice.
In this respect, we’re not unlike a mechanic who might explain the workings of an anti-lock brake system to a curious customer. Is the customer ever really going to need to know how anti-lock brakes work? Of course not – the customer just has to know how to use the anti-lock brakes, and in what ways they might differ from traditional brakes. The customer will never need any knowledge of the inner workings of the brake system (unless he/she plans to become a mechanic) – but it’s the foundation of the functional knowledge that the customer does need.
It’s the same with the “adaptive algorithm” and “difficulty levels”. Are you ever really going to need to know the nitty-gritty of how these work? Nope – you just have to know how to manage your time and how to proceed through the questions, and in what ways this test might differ from traditional paper-based tests. You will never need any knowledge of precise difficulty levels, or of the precise workings of the adaptive algorithm (unless you plan to write tests yourself) – but we present it to you, as full disclosure, because it’s the foundation of the functional knowledge that you will need.
Stress and anxiety, for many people, are integral components of their daily lives. In fact, anxiety is a necessary human response. In manageable doses, anxiety protects you from life’s dangers. You naturally feel anxious standing on a cliff and looking over the edge. In essence, your body is heightening your awareness of this potential threat and emphasizing that some action might be necessary to protect your well-being. The same is true with performance or test anxiety. When you are asked to perform, the tension produced from normal anxiety heightens your awareness of the situation and helps you to focus on the danger (i.e. task as hand). With this additional focus, you are more easily able to successfully complete your goal, whatever it may be.
For many people, however, this natural, beneficial anxiety response is superseded by an uncontrollable feeling of dread. When asked to prepare for and then take a test, individuals manufacture feelings of such importance about the test that they become overwhelmed by the anxiety associated with it. Symptoms of test anxiety affect both the body and the mind. Hearts race, hands become clammy, breathing grows labored, minds go blank. Worse still, test anxiety is a vicious cycle: worrying about the test causes increased anxiety, which causes increased worry about the test. As GMAT instructors, we have seen or heard of this response all-too-frequently with our students. Recently, a student who was consistently scoring between 35 and 40 on the quantitative section of her practice examinations score a 6 on her actual test. That’s right, she dropped from a score of approximately the 60th percentile to the 1st percentile. When asked what happened, she simply said, I panicked. She explained she just couldn’t understand the first problem, and from there her mind just went blank. For the remainder of the section, she was unable to organize her thoughts or regain her focus. Although this case is extreme, many students have allowed test anxiety to undermine their test taking abilities, resulting in scores that are well below their true abilities. This strategy series will focus on methods to control your test anxiety as you ready yourself for the test.