1. The GMAT is all about measuring cognitive flexibility – or in other words, it’s about seeing how quickly you can get to the right answer. Improving cognitive flexibility is the way to boost GMAT performance, and this starts with knowledge of what tools to use and which tools work best for you.

    1) Remember, the GMAT is no ordinary test

    Have you ever wondered what the GMAT has in common with the SAT or ACT? Or what makes these kinds of tests different from all other tests you ever took? It’s not in the rules or formulas – some of these you learned in elementary or high school, and they only make a small portion of the knowledge students acquire over the years. Nor is it the multiple choice questions. And it’s not even the time limit – most of us have experienced time pressured exams before. It is what we are asked to do in the little time we have which makes these tests so special. 

    2) It’s all about measuring cognitive flexibility

    The GMAT exam doesn’t measure your knowledge, it measures your “cognitive flexibility”. Therefore, if you wish to excel in the GMAT, it’s essential you work on sharpening this cognitive capability. By breaking down the GMAT experience, we can better understand what “cognitive flexibility” is. GMAT asks us to provide quick answers to unfamiliar questions.

    Each question serves up a different twist: a different level, uses a different set of tools, has a different length, tells a different story, can take from a few seconds to a few minutes to solve. But, most importantly, it presents us with questions that can be solved in many different ways. Unlike your high school teacher, the GMAT is not interested in learning how you solved each question.

    You just have to be fast enough and answer correctly if you want to have a chance to solve as many hard questions as you can in the limited time you have (hard questions generate higher scores!). You must be fast and correct. 

    3) What matters is getting to the correct solution, fast

    So, if the questions are so different from one another and you must find the correct answer quickly and move on to yet another different question, what does the GMAT actually measure? Not knowledge, although some knowledge is mandatory.

    Not your thinking process or the way you implement different tools, since the GMAT is not concerned with the way you got to the solution. The GMAT measures the ability to find the fastest solution to unfamiliar questions with different qualities: twists, solution tools, levels, lengths, etc.

    Just like the gunman in a video game, you never know where the next shot will come from, what the terrain will be like, or how your next enemy is going to look like. That’s why you need mental agility or flexible problem-solving. You must be fast in choosing the right weapon and aim precisely at the right target. 

    The problem is that just solving lots of questions (with practice tests or coaching) is not sufficient in terms of improving mental flexibility. Actually, the opposite is true. Solving thousands of questions without improving our cognitive flexibility will only cement the wrong thinking patterns in our minds.

    Think about it: when your high school teacher showed you a way to solve a certain question and then gave you hundreds of similar questions to solve, it helped fix certain patterns of thinking. But the GMAT is, in a sense, a test of your creativity.

    Yes, there are some questions that are similar to what you’ve learned at school – the easy ones, but higher scores demand higher performance, and higher performance demands having enough time to deal with harder challenges. You not only need to get the right answer, you need to get it fast! 

    4) Improving mental agility needs a novel approach

    The way to improve cognitive flexibility begins with knowing what tools are available for you to use. Not only rules, formulae, and vocabulary, but also when to avoid certain formulas, identify that no rule can be used, or use logic instead of simplifying difficult equations.

    The next step is learning to identify which tools can be used in each question. For example, there can be ten different tools for a particular question, and we usually tend to use the first one that comes to mind (usually the one that had been carved in our brain through years of practice and the one that takes longer to implement!).

    That is why we shouldn’t go straight to solving questions. Instead, we should start with thinking of all possible solutions to each question and all possible tools that we could use. It is only if we practice the switch between different ways of thinking without any time pressure (in our practice time) that we’ll be able to do it when the clock is ticking. 


    5) What counts is finding the tools that work best for YOU

    Finally, there is the personal layer – finding which solution tools work best for you. The most common mistake is doing things the other way around, that is, starting test prep with looking for the solution tools that work best for you.

    The point is, if you haven’t studied all the possible question-solution tools and researched all questions to learn more about how to figure out which tools can be used in which questions, you cannot accurately choose the right tool.

    There’s no choice when there aren’t any options. You’ll find yourself doing only what you are used to doing or what you’ve been doing since high school.


    Train yourself to find YOUR best solution approach to answering GMAT questions

    At examPAL, we believe GMAT prep should prepare you for…the GMAT. If the GMAT measures your ability to flex your mind – work on sharpening your cognitive flexibility!

    That’s why examPAL has developed one simple method to find the fastest way to solve each GMAT question. It’s the PAL in examPAL, which stands for Precise, Alternative, or Logical. Prepping with examPAL makes your GMAT preparation process more efficient by helping you find your best solution approach to answering GMAT questions.

    We do this by monitoring each and every answer you give, seeing all the answers that thousands of other students have given, and finding the perfect match between your way of thinking and what proved effective for others. It’s a ground-breaking approach that really works!


    featured image by Thomas Leuthard
    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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