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So you want to score a 700+ on the GMAT? There’s no question that such a score will help you maximize the effectiveness of your application to top business schools. To break the 700 barrier, you’ll need to study hard, and you’ll need to study smart. In addition, you’ll have to make some sacrifices along the way.
Although I could write an entire book on just this subject, I think the following discussion will be of major help to students with ambitious GMAT goals.
Let’s begin by discussing some reasons why a 700+ GMAT score is desirable.
Business School Admissions Are Competitive, and a 700+ GMAT Score Provides a Great Boost
MBA programs are seeing a dramatic increase in the mean GMAT scores of their matriculants. For example, the mean GMAT score of Wharton’s class of 2017 increased four points to a 732, the highest it’s ever been. This year, a 732 represents a 96th percentile GMAT score — in other words, only 4 percent of all GMAT takers worldwide earn at least a 732.
In addition, business school applications are at record highs. Because of this increased number of applicants, admissions committees can be more selective with potential students. This increase in selectivity helps account for the higher GMAT scores at top programs.
Although it’s not the only factor in your application, your GMAT score can be a wind in your sails during the application process. Conversely, a poor score can be a mark against you. Why let it be the latter? Why not put your best foot forward?
Understand That Earning a 700+ Won’t Be Easy But It Will Be Worthwhile
It is improbable that you will earn a 700 after only a week of quick studying, so be prepared for some hard work in the coming months. Let your friends and family know that you’re pursuing a top score — their support will help you stay positive after long nights of studying. If you start to get discouraged by all the practice problems ahead, remember what you’re working toward. An awesome score will help open doors to top business schools, and that success will be a great reward for your time spent studying now. Dedicate yourself to earning a high score, and get excited about the results you will be able to achieve.
Begin With the End Goal in Mind
Don’t make the mistake of going into your GMAT without a plan. I sometimes see students who say the following: “I just want the highest GMAT score possible.” Earning the “highest GMAT score possible” is not a plan. In fact, this mindset will make it difficult for you to follow a strategic plan for improvement. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you navigate there?
Research the schools you’d like to attend. See what the class profiles consistently look like. Does almost no one secure admittance without a 700+ GMAT? Or, do many matriculated students have 680s? Once you have a reasonable idea of what your GMAT score will need to be, work backwards from that score and set up a study plan. For example, if your goal is to earn a 730, you’ll have to master trickier and more complicated concepts and problems than if your goal is a 680. To earn that 730, you’ll also have to study more.
Once you know what your GMAT goal is, it’s time to figure out what your current abilities on the GMAT are.
Determine Your Baseline GMAT Score, But Don’t Over-Infer From the Results
In order to develop a strategic study plan, you must determine your current abilities. Some of you will already have taken an official GMAT, but many of you will not. If you’ve taken an official GMAT, then you already have an accurate baseline indicator of your abilities. You can also order an Enhanced Score Report from the GMAC, the company that administers the GMAT. The enhanced score report will give you insight into how you performed on each section — in particular, you’ll have feedback about your weakest areas. If you don’t have an official GMAT score, it’s important to take a free official practice test from www.mba.com. Make sure to take the test in a quiet place where you can concentrate and simulate test-like conditions, and, above all, try your best!
Although your practice test score provides a baseline indication of your abilities, you should interpret those results carefully. For example, if you incorrectly answered one rate-time-distance question, does that mean that you struggle with rate-time-distance questions in general? Probably not. Similarly, if you correctly answered one probability question, does that automatically mean you’re well-equipped to answer every probability question you’ll encounter? Probably not. In other words, use the practice test score as a rough estimate of your abilities, and then spend time analyzing your skills and abilities more closely.
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Be Realistic About How Long the GMAT Process Takes
First, remember that the GMAT is most amenable to students who are properly prepared, that is, those who have actually developed the necessary skills. The first key to being properly prepared is to set a realistic and strategic study plan over several months. Using data derived from over 4,200 people who took the GMAT in 2014, the GMAC reported that students who scored a 700 or higher studied for an average of 121 hours. In my opinion, 121 hours is on the low side for most students. I’d say that, in general, 300-400 hours of hard study is necessary for most students to attain an a 700+ score. Hard work and devoted study are the norm, not the exception!
Find and Prepare With Material That is Accurate, Applicable, Efficient, and Effective
More than ever, students preparing for the GMAT have a variety of test prep resources available. However, not all of these resources are created equal. The materials you use while you study can be either assets or liabilities. Content matters! Do your due diligence on the courses and prep material you’re considering. See what other students have had to say. Look at course reviews on sites such as Beat the GMAT. Most courses offer a free or low-cost trial — pick several resources and give them a test drive. Your goal is to find a course that presents clear, practical, and actionable content, in a way that makes sense to you, along with skills, strategies, and techniques for acing the exam.
If you need outstanding GMAT math help, sign up for a free trial of Target Test Prep’s GMAT Quant Course. The entire course is designed to help students break through longstanding barriers to success on the quant section. In addition to helping students master content tested on the GMAT, the TTP Quant Course introduces novel approaches toward developing sophisticated critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and decision making skills. Mastery in these areas pays off on the GMAT. Whether you’re completely new to the exam or whether you’ve been studying with limited success for some time is immaterial — either way, Target Test Prep will provide you with the tools necessary to achieve an impressive GMAT score.
Once you’ve found excellent test prep material to fit your needs, the next step is to create a strategic plan of attack.
