Conventional wisdom about the GMAT is to start the Verbal and Quant sections slowly. But that strategy doesn’t always work from GMAT takers from Russia, and presumably from some other countries also.
GMAT is a CAT test, which means “Computer Adaptive Test.” This type of test starts out with medium difficulty questions and gives you harder questions when you get the medium level ones right, and easier questions when you get the medium level ones wrong.
Your score is based, not only on the number of questions you get right, but also on how difficult those questions are. Thus, a high scoring test taker needs to answer as many high point questions as possible.
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To do this, of course, you have to convince the test to give you high point questions early on.
For this reason, practically all test prep courses and books advise students to start slowly, taking a little extra time to ensure that you get the first few questions right, so that you start getting the high-point, difficult questions as early in the exam as possible. It isn’t a disaster if you don’t get the early questions correct of course, but it’s helpful if you do get them right.
The “slow down at the beginning” strategy makes sense for most test takers, since a very common reason for getting questions wrong is rushing through them and making sloppy mistakes. Personally, I succumb to this error myself. If I’m hurrying too much, I tend to make mistakes that I otherwise wouldn’t. So navigating the first questions slowly and treating them with a little more weight makes sense for me. It apparently does for a lot of other people who give GMAT advice too, or they wouldn’t suggest it. But, frankly, most of us who teach the GMAT, and especially GMAT verbal, are native speakers. And the vast majority of the people who teach it and who write the GMAT preparation books are American.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the “slow down for the first few questions” strategy doesn’t always work out well for Russian students as well as it does for Americans; at least not in the verbal section. I’ve been teaching GMAT in Russia for almost two decades. I started teaching this test before anyone would have thought to use the words GMAT and CAT in the same sentence. So I’ve had a lot of time to study this phenomenon, and it’s not just because you run out of time at the end when you slow down at the beginning.
You see, a substantial percentage of Russian students, when given a long time to review a question in, for instance, critical reasoning, will manage to convince themselves out of choosing a simple, direct, and correct, answer choice. When given too much time, Russian students often manage to talk themselves into choosing a bizarre, illogical answer instead of the correct one.
I call this test taking error “conspiracy thinking.” I don’t know whether it comes from years of reading between the lines in the press, or trying to uncover what’s really going on under the surface in business or politics, or maybe just from something in the Russian national character. But when Russian test takers see a simple, correct answer, they can often over-think the question and convince themselves that there must be something they are missing—some testmaker’s trick or conspiracy that they haven’t spotted. When thinking about a question for too long, they say to themselves “it can’t be this easy. There must be something more I haven’t found.” Then suddenly they say “ah, now I see the trick” and then turn down that easy, correct answer in favor of one that requires convoluted, Machiavellian thinking to choose. This conspiracy thinking ability probably explains why Russians are notoriously great chess players and tough negotiators. But it doesn’t help on the GMAT.
I don’t know whether other nationalities also have this tendency to engage in conspiracy thinking. If any reader is interested in a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, you have my blessing to research it as a dissertation topic. But I suspect that some other, non-U.S. based groups of MBA-hopefuls might also be infected by this.
Of course, it’s a gross generalization to say that all Russian test takers engage in conspiracy theory thinking. Most do not. Most Russian test takers still tend to make mistakes in the way that most Americans do—by hurrying and getting sloppy. But the percentage of students who start to employ conspiracy thinking to a simple question tends to be much higher among my Russian students than what I’ve noticed among American students. I would guestimate that maybe 10-15% of American students have an increased tendency to over-think the questions when they answer them slowly. However, my guestimate is that perhaps as high as 30-40% of my Russian students do this.
So, my advice to Russian GMAT takers, and for that matter to all GMAT takers who don’t stem from America’s straight talking, direct thinking culture, is not to blindly follow advice to drive slowly through the first few questions on the GMAT. Instead, figure out your optimal test taking speed during your studies. Don’t just practice with tons of questions, but instead, practice 30-40 questions at a time (under timed conditions, because you do need to focus on moving at a fast enough speed to actually finish the exam-you will lose points if you don’t finish); then carefully review the questions you get wrong as well as the questions you get right. Figure out if you tend to get questions right when you spend more time on them, or tend to get them wrong when you slow down. Figure out whether your mistakes mainly come from sloppiness, or from conspiracy thinking.
Only when you know whether your personal mistakes tend to increase or decrease when you slow down your test taking speed, will you know the optimal speed at which you should approach the GMAT.
Marian Dent is the Dean of Pericles Center for International Business & Legal Education, which runs the GMAT and TOEFL preparation programs for Russian students.