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Do you struggle with math? Let's talk about GMAT Quant.

Updated: Feb 1

I have always struggled with math.

Grade school, middle school, high school, college… I never felt like I was “good enough,” even though I was a so-called “bright kid.”

As a small child, my mother used to make me recite multiplication tables while I was riding in the car with her. I’d tap my knee while I was thinking, but when she confronted me about why I did this I said I was giving myself time to think.

She said it wasn’t good enough—that I “should just know how to do it.” From this point on I’ve felt like an impostor every time I’ve done something useful or even “good” in math.

But still--I went through a pretty terrible school system so even though I actually exerted myself quite a lot at math I did OK by my school’s low standards.

I was actually considered a “bright kid.” That was all I had going for me because I wasn’t going to be cool—I played the cello and didn’t do sports. Because I was competent if not great at math, I was occasionally invited to compete in regional math competitions.

This was horrible--every time I was put under pressure, I froze.

One time I was terrified that I wouldn’t finish the task in time—so as soon as I heard the administrator say the word “go,” I began scribbling. I kept my head down until the kid next to me said, “He’s cheating.”

I looked up to see the administrator walking down the aisle directly to me. He reached down and ripped the paper from my hands. I was ranked last out of the entire competition. The administrator must only have been reading the instructions to us. Who knows…

During my PSAT I stayed up really late “cramming”--as if you can do that for a test like PSAT-- and after two hours of sleep I woke up so sick that I spent at least half the test time in the toilet. The principal later told me he would have expected a higher score from “a kid like you.” Me too.

Over the years, I got better at the “test” thing just by repetition. In the end, I did competently on SAT math, but I still assumed people who did really well were simply “smarter.”

I had another rude awakening in college, because “competent at math” in the backwaters of the US Midwest means “worst at math” in a university Physics program.

My Physics advisor looked over a sub-par Calculus exam and told me I was thinking correctly but needed to speed up. Two weeks later, he died unexpectedly.

My new Physics advisor looked at my grades in Calculus. He told me to find a different major because I wouldn’t be able to hack it.

Luckily the guy actually teaching my Physics class (Delo Mook, a hero) convinced me to stay with it. He introduced me to people who had struggled at first but had ultimately majored in Physics. He stressed that it’s hard but if you solidly believe you can do it, you’ll reach the goal.

I did, getting a Bachelor’s in Physics. Ultimately I got solid Bs in my math classes and, oddly, I was the only person to get 100% on my Linear Algebra test in Quantum Mechanics--professor’s lovely backhanded compliment in green ink on the page: “Surprising result--for you!”

Ultimately, all of this came because I learned to keep my nose down and work—not letting fear or anger get in the way of getting the damn job done. I kept my nose down and all it took was one person telling me it was possible.

I got into GMAT tutoring in 2005 after breaking the 700 barrier in my early 20s. Not long after, I reached 780 on the (pre-2011) GRE Quant. I have come to realize that “being good at math” means a lot of different things.

Since then I’ve realized that I have severe dyslexia with numbers. I transpose numbers a lot. Even in my 30s, I’m still pretty bad at practical arithmetic such as making changes.

It’s not just me: as a GMAT tutor, I work with at least two students each year who are Mathematics Bachelors. I’ve heard complaints from professional statisticians that their arithmetic skills barely exist.

In short, I would be a terrible accountant and a worse actuary. I’m hopeless at rote memorization. For that matter, my relative lack of math skills might in fact hold me back as an Engineer or professional Physicist.

That said, I’m very good at thinking about algorithms and “ways to solve.” I’m very good at modelling real-world situations using formulae. I can solve rate problems very quickly.

Remember, practical arithmetic is a secondary consideration on the GMAT and “quick and dirty” ways to choose the correct answer are the name of the game. Plus—an important point—all the GMAT quant is roughly high school level.

In the end, all it took was one person to find me at the right time and tell me that it was possible. That allowed me to believe deep down that it was possible.

In my 11 years teaching GMAT I have come to notice that the difference between the 700+ performers and the rest usually comes down to mindset: it’s a difference between “I suck at math” or “I was always bad at math” versus “math was never my strong suit, but I made do.”

The latter is the people who reach dizzying heights on GMAT Quant even if they remain “more comfortable with” Verbal.

Just keeping your nose down and working—making do, keeping emotion out of it—is the best thing you can do to achieve your goals.

Most of all, I want to hear your story. This can be a painful subject—what are your fears, worries, concerns, etc. regarding math? Let’s open up the conversation, book a chat.


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Hi, I'm Sam.  I'm the founder of Sam Weeks Consulting. Our clients get admitted to top MBA and EMBA programs.

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