Create an Actionable Plan
To cross the 700 barrier on the GMAT, you’ll need to understand the content tested (have conceptual knowledge), be able to apply your knowledge and skills to practice problems (have procedural knowledge), and be comfortable performing under test day conditions (have operational knowledge). This means you have three goals: (1) know and understand all of the material tested; (2) apply your knowledge to realistic practice GMAT questions; and (3) be cool, calm, and confident come test day, because you know your stuff, can apply your stuff, and have taken enough practice tests to make test day a day just like any other. Thus, a good strategic plan is to divide your studying into three major phases with some overlap between each phase. For a more granular look at the phases of learning that you can expect to go through when preparing for the GMAT, check out this article.
To set up a strategic GMAT study plan that allows for the systematic construction of conceptual, procedural, and operational knowledge, divide the number of months you plan to study for the GMAT by three. During the first third of your study months, spend 75% of your time building conceptual knowledge and 25% building procedural knowledge. During the second third, spend 75% of your time building more procedural knowledge and 25% building operational knowledge. During the final third, spend 50% of your time building operational knowledge and 50% building conceptual and procedural knowledge.
For more information on the types of knowledge necessary for a great GMAT score and on putting together a strategic plan, check out 3 Critical Types of Knowledge for a High GMAT Score
Once you’ve planned a strategic course of study, the next step is to make time in your busy schedule.
Be Proactive in Making Time for Yourself
How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t have time for X,” or “I don’t have time for Y?” We hear such statements constantly. Here’s the reality — there is only time for the things we make time for. With a demanding job, it’s important to make time for yourself and for your personal growth and development. Otherwise, you may find that your days become occupied only with the demands of your job. This lack of growth can lead to self-stagnation. Don’t let self-stagnation happen! Your first step on the path toward career development is to create time for studying.
Many busy students who go on to earn competitive GMAT scores study early in the morning before work, during lunch breaks, while running on the treadmill, and late into the evening. In addition, these students maximize weekend study time. If you carefully organize your schedule and make your GMAT study a top priority, you can find the time to rack up an impressive number of study hours.
Using every tip or technique possible will help you squeeze available time from your busy schedule for GMAT prep when you have a demanding job.
Your Goal is a Balanced Composite GMAT Score
Because many students are more worried about the quant section than the verbal section, they spend most of their time studying math. Although having a competitive math score is absolutely necessary for a promising applicant (recall that most of the top schools are unapologetically quant-driven), achieving a balanced GMAT score is key. In other words, it’s important that your math and verbal percentile scores are reasonably close to each other. Scoring 80% in quant and only 65% in verbal would not look strong on an application. Thus, don’t neglect your verbal studying.
One way to fit in math and verbal studying each day is to do an hour of math work and then an hour of verbal work. In fact, you may find that you learn better by breaking up your studying into alternating chunks of math and verbal.
Some might find that a 50/50 time and topic split helps, but others may see that after spending equal time on quant and verbal, they’re still struggling with math and acing verbal questions. If that’s the case, try a 60/40 split in favor of math, or, if necessary, an even higher split. Furthermore, if your verbal (or quant) score is already high, you can adjust the study ratio to better suit your needs.
In general, a good rule of thumb is to strive to be above the 80th percentile in quant and above the 90th percentile in verbal — this strategy is sometimes called the “80/90 rule.” In general, having scores above the 80th percentile in math and above the 90th percentile in verbal will make you a competitive applicant as far as your GMAT score is concerned.
Don’t Neglect Integrated Reasoning
Since its inception a few years ago, the integrated reasoning section of the GMAT has continued to grow in importance and seems likely continue that growth in the future. Make the most of your GMAT score by putting in the time and effort required to master the IR section. Because many of the skills that IR demands are also skills that the quant and verbal sections demand, it makes sense to begin by mastering quant and verbal and then moving on to IR.
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When Studying, Master Content Before Solving Practice Problems
Too many students make the mistake of solving tons of practice questions without first taking the time to understand the fundamental skills being tested. Instead of wasting your time solving questions without understanding the foundational skills needed, take the necessary time to master the fundamentals. That is, first you must build your conceptual knowledge. Once you’ve developed your conceptual knowledge, it makes sense to put that new knowledge into practice by solving many realistic sample GMAT questions.
Practice does not always make perfect. In fact, when you practice with a lack of understanding of what you’re practicing, or worse, when you practice improperly, you can actually become less rather than more skilled. Golf presents us with a great analogy. Imagine hitting golf balls at the driving range all summer without a coach and without anyone helping you understand how to fix your swing and your technique. Will you be a better golfer at the end of the summer? Probably not. You will have likely ingrained your mistakes into your swing. However, if you understand how to swing a golf club and you put this understanding into action with each swing, you can improve substantially. Proper practice makes perfect.
Hold Off on Sample Tests Until You’ve Mastered Content and Practiced With this Mastery
Too many students make the mistake of taking multiple practice tests before they have properly learned the fundamental material and have properly drilled those skills. If you make this mistake, all continuing practice tests will do is tell you what you already know: you haven’t mastered the content — for example, you’re weak in functions or slow with geometry, but that’s only because you have not studied these areas sufficiently. Instead of spending your valuable time taking practice tests and hoping that a higher score will magically appear on the screen, work hard to master the essential concepts behind the GMAT questions. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, then you may begin taking practice tests.
With this said, integrating practice tests at the appropriate time in your training is important.
Leave Ample Time Before Your GMAT for Practice Tests
You now know that it’s a mistake to jump right into practice tests before you’ve put in study time. Some students make the opposite mistake — they study content and solve practice questions until right before their GMAT, but they don’t take a sufficient number of practice tests. Most of these students find the test-taking experience uncomfortable. Either their timing is off, or they get tired near the end of the quant section, or they, in general, just don’t feel they are on their game. Don’t let this happen to you.
