Amphibious Assault: A GMAT Testing Experience

Image by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr

Editor’s Note: Bell Curves periodically enlists our teachers to take the official GMAT to keep themselves sharp, help them better inform their students about current testing trends and procedures, and provide additional insight for materials development and instruction. Recently, one of our teachers did just that. Today’s post comes from Hany ElDiwany, one of our NYC-based instructors. Below, he provides some insights on overcoming different hurdles to make your GMAT test day experience a success. Keep an eye out for his next post discussing some keen insights gleaned from a particularly challenging Quant question he saw.

Friday, June 7th, 2013, the date I had scheduled for my GMAT exam, was an incredibly rainy day in New York City. Despite breaking down and finally buying one of those high quality umbrellas that don’t buckle and break after the first gust of wind (this after almost five years of living a predominantly pedestrian lifestyle and being exposed to the elements on a daily basis) , my shoes, socks and bottom of my pants were nonetheless thoroughly soaked by the time I reached the exam center in mid-town Manhattan. I guess sometimes rain just comes at you sideways and, well, maybe the can of leather waterproofer I used to spray my shoes was a lemon.

I preface my experience with this because, if you have ever suffered from soggy-sock syndrome, you can empathize with the condition I was in when I sat to take the test. Moreover, this was not a mere pit stop on my way home but, rather, four hours of sitting at a desk without any opportunity to change into drier clothing.

But there I was. It was, at that point, mind over matter. And that’s the reality of the exam, after all. Given the experience, it’s probably an ideal time to point out a valuable testing insight: Accept the wild cards.

Prepare all you can to be your most relaxed, stress-free and sharpest self the day of the exam. But, while it is important to control these stress factors to the best of our ability, life does throw a wild card at us sometimes and we just have to roll with it. To this end, learn to expect the unexpected and go in with an attitude of extreme tolerance. Whether it’s wet feet, a smelly neighbor, bad climate control or the like, it’s not necessarily going to be exactly how we hoped it would. You can still show your best stuff under less than ideal conditions.

The first section of the test, as usual, was the Analysis of an Argument Essay. I took up most of the thirty minutes for this section. I’ve nothing substantial to report except that I recognized this time around that most of the tools I used to formulate my answer came from my knowledge of assumption-based arguments, which comprise about 20% of the verbal section.

Feet still wet. I can feel my toes turning into prunes.

Next came the newest section of the test – Integrated Reasoning. Again, I took up the whole thirty minutes for this section, though finished feeling fairly confident. As this section has caused a lot of concern amongst prospective test takers, I’d like to share some insights here too: Integrated Reasoning? Know your Quant and Verbal.

Taking the test confirmed once again that 95% of what is needed to perform well on this section comes from the quantitative and verbal sections of the exam. The remainder is the ability to analyze graphics. Reading the information carefully and applying the skills learned to answer other parts of the test is what this really came down to. I’d like to also add that, at present, the significance of this section is still being defined, so this should NOT be a major source of worry for anyone.

My first eight minute break. I chose to get up and walk to the bathroom. Yup, my lower extremities were still no drier than when I had walked into the exam center one and a half hours prior. What to do? Be a master of my environment is what my yoga gurus would tell me. Alrighty then. Let’s do this.

Ahh, the beloved quantitative section. I am a math geek at heart so this was the section I was most looking forward to taking on. First four questions seemed quite manageable. Then I got a data sufficiency question that combined negative exponents and inequalities in a way that had me really racking my brain. I went through it as methodically as possible and picked the answer I arrived at with reasonable confidence.

Now we’ve all learned that this is a computer adaptive exam, meaning that a right answer begets us a harder question, whereas a wrong answer begets us an easier one. After I answered this moderately challenging question, I received what I thought was an easier question to follow. At that point, a voice in my head suggested that I MUST have answered the previous question incorrectly in order to encounter its apparently straightforward successor.

“Stop right there” I said to myself. It was imperative for me to check the impulse to analyze my first few questions. Doing so often undermines test-takers’ confidence and provides ample room for distraction. There’s an important take away here from my own experience: Don’t over-analyze computer adaptive difficulty fluctuation.

On an intellectual level, the reason for difficulty changes not necessarily matching our expectations  is simply that our strengths may not vary across all topics in the same way that the mean strengths vary across all topics. Thus, the exam is simply giving a harder question based on this larger sample size and not its assessment of your particular specific strengths and weaknesses – which is quite difficult to resolve. All the test has learned about you is how you’ve answered a handful of questions.

But forget the intellectual for a second. The point is it doesn’t matter. It’s water under the bridge. That self-speak may be great in other capacities, but right now the sole purpose is to rock that test to the best of your ability. There’s no direction to move in but forward.

“Okay brain,” I said to myself, “let’s focus on the questions here and stop pondering the inner workings of the GMAT command center.”

There were two more questions of note that had me feeling rather challenged. One was a problem solving question that had me multiplying two terms, one including a radical within a radical where none of the radicals were perfect squares (I cover some key insights from this question in this post). The other, towards the very end of the section, had to do with the plot of two circles on a coordinate plane and the equation of a line that formed from the intersection of these two circles at exactly two points. By this time, my mental stamina was wavering a bit. I guessed. Section complete.

Break Number Two. What wet feet? I’m in the zone now. It doesn’t matter anymore. This is the home stretch. Soon I’ll be warm and dry inside my home. A quick bathroom stop and a cup of water and back I go.

Finally, 75 minutes of verbal begins. It was this section of the test where I most felt that the strategies I’d been learning, and teaching, over the past four years really helped me the most. After seeing a bazillion critical reasoning questions, I’ve learned enough of their sneaky methods of attack that what would have evaded my radar on past examinations became far more plain for me to see. (Language shifts really come to mind here.) Ditto on the reading comprehension section. The sentence correction questions also came to me with a higher sense of surety. Sure, there were a couple of doozies throughout these sections. But on these, I was usually able to narrow down to the best choices, commit to one and move on.

Finished. I see my unofficial score. I got a 770 – 51 quant and 44 verbal. I’m mostly pleased.

I walk outside the exam center and that rain is still coming down like there’s no tomorrow. One last drenching before I get to dry off. But somehow during that four hour period, I’d adapted to an amphibious existence and such things as water no longer seemed a nuisance. I think a swim to my home sounds rather nice actually. Now if I only had a pair of flippers…

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