What the GMAT Really Tests

With regard to the GMAT, raw intellectual horsepower helps, but it is not everything. Manhattan Prep’s Stacey Koprince teaches you how to perform at your best on test day by using some common sense.

The GMAT is not a math test. Nor is it a grammar test. Sure, you have to know something (well, a lot of things!) about these topics to get a good score, but this exam is really testing your executive reasoning skills.

The term might be unfamiliar, but you already have—and use—these skills every day. Consider the following:

You arrive at work in the morning and think about all the things you could do that day. You cannot get it all done, so which things will have to wait until this afternoon or tomorrow or next week? Which one thing should you start working on first?

You have a choice between working on Project X or Project Y. Project Y will result in about 5% more revenue to the company, but Project Y will also take 50% longer. Which do you do?

None of those decisions are easy ones (and many would likely require more information than I gave in the little scenario). This complex decision making is exactly what a good executive needs to be able to do well—and this is what the test writers and business schools actually care about.

How does that help me take the test?

Great decision makers have both expertise and experience: they have thought about how to make various kinds of decisions, and they have actually practiced and refined these decision-making processes. While the clock is ticking, they do not hesitate to make a decision and move forward, knowing that they are going to be leaving some opportunities behind.

If you know how the GMAT works and you know what kinds of trade-offs to think about when deciding how to spend your time, then you can learn how to make the best decisions to maximize your score.

Okay, how does the GMAT work?

Glad you asked. I talk to students nearly every day who tell me that they just cannot give up on a question, or they figure that, if they “know” they can get something right, they might as well take the time to get it right, even when that means running out of time later on.

(Note: I put “know” in question marks there because… well, you do not really know. In fact, the longer we spend, the more likely we are to get stuff wrong.)

So here is what you need to do: you need to grow up.

I am not saying, “Oh, grow up!” in a harsh way. I am saying that you need to graduate from school. The way that we were trained to do things in school is often not the way things work in the real world. You already know this—you learned it when you got out into the working world.

In school, you are supposed to do what the professors assign. At work, you are supposed to think for yourself.

So get yourself out of school. Graduate to the real world. Approach the GMAT as a test of your business ability and decision-making skills.

Graduation day

If you can graduate to the business mind-set, you will have a much better shot at hitting your goal score. If you stick with the “school” mind-set, then you are almost certainly not going to get the score you want.

So first, keep reminding yourself that the GMAT is a decision-making test, not an academic test. React accordingly.

Next, the two articles “In It to Win It” and “But I Studied This—I Should Know How to Do It!” will also help you make this mental switch.

Follow those up by educating yourself on the subject of time management. Great businesspeople know how to manage their time and make trade-off decisions; great GMAT test takers have this same skill.

Finally, remember that your ability to get better hinges on your ability to analyze your own thought processes and the test questions themselves. Your goal is not academic. Your goal is to learn how to think.

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