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Monday, March 02, 2015 at 12pm

How Failure is the Key to Success on the GMAT


Don’t be afraid to be bad

Failure hurts. Don’t feel bad if it happens. It’s all part of the learning process.

Here’s the bad news: the failure is your fault. Back up! No reason to be defensive. Reframe that: because the failure is your fault, you can do something about it.

Here’s the thing: a little blow to the ego can be a good thing; it can be an important key to success. It gives us humility – a gap where the learning process can happen. If we spend our entire lives convinced that everything that we do is correct, we don’t open our minds to taking in new experiences, new learnings.

You didn’t reach your target GMAT score

Maybe it happened on a practice exam. Maybe on the real GMAT.

This is not a reason to beat yourself up. Sure, a little mourning is in order, and perhaps a good night’s sleep. It sounds silly and a bit Pollyanna, but there’s wisdom in the little things. Remember, life isn’t over; it’s all part of the learning process.

B-school candidates are top-notch, high-performing folks, and failure is not usually something that we’re good at contending with. It’s just that this GMAT score wasn’t ‘high’.

Fail better

Think back to anything you can do well – talking and walking are good examples. Each involved a lot of failure along the way; each required its own learning process. The key to success was that you just picked yourself up and got on with it. This is no different, and why should it be?

As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. Fail again. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Failure gives you something to work toward. It’s another step forward. Another demon tackled. Remember, it’s not fun when everything is easy. There is virtue in work; a key to success. Find it.

An exercise

Think about the worst-case scenario. It’s not about the GMAT, after all. The test is a means to an end. The worst case would not even be a low GMAT score and failing to get into your B-school of choice.

Think harder: what would happen if you got hit by a bus tomorrow? Lost a loved one? Alienated your whole family? Had no safety net, social or financial, to keep you from the streets? All of the above?

What would you do to get yourself back on track? Imagine yourself on the street. You haven’t showered in a week. You find a pen and paper. Write down 10 things: the process to get your life back. Who would you call? Heck, where would you shower?

See, the mental flexibility here is important. Remember that there is a low, and there is ‘bottom’. You’re nowhere near bottom.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be in order to learn.

Read failure like a book

“I did everything right and it still didn’t work out,” is a cop-out.

It’s simply not true. If you have done everything right, you wouldn’t have failed. There’s definitely something holding you back from a higher GMAT score.

The exercise is to find it and utilize it as a key to success.

Take a piece of paper and write 10 things (aka your ‘scripts’)

Start each with the sentence, “My GMAT score isn’t what I wanted because I…” 

Maybe your target score is too high, given the amount of prep time you have available.

Maybe it’s something like, “I’ll never be good at Algebra,” or more insidious like, “I’m dumb.” Maybe your high school math teacher said, “Wow, I’m surprised you got an A on that test” and somehow that stuck with you.

Everyone has these little loops running in their minds, but sometimes we’re not even conscious of them. Look over your list, and think about what your mind is telling you, playing tricks on you.

It’s okay for this step to be uncomfortable. Reflect, and really dig demons out of the mental broom closet. Sometimes this will dig up problems – fears, anxieties, resistances –you haven’t seen since high school. You’ll have to face them to beat the test.

How clean is your closet?

Take a piece of paper and write 10 more things (aka ‘script busters’)

Start each with the sentence, “My GMAT score will be XXX because I…” and make sure to phrase each in the present tense.

E.g., “My GMAT score will be 650 because I will drill basic algebra 20 minutes a day until I can do it in my sleep.”

Commit to what is necessary, and get started on your new learning this week.

What’s holding you back?

Go to your list of script busters. Pick the biggest, ugliest one. The one you’re least likely to do. The one that makes your stomach rumble a bit. The one that makes you feel scared like asking that girl/boy out.


What can you do to work on this script within the next 10 minutes? Do it. What can you do to work on this script in the next week? Do it.

Once you’ve accomplished this, the rest will look easy.

A voice from the outside

Of course, not everyone is amazingly good at spotting his or her own weaknesses. In fact, we do tend, as a species, to have a bias against seeing our true weaknesses. After all, if we knew them, we would work on them.

This self-deception can go on for years, over many parts of life. What can be done to improve? Not just at GMAT, but at anything in life. Find a person who is better than you – the best you can find, if possible – at what you want to do. Speak to that person. Learn from that person. Become a disciple.

Can’t find a living person? Read biographies. Understand how that person thought. Are you worried about arithmetic? Learn how Kurt Gödel thought about arithmetic. It was a nut that could be cracked, and he did it.

Even better, find someone to coach you. Have you ever wondered why coaching is so important in professional sports? Why professional musicians still take lessons?

Grit – it’s not just for breakfast

In fact, what psychologists now call 'grit' is a better indicator of success. It’s that difficult-to-define quality that separates the winners from those who give up, too often in the home stretch.

It’s doggedness, stick-to-it-iveness, or whatever you want to call it. Let’s be honest, it’s a little bit crazy. And that’s what separates the best from the rest.

It’s refusing to give up until no stone is unturned. It’s finding the path everyone else overlooked, or the confidence to pursue an ‘insane’ dream in the face of adversity.

Above all, grit means iteration. Taking mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and figuring out specifically where to put effort. Where to lean in.

How to make a decision about what the next step is, then taking that step.

Grit is what gives truth to the old adage that, “An expert is someone who has made every possible mistake in a very limited field.”

Grit is the ability to acknowledge and work through mistakes. This is the only way to improve, especially when improvement seems impossible.

How many mistakes have you made today?

“The first thing that happens is your best gets better, but what really matters is when your worst gets better… your worst show has to be above everybody's best – that's what you really want. So your worst, that comes with time, that comes with experience.” – Louis CK

As I often tell my clients, when it’s GMAT time, you’ll only perform at 80% of capacity.

To paraphrase Louis, your responsibility is to make sure that your 80% is better than everyone else’s 100%.

So go out and fail a bit, with my permission. You’ll thank me later.


Rowan Hand has been a professional GMAT tutor since 2005. He has worked with hundreds of clients over the past 10 years in group and one-to-one situations. His clients have been accepted at LBS, HEC, Columbia, Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard, USC, NYU, Chicago Booth, Oxford and Cambridge, and other top schools. Rowan is the author of Last Minute GMAT Grammar Amazon bestseller in the US and the UK. He is currently writing a GMAT math companion book and developing its video course counterpart. Rowan's website is

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