By Andrew Geller, TPNY
An encouraging fact: An above average middle school graduate has most of the math skills necessary to tackle the GMAT quantitative section…with flying colors.
You may be thinking, Why am I being tested on middle school math in order to be accepted to business school? Good question. The short answer is that you are not being tested on the math, at least not primarily. You are being tested mainly on your reasoning skills and your ability to pick up patterns, which likely mirror the kind of thinking you’d do as a business professional. For the prospective test taker, this is good and bad. On the bright side there are few formulas to memorize. They are simple and many of them are actually given to you on the test (although you should have them memorized!). A common pitfall of many GMAT test-takers is to start calculating before thinking.
The challenge is that the simple math concepts are used as building blocks for more complex puzzles. The focus, especially on the more difficult questions, shifts away from skills to being able to see the big picture and then to manage the details to calculate the solution. Business school is for training future CEOs, COOs and CFOs not mathematicians and physicists and therefore the GMAT is not testing technical knowledge but the ability to quickly diagnose a problem, determine the tools needed to solve it and use those tools to manipulate the details to an answer. Students have a natural instinct when they see numbers to start calculating without asking themselves what they are looking for. So before getting caught up in the numbers always ask yourself: What is the real purpose of this question?
How can you prepare for this? Know the math skills backwards and forwards. When you are well acquainted with your tools, it becomes far easier to realize which one will work the best. And go big—which means, figure out what universe the question is in. Is it testing spatial relationships? Number properties? This is crucial! There is often more than one way to solve a GMAT question and one of those ways is brutal, tiring, time-sucking arithmetic. The put-your-back-into-it method is rarely the only way to solve a problem, and almost always time consuming and error prone. You could use a screwdriver to bang in a nail if you had to, but a hammer is a whole lot easier. In approaching the details of a question, ask yourself why you are given certain information. What can be inferred? Sometimes scanning the answer choices can give a clue about the logical direction of the question. Are some of the answer choices related to each other? Is there one that seems different?
When you practice, challenge yourself to find the game in the question. Try to avoid any soul-sucking arithmetic, so that you can hone this sense for the big day. Have fun with this! Engage the questions as little games and you may start to enjoy the process. Practice going big and you will be rewarded with more speed, efficiency and a more confident head game on test day.
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