Monthly Archives: February 2017

Go ahead, roll your eyes… but it’s GMAT quantitative reasoning, not GMAT math

 

If you’ve struggled with the GMAT quant section more than you think you should, this blog post is for you. If you’ve ever said, “I’ve always been a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT quant is so hard for me!” – then this post is definitely for you.

In my former life as a PhD student, I spent far too much time learning about the statistical science underneath standardized testing, known as psychometrics. My nearly three-year PhD odyssey didn’t result in much other than some grey hairs and a “thank you for playing!” Master’s degree in education, but I did experience a few things that probably helped me become a better GMAT and GRE tutor.

This is a story about one of those things – and at the time, I never would have guessed that it would be useful for my GMAT and GRE students.

In my first year as a PhD student, I went to a psychometrics conference, populated by academics and employees of major standardized testing organizations, including ETS (makers of the GRE and TOEFL) and GMAC (creators of your beloved GMAT). I attended a presentation by a high-ranking GMAT psychometrician, who discussed… well, nevermind that part, I’ll put you right to sleep if I start talking about it.

Anyway, here’s the useful bit: somebody in the audience asked a question about the “math section of the GMAT.” The GMAT psychometrician interrupted him politely: “Excuse me,” he said, “there is no math section on the GMAT. There’s only quantitative reasoning.”

I probably rolled my eyes. “What a dick,” I thought, “why would he make a big deal out of that? It’s math. S#!t, I’ve been teaching it for a decade. Whatever, dude.”

Sure, maybe the GMAT psychometrician wasn’t picking the best moment to make a big deal out of it, but he absolutely had a point. In the few years since I attended that conference, I’ve realized that my students – particularly Americans – actually perform better on the quant section of the GMAT when they stop thinking of it as “math” and start thinking of it as “quantitative reasoning.”

Here’s the thing: in the United States, “math” knowledge – at least through the high school level – is typically taught as sequences of mechanical steps that you need to memorize and follow. Throughout much of my public school education, our daily homework would consist of 10 or 20 nearly identical math problems. The problems were usually so similar that there was no reason to think about what any of it meant. If you could follow instructions, you’d get an A – even if you had absolutely zero understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts.

As a result, most Americans think that the word “math” just refers to a boring series of steps that you follow. Sadly, we don’t think of mathematics as a way of thinking, or as a set of useful tools for reasoning our way through useful problems. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have learned math in a way that strips it of its logic, meaning, and intuition.

So it’s no surprise that I hear this over and over from GMAT test-takers, especially Americans: “I’m a really good math student, but I can’t understand why the GMAT is so hard for me!”

Obviously, there are a ton of reasons why somebody might struggle with the GMAT quant section, but plenty of GMAT test-takers make the subtle mistake of trying to learn too many formulas, memorize too many steps, and drill too many mechanical aspects of mathematics. The GMAT, for all of its flaws, brilliantly twists 10th-grade math into a hard-to-penetrate – or at least a hard-to-quickly-penetrate – tangle of logic.

In other words: if you’re trying to blindly apply mechanical techniques to GMAT quant questions above the 500 or 600 level, the exam will eat you for breakfast.

Let’s look at an example (with apologies for the blurry fractions):

Which of the following is greatest?

GMAT blog example quantitative reasoning

If you think of this as a mechanical “math question,” you’ll follow some well-worn steps here: find some common denominators, add the fractions, and THEN compare the sums.

Go ahead and try it if you’d like. If you can correctly solve the question that way in two minutes or less, I’ll give you a cookie.

But if you’re thinking of the GMAT as “quantitative reasoning” – with or without the eye-roll – then maybe you’ll try something quicker, smarter, and less arithmetic-intensive. In this case, we’re just looking for the greatest value – and we don’t care what that value actually is, as long as we know that it’s larger than the other four answer choices.

So since the question is just asking for the greatest of the five answer choices, you can just compare pairs of answer choices, and knock off anything that’s the smaller of the two. Let’s start with D and E. It’s easy to see why E is larger than D once you notice that 1 – ½ = ½, so D is gone.

Similarly, B looks a lot like E, except that the denominators in B are squared – and since larger denominators mean that the fractions must be smaller, we can cross off B. The same argument holds for C – it’s clearly smaller than E as well. And then A has smaller denominators than E – so A is your answer.

No computation required, right? If you’re approaching this wisely, you barely need to lift your pen.

So if you’re thinking of the GMAT quant section as a set of narrow mathematical tasks – formulas that need to be memorized, or boring-ass steps that need to be followed – then you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least if you want an elite GMAT quant score. Once you start looking for opportunities to apply flexible logic and identify multiple solution paths, then you’re on the right track.

