Common Misconceptions

Introduction

Almost everyone embarking on the business school admissions process harbors at least one of the following misconceptions about the test, and frequently several.

However, it’s critical to clear these misconceptions as quickly and comprehensively as possible, as any one of them can kill your chances of success.

Misconception No. 1 – Cramming will work

The GMAT is not like a normal test from your high school days. Here are some key differences:

It’s adaptive, meaning that the difficulty level of the questions posed depends on whether you answered the previous question correctly. The exam is actively seeking to determine the difficulty level at which you answer correctly 50% of the time. This makes for a high-tension experience for the vast majority of test-takers.
Time pressure is immense, meaning you must actively study ways to improve speed in addition to accuracy.
You can’t skip or go back to work on previously answered questions. This makes your decision about whether to spend more time on, or move on from, a difficult question much more difficult.
All questions are presented on a computer screen, making helpful annotations impossible (unless you consume valuable time copying the question onto your scratch paper).

The above are just a few of the GMAT’s complications.

Misconception No. 2 – Just knowing the topics is enough

The test-makers are actively trying to trick you, especially with the more difficult questions. They are trying to discriminate among a generally quite well-educated audience, which means they are under constant pressure to generate very difficult questions.

But generating such questions is costly, so the test-makers do whatever they can to increase difficulty at least cost (e.g., presenting information in an unhelpful format or order, including answer choices that cater to common test-taker mistakes, using bizarre question formats such as quantitative data sufficiency, etc.).

Misconception No. 3 – I only need to get a school’s minimum score

A score just 40 points lower than a school’s average will put enormous pressure on the rest of your application — especially at the top schools.

Since most schools’ GMAT averages are published in the public domain, and applicants and recruiters alike partly judge reputation by this measure, a school simply cannot remain competitive if its GMAT average slips.

This means business schools actually have very little freedom to accept scores significantly below their average – especially not the top business schools. The development of this constraint was probably not what business schools had in mind when they started requiring GMAT scores many years ago, but it’s painfully real now nonetheless.

Misconception No. 4 – Anyone can get a high (700+) score

A 700 score would place you among the top 10% of all GMAT test-takers.

It would be more true to say that anyone can improve significantly (~100 points and sometimes much more) from their starting point, than to say that anyone can get a 700+ score.

While we would be the last ones to deny anyone’s potential, as a practical matter very few people have more than 200 hours in any given year to devote to studying for the GMAT.

Consider: If you’re spending the first 100 hours just to refresh your math foundation, yet you’re competing against a significant segment of applicants whose math foundation is strong before they even start studying, you’re very likely precluded from anything above a top 20% quantitative score. Given how the scoring scale works, if you achieve a top 20% performance in quantitative, you’ll probably need to score at least in the top 10% in verbal to reach a 700 score. Not at all trivial.

Misconception No. 5 – I don’t need specialist help

There’s no doubt that your favorite high school math teacher (or math whiz or wordsmith buddy) can help you improve. And if your quantitative and/or verbal foundation is extremely rusty, seeking help initially from such quarters can be cost-effective.

But given the unusual features of the exam, no one not intimately familiar with the test will be able to help you reach your potential in a short time frame. Keep in mind that an entire test preparation service industry has grown up around these admissions tests; if generalist math teachers or tutors were adequate, there would be little market demand for specialist services.