Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product Development Manhattan GMAT
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Here are five tips to guide you as you study for the GMAT.
1. Build from the bottom up, not from the top down.
We see it all the time: droves of students go running off to find super-hard problems. “If I can crack these,” they think, “I can do any GMAT problem.”
Don’t follow the herd.
How you do on the GMAT is determined more by your FLOOR than by your ceiling – you should look to get problems near the bottom of your range absolutely, positively right every time, without hesitation or anxiety.
You should spend more time truly mastering easier problems first. By “mastering,” I mean ensuring that you can do the problem, not only correctly, but also quickly, easily and confidently under tough exam conditions – that is, when it’s your animal brain working under stress.
By “mastering,” I mean knowing everything there is to know about the problem – the underlying principles, the setup, the solution path, and the embedded tricks and traps. You should be able to teach the problem to a friend or write a similar problem from scratch.
Only advance upwards after you’ve built the foundational knowledge and skills. It’s like building a brick wall – don’t worry about the next layer until the current layer is firmly in place. Of course, for top scores, you’ll need to be able to solve some really tough problems. But to get there, you have to make sure all the lower levels are solid first.
2. Start with your weaknesses.
Let’s say you’re a genius on Sentence Correction, but you’re terrible at Reading Comprehension. Which should you work on? The Reading Comprehension. Why? Because the test adapts. Like some devilish video game, it gets harder as you get questions right – and it gets easier as you get questions wrong. If RC is weighing your performance down, you’ll never get the really hard SC problems to prove how good you are at them anyway.
So stare down your weaknesses first. You hate probability questions? Then focus on those problems from the get-go. Consider them the enemy blueprints that have fallen into your hands – and study them until they become your favorite questions (or at least until your hatred for them disappears).
Then, when you walk into the GMAT, you’ll be comfortable throughout. You’ll be in better position to show the test your strengths.
3. Change it up.
Probably every student recognizes that it’s a good idea to take practice tests.
Practice tests are indeed indispensable, but many students both overDO them and underANALYZE them. If you take a practice test once per day or once every other day, you’ll burn yourself out pretty quickly (and eventually run out of tests to boot). Also, you won’t be spending enough time examining your tracks. After each test, you need serious time to study the ‘game tape’ – to learn what the test has to teach you. You should start by reviewing every single problem that you missed until you understand exactly what went wrong. Also, you need to make sure that you got problems correct for the right reasons or in the right way, and that you weren’t guessing or using ‘brute force’ throughout. Throughout this review, you have to put pen to paper – actually redoing the problems to clean them up and streamline them. You should also carefully evaluate your time management on different problems and question types.
All of this in-depth review will generally take a couple days of solid work. Now that you know what the practice exam has really taught you, you have to go practice differently. You have to go learn the missing material, streamline your processes and make all the other changes that the practice test indicated you should make. I generally recommend that you take a practice exam no more frequently than once every two weeks during the bulk of your preparation. And during the run-up to the exam, no more frequently than once a week.
So, what to do when you’re not taking or reviewing practice tests? You should construct drills of problems from the Official Guides that cover different topics.
GMAC (Graduate Management Admissions Council) has set the table for you – they’ve mixed up the problems by topic and arranged them in order of difficulty. Do 5 - 10 math problems in a row, with 2 minutes per question. Don’t skip any, and keep the timer running. When you’re done, spend twice as much time afterwards deconstructing each problem and your approach to it, until you know each problem cold.
You can do this sort of drill every day – and your GMAT recognition and performance skills will grow stronger each time if you do it right.
Periodically, also do a “speed recognition” drill on the math front. That is, scan a large number of problems (say, 30-50), giving yourself just 30 seconds per problem to identify the topic, to select a promising path forward and to take a step or two down that path. This sort of speed work will help you to overcome that all-too-prevalent obstacle: how to get started on a problem.
4. Don’t try to be a total Know-It-All.
It’s two weeks before the exam. You’ve done a ton of studying, and you’re having trouble keeping it all straight in your head.
Stop trying to pack more stuff in. At this point, right before test day, it’s much less important to cram new material into your brain than it is to organize and strengthen what’s already in there so you can use it under fire.
Don’t worry about trying to cover every last esoteric topic and question type. Go for depth over breadth. Force yourself to revisit problems that you’ve already seen and that you “think” you know. You’ll be surprised to discover that there will be still more to unpack and add to your toolkit from each problem.
It’s extremely useful to master just a few representative problems from each GMAT topic. You should know EVERYTHING about these problems. For each one, have a crystal-clear approach – and also a Plan B, C, and even D – that you can execute accurately, quickly, easily and confidently within 120 or 90 seconds (depending upon the problem type).
Now work those problems again and again until you know them and your approaches backwards and forwards. You want to walk into the exam with the ability to tackle typical problem types without a second thought.
Note – you should definitely take a couple of practice exams in the last couple of weeks too, but be sure not to overdo it! And don’t take a practice exam the day before the real GMAT. Would you run a practice marathon the day before running a real marathon?
5. Nothing will replace good old-fashioned hard work.
Statistics from GMAC show that the average student’s score goes up with the amount of time spent studying, both in terms of hours and weeks (100+ hours and 8+ weeks for the best results, if you’re curious). So don't go looking for a magic bullet - you have to make sure that you cover all the bases and put in the necessary elbow grease.
With these principles in mind, you’ll be well-equipped to study for the GMAT in order to achieve your best result on test day.
Manhattan GMAT offers live prep classes in the US and online classroom courses globally.