In an ideal world, you’d end your content study and practice problem work a month prior to your GMAT. During the final month, you’d take two or three practice tests each week. After each test, spend a few hours analyzing what you answered correctly and incorrectly. Keep a log of the question types you’re getting wrong. Then, go back and further study these specific areas. Also, keep a log of your timing, how you felt while taking the test, and how many of the questions you answered incorrectly because of careless mistakes. At this point in your study, your goal is to fine-tune your test-taking skills, because you’re getting yourself in fighting shape for gameday.
When You Study, Focus on Quality and Employ the Tabula Rasa Rule
Remember that your goal is to learn the material well. Don’t make the mistake of blazing your way through a chapter just to say you “read” it. Unfortunately, self-deception often works too well. Be honest with yourself. Instead, read deliberately and methodically. And if you fail to do so the first time through, make yourself repeat the material. Take the necessary time to truly master the material.
The same goes for practice problems. I see too many students who binge problem solve. They solve dozens and dozens of problems at each sitting, only to realize that they’ve learned little that can be applied in the future and have “burned” through an already limited set of useful practice problems. Don’t make this mistake. Instead, when you solve problems, squeeze as much juice out of them as you can. Ten thoughtful attempts at ten practice problems in which you learn how to overcome your mistakes will help you far more than answering fifty questions in a rush.
In other words, focus on the quality of your studying, not on the quantity. If you get a question wrong, stop and analyze why you chose the wrong answer. Then you won’t make the same mistake with future questions on the same topic.
Students often have a hard time gauging their level of knowledge. Here’s a simple, effective rule of thumb that I call the “Tabula Rasa Rule.” If you could not sit down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper and teach a concept to somebody else, you need to keep studying until you can. When you study a new topic, use this rule to help you gauge whether you’ve sufficiently learned that topic.
Build a Strong Foundation Prior to Working on More Complicated Material
Too often, students spend an inordinate amount of time working on the most difficult material they can find, such as probability and advanced combinations and permutations. This study happens at the expense of other crucial, more fundamental material. Don’t adopt this inverted strategy. Instead, take the necessary time to build a strong foundation. Learn the basics. Master the integral ideas. Then, once you have a solid foundation, invest any remaining time into working on the difficult stuff.
Remember the scoring mechanism on the GMAT. Incorrectly answering easy questions on the GMAT will drop your score by a greater amount than the increase you’ll realize by correctly answering difficult questions. In other words, it hurts your score if you flub the easy questions. Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure you pick the low hanging fruit before you break out the ladders and ropes and climb high into the tree.
The added benefit of mastering the fundamentals is that once you’re ready to attack the more difficult material, you’ll be more efficient because you’ll have a solid foundation. Instead of rushing to the challenging concepts, first ensure you have the basics down cold.
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Be A Pianist When it Comes to the GMAT — Focus on Eliminating Your Weaknesses
If any of you have ever played the piano, you know that there are a number of similarities between how one masters music and how one masters the GMAT. For example, some of the worst piano players continue to play the parts of a song that they know well and avoid the parts with which they struggle. Why? I’m not completely sure, but the reason probably has to do with wanting the instant gratification that comes with an easy win and not wanting the discomfort that hard work and struggle can induce. However, the best pianists know that the way to get better at playing a difficult song is to spend most of their time on the tough spots.
So, when it comes to your GMAT prep, your goal should be to determine your weak spots. Rectifying mistakes in these areas offers you your biggest opportunity for growth and for score improvement. Once you’ve determined these weaknesses, be a pianist of the GMAT and attack these weaknesses with gusto. You’ll be amazed at how much more quickly you will improve.
Of course, devote some time to nurturing your strengths — the amount of time depends on your memory. If you’re a person who retains knowledge and skills for a long period, you’ll be able to spend fewer study hours on your strengths. But if your skills deteriorate quickly, you’ll want to engage in frequent and well-spaced reviews.
Speaking of memory, it’s always important to frequently review the material you’ve been learning.
Review the Material Often – GMAT Skills Are Perishable
Knowledge and skills are perishable. That is, once you learn something, you can’t expect that knowledge to last forever, unless you nurture it.
Quite often, I see students who work hard at mastering some GMAT material and who, in fact, get really good at it. Then they happily move on and master new material. At some point, they realize that they have forgotten the earlier material. Don’t let this happen to you.
In your studying, plan to review often. If you tend to have a strong memory, maybe you can get away with one hour of dedicated review for every three hours of new material. However, if your memory is not so great, then perhaps you should consider doing a dedicated hour of review for every two hours of studying new material.
Don’t Worry About What Others Are Doing — Focus on Yourself and on Doing Your Best
If you read GMAT forums or listen to people talking about their scores, you can be easily convinced that every person who takes the GMAT scores 700 or higher after only a few “hard weeks” of studying. First, statistically speaking, the number of people who score a 700 or higher is small. Second, the number of people who score a 700 or higher and do so after studying for a “few hard weeks” probably approaches zero. If you focus on these rare animals and convince yourself that they’re the norm, you’ll drive yourself bonkers and probably throw in the towel. Instead, focus on doing the best job you can do. Don’t listen to the guy in the office who claims he earned a 730 without studying or to your friend’s sister who scored a 740 supposedly by doing nothing more than read the Official Guide for two weeks.
Some Helpful Verbal Tips
Many native speakers of English make the incorrect assumption that verbal section of the GMAT will be easy because they have been speaking English all their lives. However, many of these students soon discover that they have not developed the specific reasoning that CR problems demand or that their “ear” is not enough to deal with the complex written sentences written in formal standard English presented to them in the SC section. Additionally, some native English students approach reading comprehension passages the same way they do when reading any other written material without analyzing them as arguments — a big mistake.
