LIFE @ THE SPEED OF SPORT: HOW CRICKET AND RUNNING A RACE HELPED ME ACE THE GMAT

What do these two have in common with taking the GMAT?


When I was kid running around imagining World Cups in my backyard or treating the garden as if it were St. Andrew’s, I was invariably rebuked for whiling away time. ‘You can learn nothing from sport’, ‘what’s sports good for anyway’ and dozens of variations of such motivational statements were constantly hurled at me as water bottles and crackers would be if I was a Juventus player about to take a corner kick inside the San Ciro in front of the AC Milan fans.

But that never deterred me from ‘whiling’ away time on sport anyway. I played sport, watched it, read about it, and have even been privileged to write about it. Sports is a kind of a horcrux, if you get my drift my dear fellow Harry Potter fans – it owns a certain part of my soul. After I started working though I hadn’t been big on playing any kind of sport and I seemed doomed to the usual sedentary lifestyle that has become the bane of urban well being today. Until I discovered running, that is. In 2008, I took part in the World 10k race held in Bangalore, and that adventure – where I didn’t even know if I would finish the race – made me fall in love with the simplest of sports, running.

Naturally then, when I decided to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (the GMAT), I didn’t look for inspiration in guide books or wisdom from those who have given the test. For the record, I did consult both but more for the same reason you check railway timetables in India – only for a rough estimate. For the uninitiated, the GMAT is a rite of passage you have to pass through if you harbour management education ambition of any kind, whether in the United States or even other parts of the World. It is a test of your reasoning and analytical ability, which if the GMAC (the Graduate Management
Admissions Committee – the body which administers this standardized test) is to be believed does not test knowledge but rather the particular skill level of a candidate [If you are curious, or just plan bored of this blog, you can read more about the GMAT on http://www.mba.com], skills that are a reliable predictor of success in management education. Here’s what the GMAC says – “The GMAT exam measures basic verbal, mathematical, and analytical writing skills that you have developed over a long period of time in your education and work. GMAT scores are a valid predictor of academic performance in the first year of a graduate management program.” So far, so good.

However, the trouble is that the test is pretty devilishly organized in a so called ‘Computer Adaptive Format’ (more on that in just a moment) and has three different segments that together run for 3 and a half hours (just for the sake of comparison and perspective, that’s longer than most Karan Johar movies and all T20 games). I knew I had to do well in the test, I had to ‘crack’ it but I had no idea how.

You must have heard the line ‘patience is a virtue’. Well, call me a sinner because I don’t have it! The test demanded loads of it. And the other thing it demanded was concentration. And then it suddenly hit me. Those are exactly the things that running four World 10K races had taught me! Running those races each year were an education like none other. When, in the heat and the dust, I had to grind down every kilometer, to reach the end of the race I had experienced the importance of patience and focus first hand. When your body, rather than some scaled standardized test score, is on the line you somehow seem to internalize the lesson better. There were two important lessons that I took from the races into the test:

1) Don’t sprint off. Take your time to begin and warm up because otherwise you’ll make too many mistakes. The guidebook said the same thing about the test. But I would have never got the point if I hadn’t seen my friend collapse at the 1 kilometer mark in the 2009 race after he took off too fast. Or how I almost blew the race this year doing something similar at the 3rd km.

2) Pace yourself. The test is 3and1/2 hours for a reason – you need all the time to answer all the questions well. Again, the official GMAT guide did mention that pacing is important but practice stuck to me better than theory. During the races, I had set myself a benchmark of finishing 10km in One hour. But it couldn’t be achieved by running the first 5 in 20 minutes and hobbling through the last 5 in the remaining 40. You had to maintain as even a pace as possible. This was a lesson I learnt in my very first race when I ran 10km for the first time in my life.

The computer adaptive test is unique in the sense that it keeps feeding you questions of increasing (or decreasing) levels of difficulty based on whether you got the last question correct or incorrect. A lot of test takers try to guess whether the current question they have is easier or more difficult than the last one, thus in effect trying to guess whether they got the earlier question right or wrong. As I found out early in the mock tests I took, it is an excruciatingly frustrating exercise that takes your eye off the ball (metaphorically speaking) for the current question. I had a disastrous early set of tests and wasn’t exactly feeling pumped up and kicked for Test day despite all the lessons of the races being with me. I knew I had the ability and the knowledge of what to do. What was missing was the inspiration.

And once again, sport helped me find the answer. I was doing one of the mock tests with the India-England One Day match playing in the background (so, that’s how you use Test and One Day in the same sentence ;)) and it happened to be Rahul Dravid’s last match. In what can be described as timing as appropriate on a Dravid cover drive, the inspiration of The Wall’s legendary levels of concentration propped me up. I had watched him stand tall, focused and resolute amid the ruins of that wretched test series India had against England and that became my new talisman. If you have to last 210 minutes in a ‘Test’ with your concentration level not wavering in the slightest (you need all of it to understand the questions, which are not necessarily difficult but deliberately confusingly worded) for even a single question, you had to dig deep like The Wall. Parallelly, the other bit of inspiration entered the thoughtstream. In the test it is a waste of effort to figure out if you got a question right or wrong. You do your best on every question and move on (in the GMAT you have to answer a question to get to the next question; there’s no skipping) and forget about the last question. That bit of mental block was erased when I realized that’s exactly how Virender Sehwag bats. He may have gotten beaten on the last delivery but it makes no difference to his approach to the next one. And that’s exactly what I hadn’t been doing while taking the practice tests!

Armed with these inspirations on the Test day, I vowed to make it all count. And by the grace of God and good wishes all around I did. The test went swimmingly and I landed a score that put me in the 92nd percentile. Not bad for someone who fluffed all the mock tests with average level scores. And I realized the lessons I had learnt running four 10k races and watching countless innings of Dravid and Sehwag had borne fruit. I don’t know how much a Dravid or a Sehwag would score if ever they took the GMAT, but to me they both are 800 men (that’s the highest possible score on the GMAT).

Sometimes, sport touches your life in unusual ways and in the most important moments. And that’s what keeps renewing my faith in sport as an amazing human endeavor that’s a microcosm of life full of lessons in living.

What good ever came of sport?

I have a personal answer to that now. A 710 on the GMAT!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “LIFE @ THE SPEED OF SPORT: HOW CRICKET AND RUNNING A RACE HELPED ME ACE THE GMAT

  1. Simply Awesome & Inspiring Sirji ………….

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