A Stoical Perspective on GMAT Prep

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – AD 65), that old Stoic, said: “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”  This Stoical perspective is one way to view preparing for the GMAT: that the preparation for the test is something we do primarily for the intrinsic intellectual fortitude we derive from the activity itself, and that the score, the putative goal, is secondary precisely because it is external.

In this view, the very reason business schools require this test is because it gives us a taste of the skills and abilities in which those schools will rigorously train its students.

To a very modern, hyper-goal-oriented perspective, this Stoical perspective may seem fanciful —- spin any story you like, bucko, but we know we’re all taking the test for the score.   Even the most utilitarian outlook, though, involves a subtle paradox.  Hard work, learning content and strategies: all this helps you on the GMAT.

But any emotionally energy you spend spinning your wheels, just fantasizing or worrying about your GMAT score, any stories you weave about how good or bad your future will be if you get this or that score — all of that is not only useless, but in fact if it generates any anxiety or distraction (as it quite likely will), it’s actually quite counterproductive.

Insofar as “wanting to do well on the GMAT” motivates honest-to-goodness studying, it’s great, but insofar as it motivates peripheral stories, fantasy, expectations, fears, then ironically, “wanting to do well on the GMAT” can actually hurt you.  Actualizing the best mix of your talents and skills to achieve a goal often entails a certain amount of detachment from the goal itself.   In this sense, the Stoic perspective could be a healthy corrective for more goal-fixated GMAT aspirants.

If you think of the comparison GMAT v GRE in this light, it’s quite revealing.  The GRE, the test taken by rising poets and literary critics, is a festival of word play: vocabulary is a major focus of GRE preparation.  By contrast, the GMAT focus very clearly on skills one would need in the business world.  Every question type on the GMAT is essentially related to the skills managers need in the modern business world (e.g. analysis of arguments, do we have enough information, etc.)

Thus, in getting ready for the GMAT, you are not practicing jumping through some completely arbitrary hoop; instead, you are training in those very skills you will need once you have your MBA.

What does it take to get a good GMAT score?  Well, first of all, you need a plan.  As the same Seneca quoted above said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”  It’s crucially important to understand the format of the test, including the tricks and traps unique to each question type.

It’s important to understand where you start, your own strengths and weaknesses, to have a sense of the ground you need to gain.  It’s critical to follow a GMAT study plan that will expose you the widest variety of questions in each area.  And, as our friend Seneca would remind us, it’s important to focus single-mindedly on the content & strategies, and not on our stories & plans & expectations & agendas & hopes & fears & anxieties.

Some GMAT aspirants get stuck asking themselves how hard the GMAT is.  Of course, that’s an impossible question, because it depends so much on the particular aspirant’s mix of intelligence & preparation & test-taking savvy.  More to the point, though, that very question presupposes the GMAT as an external obstacle or imposition with which one must reckon.

In Stoic perspective, the GMAT is more of a mirror, and what is “hard” about it merely illuminates your own opportunities for growth.  Insofar as you profess to want an MBA, the GMAT simply demonstrates to what extent you, as you are now, are aligned with the skill set you will need when you are in the rough and tumble of the managerial world.


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