Fighting Back Against the Illusion of Competence on the GMAT

It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you know more than you actually do. Check out the following two situations:

  1. It’s test day. You’re nervous but confident. After all, you’ve spent hours rereading your notes, watching videos lessons, and listening to your GMAT coach go on about strategies. The test begins, but suddenly… you draw a blank. The questions look familiar, but you can’t remember how to answer them. Your confidence plummets and you fumble through the test, scoring lower than you should have.

  2. Your GMAT coach has just finished explaining how to solve a Critical Reasoning Boldface problem. The strategy is a little complex, but you understand it easily. Plus, you’ve copied it down word for word. You get home, open up your HW problems, and go straight to the Boldface questions. But what had seemed straightforward in class now feels 10x harder. You complete the homework but get many problems wrong. You think maybe the GMAT is just too hard to master.

In both situations you thought you knew it all, so what happened?


You fell victim to the Illusion of Competence.


The Illusion of Competence is a well-documented psychological phenomenon describing a situation where you believe you’ve learned and understood some information, but you’ve actually just tricked yourself into thinking you have. While spending hours reviewing notes and listening to class lectures, you become very familiar with the information. As test day nears, you glance through your notes and think “Yeah, I know all this stuff.” But in reality you’re just familiar with the information on the page. If tested, you won’t be able to come up with it on your own.

The Illusion of Competence is an extremely common study trap, and you may even recognize it from your days in university. While studying for the GMAT, you want to make sure you avoid falling for this illusion. Some simple changes to your study habits will ensure you really do know the necessary information.

First, think about how you study. Do you copy down information from class and video lessons and then study by rereading and highlighting these notes? This is called passive learning. The information washes over you but doesn’t become part of your long-term memory. You may find that it’s hard to remember the details of something you’ve read, even after only 5 minutes have passed.

Taking notes and studying those notes are not bad study strategies, but you must study actively. When you finish a video lesson, don’t just move on to the next video. Instead, pause and try to summarize the contents of that video without looking at your notes. If you start doing this, you’ll see how obvious the Illusion of Competence is. You may find it hard to remember more than a few details from the video you just finished!

Active learning and self-testing are the only ways to ensure you’ve really mastered the material. Get into the habit of quizzing yourself while studying for the GMAT. Constantly ask yourself, “What’s the strategy for Inference questions? What are the different types of Modifiers and their respective rules?” This serves two purposes: first, it shows you how much information you’ve actually learned, and second, it reinforces that information and moves it to your long-term memory.

Finally, completing homework problems and practice tests should be the last step in your study routine. Practice problems are your chance to show that you have mastered the relevant concepts and strategies and can now apply them in real GMAT problems. Some advice: if you’re doing HW problems with your notebook open, then you need to go back and study some more.

Don’t let the illusion of competence get in the way of your GMAT score! Be honest with yourself about what you really know and practice until you’ve got it down.

1 Koriat A1, Bjork RA. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2005 Mar;31(2):187-94. "Illusions of competence in monitoring one's knowledge during study." https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15755238