Learn the Rules
When it comes to sentence correction questions, be sure you learn the important grammatical rules and are clear about what have to be violations of those rules. Don’t use your “ear” to solve problems unless you’ve tried all other tools in your belt. You may not hear the error in, “The truth about seals are..,” because are seems to agree with seals. You need to know that a noun that is the object of preposition (about in this case) cannot also be the subject of a verb. Many problems are designed to use your ear against you. Eliminating what must be wrong can often be the road to uncovering what has to be right.
When it comes to critical reasoning questions, don’t pick answers that seem correct. Answers that seem bold and forceful, and thereby attractive, are often overstatements that tempt you from more modest inferences that seem feeble but are, in fact, more accurate. Instead, master the black and white fundamentals of the logic that CR demands.
When it comes to reading comprehension problems, starting from the first sentence and ending with the last sentence without re-organizing the material in your mind will often ensure that you spend more time answering the questions at a much lower rate of accuracy than you would if you spent some time organizing and analyzing the material before attacking the questions. Learn some basic principles of critical reading to supplement your logic training in approaching the RC section of the GMAT.
Put Your New Sentence Correction Skills Into Action
We live in a digital world, and, as a result, we write constantly: emails, texts, meeting minutes, Powerpoint presentations, etc. It is probably no exaggeration to say that you use no tool as often on a daily basis as you do your language. Proper practice makes perfect. So you might as well study while you do other daily writing tasks. If you learn some new grammar rules during a Monday night study session, make sure you weave these rules into your writing on Tuesday at work. Stop crafting sloppy, ungrammatical emails and texts; use your new skills for each. Whenever you can, use proper grammar in your everyday speech. For example, instead of saying “Like I said,” say “As I said.” Instead of saying “I don’t know if it will rain,” say “I don’t know whether it will rain.” If you consistently practice your new skills, you’ll see that they can quickly become second nature to you.
Be the Sherlock Holmes of Sentence Correction
Sherlock Holmes once said: “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Such thinking is paramount to success on sentence correction problems because the correct answer to a question may actually sound incorrect to you. Thus, in approaching sentence correction questions, your job, often, is not to seek out the correct answer. Instead, your job will frequently be to eliminate four incorrect answers. If you can correctly accomplish that, then, the remaining answer will have to be correct. Furthermore, don’t look for the most difficult, most subtle mistakes made. Instead, look for the more obvious, clearer errors occurring in the incorrect sentences. Often, eliminating bad answers based on simple, easily-resolved issues such as pronoun usage or subject-verb agreement will rescue you from having to deal with more difficult issues.
Keep a Short List of Significant Notes — Review Each Day
It’s essential to determine your weak spots. These areas present the greatest opportunity for score improvement. However, it’s easy to learn important material and then later forget it. Avoid that!
As you come across valuable skills, strategies, or techniques that you want to remember and practice, keep a clean, neat “hit list” or set of flashcards with these valuable nuggets. Don’t clutter up this list with scratch work or anything else that will diminish the list’s clarity or usability.
Your list may look something like this:
Scott’s Crucial Math Concepts to Remember
1) The difference of squares: x^2 – y^2 = (x + y) (x – y)
2) algebra rule: (x – y) = -1(y – x)
3) exponent rule: (a^p)(b^p) = (ab)^p
4) simple interest formula: I = PRT
5) look out for 3-4-5 and 5-12-13 right triangles!
6) 0! = 1
Scott’s Crucial Verbal Concepts to Remember
1) “Whether” is used when we have alternatives. Ex) I don’t know whether he’ll become king.
2) You can never have only one comma between a subject and its verb.
3) Participles, such as “including, licking, and jumping,” can modify nouns from a distance.
4) Correlation does not mean causation.
5) One way to weaken a cause and effect argument based on a correlation is : If A -> B, suggest that B -> A.
6) That = restrictive relative pronoun. Which = non-restrictive relative pronoun.
The beauty of keeping such a list is that it will be your list, and what’s more valuable than having a clear account of the skills you need to remember and work on? Review this list every day.
Keep a Short List of Your Common Errors — Review Daily
If you’re like most students, you tend to make some fundamental mistakes again and again. Eliminating these common mistakes presents a great opportunity for growth. For example, let’s say that you frequently get questions wrong because you forget that two is the only even prime number. Add this fact to your list. Review this list each day. If you like digital lists, Evernote is a great, inexpensive app you can use to construct and review your list. However, if you are more old school, flashcards are a great option. You can study them on your commute to work or even on your lunch break. However you keep your list, just remember that one of the most powerful ways to grow is to work on your weaknesses.
Focus on Getting Better Before You Focus on Getting Faster
The time limit per question is one major source of the GMAT’s difficulty. It’s quite common for students to be anxious about the time constraints, and time and pacing must be considered while preparing for the test. However, the way in which a student prepares for these time constraints can make or break a final GMAT score.
Too often, students practice as if there were some magical strategy that will increase their speed. In fact, the best way to get faster is to get better! Don’t waste your time searching for a fast fix — it does not exist. Instead, invest your time into learning the material thoroughly. Master the concepts. Allow the techniques to become second nature. Ensure that all important facts, figures, and formulas are at the tip of your fingers. Spend ample time practicing these concepts, strategies, and techniques.
You’ll find that as you become more comfortable with the material, you’ll get faster. Learn from the wisdom of others about getting faster at solving GMAT problems.
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Don’t Trick Yourself Into Saying: “I know the material, but I just don’t have my timing down.”
