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6 Essential GMAT Study Strategies


The following is a guest post from Veritas Prep. 

If you’re researching business schools and admissions strategies here at Clear Admit, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll be taking the GMAT sometime in your future.  And that means you’ll need to study for the GMAT.  Since not all study plans are created equal, here are 6 strategies to help you optimize that process.

1) Focus on deep understanding and application, not just on knowledge.

The GMAT testmakers say over and over again that the GMAT is a test of higher-order reasoning – and that’s not just a buzzword!  In academia, higher-order thinking/reasoning is defined as the actions that come after someone remembers and understands information.  It’s things like applying, synthesizing, and creating using that knowledge and understanding.  So if much of your academic past has focused on cramming and short-term memory – and let’s face it, we’ve all done it more than we’d like to admit to our parents and professors – you’ll need to study differently to ace the GMAT.

One tip for that: study in verbs, not just in facts, formulas, and rules.  Verbs handle the application part of things.  So instead of simply memorizing a list of exponent rules, also remember what techniques – what verbs – will help you apply them:  1) Find Common Bases (only when you have the same bases can you add or subtract exponents in multiplication and division); 2) Factor Addition/Subtraction to Multiplication (since exponent rules only apply when you’re multiplying or dividing); and 3) Find Patterns With Small Numbers (since exponents are really repetitive multiplication.

So don’t just focus on what you need to KNOW.  Make sure you study how you can be ready to DO things with that knowledge, since that’s what the GMAT is really testing.

2) Don’t mistake activity for achievement

Browse the popular GMAT forums and you’re bound to see two major trends:

  • Beginners asking “is X months enough to score 700+?”
  • Veterans complaining that “I put in X months and did over Y,000 problems and my score is still stuck well below my goal”

The problem with quantifying your study plan by the number of weeks/hours you spend or the number of problems you complete is that it’s not the time spent that helps you improve, but the value of it.  So don’t gauge your progress or construct your plan by saying only that you’ll spend 3 hours at the library; have a goal for that time, such as “I need to get comfortable factoring quadratics” or “I need to emphasize speed and comfort setting up word problems.”  Then hold yourself accountable for that; at the end of that session, ask yourself whether you made that progress.

And in terms of the number of weeks to study, keep in mind that everyone’s plan will be different.  Start with a “standard” plan (many will study around 8-10 weeks) but then add progress checks every two weeks with the option to add a week on a specific topic.  If after two weeks you realize that your algebra skills are way behind what you thought they would, then add a week – extending your plan from 10 weeks to 11 – specifically to emphasize the core algebra skills, then pick back up with the rest of your plan.  Having specific objectives for study sessions is extremely helpful for those who end up studying past 2-3 months, as otherwise it becomes a bit too easy to “just study” without any real achievement or to procrastinate since there’s no finish line in sight.  Make sure you focus on achievement and not just time-spent or problems-completed.

3) Save the stopwatch for later

Because the GMAT is a timed test, many students begin with pacing in their mind from the outset, consistently timing themselves to see not only if they can do the problem but if they can do it under test conditions.  The problem with that?  To quote Nietzsche (or to paraphrase Eddie Murphy quoting Nietzsche): “Before a man can fly he must first learn to stand, and walk. A man cannot fly into flight.”  In other words, speed comes from mastery of the content and strategies, and most of us will find that we simply cannot master many GMAT topics in 2 minutes or less.  You’re more likely to remember something you had to struggle with than something you quit on and flipped to the back of the book to read about, so let yourself struggle through hard problems.  When you’ve had to force yourself to understand it, that’s when the most powerful breakthroughs hit you.

Think of your GMAT preparation in three phases: Learn, Practice, Test.  In the Learn phase it’s counterproductive to emphasize speed because you’re not giving yourself enough time to really work on concepts.  In the Practice phase, you’ll want to be conscious of speed but still prioritize mastery over expediency.  Then when your study is mostly focused on performing under test conditions and you’re taking at least one practice test per week, that’s when speed should be a primary concern.  The GMAT is a timed test, so speed is important, but it’s also a higher-order thinking test and so you can’t sacrifice deep understanding because you’ve been worried about speed since the beginning.

4) Take practice tests, but never take one without analyzing it

When you do enter the Test phase of your study program, many students again want to prioritize how many tests they can take and miss out on valuable opportunities to improve.  While the experience of a practice test is innately valuable, teaching you how to perform under timed conditions and for an extended period of time, arguably the best thing about a practice test is that it gives you a record of how you performed.  Whether you make silly mistakes when working quickly or you just aren’t as adept at working with factors and multiples as you were when you were focusing on that concept alone, a practice test can show you where you most need to improve.  And if you approach that process strategically, you can also see where the most likely improvement can come from.  To learn how to optimize your practice test review process, read this article.

5) Embrace your mistakes

It can be humbling to struggle with concepts that you once had down cold: geometry, algebra, grammar, etc.  And it can be extremely frustrating to return to a set of problems and realize that you got most of them wrong.  But remember that the only problems that truly matter are the ones that you see on test day, and so every mistake you make is an opportunity to learn.  The silly mistakes in practice are great; you now know that you’re vulnerable to, for example, forgetting to test negative numbers or to assuming that you can use the Pythagorean Theorem when actually it wasn’t necessarily a right triangle.  Now you can be aware of that on test day.  And the times that you disagree at first with the correct answer, they provide you with a chance to really get inside the mind of the testmakers and learn how they’re baiting you into traps.  Whether a practice question makes you frustrated or angry, remember that that question only matters as far as it can help you learn to master a concept or avoid a mistake in the future, so view your wrong answers as opportunities to improve.

6) Think like the Testmaker

Nearly all students will look back at their mistakes and ask themselves:

  • Why was the right answer right?
  • Why was my wrong answer wrong?

But those most likely to succeed will ask a third question: why was my wrong answer TEMPTING?  Because the answer to that question helps you learn how the authors of the GMAT are baiting you with tempting trap answers.  On a higher-order thinking test like the GMAT, there’s more at play than just straightforward math and verbal concepts – the test is assessing how well you think critically and look beyond the surface.  So when you fall for a trap answer, ask yourself why you found it so tempting and you’ll begin to learn what you need to double-check and watch out for on test day.

Register for a free Veritas Prep computer-adaptive GMAT practice test or get 7 full-length practice tests for $20 until May 29, 2015.  

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