GMAT Primer – Part 3

Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

GMAT strategy is not universal; what works for one individual learner’s style and background can make no sense at all for another’s.  I’ve been working with GMAT students since the civilized world failed to collapse at the end of 2000, and I’ve found that while every student is different, there are some general principles (aside from “study for the test”) that apply to large numbers of people.  This is the final installment of a three-part series; first was Verbal strategy, the second was Quantitative, while this is the all-important Study Plan (I’ll give you a three-month one, but you can adapt it to your actual time frame).

Three month plan

Study more often, not longer.  It is said that repetition is the mother of all learning, and the GMAT is no exception.  Everyone is different of course, and some people get MUCH more out of eight-hour blocks of GMAT cramming . . . but most people do not.  They get tired, they get careless, and (worst of all) they procrastinate because it’s so unpleasant for them.  Your task is this:  if at all possible, study every day.  I know that’s a tall order, so I will amend it to fit your life a bit better:  study every day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.  In your worst, busiest week you’ll still put in almost two hours; in a normal week (according to my plan) you’ll be putting in at least eight.

Take full-length practice exams regularly.  Full-length practice tests do two amazing things for you.  First, they build your capacity to sit there concentrating for the length of the test, to the point that (ideally) the real thing should feel like just another practice exam.  You get used to the pacing, learn how to track your time and progress, and learn how to make adjustments so that you can always finish before time expires.  This is absolutely critical to your success, and full-length testing is worth doing just for this ability.

As an added benefit, full-length tests keep your skills “current” on topics of less concern to you.  Perhaps you’re comfortable enough with general quantitative and spend most of your practice time on Verbal and high-level and rare Quantitative questions; full-length tests insure that you do not lose the ability to handle questions in your stronger areas.

Review your full-length exam within 24 hours.  Ideally, you should review your exam immediately after you take it, but there isn’t always time, so I’m giving you 24 hours.  The idea behind the quick turnaround stems from the nature of your review; rather than simply looking at your score or reading explanations for the questions you got wrong, you are looking at all of the following:

* On questions I got right, did I solve it the same way they did in the explanation?  If not, am I confident that my approach is valid?
* On questions where I narrowed the answer choices down and then guessed, was my guess based on good thinking?
* On questions I got wrong (or narrowed down to two and guessed, correctly or not), what attracted me to the wrong answer?
* On questions I got wrong, did I make a careless mistake, or was there an error in my thought process or strategy?

These questions are much easier to answer if you can still remember your thought processes and make sense of your notes — that’s why I give you 24 hours.

Keep an error log.  Review after the exam is time-consuming but productive, but for best results, you should add the step of tracking your errors.  Some providers of test prep materials will help you with this by tagging questions along certain lines (though they won’t necessarily all use the same tags), while others you may have to identify yourself.  The key here is to look for patterns throughout your prep period:

*  Are there certain question types (like SC or PS) or topics (like Inference or Circles) that I get wrong more often?
*  Are there certain question types or topics that I routinely spend too much time on?
*  Do I regularly make careless mistakes at the same point(s) on the test?
*  Do I struggle more with questions with a lot of context (story problems, long sentences) or a little?
*  Have I overcompensated with any of my strategies — answering too many questions too quickly, or spending too much time on certain topics that I’ve recently improved on?

Other patterns may emerge, even in the time of day you take your test!

The plan

Some notes:

*  Everything starts with the OG, so finish that before you do anything else.
*  I have you reviewing the entire OG before the final push; you should notice a difference in your performance by this point, and you also may well have been doing questions from other sources, so it’s good to re-ground yourself in the book by the makers of the test.
* All question numbers are MINIMUMS.  You will get much more out of this plan if you are able to do two or three times these minimum numbers of questions..
* “Weakness” is left intentionally vague because it can vary so much; one person may just have trouble with non-business RC passages, where another may struggle with all Geometry.  The goal is to put into practice what you learn after a review of a topic.
* “Outside work” depends on what your weaknesses are.  If your weakness is Verbal, reading things like The Economist and the New Yorker will help, and break up the grind of doing questions.  If Quant is your weakness, outside work might involve doing some additional non-GMAT-format drills (potentially harder) or questions from another test, such as the GRE (potentially easier).  These are meant as “productive breaks.”  If you’d rather go through more GMAT questions, that’s fine.
That’s hardly all that could be said about GMAT strategy, but it’s all for this series.  Keep reading, keep studying, stay positive — you can do it!


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