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Okay, that was a clickbait title. There’s no such thing as a bad GMAT student, just an unmotivated one. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a good GMAT student in that you are willing to put in time to learn about things you don’t know. But putting in that time doesn’t mean you actually have good study habits. Let’s take a look at some of the behaviors of students that I’ve seen along the way. Do you fall into any of these buckets? If so, you may want to rethink your approach.
Student #1: “I’ve done every single Official Guide problem, and all the practice CATs (twice), and my score still hasn’t gone up. I think I’ll have to find more problems to work on.”
This is the most common type of student I get for private tutoring. He is usually at his wit’s end because he can’t understand why his score isn’t improving after having done SO MANY problems. After all, they say practice makes perfect—but I would argue with that sentiment. Perfect practice makes perfect. Meaning, you might be doing a ton of problems, but if you’re not doing them the right way, you’re only reinforcing bad habits. For example, when you see a Quant problem, do you dive right in? Or do you think about what strategy you should use? Do you look to see if it’s a good candidate for picking numbers? Or testing cases? Or back-solving? If you do 100 problems without ever having these thoughts, you’re only reinforcing a static way of thinking. You want a pliable, flexible mind that can approach problems in a multitude of ways. So, stop going for quantity and start going for quality. If you’re out of material, I bet you can still benefit from going back and redoing problems. Chances are that you didn’t learn what you needed to the first time. If you remember the answer, that’s okay. We don’t care about the answer, we care about the process. That’s what will help on future problems.
Student #2: “I think I’ll put in 8 hours of studying on Saturday and another 8 hours on Sunday.”
What?! Why would you do that?! This student is basically making the same mistake as Student #1. But instead of overdoing the number of problems, she’s overdoing the number of hours that she needs to study. She might be busy, or a procrastinator, or honestly just believes that putting in all those hours at once is the best way to learn. Not so!! All sorts of learning science studies show us that we can’t concentrate for more than an hour and a half to two hours. We need to take breaks! And sizable ones at that. It’s better to do short and frequent studying than to lump it all together over the weekend. If you’re really busy during the week or have difficulty managing your time, try the Pomodoro technique. It’s a way to (hopefully) boost your productivity. Heck, I used it to manage my time writing this blog!
Student #3: “I’m really worried about Quant, so I’m going to do all of Foundations of Math instead of following the course syllabus.”
Okay… You could veer off the course syllabus that Manhattan Prep has tested over the YEARS we’ve been in business…but why? Panic can make a good GMAT student do weird things. If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t just suddenly start running 26 miles at once. You’d probably run one or two miles, build to five miles, then to ten, etc. (Or if you’re like me, you’d just think about running and eat a bag of chips. But I digress.) The point is, you can’t do it all at once. And you’ll end up frustrated because this plan is bound to fail. Trust in the syllabus. And if you’re not enrolled in a course, this advice still holds for your own studies. Pick specific things to study on certain days. That way you can feel accomplished when you finish and not overwhelmed at trying to learn ALL of math in one go.
Student #4: “I don’t have time to review the things I got right. I only review what I got wrong.”
While you might think this is a time-saving maneuver, it will also make you feel sad about all the things you aren’t doing correctly yet. That’s like going on a diet and thinking about the weight you have left to lose instead of congratulating yourself for dropping those 5 pounds. (But again, I’m on the couch eating a bag of chips.) If you only focus on what you’re doing wrong, how can you reinforce your good habits? It’s helpful to look at a problem that you did correctly and say, “Alright, I’m pretty awesome! I noticed the subject-verb agreement problem on this SC question. I also did the pronouns correctly by spotting one of the five deadly pronouns.” (Refresher: It, Its, They, Them, Their). Plus, what if you guessed and got it right? That doesn’t ensure that you’ll get it right the next time. So yes, your error log might contain only the ones you got wrong and want to redo, but that doesn’t mean you should never look at what you got right.
If you prefer a listicle, here’s a quick summary of the study habits of a good GMAT student vs. the bad study habits of another GMAT student:
- Don’t do every problem ever made. Focus on quality over quantity. What did you LEARN from this problem?
- Don’t shove all of your studying into marathon hours. Break it up into short and frequent study sessions.
- Don’t try to study ALL of Quant (or Verbal) at once. Pick specific topics to study during those short sessions you’ll be doing.
- Don’t just review what you got wrong. Reinforce what you got right. And feel happier about your accomplishments!
If you’d like more information on study habits, check out this article by fellow instructor Ceilidh Erickson. It’s aimed at GRE students, but the learning science remains the same. 📝
Elaine Loh is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from Brown University with a degree in psychology and a desire to teach others. She can’t get enough of standardized tests and has been a test prep tutor and teacher for over half her life. Check out Elaine’s upcoming GMAT courses here.