How do you study? More importantly, how do you know that the way in which you’re studying is effective—that is, that you’re learning what you need to learn to improve your GMAT score? Read on!
In the first part of this series, we discussed how to get started: setting up your timeframe, picking out your materials, and so on. (If you haven’t read it yet, please do so before you continue here!) In today’s installment, we’ll talk about how to study and make progress over the actual length of your study timeframe.
HOW Do I Learn?
This section addresses probably the single biggest mistake that people make when preparing for the GMAT.
At first, you’re going to concentrate more on what you need to learn / re-learn, but as you progress, you’re going to concentrate more on learning how to think. Yes, you need to know the formula for the area of a circle and how modifiers work and so on. But that’s only the start. Once you learn or re-learn a lot of that content, you will then need to move to the next level, which is what this test is really testing: how to think your way through any given problem.
At the end of each study session, jot down in your journal what you did that day, what you think went well, and what you think needs more work. (This knowledge will all come from your analysis of what you did that day.) If something didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, then feel free to adjust your calendar. At the end of the week, review your journal and set up your plan for the next week.
Now, how do we learn how to think? When doing GMAT-format problems, be aware that roughly 80% of your learning comes after you have finished doing the problem. Your goal here is not to do a million questions—your goal is to do a much more modest number of questions and really analyze them to death. Here’s how to review GMAT practice problems. You can find additional articles illustrating this process here, in the How To Study section.
I’ll repeat: you do not need to do every last OG problem out there. You do, however, need to learn something from each and every problem that you do—ideally multiple things. Otherwise, you are literally wasting your time!
You’ll spend roughly the first 4 to 10 weeks focused more on the content (what’s parallelism, what’s an inference question, how do I solve simultaneous equations). Perhaps 80% of your focus will be on content for the first few weeks, but you’ll gradually begin to add in the how to think aspect—in fact, the How To Analyze series of articles is all about training ourselves how to think. As you start finishing your test prep books (the ones that teach you the actual content), though, you need to start shifting the focus more towards how to think about problems that test those content areas.
By the time you’re done with those content books for the first time, perhaps 60% to 70% of your time will be focused on thinking your way through a problem, for example, how to know that a particular problem is testing divisibility, what the shortcuts are, and so on. (You will still be studying content / facts / knowledge—but that will no longer be your primary focus because you’ll have learned a lot of it already!)
Okay, so you know your goal score, you know your strengths and weaknesses, and you’ve gathered your materials. You also know how to study: content / memorization, yes, but also a focus on how to think through problems. It’s time to develop your specific plan.
If you are taking a course, follow the syllabus. If you’re working with a tutor, figure out the plan with your tutor.
Otherwise, pick a time frame (generally two to three weeks) and decide what weaknesses you want to improve in that timeframe. In general, start with your biggest weaknesses in areas that are frequently tested on the GMAT. If you’re not sure which areas are most frequently tested, look on the forums. (I’m not listing them here because they can change over time.)
Get a calendar and block off one to two hours each day (okay, you can have one day off each week 😊). Also, you don’t have to do the 2 hours all at once. Also, you’ll probably have some days on which you can study only 30 minutes or even 15. That’s fine—start off planning for 1-2 hours each day, but it’s okay if a few days slip. You may then have other days on which you want to study 3 or 4 hours; that’s fine as well, as long as you don’t study for more than about 2 hours at a stretch. (Why? Read this.)
In your journal, write down what your focus will be for each of the first six study days (one week). The first 5 sessions might, for example, consist of reading various chapters in various books and doing practice problems associated with those chapters. Estimate how much time you think it will take but be flexible; some study will go faster and some will be slow! Day 6 is a review day; you might do some sets of random problems, review what you did during the first 5 days, do a few problems from stronger areas or older areas that you haven’t studied recently, et cetera.
During a particular study session, if you are reading lessons and then doing skill drill type practice problems (not GMAT format) in that same area, you should spend about 50% to 60% of your time learning and the rest drilling. If you are doing and then reviewing sets of GMAT-format practice problems, then you should spend at most 40% of your time doing a set of questions and at least 60% of your time reviewing those questions. (The 60% includes whatever you need to do in order to get better—re-read part of a chapter, figure out a more efficient way to do something, post a question on a forum, make up a couple of flashcards, etc.)
Quizzing and Testing Yourself
Periodically, quiz yourself. Mini-quizzes can be done a few times a week—a 5 or 10-minute flashcard quiz, for example, while you’re on the subway or waiting for that conference call to start. Regular longer quizzes should be done roughly once a week—a 5- to 10-question set of GMAT-format practice questions done under timed conditions, for example. (Don’t forget to analyze these thoroughly when you’re done!) As you progress through the test prep books (especially after you have been through all of the content material once), you may begin to do regular quizzes two or three times a week.
Repeat until you feel you’ve made good progress and are ready to test yourself on a CAT again. (This will typically take at least two to three weeks. Don’t take a CAT every week—that’s a waste of valuable study time!)
When you take your second CAT, don’t worry about the overall score. Specifically check the areas on which you’d been concentrating for the previous several weeks. Most students’ scores stay the same or even go down on CAT 2 because there’s a pretty good chance you’ll mess up the timing in some way. For the areas that you did study, though—did they get a little better (though you may still be struggling on time)? Can you move on to other topics or question types, or are there still things you need to improve? If you want to improve more, figure out how to review this area again.
Then, do the overall test review again (the same thing you did on the first test) and add the highlights of your analysis to your journal. If you still have more to do for your first pass through your study materials, continue on with the next thing on your list / syllabus. If you have been through all of your study materials (the stuff that teaches you what to do, from test prep companies) at least once, then your test results will tell you which areas to prioritize for review. If that’s the case, figure out what your new priorities are, set up your first 6-day plan, and repeat the whole process for several weeks until you feel ready for another test.
Keep doing this until either your practice test scores are in your desired range or you hit a hard deadline and are forced to take the test even if your score isn’t quite where you want it yet. (And accept that you’ll have to lower your goal.)
Good luck and happy studying!