Some Common GMAT Myths

If you’re looking to ace the GMAT, you’re faced with two fundamental challenges: mastering the content of the exam and understanding the nature of the test. Mastering the content of the test is no easy feat, but because of persistent myths about the exam, many students end up taking the wrong approach toward the GMAT itself. Here, I’ve listed and dispelled some of the most common myths about the GMAT.

Myth: The first 10 questions of each section are more important than the rest of the section.

Fact: This myth has gained currency because of the computer-adaptive nature of the exam. Though it’s true that you won’t see 650 level-questions until you’ve correctly answered some lower-level questions, the fact of the matter is that the scoring algorithm won’t pigeonhole you into a certain scoring range based on just a few questions.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume your true score on the GMAT is 650, but you miss the first several questions on the Quantitative section. You’ll probably then be given a couple 400-level questions. Once you answer those correctly, though, you’ll again see some higher-level questions. If you answer these questions correctly, the algorithm will adjust accordingly and give you tougher questions until it settles on your true level of proficiency. Though it’s obviously ideal to answer every question correctly, you shouldn’t be spending a disproportionate amount of time on the first 10 questions. Instead, you should approach every question in the same way. In the end, the scoring algorithm is sophisticated enough to determine what your true score level is.

Myth: If you see an easy question on the GMAT, it means you must have missed the previous question.

Fact: Everyone knows that the GMAT CAT adapts subsequent questions’ level of difficulty based on your performance on previous questions. BUT, it’s wrong to assume that seeing an easy question means you must have missed the previous question.

First of all: every section of the GMAT has a number of experimental questions, none of which count toward your score. Although there’s no consensus on how many appear per test, it’s widely assumed (among us GMAT fanatics) that each section consists of up to 25% experimental questions. By virtue of the fact that these questions are placed for the purpose of trying out new types of questions, many of them will be easier than the other questions that you see on the test. So, even if you’re cruising along toward a 700, you might see an experimental question that is far easier than the rest of the questions you encountered. The important thing to remember is that this does NOT mean you missed a previous question or have been performing poorly on the exam.

Just as importantly, it might turn out that a question you think is easy is actually a difficult one for most test-makers. So even if it looks like a 500-level question to you, it can very well be a 700-level question in line with what you’ve been seeing throughout the test.

The larger point here is that you shouldn’t concern yourself with the perceived level difficulty of questions on the exam. As I mentioned in another blog post, you can get an excellent score on the exam even if you miss a significant number of questions on the exam. So instead of fretting over whether you missed that last question, just do your best to focus on the one in front of you.

Myth: You need to score in the 90th percentile on each section if you want a 90th percentile score.

Fact: Most test-takers have polarized strengths. Some majored in Engineering and nail the Quant while others majored in History and excel at the Verbal. What’s relatively rare is a test-taker who is proficient in both sections. Accounting for this, the GMAT scoring algorithm rewards balance. Even if a test-taker doesn’t score remarkably in either section, s/he can compensate for that fact by showing balance across Verbal and Quant scores.

Let’s take a look at the scoring breakdown for a couple of my previous students:

740 (98th Percentile)
Verbal: 44, 97th Percentile
Quant: 47, 84th Percentile

710 (92nd Percentile)
Verbal: 40 (89th Percentile)
Quant: 48 (84th Percentile)

Notice that in both cases, the person achieved an overall percentile higher than what he scored on either individual section!

Myth: To get a 700 on the GMAT, you need to master Combinations, Permutations, and Probability.

Fact: Many of the students I tutor view counting and probability with trepidation, if not downright terror. Their concern is only heightened by test prep companies that spend inordinate amounts of time covering advanced topics in combinatorics and probability (for example, the company for which I used to write questions devoted an entire Quant class to methods of counting). Though these topics have been known to appear on the GMAT, the fact is that they appear far less frequently than topics such as Number Properties, Ratios, Averages, Percents, and Arithmetic. Of course, there’s no hard data stating that combinatorics won’t appear on the exam, but I’ve taken the GMAT multiple times and have seen ZERO combinatorics questions and just one probability question. I’ve also received e-mails from 4 different students who scored 700+ on the exam, and they all mentioned surprise at not receiving any combinatorics questions.

So does this mean you shouldn’t study combinatorics? If you’re at all pressed for time and aren’t aiming for a 750+, my answer would be yes. Though there’s still a minor chance that you’ll see a question about how many ways you could arrange 3 boys and 2 girls around a table, your studying would be much more effective if you focused on those concepts that form the bulk of the Quantitative section. In the end, a thorough foundation in the fundamentals of Number Properties, Ratios, Averages, Percents, and Arithmetic should well-equip you for success on test day.


Erfun Geula

Erfun Geula is a professional GMAT tutor, based in New York City. He has scored in the 99th-percentile of the GMAT three different times, he has written and edited hundreds of practice GMAT questions, and he has over 7,000 hours of tutoring experience.

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