Many aspiring MBA students fear taking the GMAT, particularly the quantitative section of the GMAT. Why is this, and what can be done to overcome this fear to master GMAT quant?
I believe GMAT-quant feels difficult for the following reasons:
• Many students haven’t taken a math class for a long time
• Many students believe you either are, or are not, a math person
• Many students believe the math on the GMAT can be quite advanced
• You can’t use your calculator or excel, which is how most people do math in their daily lives
• You’ve forgotten many definitions that are required to answer most of the questions
• It’s a stressful environment, where the following can trip you up: misreading, computational errors when you do understand the concept, and time management
• It feels like more than theory is necessary, and that special tips and tricks are needed (this is partially accurate…)
With these fears and beliefs in mind, here are five steps to mastering the quantitative section of the GMAT.
#1 Drop the belief that there are math people and there aren’t math people
Without getting into a nature vs. nurture debate, it’s important to understand that people do not understand mathematics because of a “math gene.” Sure, genetically speaking some people may be more or less predisposed towards understanding and enjoying math. But math is a skill, just like any other skill, that improves with focused, deliberate practice. If you believe that you are missing a trait or a gene that will allow you to excel in math, then it probably feels useless even to try to improve your GMAT quant score. But if you adopt the belief that math is a skill that improves with practice, you’ll be more likely to put in the required practice and build your skills.
#2 Understand the math covered on the GMAT
Contrary to what many students believe, the math covered on the GMAT is not that advanced. It is essentially math up to high school algebra, geometry, and trigonometry plus a few topics you may not have been exposed to previously: number theory, combinatorics (the study of counting) and probability. So, in terms of the math theory, much of what’s on the exam will be a review, and you’ll likely need to learn just a few new things.
#3 Recognize that GMAT quant is testing critical thinking and problem solving, not math skills per se
Once you digest what’s actually on the exam and spend some time studying each topic, you’ll realize that the GMAT is actually a bit of game in which you are asked to think critically using relatively simple math tools and concepts to solve problems. In business, you’ll be asked to get the most out of the assets you have available. That’s the best way to think of GMAT quant. It’s about using the mathematical tools available to you, and applying them in creative ways to solve problems.
#4 Learn the “rules of the game”
Now, I’m not saying that because the math isn’t complex, that some of the problems aren’t extremely difficult. One important thing to do is simply familiarize yourself with the question types and the “rules of the game.” For example, you probably haven’t been exposed to data sufficiency questions before, because the only place I’ve ever seen data sufficiency questions is on the GMAT. But, this question type exists because it’s a great way to test critical, logical thinking skills.
But while it’s true that what is really being tested on the GMAT is critical thinking, but that is done in a certain context. There are clear question types you’ll see again and again and “winning strategies” you can apply in different ways. To do well, you’ll need both fundamental math skills and knowledge in your toolkit as well as a range of test-taking strategies to apply.
#5 Embrace mental math
What is 45 * 9?
45 * 9 is the same as 45 * 10, which you probably very quickly recognize as being equal to 450. And since the original question was 45 * 9, not 45 * 10, you can quickly subtract 45 from 450 to get 405. So, 45 * 9 = 405. That simple series of steps is mental math in action, and it’s different than writing out 45 * 9 on paper and doing the calculation. In general, it’s faster and more accurate and thus doing math like this in your head is a critical element of getting a great GMAT quant score. You’ll be under time pressure on the GMAT, and mental math skills are going to be critical. But again, they can be built with practice.
During your 3-9 months preparing for the GMAT, just practice doing more of this in your head. Calculate all tips at restaurants and bars in your head, add, subtract, multiple, and divide the minute and second hands on the clock, and do anything else to build these mental math skills.
About the Author
Mark Skoskiewicz earned a B.S. in Business from Indiana University and an MBA from Northwestern-Kellogg. He’s spent 10+ years as a business strategy consultant (most recently at TRC Advisory), and founded MyGuru, a 1-1 tutoring and test prep company, in 2009.