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by Vault Education Editors | August 27, 2010


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? NO. Never.

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 needs.

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 need.

Good luck!

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