If any of this strikes a nerve, then it might not be a bad idea to stop yourself whenever you start thinking about the GMAT “math section.” Roll your eyes at yourself if you’d like, but thinking of the GMAT quant section as “quantitative reasoning” might help you embrace the flexibility and logic you’ll need for a top GMAT quant score.

An unfortunate story about GMAT testing irregularities

 

I’m reasonably confident that the GMAT does its honest best to ensure that the GMAT testing experience is the same for every GMAT test-taker. But unfortunately, stuff happens in life – even in the tightly controlled environment of a GMAT testing center. I documented a few minor GMAT testing center horror stories on my GMAT blog a bunch of years ago: basically, a few GMAT test-takers encountered computer glitches that torpedoed their tests, or had shorter breaks because the proctor failed to release them promptly from the testing room – that sort of thing.

Since then, my GMAT students have occasionally experienced computer failures, GMAT test-center power outages, and even a haunting or two — though the latter might have happened only in a GMAT student’s (literal) nightmares. In each of the real-world cases, the folks at the GMAT have done the right thing: they’ve at least offered a free retake of the GMAT.

Sadly, it sounds like the GMAT has modified its behavior toward testing irregularities lately, and that’s pretty frustrating. The circumstances of the latest GMAT testing center horror story aren’t terribly interesting: as one of my GMAT students returned from his post-Integrated Reasoning break, the proctor botched the password when he tried to log back into the computer. He apparently botched it several times, and my poor GMAT student – let’s call him Mr. B, since he apparently makes a mean bhindi masala – lost about two minutes from his GMAT quant section.

In theory, losing two minutes shouldn’t have affected Mr. B’s quant score much – after all, that’s only the equivalent of one GMAT question, right? But let’s be realistic: since we all know that you need every possible advantage on the GMAT these days, wouldn’t you freak out just a little bit if you lost two minutes from the test? And wouldn’t that affect your performance?

Unfortunately, Mr. B badly underperformed on his GMAT that day – particularly on his slightly shortened quant section – and he chose to cancel the score. We can’t completely blame his GMAT quant score on the proctor’s error, but it certainly didn’t help.

Regardless of the effects of the proctor’s error, it’s still true that the GMAT is supposed to be a standardized test. “Standardized” means that every test-taker should be given the same, fair testing experience. The GMAT quant section is 75 minutes – not 73 minutes. What happened to Mr. B is pretty much the textbook definition of a testing irregularity.

In this situation, the GMAT should have apologized, wiped the score off Mr. B’s score report, and offered him a free retake. After all, that’s what they’ve done in the past – plus, it just seems like the right thing to do. Mr. B didn’t have the same testing experience as his competitors for coveted MBA slots, and that’s not fair – even if the disadvantage was relatively small.

Mr. B is not a particularly shy man, and he pushed the GMAT for a fair resolution. There was a paper trail – the proctor filed a report indicating that there had been a testing irregularity. What did the GMAT do after several phone calls and a few emails? Nothing. They told Mr. B that he “didn’t have to cancel his score” and refused to offer a retake.

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Mr. B earns a good living, and the $250 he paid for his next GMAT exam did not bankrupt him. But it seems unfair – and it definitely represents a departure from the GMAT’s behavior in the past.

Here’s my rather cynical theory about the GMAT’s decision: perhaps due to increasing competition from the GRE exam, the number of GMAT exams has fallen recently, and the GMAT’s revenue has presumably fallen accordingly. But if each GMAT question costs somewhere between $1500 and $3000 to develop, the GMAT can’t really afford a loss of revenue.

So it looks like they’re making up that revenue however they can. Since 2012 – when the number of GMAT tests dropped – the GMAT has begun to offer plenty of pricey (and often very useful) products, as I mentioned in an earlier GRE vs. GMAT blog post: enhanced score reports ($24.95), the ability to cancel ($25) or “un-cancel” ($50) your score after test day, the worth-every-penny GMAT Exam Packs ($49.99 each), and new GMAT OGs, released every year instead of every few years ($85 for the latest bundle on the GMAC website).

And we can apparently add a new revenue source to the list: a refusal to compensate GMAT test-takers when minor testing irregularities occur.

I’m obviously not impressed by the GMAT’s behavior in this case, but if you’re just a reader of this little GMAT blog, the good news is that these sorts of things don’t happen very often. But if you’re truly paranoid about the GMAT’s increasing miserliness, then maybe you have another reason to think about taking the GRE instead of the GMAT?