GMAT Verbal Excellence

Will Durant, summarizing Aristotle’s discussion of virtue in the first couple books of the Nicomachean Ethics, wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  A lofty idea, to be sure, but one that can shed significant light on very down-to-earth and pressing exigencies.

For instance, suppose excellence on the GMAT Verbal Section were your goal in life.  In fact, suppose verbal abilities are not a strong point for you — perhaps English is not your native language, or perhaps you are a fellow math-nerd, one who lives for numbers but who runs in terror when the subjunctive appear.  How would you, starting from a relatively disadvantaged position, move closer to GMAT Verbal excellence?

Well, if we take Mr. Durant’s summary of Aristotle as a guide, we may ask: “what are your verbal habits?”  Certainly, at a very literalist level, it’s important to do practice GMAT Verbal questions every day.  Here, I would add a caution.  Most GMAT math questions, even the poor ones, are at least passable, but there are some truly atrocious GMAT Verbal questions out there.  When considering a practice source, caveat emptor!  Read reviews, check out score increases, and, frankly, be a snob when it comes to finding the very best GMAT Verbal practice material.

Given that you have high quality practice material, and already are availing yourself of it on a daily basis, what more might you do to boost your verbal excellence?  You may think that building your vocabulary would be important, and indeed, if you were preparing for the GRE, the test of poets and literary critics, enriching your GRE vocabulary would be essential.  Poets take the GRE, and business folks take the GMAT.

Business folks are bright, but they tend not to toss around fancy words purely for decorative effect: they are considerably more practical and results-oriented.  For these reasons, GMAT vocabulary is not a major focus.  Beyond some basic Economics 101 vocabulary (profit, cost, interest, etc.), learning new words is not a concern for the GMAT.

To the extent that the GRE focuses on words, the GMAT focuses on sentences.   Wrestling with well-written sentence and well-constructed arguments is precisely what you need for the GMAT.  In other words, you need to read.  You need to read good, difficult, challenging stuff.  You need to push yourself to read demanding material every day, over and above your GMAT practice.

If you are ambitious, then mix a healthy dose of high-brow writing into your daily reading — read TS Eliot’s literary essays, or essays of Emerson or J.S. Mill or Montaigne; read Aquinas or Maimonides or Mencius; read Jowett’s translation of Plato.  Check out the high level of grammar in the US Declaration & Constitution and in the great speeches (Lincoln, FDR, JFK, MLK, etc.) All that will accustom your ear to a much higher level of language than you will find in the typical effluvia of mass media.

For challenging content, also read modern court document as well as academic books & articles, most especially in disciplines with which you have the least familiarity.  For business, read the WSJ and the Economist magazine — if you say you want an MBA and a career in management, why on earth would those not be part of your regular reading already?  Articles in the Economist always contain arguments, subtle and very intelligently written arguments: discovering and analyzing those arguments is some of the finest Critical Reasoning practice you could do.

The GMAT score percentiles do not lie.  Those oft-desired scores necessarily involve outscoring a sizeable majority of other test-takers — in other words, they involve excellence.  Make excellence the habit that pervades every aspect of your GMAT preparation, and you will thereby give yourself the best chance to achieve the excellence of which many others merely dream.


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