This follows from the previous point. We just discussed how the way to speed up is to know the material better. From time to time, I hear students proclaim that the reason their GMAT scores are low is that they still have to “get the timing down.” If your score is not where you need it to be, take a good hard look at your conceptual and procedural knowledge levels. You’ll likely find that however much you may need to refine your timing strategy, what you really need to do is strengthen your grasp of the material. In my 15 years of teaching the GMAT, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students whose test day timing was the primary thing holding them back. Thus, plan to improve your knowledge of the content. Once you improve your ability to recognize and solve problems, working out any minor timing issues won’t be a big deal.
Some Helpful Quant Tips
Data Sufficiency Questions — Put in the Time and Calculations
Too often, students believe that since data sufficiency questions don’t require that an actual numerical value be calculated, these questions don’t need very much thought, energy, or ink. In fact, the opposite is often true. These questions typically require just as much thought as their problem-solving counterparts. In addition, solving most data sufficiency questions necessitates substituting appropriate values for the variables and actually testing their sufficiency. It’s very difficult to simply “look” at a data sufficiency question and determine the answer. Give these questions the time and energy that they require.
Be Careful of Making the Easiest Deduction, Especially on Data Sufficiency Questions
Many GMAT questions contain a number of trap answers. A trap answer is one that seems correct but is based on a common miscalculation, a common misinterpretation, a classic mistake in reasoning, an incorrect assumption, a faulty inference, or an invalid deduction. Quite often, particularly on data sufficiency questions, the easiest deduction is often the trap.
Try to Master the Algebra: Don’t Rely Solely on Picking Numbers and Backsolving
Students are always looking for shortcuts, and who can blame them? Quite often students will master the art of picking numbers and backsolving. They typically master these techniques at the expense of actually learning the underlying math.
When you rely on picking numbers and backsolving, you create an unfortunate situation in which each problem is a never-before-seen island that must be tamed. That is, you’re not actually learning skills that will allow you to be successful on future problems. However, if you invest the time to learn the math, you’re building a set of tools that will be available to you for use on problems where backsolving won’t yield a reliable answer. With these tools, you’ll have a much easier time recognizing how to solve a problem and then execute that solution.
With that said, there is a time and a place where backsolving and picking numbers can be handy. For example, these techniques can make solving extremely difficult data sufficiency problems much easier. In addition, they can help you to solve some problems that require complicated algebra.
If you choose to practice using backsolving and number picking, make a deal with yourself. Learn how to solve each problem algebraically before you pick numbers or backsolve. If you follow this approach, you’ll learn more efficiently, and you’ll have a much greater command of the material. Come test day, you’ll have a powerful array of tactics that you can deploy to quickly and confidently solve whatever the test throws at you.
Nip Careless Mistakes in the Bud
If you are answering incorrectly because you aren’t paying enough attention to detail, are missing important parameters of a problem, or are passing over significant remarks that govern the problem, then you are approaching the material in a negligent manner, and it’s important to fix this issue right away. You absolutely need to read the material more carefully.
Careless mistakes can destroy your GMAT score, and in my eyes, errors due to negligence are the worst type that a student can make for two big reasons. First, it’s a shame not to get credit for a GMAT question that you are able to solve and thereby able to answer correctly. Second, focus and practice can usually reduce or eliminate a the majority of these errors.
Here are some strategies that should help:
We make mistakes when we go too fast. When you try to calculate faster than your brain can process, you will make mistakes. To cut down on the number of careless errors you make, slow down. Take your time. Focus. It makes little sense to spend an hour rushing through fifty problems only to get thirty of them wrong. Instead, work at the fastest pace you can while still approaching the problems efficiently. Focus carefully on each problem. Remember, the goal is to learn, not to speed through a bunch of problems.
Be More Present
It’s so important to be centered and focused when attempting to solve a GMAT problem. I see two types of behavior that tend to destroy student accuracy.
First, sometimes a student’s mind is clearly someplace other than on his or her GMAT practice. It’s easy to lose focus, but real learning requires a student to develop the skill of compartmentalizing. To compartmentalize is simply to stop yourself from thinking about anything before the present moment and to stop yourself from worrying about what will come after the present moment. When you can compartmentalize, you can fully devote yourself to the task at hand. When you allow your brain to be fully immersed in whatever you are doing at that moment, you’ll be amazed at how much more accurate you can be.
Second, some students really are focused on their GMAT practice, but their pens are not in sync with their brains. For example, a student may be writing a given line of a solution to a problem while her mind is already visualizing the next step in the problem. It would be great to always be a step or two ahead, but that’s just not practical for most students. It’s difficult to be accurate when the pen and brain are out of sync.
The way to fix this problem is to focus intensely only on the step you’re on at that moment. In fact, watch carefully as you write. Focus on each letter, number, and variable. When you focus as you write, your brain has the opportunity to catch simple, yet score-eroding errors that would likely be otherwise missed. If you’re thinking one or two steps ahead of what you’re doing, you’re bound to make mistakes. Keep your pen, eyes, and brain in sync at all times.
Read More Carefully
Being a strong reader will help you significantly on all sections of the GMAT. Strive to read everything carefully and methodically. Focus when you read. Make sure that you understand the main point of each sentence and the key concepts in each problem. It’s not unusual to have to reread math and verbal questions, so if you don’t fully understand what you just read, read it again.
Visualization can also help you to read more carefully. When you read, imagine what you are reading unfolding as if you were watching a movie. Picture what you read. By engaging in this visualization process, you’ll help your brain better assimilate and connect the information.
