What Are They Testing?!

The first thing you need to know about the GRE and other standardized tests is that they are NOT designed to be a measure of human potential. Rather, they are designed to be a measure of human endurance. Graduate schools don’t care whether or not you remember that a triangle contains 180 degrees, or if you can solve a quadratic equation; those are tasks better suited for high school students.

What they do care about is determining if and how you can manage time and information. Sure, they do it against the backdrop of math and verbal exercises, however what they are really testing is whether or not you can make good, logical decisions under restrictive time conditions. That is the test. It is not a test of quantitative and verbal expertise, it is a test of time and information and how you handle the former with a limited supply of the latter.

GRE/GMAT Quantitative Example

Sue owns a construction company and it takes 8 of her employees six months to construct three houses. Ellen owns a different construction company and it takes 8 of her employees half the time to construct the same number of houses. If Sue and Ellen combine their companies to form Sue Ellen Construction, then how long would it take a combined work force consisting of 8 of Sue’s employees and 8 of Ellen’s employees to construct three houses?

  • 2 months
  • 3 months
  • 4 ¼ months
  • 4 ¾ months
  • 6 months

This is a classic GMAT/GRE word problem in which most people read the question, are lost halfway through, keep reading as if it will clarify things but in fact further confuses things, then scratch their head and re-read the question as if it will miraculously make sense the second time. Meantime, the clock is ticking. Remember, there are 75 minutes allotted for 37 questions, or two minutes per question. By the time you scratch your head and give it a second read, most of that time has vanished.

This is why most students fare poorly on the GMAT/GRE. It is not that they cannot do the math, it’s that they are taking the test as if it were a math test, when in fact it is a test of managing time and information. Business Schools/grad schools couldn’t care less if you can solve this problem, that is an assignment more befitting of a high school student. They’re more concerned with how efficiently you can solve it. That is to say, if you don’t remember high school algebra, if you can’t create equations, can you still arrive at a solution strategically? The answer is yes and that is what we focus on in class—the strategic approach to the test; recognizing built-in patterns in answer choices and questions that allow a test-taker to sidestep much of the concepts they’ve long since forgotten.

Ok, now back to the question. Sure, you can try and read the questions several times, try and set up equations using abstract variables to represent actual values, then solve the equations. Then, if nothing goes wrong in your four-step, math-heavy process, you will arrive at the solution, Or, you can recognize, as we teach in class, that the GMAT/GRE will always provide a short answer to long questions. Oftentimes, that answer can be found…in the answers! Remember, if Sue’s crew can do the job (three houses) in six months and Ellen’s crew can do the same job in half the time (three months), then if they worked together, wouldn’t it stand to reason that it would take them less time than if they work alone? Since Ellen’s crew takes three months to do the job, then combined, surely it would take Sue and Ellen’s crew together LESS than three months to do the job, right? A quick survey of the answer choices reveals that only A can be correct. We didn’t need to bother with finding the exact answer or the mechanics involved in setting up the proper equations.

While there is math content involved on the test, which we do cover in class, our primary focus is on collapsing the amount of content down to a manageable size and focusing instead on the strategic approach to the exam by teaching our students to recognize built-in patterns and use them to their advantage.
And yes, these answer patterns and strategies can also be found in the verbal part.

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