When it comes to studying for the quant portion of the GRE, I’m a big advocate of mixing a variety of study styles. The GRE pulls questions from a big selection of question types and content areas, and pulling your study habits from a variety of strategies can help you keep up.
I encourage you to take a look at your study patterns and see if anything’s missing. Are you only practicing in short stints but never working for a full-exam-length of time? Are you only practicing mixed sets but never targeting particular question types? You might want to consider mixing it up!
Systematic vs. Cherry-picking
There is clearly merit to a systematic study approach. Working your way through your study materials in order ensures that you cover all the material you need to prepare for the test. It also ensures that you give adequate time to each area.
On the other hand, cherry-picking the areas you want to study lets you focus your attention on the areas that most need your attention. It also allows you to study effectively on a crunched schedule if you already have a comfortable, working knowledge of math basics.
These strategies can be effectively combined to maximize their benefits. Do you want to cover all the material? Yes. But what happens when you get to a topic you don’t understand? Don’t fixate and get stuck there; note it and move on! The math concepts on the exam are related to one another, so there’s a good chance that when you come back to a topic later, you’ll understand it differently than the first time around. You also may want to break away from your study system and pay some immediate attention to concepts that newly make sense to you, or that you thought you had mastered but then notice you’ve forgotten.
Depth vs. Breadth
You can’t master the GRE with a superficial understanding alone “ there are lots of tricks and traps out there waiting for you! In-depth studying is important, as it helps you understand all the ins and outs of an issue and how they might show up on the exam. You don’t get endless chances to show what you know, and studying a concept in depth helps ensure that you’ll be ready when it shows up.
But breadth is important as well. Just knowing the vocabulary, basic question types, and common traps of a question type can really help you out. You want to take advantage of the learning curve on any one topic: the first bit of studying you do on a topic is when you’re learning the most about it per the time invested.
Mix depth and breadth in your studying. Delve into the issues that trap and trick you, but don’t get so deep that you go past what you need to know for the GRE. And when a topic or question comes up that seems totally unrecognizable to you, make sure you get at least some exposure to it.
Memorization vs. Learning
There are teachers who will tell you that memorizing is the way to go. They’ll push charts, formulas, definitions, and flashcards over and over. On the other hand, there are teachers who will tell you that memorization isn’t really learning, and that students should focus on really learning and understanding the material so that they can figure it out as needed.
Both these schools of thought have a lot of merit. Memorization is valuable and important: sometimes you memorize first, and then you build off of what you’ve memorized later. It is important to learn, but you have to have some pieces to build with. So memorizing things such as perfect squares, multiplication tables, prime numbers, definitions of terms, and geometry formulas is definitely a great idea.
But memorization is only valuable when you’re comfortable using what you’ve memorized. For example, if you’ve memorized your exponent rules on a flashcard but haven’t gotten enough practice using them, they’re going to be of very little use to you. Learning comes with practice, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to practice concepts both in exercise form and in actual GRE practice problems.
Short vs. Long
I know I’m not the only one who used to do all my weekend homework on Sunday night. Anyone who tells you that you can’t cram for the GMAT is lying “ at least to some extent. One or two marathon study sessions can do a lot to help. But it’s really not the best method, and it probably isn’t enough.
While many topics benefit from being practiced and explored at length, sometimes short practice sessions can have a great impact. Very short study sessions, such as those 10 or 15 minutes in length, are best used to refresh something you already have studied. They’re also very good for drilling math skills that need practice, such as exponent or fraction rules.
I try to tell my students to do something to study for the GMAT every day. Even if you can only find 15 minutes every day but Sunday, that’s an extra 1.5 hours of study time throughout the week, with the added bonus of short sessions forcing you to recall information over and over again.
Isolated vs. Mixed
If you’re not picking up the theme already, it’s that you want to study in lots of different ways. So that means that doing a whole study session of one type of question is great. Spending a couple hours on triangle problems, for example, lets you have a chance to master the topic. It lets you notice patterns and themes, and to get a feel for what to expect on the exam.
But your exam questions don’t come sorted by type, and they don’t come with a big heading that tells you what topics they test. That’s why you also have to practice mixed questions: you want to make sure you’ve practiced identifying the question type and dealing with them as they’ll show up on your exam. Practicing only mixed questions, however, can leave you with a nebulous grasp on concepts and an unclear understanding of what methods apply when. One good compromise is to choose a few areas to target individually, and then introduce those areas into your mixed practice only after you feel comfortable with them on their own.