Write Neatly and Legibly
It’s easy to make silly mistakes when your own writing is illegible. For example, if your numeral “2” has a funny habit of morphing into the letter z, you’re likely to make mistakes. As someone with shockingly poor handwriting, I’ve found that by writing in capital letters, my handwriting has become much less prone to misreading. You may like this penmanship strategy as well.
In addition to writing neatly, it’s important to organize your work carefully. Get in the habit of using well-defined regions for each problem. Don’t spread your work across the page haphazardly.
Regularly Practice Multiplication and Division by Hand
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen students elegantly power through a tough math problem only to mess up a multiplication or division step. Don’t be this person. Each day, solve one or two ugly multiplication and division problems by hand.
Watch Out for Unit Conversions
Many GMAT quant problems contain unit conversions. For example, a rate may be presented in miles per hour, but the answers are given in miles per minute. Be on the lookout for unit conversions in GMAT quant problems, since it’s easy to choose an incorrect answer with incorrect units just because the number looks correct.
Watch Out For “Except” Problems
Some problems say “All of the following would weaken the argument except?” Or, “n is divisible by all of the following except?” Pay close attention to the specific language given in the problem. It stinks to do all the work properly only to forget that the question was asking for “all of the following except.” You might even want to actually say to yourself, “I am looking for the wrong answer,” or “there will be four right answers and one wrong answer.”
Before You Select an Answer, Double Check Whether You’re Answering the Question
Read carefully and double check what you read before choosing the answer. Imagine a complicated word problem involving two Shiba Inus, Blaze and Molly. What if you carefully and elegantly solve for Molly’s age, which happens to also be an answer choice, but the question is actually asking for Blaze’s age? Make sure you’re actually answering the question being asked.
Pay Careful Attention to Restrictive Information in the Question Stem
Quite often, particularly on data sufficiency questions, there will be restrictive information provided in the stem. For example, we may be told that “k is an integer” or “ 0 < m < 1.” Pay close attention to such information. In the heat of solving a problem, it’s easy to forget about a small but important piece of data that may change the outcome. Sometimes taking a second to write this information down can help make it stick in your mind.
Don’t Perform Calculations in Your Head
What are surefire ways to make mistakes? Do mental math. For most people, doing calculations in their heads is a bad move. Instead, do as much work as you can on your paper.
If you’d like additional tips on how to become more accurate, read this article
Keep A log of Your Mistakes
Each time you commit one the above mistakes, put a hash mark in your log. The goal of tallying your mistakes is to make yourself fully aware of them and, most importantly, to AVOID them in the future. For example, if you consistently make careless mistakes on “except” problems, be aware of that fact. Make sure the word “except” sets off alarms to be extra careful.
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Join or Start a GMAT Study Group
Peer learning can be a great way to stay motivated and accelerate your learning rate and even have some fun. Get five or six people together who are studying for the GMAT and meet up one night a week. Pick five or ten questions to solve. Each person individually tries the questions, and then the group discusses them. It should be interesting to see how different people solve problems differently. You are almost guaranteed to pick up some new tricks and techniques. Also, having to explain what you do is probably the best way to fix it in your own mind. Don’t worry if the group is composed of students with varying abilities. If you’re the strongest member of the group, you learn a ton by showing others how to do things well. If you’re the weakest member of the group, you’ll benefit from the knowledge and expertise of the stronger members.
Plan to Take the Exam More Than Once
For many students, planning to take the exam more than once is a smart move. For example, if you’d like to sit for your final GMAT on October 31st, it would be be wise to schedule one or two real GMAT exams prior to that date. For example, you may schedule a real GMAT on September 1st and on October 1st. By taking one (or two) GMATs prior to the “real deal,” one of two things can happen. First, you may end up earning the score you need earlier than you expected. Great! Reward yourself with a trip to the Italian Riviera (or a night out on the town). Second, if you don’t reach your target score early, you’ll be better positioned the next time you sit for the exam. You’ll have an increased understanding of the test, and you’ll become more comfortable with the testing process.
Get Excited About Taking the GMAT!
Research from Harvard and other universities suggests that students who get excited about taking standardized exams, such as the GMAT, perform better on those tests than students who don’t.
Your state of mind can have a significant impact on your performance. Gain more insight about this profound strategy of getting excited about a stressful situation, which you can use to help increase your GMAT score by simply changing the way you internalize thoughts and emotions.
So — pump yourself up about taking the test. Get excited. Don’t be stressed or anxious. Be bold!
Take Care of Yourself Both Mentally and Physically
It’s hard to thrive when you live a Spartan life of only GMAT study. Though I’m a huge proponent of rolling up the sleeves, making some strong coffee, and working until a task is done, there’s something to be said for balance. It’s difficult to make yourself sit with the Official Guides or with the Target Test Prep Quant Course all day, every day. In fact, for some, such a colorless few months can be downright depressing. Do some yoga. Go for a run. Drink the proper amount of water. Go out and eat some healthy food. Meditate. Go hiking once in awhile. See a movie or two each month. I’m not saying you should turn your GMAT study into Club Med. I’m saying take good care of yourself during this study process.
Start Using the Wet Erase Pen and Laminated Scratch Paper About One Month Before Your Test
Years ago, you could use sheets of plain paper for in-test scratchwork, but now students taking the GMAT need to fit all their scratchwork onto laminated scratch paper using a wet-erase pen. Building the necessary habits required to master this procedure requires some practice. Since you’ll take several practice tests each week during the month before your exam, you’ll have ample time to start using a wet erase pen and laminated paper for scratchwork and to get comfortable with this test-taking tool. Try to develop the right strategy for your needs and to arrive at a good way of using the available space to solve your problems. Working out questions in a neat and organized way on your practice tests will pay off during the exam because you’ll be used to these materials and will know how to best integrate them into your problem-solving steps.
