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What It Takes to Truly Dominate the GMAT

Keith Richards, Toronto Canada

Keith Richards, Toronto Canada

I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from Keith Richards. My first thought was, “Woah, what’s the Rolling Stones rock legend doing going back to business school?!” (I did have the privilege of coaching U.S. figure skating legend Michelle Kwan on the GRE a few years ago, so hey, it’s not totally out of the question!). Then he explained that he was a corporate exec from Toronto looking to get his MBA, and that he needed my help on the GMAT. That made a little more sense.

I asked him if he had taken any GMAT practice tests yet. He said yes, he had gotten a 550, but that was mostly because of his strong verbal skills. In fact, he explained that he hadn’t had any math to speak of in high school, and so he was a little freaked out about the GMAT quantitative section. I think the exact words he used were, “I’m a little averse to algebra, to say the least.”

I then asked him what his GMAT goal was. He said he wanted to get into one of Canada’s top business schools, and to do so he’d need to crack 700. He asked if I thought that was possible for him. I said yes, my course content and teaching methods will teach you everything you need to know, but in the back of my mind I knew it would depend on his commitment to the process as much as any clever strategies I could teach him. His GMAT was scheduled for just under 3 months out.

Let me jump to the end of the story. Here’s the e-mail I received from Keith right after he walked out of the GMAT testing center:

Still running on adrenaline. I went in wanting — expecting — a 720. That was a big goal for me, given my complete and utter lack of background in the Quant. But I had studied my ass off, and I was just picturing that score in my mind. Given that I expected to get a 720, I thought hey, I’m going to select Harvard as one of my 5 school choices. 720 wouldn’t guarantee admittance, but it wouldn’t be an embarrassing score to submit.

Well, I fell short – got a 710. A frickin’ 710! I’m really very happy right now.

So what transpired during those three months? How do you go from a 550 to a 710 when you only have rudimentary math skills to begin with? Here are four key components of success on the GMAT based on my experience working with Keith:

1. Have Positive Expectations and Trust in Yourself

Positive PsychologyYou may be familiar with the famous Saturday Night Live skit from years ago featuring Al Franken called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley” where the character looks in the mirror and repeats to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” It’s been made into a bit of a spoof over the years, but the reality is that positive psychology makes a world of difference between success and failure in any endeavor, and the GMAT is no exception. As the great American automobile tycoon Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

So why not think you can?

What I love about that first conversation with Keith was the commitment to succeed I heard in his voice. He didn’t say, “I had a wasted youth with horrible math marks in high school… and therefore I probably have no hope of doing well on the GMAT. Can you work some miracles for me, Doc?”

Instead he said, “I’m coming into this GMAT weak in math but I’m committed to watching every single one of your videos, doing every single one of the practice questions you assign, taking every practice test as seriously as possible, and I’d even like you to give me some extra work so that I can build a strong foundation. I know I can do this!”

And he did.

2. Find What Works for You and Have Fun!

I try to teach the GMAT in a way that makes the most sense for the largest percentage of my students. Yet everybody is a little bit different, and sometimes you’ll need to figure out a way of thinking about things that makes the most sense for you. That’s exactly what Keith did such a good job of, as evidenced in this e-mail explanation he sent me:

Just wanted to share what might be called a “success.” Like I’ve said, I didn’t really do any math in high school, but I always try to approach problems creatively, in a way that makes sense to me personally.

I was doing the word problems video on consecutive integers today, had no problem with the first question “working backwards.” Then it got to the question around “increasing sequence ten consecutive integers, sum of first 5 is 560. What’s the sum of the last 5?”

You said, well, we can’t really work backwards . . . and yep, I agreed. But did I do it algebraically? Hell no! Nuts to algebra.

Just figured that, OK, first 5 are 560, so the average is 112, so the first 5 have to be 110, 111, 112, 113, and 114 . . . which then gave me the next 5, which I could quickly sum to get 585.

All kinds of ways to crack a nut, aren’t there? This is what’s making the studying more fun than I thought it might be (which was, no fun at all!).

What I think is so telling about that e-mail is how genuinely excited he seemed about his breakthrough! He was embracing the process and celebrating his small successes. Each new revelation he viewed as moving him one step closer to his goal. In fact, here’s another example that reflects the mindset of success Keith had toward the GMAT:

Your videos have been great on geometry – literally, this morning I did not know a thing about circles (well, I knew they had a radius, diameter, circumference, and I knew what those were), but how to solve things? None at all.

Funny, because when I started the studying this morning, I said to myself “pi is just a number” – and that was reinforced in the videos. Same with roots when I did triangles yesterday – they’re just a number. That’s such a key insight, simple as though it may be.

3. Trust the Process

I guess the first thing to say about this is that you need to have a process. That doesn’t mean you have to take my course. Heck, it doesn’t mean you have to take any course. There are plenty of people who get phenomenal GMAT scores studying on their own.

But they always have a plan.

How many GMAT practice tests will you take? When will you take them? How many practice questions will you do between each practice test? Which textbooks will you use? Who will you go to for answers if you get stuck on a particular concept? Will you study just math for a while, then switch to verbal, or will you do a little bit of each throughout?

The other thing to understand is that the process of studying for the GMAT builds on itself. In other words, some of your biggest breakthroughs will come in the 11th hour as you’re able to apply some of your foundational work to the harder problems. That’s exactly what happened for Keith. Remember the breakthrough insights he had about geometry? That led to this e-mail he sent me the week before his GMAT:

GMAT Geometry - Area of Shaded RegionsI was pretty damn happy when I dealt with two of the harder questions in the geometry module with no problems — that one with the inscribed angle of 35, trying to solve for the minor arc, and the area of the shaded region one where the shaded region, as my wife remarked, looks like a “pair of panties.”

That wouldn’t have happened if he had given up on the process too early. Don’t get frustrated if you’re still struggling with certain types of questions halfway through your preparation. You’ll get there. Stay with the process. There’s a great book called Three Feet from Gold by Greg Reid. It tells the story of a gold miner who quit digging after years of work because he just wasn’t having the breakthrough he was hoping for, only to have another miner buy his land from him, pick up where the other guy had left off, and strike one of the largest gold veins in history just three feet later. Wow.

The moral of the story, of course, is don’t give up on the process of studying for the GMAT until you’ve achieved the results you’re looking for. Period.

4. Study Really Hard

As much “fun” as Keith had studying for the GMAT, he also worked really hard at it. I got lots of e-mails from him throughout the process asking me for help with difficult homework questions or looking for alternative ways to solve different problems. He was like a bulldog, committed at all costs to making up for his mathematics shortcomings and getting a high GMAT score.

Obviously his hard work paid off, but what I think is even more refreshing is the e-mail I received from him just before the test:

I’m going to go into the test pretty confident, whereas when I started this I thought it was way too much of a hill to climb. I’ve studied about 4 hours a day for the last three months, I’ve armed myself as best as I know how, so that’s good enough for me!

Compare that to this Tweet I saw recently on Twitter from @Madkei:

“The test I take in a week means the difference between me becoming a rich businesswoman and living with my parents forever. #gmat #nervous”

What good does it do to heap that kind of pressure on yourself? Isn’t Keith’s perspective so much more reasoned and likely to produce great results on test day? Once you’ve put in the hard work, trust in that hard work. And realize that at the end of the day, if you’ve done the best you can, well, that’s really all you can do, isn’t it?