Welcome to the second part of our series on learning the most that we can from official GMAT problems. Last time, we talked about how to use solutions as a series of hints from your own “private tutor.” This time, we’re going to talk about what to do when this process doesn’t actually help you to generate ideas about how to solve the problem.
Here’s where we left off:
What if the solution gives me no ideas?
This definitely happens—and it’s a really good clue of a different kind. If I’m reviewing a solution and never having an aha! moment, then there’s a good chance that this is the kind of question that I’m just not prepared to understand and be able to answer correctly (at least, not at the moment).
These kinds of official GMAT problems will fall into one of two categories:
(1) A problem that I’m not ready to learn now, but I think I have a decent chance to be able to learn this later in my studies
(2) A problem that I’m probably never going to know how to do well, even by the time I get to the real test
Not ready now…but maybe later?
In the first case, I want to come back to that problem later in my studies. When? And how will I remember?
As you’re studying, keep some kind of a study calendar. This will help you make (and keep!) study appointments with yourself and it will help you organize what you’re going to do on any given day or in any given week.
When you run across something that you want to try again later, consider what additional skills you might need to be able to do that kind of problem. Sometimes, you can be pretty specific: The problem tests a math concept that I haven’t fully covered yet, so I’m going to come back to this in a week after I’ve covered that material. In that case, go add the problem to your study calendar a week from today.
Other times, it will be more nebulous. You might think: This one’s too hard for me right now, but maybe after I’ve gone through all of my study material once, I’ll be ready to try something like this again. In that case, put it on your calendar for 4 weeks out or 6 weeks out or whenever you think you’ll have completed your initial pass through your study materials. At that time, you can evaluate whether this problem really is category 1 (I can learn to do this now) or category 2 (nope, I should just let this one go).
When you return to the problem, one of two things will happen: Either you will be prepared to learn from this thing now, or you won’t. If the latter is the case, consider whether the problem should move over into the second category: I’m not going to do this on the real test.
Not ready now…and maybe never?
How do you know when you should let something go and not even try to study it in the future? Here are some good clues:
- You realize that, even when you read / watch the entire explanation, you still don’t fully understand how to do it (or you think, “I don’t understand this explanation at all!”*)
- You think, “It would never occur to me to do that, even now that I know you can do it that way.”
- You really hate the particular question type (CR, RC) or material (Quant, SC) that the question is testing—and it’s not something that shows up all over the test.
An example of that last one for me: combinatorics. They frustrate me. If there’s a way to fall into a trap, I always seem to find it. And they never “just make sense” to me—even when I’ve done the problem correctly, I still doubt myself. Luckily, these aren’t very common on the test, so I can just skip them, and that means that I never need to study them in the first place.
(Well…technically, I do have to study them because I’m a teacher. ☺ But if I were just taking the test for school, I could blow these off forever. And I do still blow them off when I take the official test! They’re not worth the aggravation.)
*Oh, and I have to give you a caveat for “I don’t understand this explanation at all.” There’s a possibility that that’s not your fault—it could be that the explanation is a bad explanation! It’s good to try two solution sources before you decide to let something go—especially if you know from experience that those solution sources have worked for you before on different problems. (On the flip side, if this problem is of a type that you already know you hate, you might not need to try a second solution. You might just decide now that you shouldn’t do something like this in the first place.)
Key Takeaways for Maximizing Your Learning from Official GMAT Problems
Don’t just read what I’ve written below! Look back over both parts and summarize for yourself what you’re going to do. Then read what I wrote.
First, try official GMAT problems under normal official testing conditions. Hold yourself to the same parameters / types of decisions you’ll have to make on the real test.
Second, after you’ve chosen your answer, push yourself to figure out as much as you can. Feel free to try the problem again, open-book and untimed. (You won’t always want to do this, but sometimes you will.)
Then, use the solution (starting with the correct answer letter) as a series of hints designed to give you “aha!” moments. Every time you have an “aha!” moment, stop reviewing the solution and push yourself as far as you can (again, open-book and untimed).
Finally, know how to use the solutions to signal that you are not ready to learn from this problem (either right now or ever). Take action accordingly.
Good luck and happy studying! 📝
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Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.