Cognitive Flexibility - The one thing the GMAT actually tests
  1. The GMAT. Hate it or love it, if you’re reading this, you’re at least thinking of doing it. As you probably know, your GMAT (or GRE) score is one of the first things business schools are going to look at. But have you ever stopped and wondered what exactly does this exam actually test? This is extremely important: if you want to score higher, you must show you can excel in exactly what the test measures. But what is that? And what is the best way to improve it? In this blog post we’re going to propose a different answer than the one you may be expecting, a skill you probably haven’t heard of, and explain how it can be attained and perfected.

    Introducing Cognitive Flexibility: The Most Important Skill You’ve Never Heard Of

    As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the GMAT is no ordinary test, and thus it doesn’t evaluate the same skills most tests do. The GMAT doesn’t care almost at all about your knowledge, but it also doesn’t check your control of any one specific technique or another. What is central to the GMAT is speed, but what does it mean to be able to solve quickly?

    What the GMAT is actually testing is a skill whose name may be new to you: Cognitive Flexibility. The name may sound scary, but hold on – we all possess this ability to some degree. What is it? Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to adapt our cognitive process – that is, our thinking – to new and unexpected conditions. In the context of the GMAT, then, cognitive flexibility is the ability to quickly find the fastest way to solve each question and apply it.

    Cognitive Flexibility-The most important skill you'll need for the GMAT test

    Why is ‘Cognitive Flexibility’ so important on the GMAT?

    Well, what sets the GMAT apart from other exams is the sheer variety of things it asks you to do, and the short amount of time it asks you to do it in.

    Not only do we have to shift quickly from essay writing to verbal thinking to quantitative question solving.

    Not only does each section (especially the quantitative) consist of many different, unrelated topics.

    Not only does the GMAT adaptive system all but ensure that difficult and easy questions will be mixed together, back to back. But even questions in the same section belonging to the same sub-topic and of the same difficulty level can have totally different possible solution strategies.

    In fact, the very same question can usually be solved in more than one way.

    This is the very basis of our PAL system: the realization that every questions can be solved in at least one, but usually more, of the following strategies: Precise, Alternative and Logical.


    What if we are cognitive-inflexible?

    This means we are not especially good at updating our behavior in accordance with changing circumstances. If this is the case, then we will be likely to approach questions the same way over and over again – ‘Precise is my tool, and I’m sticking with it’ – even though the questions may be vastly different.

    Even if we try to adapt and decide on an answer strategy for each question, inflexibility means we are prone to assigning things according to previously determined categories: ‘Circle question? Last time drawing a figure worked – I’m gonna try it again!’  

    This is even though there may be substantial differences between the new question and the old one (maybe the last question required a drawing to see the logic, while the new question can simply be solved by calculation using the area formula).

    Finally, inflexibility can interfere with our solving process by making us develop “tunnel vision”: tending to focus on aspects we are already familiar with, while ignoring ones that are new and unfamiliar. This can lead us to paraphrase the saying about military generals who always prepare for the last war, as to always prepare to solve the last question.


    The Experience Trap

    All of the above sounds like a problem, but if we study a lot, we should naturally overcome it with time, right? Well, not exactly. The biggest problem with inflexibility is that not only does practice not automatically eliminate it – if it isn’t done the right way, wrong practice may actually make our inflexibility worse. Why is that? Well, think about experts: experts are people who are so highly skilled at doing something, they don’t have to even think about it. The task becomes, for them, automatic. But it is precisely this automatization which can cause inflexibility on the GMAT: if we solve 200 data sufficiency questions the exact same way, we aren’t likely to even notice on the 201st that a different approach is called for.


    The Light at the End of the Tunnel Vision

    What, then, are we to do? If inflexibility is not only somewhat natural but is also a trait that tests we did in school actually cultivated in us (demanding us to solve many questions the same way, time after time) and if the wrong kind of practice actually may make the ‘problem’ worse, what can we do?

    The answer is simple (which doesn’t mean it’s easy): if the wrong kind of practice can make things worse, what we need is… the right kind of practice! What does this mean, though?


    Meet your New PALs

    First of all, get acquainted with the PAL method. Through comprehensive research, we at examPAL found that all possible solution tools to any GMAT question fall into one of three solution strategies:

    • Precise – Using the information in the question to arrive at an exact answer using “high school” abilities. Simplifying an equation or applying a
      grammatical rule are two typical examples of Precise tools.
    • Alternative – Using tools that will get us quickly to the answer, even if we
      can’t tell precisely how to get there. These could be tools such as using the answers, estimating the result, or relying on geometric symmetry, and many more.
    • Logical – Implementing a logical rule ‘from outside’ that sheds light on the question and gets us to the answer quickly. For example, knowing that when there are more variables than equations, there can be an infinite number of possible values can help us quickly eliminate wrong answers in Data Sufficiency

    Variability in Training

    Just knowing about the different strategies, though, isn’t enough. We have to actually practice them, and a lot. Cognitive flexibility comes from having the right kind of experience, meaning knowledge of past situations from as many perspectives as possible. If we force ourselves to solve ten circle questions using Precise tools, ten using Alternative tools and ten using Logic – or if, alternately, we actually solve each question in a few different ways for a few days – then we will have first-person experience of what the tools are like, and insight into what it is about the question that indicates a certain tool is right for us. This is an important aspect of mind flexibility: while we cannot stick to just one tool and hope it will always work for us, when various tools can be used, we should be able to choose the one that we feel will most probably get us the right answer as quickly as possible. If we practice all tools equally, we’ll have a way to compare the different strategies, weigh them against the data, and decide, quickly, which choice of tool is best for us.


    examPAL is all about Cognitive Flexibility

    Cognitive flexibility can, theoretically, be achieved in all kinds of ways. But examPAL is special in that its entire system is built around this one concept. The Introductions and the Lessons teach us how the different answer strategies apply to each and every topic. And, using artificial intelligence, the program tracks our performance in the Practice stage, and offers us different solution tools based on our strengths and weaknesses. Cognitive flexibility is at the heart of the examPAL experience.

    The bottom line

    Preparing for the GMAT is not about how much you practice, but rather about what and how you practice. Improving your cognitive flexibility means achieving a higher score, faster.


    Dave Green
    Senior tutor and professional test-prep writer. Interdisciplinary wizard, with Master’s degrees in economics, philosophy, and political science at HUJI.

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