Master Your Test Day Timing
Proper pacing on the GMAT is essential. If you work too quickly, you’ll likely make careless mistakes or not fully solve the problems, falling for the easiest (and most likely incorrect) deductions that can be made. If you work too slowly, you’ll run out of time near the end of a section and have to guess on the final questions, a far from ideal strategy.
Assume you spent 4 minutes on each of the first eight questions. You would then have spent 32 minutes on questions that should have taken about 16 minutes. Now assume that you were spot on with your time for the next 10 questions (2 minutes per question). You would then be at question 19 with 10 minutes remaining (62 minutes – 52 minutes). How will those next 13 questions go? Well, we know that getting a number of questions wrong in a row (say three or four) deteriorates your score significantly.
You’re looking for a Goldilocks timing strategy – not too slow and not too fast. During the test, you can’t set a kitchen timer to keep yourself on track, nor can you worry about your question-by-question timing performance. You need to concentrate on answering questions. One good strategy is to set benchmarks for yourself. When you finish question 5, roughly 10 minutes should have passed. Question 15 should be completed around the 30 minute mark, and so on. If you notice, at any of these benchmark points, that you are running behind, catching up will only require hustling through one or two questions, rather than a large block of 8-10 questions at the end. You also have more opportunity to pick and choose which questions to hustle through, rather than being stuck with what is left. You can make quick guesses on the questions that represent your areas of greatest weakness, thereby leaving yourself adequate time for the questions you know you can ace.
And remember, proper, extensive practice makes perfect. Be sure to use those time benchmarks when you practice full tests or full test sections. The more you practice, the more the timing will become second nature.
Separate GMAT Fact From Fiction
Many myths surround the GMAT. It’s important to know what’s true (or at least what’s supported by reasonable evidence) and what’s clearly false.
For example, many students believe that the first few questions on each section have an inordinately large impact on their scores. As a result, these students over-invest time in these questions at the expense of later problems. The reality is that all questions on the test count, and you should do your best on all of them. It would be unwise to try to game the test by spending extra time on the first ten questions.
Another myth believed by many is that one must answer every question correctly in order to earn a high score. In fact, one can incorrectly answer a reasonable number of questions and still earn a 700+ score. Furthermore, the scoring algorithm heavily depends on the difficulty level of the questions you’re answering. It’s not enough to answer a bunch of easy questions properly; you must also answer a number of hard questions correctly. Remember, to earn a high score on the GMAT, you must perform better than most of your peers. You can use the scoring algorithm to your advantage by over performing on the difficult questions.
Also, many students are worried that if they miss one or two easy questions, they will earn a low score. First, this notion is statistically inaccurate. Think about it this way. Imagine having 36 people in a room who earn $5,000,000 each per year. If one person who earns $500,000 per year enters the room, does the the average salary of all the people drop much? No, it does not drop much at all. The person earning $500,000 a year is referred to as an outlier. An outlier is a value that is far away from the other values. Outliers (a few easy questions missed in an otherwise strong performance) will not have a major effect on your score. An important corollary to this is the reality that the first question can’t make or break your score. However, too often students say that because the first question did not “go well” or because it seemed foreign, they became unhinged and their performance on the rest of the section suffered. Don’t fall into this state of mind!
Here’s one key concept to consider. While taking the GMAT, you should never try to determine how well you’re doing. Besides the fact that you are almost certain to be mistaken, anything that distracts you from the next problem can only be a drag on your performance. Have a short memory, and forget what has already happened in favor of focusing on doing your best going forward. A baseball player who can’t forget his last at-bat has a lot more trouble hitting the pitch coming toward him!
Finally, some students are under the impression that it’s ok to leave a few answers blank at the end of the test. In fact, there is a large penalty for not finishing the test. Be sure that you answer all of the questions on each section, even if the final responses reflect nothing but guesses.
Understand What to Do and What Not to Do in the Week Before the Exam
After all your hard months preparing for the GMAT, it all comes down to test day. It’s important to understand what to expect on test day and what to do in the days leading up to the exam.
I’ve written in more detail about the test day experience, but I’ll summarize some of the most important points.
In the Days Before the Test:
Don’t take practice tests. You’ll want to be well rested.
Eat healthy food.
Get proper exercise.
Taper off your studying and give your brain a rest.
Determine your score cancellation threshold, which is the lowest score you won’t cancel. Remember, if you don’t cancel your score, schools will see it.
Prepare yourself for some ups and downs on test day, but be confident and excited.
Do some light studying and review.
On Test Day:
Eat a healthy breakfast.
Hydrate well, but remember that you will only have a few breaks during the exam.
Listen to some inspirational music — get pumped up. Rocky 4 montage, anyone?
Get to the test center early.
Do a few problems in the car before the exam to get your brain warmed up.
Say some positive affirmations out loud.
During the Test
Manage your time properly — don’t get behind on the clock.
Take each question as it comes — stay focused. Don’t think about anything except the question you’re on.
Never try to determine how well you’re doing.
Remember that you can get a number of questions wrong and still do well.
If you don’t know an answer, make an educated guess and move on.
Don’t worry too much if you have trouble with the first few questions — you have lots of opportunities to improve.
Remember that you’ll see some experimental questions.
You can always get additional laminated scratch paper, so don’t worry if you run out of room.
Take your breaks.
Remember that you can cancel your score and retake the exam in 16 days.
Show the GMAT what you know! Have fun!
Don’t Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself! Plan Ahead
So, it’s November 15, and you just decided that you’d like to submit round two applications for a number of top ten business schools. Furthermore, you have not taken the GMAT yet. How well, on average, can the next few months go? Why do this to yourself? Wouldn’t it be better (and less stressful) to plan ahead and give yourself enough time to prepare for the GMAT properly?
