If at First You Don’t Succeed on the GMAT…

The classic comic W. C. Fields said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point being a damn fool about it.” Relatedly, the modern humorist Stephen Wright said, “If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.” Obviously, both of these are playful takes on the timeworn platitude: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” As positive and optimistic as that banality tries to be, it’s hard not to read it with at least an edge of cynicism.

There’s every reason to be discouraged after gearing up for a challenge such as the GMAT and then being slapped down by it. In part, this is a common experience because so many users hold high standards for a good GMAT score. By definition, 90% of the folks who take the GMAT will not get a score in the top 10% percent, and yet a considerably higher slice than 10% of the test-taking population wants to get into that top 10% of the scores. It’s a scenario in which, with mathematic certainty, not everyone will achieve their goal.

Then again, the GMAT is not all that different from the world into which it grants access: the world of the modern business executive. There are always lots of companies that fail and only a few that win big. Of course, your chances of winning big are enhanced if you have the drive to succeed, including what it takes to get back into the game after each failure — even as the platitude above suggests.

What does it take to have the drive to succeed on the GMAT? First of all, you should be realistic about achieving something far beyond average GMAT scores. We folks who write test questions know that some questions, both math and verbal, have the most predictable mistakes: if we set up a question containing such-and-such trap, folks will simply run in swarms into the big butterfly net. The first part of success on the GMAT involves identifying all the common traps: that alone will set you apart from the masses. Relatedly, pouring over problem explanations when you make a mistake is an often-under appreciated aspect of learning. If you get a practice question wrong, it’s not enough to get the gist of the explanation. The mark of a truly exceptional student is: never making the same mistake twice. That’s a lofty standard, but with sufficient and sustained review after each question you get wrong, you can approach this standard.

If you are planning to retake the GMAT after a less-than-stellar performance, your very first question should be: “What am I going to do differently this time to guarantee that I don’t repeat the same result?” A review of the common traps would be helpful for many re-takers. For folks who are secure in their knowledge of the content, moving beyond the content to the logic typical of question design would be helpful. Ideally, you would find some GMAT preparation service with a score guarantee, so that you won’t waste your money duplicating the same low score.

Even if you get many questions wrong in your practice, even if you have already done poorly on a real GMAT, take heart! With determination and practice, using the best GMAT prep materials, you can strengthen your performance and move up in the percentiles. If you can cultivate the skill of getting the most out of your mistakes and setbacks, that will accelerate you toward greater GMAT success. Even if you are pro at learning from failures, though, you still might want to approach skydiving with caution!

This post was written by Mike McGarry, resident GMAT expert at Magoosh. For more advice on taking the GMAT, check out Magoosh’s GMAT blog.

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