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. You also need to know how to handle the different question types given on the GMAT.
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, making the best possible decisions for each given situation. (Read that article I just linked.)
“Light bulb” Moments
You learn how to do this by analyzing the way these problems are put together by the test writers. You’ll actually learn to recognize what the test writers are trying to obscure, because you’ll have seen something like it before and you’ll have taken the time to think through it when the clock isn’t ticking.
Think about that the last time you were reading a new question and a “light bulb” went off in your head because you knew what to do. That was recognition! The more parts of new problems you can recognize, the better you’ll do on this test. Those of us who score in the 99th percentile don’t do so because we have some magic ability to figure everything out in three seconds. Rather, we’ve taught ourselves to recognize various bits of GMAT language, so that we have a huge advantage on most new questions.
Your goal is to learn to recognize as much as you can, so that you have as many “light bulb” moments as possible on test day.
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!
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 :-)). You don’t have to do your study all at once; you might do half an hour at lunch and another hour after work. 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 study 3 or 4 hours; that’s fine as well, as long as you don’t study for more than about 2 hours in one sitting. (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 take you longer than you expect.
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 older areas that you haven’t studied recently, et cetera.
Individual Study Sessions
When you start a study session, pick an area of focus. Perhaps you’ll be working on linear and quadratic equations, or Find the Assumption questions, or Smart Numbers techniques for math. If you’re learning this material for the first time, start by working through whatever material you have that teaches you about that topic.
For example, if you’re using our materials to study Find the Assumption, you would read through the first Assumption Family chapter in your CR book. Do some exercises to test your understanding of the material you’re learning (in our book, these exercises are already built into the chapter).
When you feel you’ve got a grasp on the material, try a medium-level OG problem; then, move to a harder or easier one, depending on how you did. Review the official explanations as well as any alternate explanations that you find valuable—for example, you might look up the problem in our GMAT Navigator program, or search for a discussion of the problem on the forums. Go over your work using the analysis techniques discussed in the next section. You may even want to return to the Find the Assumption questions you saw on your most recent practice tests and try them again.
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 following week.
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.)
You’ll spend roughly the first 4 to 10 weeks focused more on the content (how does parallelism work, 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 linked earlier is all about training ourselves how to think.
As you start finishing your test prep books / lessons (the ones that teach you the actual content), you’ll need to start focusing more heavily towards how to think about problems that test those content areas. You may start your session by doing a set of 10 mixed questions (not all the same type), after which you’ll analyze them all thoroughly and record your major takeaways, all of which can easily take 2 hours. While you’re doing that analysis, you’ll review any books or lessons necessary to get the most out of whatever problem you’re studying right now.
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 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 lessons (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 across multiple areas 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!)
Do it all over again
Your overall process is going to be: take a CAT, analyze it, set up at least 2-3 weeks’ worth of work, then (when you feel ready) take another CAT and repeat the whole cycle.
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. (Plus, if you skipped essay and IR on the first test but did them on the second test, then don’t expect much improvement on the Q and V scores.)
For the areas that you did study, though—did they get better (though you may still be struggling on time or certain concepts)? Can you move on to other topics or question types, or are you still stuck in some areas? If you’re still stuck, figure out how you need to get better at that area and start doing it!
Then, review the overall test again (the same thing you did on the first test, way back in the first half of this article) and add the highlights of your analysis to your journal.
Next, if you haven’t yet done a first pass through your main study materials, continue on with the next thing on your list / syllabus. If you have been through all of your main study materials at least once (the stuff that teaches you what to do, from test prep companies), 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.
Take the 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, in that case, accept that you may have to lower your goal.) If at all possible, study for the GMAT so far in advance of any deadlines that you don’t have to cut yourself off.
Good luck and happy studying!