One of the great misconceptions about standardized exams such as the GMAT or the SAT is that they are tests of “Math” or “English.”
Rather, these types of tests are tests of analytical thinking—in short, logic—that require a certain basic level of Math or English to succeed. It’s pretty clear that we need to develop these hard skills: facility with Algebra, English grammar, etc. in order to succeed.
What is less apparent is the fact that we must also learn how to ask the right questions of ourselves in order to tackle these exams efficiently.
Why? Because the test-writers are literally trying to confuse you.
The good news is that they use a very particular system to do this, and it’s crackable. However, this is not any normal sort of confusing writing. Let’s look at three different species of confusing writing; the third is what you’ll see on the GMAT or the SAT.
- It’s badly written.
This is something we’ve all experienced. Something simply doesn’t make sense because its internal logic doesn’t make sense. Not much to say here: this book needs an editor.
- The information is broken down inaccessibly.
Long story short, when a mathematician writes a textbook, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be learning for the first time. She assumes that the steps taken in order to reach the next line will make sense to the reader. Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t. There is an internal logic, but it’s not obvious to many readers. To me, this is just a different form of poor writing.
- The information is all there, but packaged in an intentionally-jumbled way.
This is the entire problem with GMAT- and SAT-style standardized exams. All necessary information is there (it must be in order to successfully imply one particular answer!) but it is often presented in a way that seems backward, confusing, or illogical.
Yes, that’s on purpose.
The SAT and the GMAT give you raw information and force you to interpret it.
In Quant, you must know where an equation comes from rather than blindly plugging in: What’s the point of this equation? How would I make any number fit it? How would I prove it?
This is a little harder to describe for the Verbal part of these exams, but the best example is high-level questions where hard-and-fast rules break down and you have to make a judgment call based on “style” in grammar-type or “inference” in reading-type questions.
For both, the interpretation is a form of inference.
Inductive vs. Deductive Logic
You’ll need to know this terminology to proceed, so let’s address Deductive and Inductive Logic.
Deductive Logic is straightforward “reorganization of information.”
It’s like an Algebra problem: all of the stuff is already there on the page; you’re just reorganizing to solve for X. There is no new information created.
The most convenient (and crucial) distinction: a computer uses only deductive logic.
Inductive Logic is inferential: it requires a guess (and a test).
Inductive Logic works from empirical information, recognizes patterns, and makes an “educated guess” based on the information provided. This guess creates new information.
Crucial: a computer does not use Inductive Logic.
Look at it this way:
The GMAT and the SAT are both presented to test your inductive thinking ability as well as your deductive thinking ability. Now let’s take a look at the best weapon in our arsenal.
Use the Scientific Method to Break Down Information
This might be like taking a Howitzer to a knife fight, but sometimes you gotta bring out the heavy artillery.
We’ve established already that the information you’ll be presented on the GMAT or the SAT is given in a jumble. How to make sense of it?
Easy: the Scientific Method.
The Scientific Method is a brilliant mash-up of both Inductive and Deductive Logic that allows us to bounce back and forth between Inductive and Deductive Logic, guessing-and-checking our way to a reasonable answer.
Let’s look at the Scientific Method in its most basic form:
- State the problem
What do you have and what do you need?
- Hypothesis/Hypotheses about the cause of the problem
Got an idea about what’s happening here? Look for that stumbling block. Feel around; try to figure out where it is. Got it? Good.
- Experiment, testing the hypothesis.
Now that you have an idea, what are you going to do about it? Got a technique in mind?
- Predict results of the experiment
See whether that technique works: is that move likely to make the Algebra shake out something useful? Do you think that assumption could clarify the difference between those two answers in Reading Comprehension?
- Compare the predictions to the actual outcomes
Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. If it didn’t, throw it out.
- Conclusions regarding the results
Do you have an answer yet? If so, great. If not, then perhaps the hypothesis was wrong. Time to think of something else that might work.
If this seems long…
Note that, of course, we routinely roll steps 3-6 together. For the moment, though, take it as slowly as necessary.
Are you stuck with a problem? Not sure how to shake something loose?
The common answer among novice test-takers is “I just don’t know some factoid that I’m supposed to know and if I knew that random thing then I’d be able to solve it.”
What’s more likely, though—assuming you know your basics—is that you don’t know how to solve it.
Thinking in terms of “hows” is a global approach, assuming that you will plan, prepare, and roadmap a solution to the problem. This is exactly what the Scientific Method guides you through.
Next time you’re stuck, give it a little science. See what happens.
If you want to read more, I’ve written a 16-page guide going into even greater depth about how to Ask the Right Questions on the GMAT—with special emphasis on how developing this skill can help you overcome test anxiety!
Link to Guide: https://yourgmatcoach.withcoach.com/free-pdf-guide-how-to-break-down-gmat-questions
About the Author
Rowan Hand has worked as a GMAT tutor for students across the globe since 2005. He is the author of the #1 Amazon bestseller (categories: GMAT and Test Prep), Last Minute GMAT Grammar. Rowan has helped over 500 students make their careers at schools such as LBS, Columbia, Wharton, INSEAD, and more.
Contact Rowan directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Link to site: www.yourgmatcoach.com