Argument Analysis: Fallacies You Tell Yourself to Avoid Preparing for the GMAT
Blind to fallacies, we put off our applications to business school, wait to meet with professors or managers to ask for letters of recommendation, wait to write our application essays, and wait to start our preparations for the GMAT. And we craft elaborate reasons why we can wait, but never notice that our reasons are pockmarked with fallacies—the very fallacies that we should be preparing to identify and analyze on the GMAT.
How will you analyze arguments on the test if you can’t analyze them in your own arguments? Let’s first change ourselves by looking at four common reasons we tell ourselves to put off studying for the GMAT. And along the way, we might even find a little GMAT preparation as well. (See how I just turned this into an opportunity to not procrastinate?)
Argument: “I am writing all the time at work. I have to read reports, write reviews for our staff, and write proposals to clients, so my verbal skills are strong. I just need to freshen up on math, and I will be ready for the test, so no need to start preparing now.”
Fallacy: False Analogy
This is a classic false analogy—comparing two things that seem comparable, but actually are not. Yes, writing a proposal is writing. Reading reports counts as reading. But the GMAT tests a particular type of writing and a particular type of reading. Just because both are writing or reading doesn’t mean that they are analogous. You need the time to refine your latent reading and writing skills and calibrate them to the specific tasks on the GMAT. I know it’s tempting to compare what you do now with what you think you will need to do on the GMAT. But don’t believe the fallacy.
Argument: “I work on a team of people and one of them just received their GMAT scores, and she did really well. We have the same role at the company, and we both work at the same pace. She only spent a week preparing, so I won’t need that much time to prepare.”
Fallacy: False Cause
We are pattern recognition machines always looking for causal relationships in historical events, weather phenomenon, market fluctuations, stomach aches, etc. But things are not as they seem; Plato said as much in his allegory of the cave.
We miss the complexity in our world, simplify the whole system so we can understand it, and end up confusing causation and correlation in the end. So what might appear to be the cause of a peer’s success—a week of preparation and their pace of work—might not actually be what matters. Many other things, like taking the test multiple times, taking classes in the past year, or reading voraciously, were probably as important.
Most likely, there are numerous things that lead to a peer’s success that we can never know. We can’t expect to replicate another person’s success by following the steps we think mattered, not to mention that we also fall into our previous false analogy fallacy when we do so.
Argument: “I am a naturally strong test taker. I always crammed for tests in college and I did fine. I had a 3.8 GPA. I don’t need to spend a whole lot of time preparing.”
Fallacy: Appeal to Nature
What is nature and what is nurture is not entirely clear. For all we know, we might be simplifying—false cause fallacy—the whole process of becoming who we are, and missing the numerous aspects of the world that go into shaping our abilities. Further, popular culture loves this idea of a natural talent, the naturally gifted athlete, musician, or scientist.
But this is incredibly misleading. Natural talent may really just be a tendency or inclination that nudges a person in one direction and another person in another direction. After that, the individuals have to work at it. Tolstoy didn’t naturally write compelling, epic novels; he worked tirelessly to make them that way. Michael Phelps has the frame and build of a great swimmer; but it was his hard work and intense dedication to swimming that led him to become the most decorated Olympian ever.
There is nothing natural about success. It only comes from hard work and dedication. The same is true for test taking. What was once seemingly “natural” might in truth be a skill that needs to be practiced and worked at to ward off atrophy.
Argument: “I scored in the 98th percentile in the SAT math section. I looked at a GMAT score calculator and it looks like there are a lot of possible scores in the 90th percentile, more than the SAT. I don’t think I’m too rusty so I’ll spend a month preparing for the GMAT, maybe a little less. I have a lot that I am doing already anyway.”
Fallacy: Appeal to Tradition
We have no laurels to rest on. The only thing consistent is inconsistency; the only thing that doesn’t change is that things are constantly changing. Appeals to tradition often ignore this. What we did in high school or in undergrad is not going to help us today. The problems we faced then are not the same as the ones we face now. Circumstances change. We can’t expect to use solutions from the 1950s to solve the problems of today. We’ve already seen that legislation written in 2001 is out-of-date and insufficient in light of the technologies of 2013.
So although similar to the SAT in some respects, the GMAT is a very different test. We will see math questions on the GMAT that we have never seen before. And just because we found a plan on how to prepare for the GMAT in one month doesn’t mean that we will only need a month to hone our skills so that they are sharp on test day. A history of performing well and of cramming is just that—history. What matters for tomorrow is what you do today.
It may appear strange, but we can’t trust ourselves, especially our reasons and rationalizations. The fallacies that we have to diagnose on the GMAT exam are the same ones that make us procrastinate and put off our preparations. So instead of coming up with reasons not to start preparing, why not come up with reason to start now? At least this way, our logical fallacies are put to good use.