When “Fake It Til You Make It” doesn’t work

What does that term mean and how does it apply to the GMAT?

In fact, it’s pretty much a guiding principle in life and business. If you’ve ever learned how to do anything well, chances are you did apply a little bit of this idea.

To learn a native language, you use patterns that you think will work. Then a parent or a teacher tells you that you’re saying something incorrectly, so you fix it mid-stream.

You try things out. What works stays and what doesn’t goes. It’s that simple. The point, though, is that you’re trying—you’re applying what limited knowledge you have—and learning by trial and error as you move forward.

Somehow, as adults, we seem to forget this.

Who's wearing the perfume?

Who’s wearing the perfume?

The way that we approach learning as adults seems to be much more along the lines of how someone learns a language as a student: learn all of the grammar rules and apply them precisely, making sure that we’re saying exactly what we’re trying to say with absolutely no errors.

Does this work? Well, for some people who have a “natural ability with languages” it does. These people can understand grammar very well and apply it in conversation very quickly.

The dirty truth, however, is that they’re spending a lot of time speaking the language and making mistakes. That’s how they become conversational. Basically, they’re approaching language learning from the “immersion” perspective.

They might not be doing it in front of the teacher, but very few people actually learn to speak without actually, you know, speaking. They just learn how to incorporate the new grammar rules because they have applied them and made the fundamental mistakes and have then moved on!

GMAT learning requires mistakes.

If you want to learn how to succeed on the GMAT, I’d suggest an approach that involves lots of faking it until you make it. Learn how to do the GMAT the way a child learns how to speak a language!

In fact, making every possible error would be a great way to learn—if you had the time and the inclination to study what you were doing wrong and to correct these errors.

In that case, what would happen is that you’d be able to see the underlying patterns on the test and be able to understand how to address these patterns when seeing a similar question in the future.

However we don’t have the luxury of 3-8 years of immersive learning—the way a child does to get a good grasp on a native language—to succeed on the GMAT. In a good scenario it’s six months, and often more like 4-6 weeks (PLEASE, PLEASE give yourself at least three months!).

Learning quickly requires faking it AND knowledge work.

So what can we do about this? Apply a program of faking it as well as study of the raw knowledge required.

This is most obvious with Quant concepts: if you don’t understand something, you study the concept and apply that concept until it makes good sense.

Where it breaks down is in the Sentence Correction section. GMAT testtakers almost all speak English well enough to “fake it,” but the problem is that the fluency required to succeed on the GMAT actually encourages people to do so.

That is, GMAT Sentence Correction questions assume that the testtaker speaks English really well—and speaking “really well” means being able to “read between the lines.”

This is the kiss of death in the Sentence Correction section.

Remember that structure is king in Sentence Correction and if you’re saying something that “makes sense” but isn’t written perfectly, then you need to make sure your Structure matches what you’re trying to say.

How can we do this?

The simplest way to do this is a little though experiment:

Let’s call it the “garbage in, garbage out” (or GIGO) test. GIGO is a test that computer programmers have used since the early days of programming (the term was coined by the US Internal Revenue Service in the 1960s).

Put simply, if you feed badly structured or corrupt information into a computer, the machine—unthinking—will spit out bad information. The computer can’t guess what you’re after.

It’s like putting the wrong number into a calculator: of course the damn answer will be wrong!

So if the structure of your sentence is something that suggests a meaning that is ambiguous or even distinctly different from what you specifically mean to say, then the computer will not understand the true meaning of what you INTEND to say.

Are you saying what you intend to say?

Have you figured it out yet?

Have you figured it out yet?

The test, therefore, is to consider each potential sentence as if it is being fed into an unthinking computer. Will the computer understand exactly what you mean to say or could it come up with a different, equally valid alternative?

Unless the sentence structure clearly transports EXACTLY what you’re trying to say—with no ambiguity—then it has failed GIGO and you need to pick another sentence.

How do we tell what sentences are correct?

Unfortunately this implies learning GMAT grammar very well. Unfortunately GMAT grammar doesn’t correspond 100% to any other grammar system you’ll find.

Are you confident that you know exactly what grammar the test expects? Haven’t seen a grammar textbook since grade school (or ever?).

The solution you’ve been waiting for.

The cure for these ills has arrived: check out my Complete GMAT Grammar Basics, Part I for a dive deep into the waters of proper GMAT grammar.

This course will teach you all the fine distinctions you’ll need to master GMAT grammar and stop faking it, complete with multiple examples.

Part II will come through within a month’s time, addressing finer grammar points that some consider “style” rather than proper structural grammar. It will also include extensive suggestions on how to apply your new learnings.

Check out Complete GMAT Grammar Basics Part I today. Comes with a free download of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Last Minute GMAT Grammar!

Part II will come with a free download of the Last Minute GMAT Grammar audiobook so that you can review your grammar concepts on the train, in the car, or while exercising!

What are you waiting for? Check out the Complete GMAT Grammar Basics Part I today!

About the author

Rowan Hand Head Coach Rowan Hand has been a GMAT tutor and content developer for more than 10 years. Rowan has coached hundreds of clients in private and group classes. Former clients have gone on to Harvard, LBS, INSEAD, Wharton, and other excellent business schools.