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by Vault Education Editors | May 29, 2009


You've spent weeks, months, years (well, hopefully not years) studying for the GMAT, and game day has finally arrived. You are laser-focused, well prepared and ready to make all that time you spent neglecting your significant other and your dog finally pay off. So what can stop you? Answer: You.


In an odd (and cruel) twist of fate, sometimes the students with the best of intentions can actually perform the worst on the exam. Yes, you heard right. Over the years, we at Manhattan GMAT have seen very bright and well-prepared students underperform on the exam because of a failure to understand and/or execute an effective test-taking strategy. In general, success on the GMAT depends on three major factors: (1) your knowledge of the relevant content; (2) your ability to apply that knowledge to GMAT problems; and (3) your test-taking strategy. Don't let all your hard work in the first two categories go to waste because of a failure in the third! There are many test-taking mistakes to which students can fall victim, and giving in to your "inner perfectionist" is one of the most common.


Now, wait a minute! What's wrong with being a perfectionist? Don't perfectionists get the great jobs, the beautiful boyfriends/girlfriends, the fancy house, and the great GMAT scores? Actually, no--you should only count three out of those four. While perfectionism may have some rewards in everyday life, it does not help you find success in that mysterious place known as the GMAT testing center. There, perfection is not good; in fact, it's downright bad. The following are a few cases in which "IP" (your inner perfectionist, pronounced like the "ip" in dip) can get you into trouble.


The essays


Wouldn't it be great to get a perfect 6 on the essay portion? How's that for bragging rights? Your IP wants this! It wants it badly, but you must say no. Why? First, the most important part of your GMAT score is the math/verbal (scored out of 800), not the essays. The GMAT is an exhausting four-hour test, and you need to save up your energy for the main event. If you were about to run a marathon, would you do a five-mile sprint before it starts--just for kicks? Going full throttle on the essays before the critical the math/verbal portion of the exam is the equivalent of doing just that. You want to get a decent score on the essays, but not at the expense of doing well on the real substance of the exam. On the essays, just say no to your IP.


Timing strategy for math and verbal


You've managed to shut down your IP for the essays, but beware--it will rear its ugly head again, and this time with a vengeance. We were taught in school to try to get as many problems correct as possible on any exam. Makes sense, right? Practically every other test you've ever taken worked that way. However, the universe is strangely twisted in the GMAT testing center. This may sound like odd advice, but I'll say it anyway--strive for mediocrity! Question: What percentage of GMAT questions do you need to answer correctly to get a 760 (99th percentile)? A lot, right? How about someone who gets a 350 (7th percentile)? Hopefully, you're sitting down. Drumroll, please … both get about 50 to 60 percent correct! How could that be possible? Because the test is adaptive! It is the difficulty level of questions you face--not the number of questions you answer correctly--that really matters. So, let's get back to IP. What's the flipside of getting about 50 percent correct? Getting about 50 percent incorrect! That's right, you can get nearly half the questions wrong and still get a very high score!


When IP tells you that you have to get this particular question correct, don't listen. If you cannot shut off your inner perfectionist, you will be spending inordinate amounts of time on questions that you probably don't know how to do anyway. Better to spend that time on questions you do know how to answer. On the GMAT, you have to pick your battles--and even lose a few--so that you can win the war. So when you're mired in the muck and you know you've spent too much time already, tell IP to shut up. Take an educated guess and move on (it's OK to be rude to your IP).


Missing questions here and there along the way is fine, but not finishing the exam on time is deadly. If you get a lot of problems wrong in a row at the end of the exam because you're rushing, you can really tank your score. Don't even think about leaving any questions blank--that does even worse damage. Also remember that approximately a quarter of all GMAT questions are experimental. In other words, they don't count in your score (sadly, you don't know which questions they are, and you should not try to reveal their identity through mystic charms; like the stock market, the GMAT guards its secrets jealously). So, that thorny question you're sweating over might not even matter. Even a question that counts doesn't hurt you that much if you get it wrong relatively fast. The way a single question really hurts you is by taking you out of your game--stressing you out, stealing your time, zapping your mojo. Refuse to grant any question that power.


Of course, you should be prepared for struggle. After all, the test adapts until you are struggling at least somewhat. And don't bail out of every scary question immediately--it might just have a slightly different look than you're used to, and a little upfront effort might crack it like a walnut. But here's the bottom line: Do not get stuck thinking that you have to answer any one question correctly.


Final thoughts


The most underrated part of preparing for the GMAT is mastering the right testing strategy. Simply put, computer-adaptive tests (such as the GMAT) and paper tests are different games, as different as chess and checkers. Most of your life, you've been playing one game; now you have to learn another.


Many students spend the majority of their time learning content and doing problems. That's all well and good. But if you walk into the room without a detailed understanding of good test-taking strategy, it will be hard to live up to your potential. Don't let all of those hours you spent studying go to waste because you listened to your IP and didn't get through the exam. Invest the time to learn the strategic nuances of how to take the GMAT. Controlling your inner perfectionist is just one strategy designed to enhance your test-taking performance. 


About ManhattanGMAT


ManhattanGMAT is the nation's largest GMAT-exclusive preparation provider. ManhattanGMAT's mission is to provide students with a blend of the academic and test-taking skills essential for success, given today's higher standard for what defines a competitive GMAT score. Preparation options include 9-session courses, private tutoring, one-day workshops, and corporate classes on-site at many Fortune 500 companies. The ManhattanGMAT Strategy Guides, the heart of our curriculum, can be purchased through our online store or major book retailers like Barnes & Noble.


Check out our website to learn more about our upcoming programs, curriculum and instructors.


*GMAT and GMAT CAT are registered trademarks of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which neither sponsors nor endorses this preparation service.


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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