Feelings, Difficulty, and the GMAT

[Ed. Note: Taking the GMAT is an essential part of a good GMAT instructor’s job because it gives us a whole new perspective when advising students. Bell Curves requires all teachers to regularly take the actual GMAT in order to hone their skills in the actual setting of the test, discover new trends, and report back experiences that can benefit students. On an unseasonably warm Monday the third week of November, three members of Bell Curves GMAT development team took the GMAT in order to experience the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) questions first hand in the real setting. This is Akil’s experience on that particular day. To see reports of that same day from Jason or Ajani click either of their respective names. Keep an eye on this blog for an upcoming post about those aforementioned IR questions, as well as novel insights on cigarettes and the GMAT, and why NOT to sweat the AWA.]

My latest round of competitive test-taking took place this past Monday as I, along with two of my colleagues, signed up to take the GMAT to get a glance at the new Integrated Reasoning questions, test out some testing techniques, and reacquaint ourselves with the joyful experience of taking a four hour exam. As always when I take the GMAT, I left tired, excited, and informed. This time my three big takeaways for you future test-takers are as follows:

Feelings…nothing more than feelings

As I took the test, I was briefly thrown by a few questions that I felt were “too easy.” As many test-takers do, I started to wonder whether (not “if,” since this is not a conditional statement) this meant I had made mistakes on previous questions and whether my score was already doomed. I got my first feelings around question 7 in the quant when I was presented with a question that looked something like this (the numbers and structure of the problem have been changed to avoid giving away any actual GMAT questions and incurring the wrath of GMAC’s Dr. Lawrence Rudner):

#7 If a particular colorful widget sold for $17 was discounted 18% from its original cost, what was the original cost of the item?

Most people will call this question easy, and I tend to agree that it lacks the sophistication of many questions you would see on the GMAT, and that slightly concerned me. Another notable question that gave me the heebee geebees looked something like this:

What is the value of ?

To me this is a basic exponent question probably more reflective of a quant level of 30 – 35 instead of the 45 – 50 I was aiming for. Despite my mild concern of having messed up, I had faith that my knowledge and experience would be reflected in my performance and that if I had messed up I could recover from any mistake. So for each of those questions I decided to take a little more time to reread the question and ensure that there was no subtlety of language or math that I had overlooked. Once I was fairly confident that I hadn’t missed anything, I soldiered on and just answered the question, putting it out of my mind as soon as I clicked confirm.

For the rest of the test I had to work against my distracted feeling, and I came across other problems that again felt really easy to me, but by then I was adamant that I would turn my feelings into something actionable and proactive. When presented with the question below, instead of simply allowing myself to be distracted by the feeling of “this problem is too easy,” I forced myself to run though my mental “GMAT tricks checklist” to ensure that I’d checked for all the common mistakes that I tend to make when working GMAT questions. This slowed me down but gave me more confidence that I’d done everything I could to ensure that I got the question right. The downside of this double-checking was that I ended up rushing through the last 8 – 10 questions without truly working on most of them.

So all in all my feeling was that this test was not a particularly strong test for me and I might actually lose the wager I had going with my co-workers about who would achieve the best score. In the end it turned out that, in the immortal words of balladeer Morris Albert, my feelings where nothing more than feelings. I scored a 48 in the quant section (remember the highest quant score is about a 51) despite all the perceived easy questions and the rushing at the end of the test.


This experience reaffirmed the advice we always give our students: have a plan for dealing with the emotional elements of the test. What do you do when you get questions that seem “too easy?” What do you do when you think it’s not going as well as you’d hoped?

  1. Double-check the question for known GMAT “tricks” and for anything you might have overlooked. Make that feeling of unease something that is active and actionable.
  2. Remember your preparation. The point of the time you spend preparing for this test is to make it easier, so some questions should seem easy if you are well prepared.
  3. Remember you may get some “easy” questions even when you are doing really well. The CAT is a fickle beast and has its own reasons for shifting difficulty.
  4. Don’t second-guess or debate performance on previous questions. It’s unproductive since you can’t go back. Live in the moment.
  5. Try not to focus on perceived difficulty of questions. Even us longtime GMAT professionals can’t always get difficulty estimates right.

For another important take on dealing with feelings and perceptions during the test, check out Ajani’s post from his test.

Good luck and good learning!

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