This is a guest post by Richard Carriero, Next Step Test Preparation

It’s been my observation, after years of teaching standardized test prep, that the principle mistake made by otherwise intelligent students with respectable academic records is expecting the GMAT to behave like a high school pre-calc final.  Most tests in high school and college are achievement tests: they test specific concepts in exactly the same format that said concepts were learned.  The GMAT, on the other hand, assumes that you have a pretty good grasp on algebra, geometry and the rudiments of the English language.  Instead, the GMAT uses these concepts to test your ability to solve problems.  One of the test maker’s favorite ways of doing this is littering the GMAT with traps.  This article reviews five mistakes to which test takers are commonly vulnerable.

1) Failing to recognize logical solutions to seemingly complex problems.

A college basketball single-elimination tournament begins with 64 teams.  How many games must be played to determine a winner?  Reading this question sends many students into a frenzy of bracket drawing and calculation.  The first round would have 32 games and eliminate 32 teams; the second round would have 16 games and eliminate 16 teams… There’s a much simpler solution.  The job of a tournament is to eliminate all but one team.  If each team is eliminated by one game, then you need as many games as there are losing teams: 63. The lesson is to think before you dive in and calculate everything in sight.

2) Jumping at the obvious answer.

Let’s be clear.  An obvious answer is not the correct answer to a question that was easy for you to decipher and calculate.  An obvious answer, rather, is an answer that appears to be right before you calculate.  Obvious answers catch the eye–that’s their purpose.  On multiple choice questions the obvious answer is usually the result of a simplistic calculation and is usually A or B.  On data sufficiency questions an obvious answer is a statement or combination of statements that would seem to solve the problem right away (often C).  On reading comprehension obvious answers usually borrow heavily from the verbatim language of the passage.  The upside to obvious answer traps is that once you recognize one, all you need do is ask yourself why wouldn’t this be right. This line of reasoning will lead you to the correct answer in no time.

 3) Making one question your mission in life.

You must never lose perspective on the GMAT.  If you want a particular score on the test, that score equates to a particular number of right answers on each section.  If you have no idea how to answer a question or answering said question will take minutes of time you don’t have, it’s probably not worth your time.  Have the humility to know when you don’t know and the presence of mind to punt (guess and move on).  A right answer on the GMAT that takes 5 minutes is a Pyrrhic victory and almost always comes at the expense of other right answers you could have gotten.

4) Forgetting the rules

Data sufficiency questions DO NOT require you to answer the question but merely to identify the information that would allow you to answer the question.  Once you know a statement will get the job done your job IS done.  In addition, always remember that each statement must get its own opportunity to be sufficient.  That means when you read statement 2, you must temporarily forget what you learned in statement 1.

5) Assuming all questions of a certain type are identical

The GMAT is filled with stereotypical question types that test a circumscribed set of principles.  Keep in mind, however, that the test makers are not blind to this fact and will readily tweak extremely common question types in unusual ways.  For example, most overlapping set (Venn Diagram) problems will have five variables: a total number of objects, two general groups, an overlap between those groups, and a third mutually exclusive neither group.  An ice cream parlor makes 40 sundaes: 25 with nuts, 18 with whipped cream and 10 with neither topping.  You get the idea.  Well the test maker has many ways to make this more complicated.  They could add a third topping or tell you how many sundaes have only nuts and only whipped cream or leave out two variables instead of one.  You have to be able to get under the hood sometimes and tweak your own approach to any question.  The main takeaway here is to never answer any GMAT question on auto-pilot.

Rich Carriero has been a standardized test prep teacher and tutor since 1999.  He is  Academic Manager for Next Step Test Preparation’s GRE and GMAT tutor  programs.

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