Over the past half-millennium, the region of Newcastle upon Tyne has been a major source of British coal. Thus, the phrase “coals to Newcastle” became a phrase that implied the inanity of supplying folks with something they already had in abundance and obviously did not need. In our modern age, the phrase is applied to apparently improbable sales. Equivalents would be along the lines of “selling snow to the Eskimos” or “selling foul-smelling pigeons to New Yorkers.” While all of these examples are a bit over-the-top, they are not as much exaggerations as they initially appear.
Consider all the kitsch items, such as Chia pets or bobble-heads, that are wildly popular for reasons that defy all rational explanations. Consider all the bags and shoes that are ubiquitous one fashion season and disappear thereafter. And, why on earth do people en masse need T-shirts and other accoutrements on which are printed the face of the newest pubescent idol? In all these cases, some extremely successful sales person has convinced a large number of people that they want or need something that, in the absence of such a campaign, no one would want or need. Such is the magic of a genius for sales.
What does all of this have to do with the GMAT? Well, consider — why are Verbal skills such a big focus of the GMAT? All business depends on sales, and sales depend very much on the persuasive power of words. Fundamentally, every sale is an argument, and a successful salesperson is someone who successful delivers an argument time and time again. Insofar as you are taking a GMAT, you are making the statement that you intend to attend B-school, earn an MBA, and pursue a career in corporate management. If you wish to thrive in that world, that world of which sales are the very life blood, then you need to have a clue about verbal skills. That’s precisely why the GMAT places such emphasis on verbal skills.
If your very goal in life were to master the GMAT Verbal section, how would you go about it? What would constitute successful GMAT Verbal preparation? First, I will give a sober warning. GMAT Quant material out there varies from high quality to so-so; it turns out, it’s not easy to write a truly atrocious quant question. By contrast, it’s childishly simple to write an absolutely abysmal Verbal question, and indeed, variation in quality from one prep source to another is truly staggering. Caveat emptor! Check out review and testimonials carefully. Read GMAT book reviews. The choice of prep material for the GMAT Verbal section is a decision that calls for a great detail of discernment.
In addition to working assiduously with high quality GMAT prep material, read. Read high quality material: the NYT and WSJ are fine publications, and the Economist Magazine is even better. Scour those for grammar and for arguments. If you want more of a challenge, read classics. Follow the arguments of Emerson or Aquinas or Montaigne. Read Jowett’s Plato. Check out the highly sophisticated grammatical structures in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
A final word on GMAT grammar. The copy of ads themselves typically have atrocious grammar, but as an inevitable part of the sales process, one has to demonstrate one’s legitimacy, and in the modern world, this often happens in written form (web text, email, etc.). For many readers, your use of poor grammar will torpedo any possibility of establishing your legitimacy. (It won’t impress adcoms either!) Good grammar matters, hence, the GMAT tests it.
A baseball player swings through the ball. A karate master punches through the target. In like manner, don’t simply prepare for the GMAT Verbal section itself as an end-goal. Instead, using the GMAT Verbal section as a starting point, practice all those skills “through” the GMAT and into their applications in the modern marketplace. Become a verbal wiz, so that one day you will be the next to sell coals to Newcastle!