“Understanding” the GMAT: Practice vs. Exam Performance

Those of us in test prep have become used to hearing folks tell us: I thought I understood such-and-such a topic, but then I did so poorly on it on the test (whether a practice test or the actual GMAT).  Of course, there’s a difference between a more academic understanding of a topic and the GMAT-specific strategies you will need for success on test day.  Beyond this, though, there are also different levels of understanding, and it’s very important as a student to appreciate which level you’re referring to when you say “I understand X.”


Stages of Understanding

We could outline, roughly, six levels of understanding.

  • Level #0 = no understanding, it’s completely foreign, does not compute
  • Level #1 = looks familiar, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen that before,” some dim memory of how to do it
  • Level #2 = with a little review, or some key hints or coaching, you can solve one of these problems.
  • Level #3 = In the course of focused-practice, you can solve these problems consistently.  If you are in the “zone” for that problem type, then you can do it.
  • Level #4 = you can see the problem cold and, with no warm-up, be able to solve it, time and time again.  This happens in diverse-problem practice.
  • Level #5 = you can not only solve the problem, but explain explicitly the strategy employed in solving the problem
  • Level #6 = you can teach the problem clearly to someone who is struggling with how to work through it, and you can answer all their questions in a way they understand. (The old adage among teachers: “The best way to learn something is to teach it.”)


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What “I Understand” Means

Someone at Level Zero really can’t legitimately say, “I understand,” and saying that is a stretch for someone at Level 1.  At Level 2 or above, someone can reasonably say, “I understand.”  That, though, can be a problem.  Someone at Level 3 can say, “I understand X” — indeed, they have made enormous strides beyond Levels 1 & 2 — but in the mixed-problem format of a practice test, where the test-taker is faced with one problem type after another and has to handle each one cold, then Level 3 is not going to be sufficient.  Sometimes, this is exactly what happens when folks say: “I understood X, but then I couldn’t do it on the test.”

To get a sense of the level of understanding required on the GMAT, take the Magoosh GMAT Diagnostic Test.


Reach For the Stars

There’s a saying: if you reach for the stars, you may get as far as the ceiling, but if you reach for the ceiling you will never get off the floor.  On test day, you will need to be at Level 4.  One of the best ways to guarantee that you’ll get there is to reach for Level 5 and Level 6 in practice.

Some suggestions for how to do that: (1) do more mixed-concept review and less single-concept review (see this post for more on that issue); (2) practice not only solving the problems, but writing out the steps of strategy for solving them; (3) practice with others — that is, put yourself in a situation in which you have to explain your thought process to others; (4) if you are stronger in one particular area, do some informal tutoring, where you have to answer someone else’s questions. The forums (GMAT club & Beat the GMAT) can be great places to do so.



Rather than simply saying, “I understand X,” or “I don’t understand X,” be more nuanced.  Think about your understanding of each concept in terms of these levels, and ask yourself, for each topic, “How would you push to the next level of understanding?”

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6 Responses to “Understanding” the GMAT: Practice vs. Exam Performance

  1. Fran September 24, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    I’ve been studying for a few months now for a few hours everyday. I been having some trouble understanding some of the concepts and when I do the practice exams, I do by section so it’s easier to process the question.
    I love Magoosh for all the structure it has. But still struggle to see what the question is really asking and how to answer the question. I loved this post because it helps me to understand the process of learning and gave me hope.
    Thank you,

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 24, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Dear Fran,
      You are quite welcome, my friend. 🙂 Yes, it’s very good to understand where your current performance fits in the greater scheme of exam-readiness, and what steps will help you get there. My friend, I wish you the very best of good fortune in all your exam preparation.
      Mike 🙂

  2. Gungeet September 18, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Thanks a lot ! 🙂

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 18, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      You are quite welcome!
      Mike 🙂

  3. Lyn April 8, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    wow. the stages of understanding looks interesting especially the level 6 part. from now on, i’ll start practicing to be able to ‘reach the stars’

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike April 9, 2012 at 11:32 am #

      Lyn: I’m glad you found this helpful. Best of luck to you, and please let us know how we can support you. Mike 🙂

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