Realize that there is never a better time than the present to begin a project. Get started on the GMAT. Put in a few solid months of studying. If you earn the score you need, awesome! If you need more study time, give yourself the latitude to study into the spring and take the test at a later date.
Don’t Give Up!
Here’s a secret. When smart, hardworking students study hard and study smart yet still don’t reach their goals on the GMAT, it’s typically because they threw in the towel too soon. Consider this scenario.
On July 1, a certain student decides she will sit for the GMAT on September 1. Her goal is a 720. To determine her initial abilities, she takes a practice GMAT test and earns a 500. Subsequently, she studies really hard and really smart all summer. She earns a 660 on her real GMAT, a decent score but well below her target. Frustrated by this score, she tells herself that she’s done everything she can and decides not to retake the GMAT.
Instead, our student could have said to herself, “Look – my score has come up 160 points in a few months. I now know so much more than I did when I began studying. If I can improve this much in only a few months, just think about how much more I can improve if I continue to work for another few months. I can do this!!”
It would be sad for a student in this situation to give up. Don’t tell yourself that you’ve done all you can. Very rarely in life do we ever even come close to doing all we can. Quite often, tasks, especially complex ones, take more time and more energy than we initially expect – get used to it.
This is the best advice I can give you. If you have worked hard for a number of months yet still have not earned the GMAT score you need, keep studying! Many others have found themselves in a similar situation. The ones who haven’t given up but have worked past their seemingly permanent plateaus are the ones who have finally reached the summit. Consolidate what you have learned and then add to that knowledge, and you too can be among them!
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Eliminate Hazardous Attitudes
There are a number of hazardous, self-defeating attitudes that can do nothing but hold back your progress. You should learn to recognize them and do your best to eliminate them.
Below is a summary of some common ways in which students allow themselves to be defeated. Beware — I’m about to dispense some tough love.
See the GMAT as an Opportunity, Not as a Curse
If your plan is to attend a top business school, then you’ll be taking the GMAT (or GRE). You have little choice in the matter. However, you do have a choice about how you view the GMAT and about your attitude in approaching the test. You can spend your days disgruntled over the fact that this thing called the GMAT is standing in the way of your dreams, thus turning your study time into an even greater torture. Conversely, you can look at the GMAT as an opportunity to separate yourself from peers who may be less committed, less devoted, or less prepared. This is also an opportunity to learn things you’ve always known you should have learned in the first place. I suspect that you’ll progress much faster if you take the latter course, treating the GMAT as an opportunity and as a tool for personal and professional advancement. The GMAT is designed to separate people. The more frustrated or angry or upset you become over the GMAT, the less likely your chances of ending up on the favorable side of that separation.
Realize That You Won’t Be Rewarded Just For Putting in the Time
Most of you reading this are likely to be successful business professionals. Some of you may have succeeded by “dressing up, showing up, and putting in the time.” This is not a bad thing. However, don’t expect to earn a 700+ on the GMAT just by showing up and putting in the time. Though putting in the time is certainly necessary, it isn’t enough to guarantee a top score. One needs to work both hard and smart. So, if you’re just putting in the time and letting the information wash over you, months could pass without your getting any closer to your goal. Strive to understand. Flush out your weaknesses and eliminate them. Become the master of your material, and thereby, the captain of your own success. Don’t make the mistake of believing that the passage of time itself guarantees you a higher score.
Don’t Tell Yourself the Story That You are Bad at Standardized Tests
That story will make you defeat yourself before you start. Maybe you didn’t do so well on the SAT or ACT. Maybe you don’t like taking tests. Maybe you’ve bombed a practice GMAT or two. So what? One great thing about life and about living in the United States in general is that people can change the paths they’re on. In other words, past performance does not perfectly predict future performance. You control your own destiny and have the ability to alter your behavior, to work harder, smarter, and better, and to improve your overall performance as a consequence. Don’t accept the past as a barometer of your future! At one point, you weren’t able to walk. You learned. Take a stand! Make it happen!
Training yourself to do well on standardized tests is no different than training yourself to make any type of change: difficult at first, but easier as you gain steam. Instead of defeating yourself ahead of time by telling yourself that you can’t do well, start off correctly by telling yourself that you can do well. Then, tell yourself that you will do well. Then, your job is to take a different approach than you have in the past and force yourself to consciously practice that approach rather than fall back into those old self-defeating habits. This article should be a good starting place in helping you do things differently.
Don’t Tell Yourself the Story that Others Are Acing the GMAT Quickly and Easily
It’s easy to begin feeling that the process is taking longer than it “should.” It’s also easy to begin feeling that your peers are earning great scores effortlessly. In fact, they are working hard at improving, and there is no “should” about the length of time it takes to prepare. It’s easy to assume that others are having an easy time with the GMAT since you don’t see their paths to action. In other words, you don’t see their late nights of studying. You don’t see their Saturdays spent taking practice tests. You don’t see the dozens of hours they spend with private tutors. You don’t see that they took the GMAT three times before they finally earned their scores. You don’t get to see any of the hard work and elbow grease that went into the final product.
It’s easy to look at someone’s final product and assume that no effort was expended in producing it. Also, sometimes people try to make the process look easy. Think about watching Tiger Woods play golf. Does it look hard? No – he makes it look as if he never breaks a sweat. However, Tiger has spent probably 20,000 hours practicing in order to make it look easy.
I’ve Done Great Things in Both My Personal and Professional Life, so the GMAT Shouldn’t Matter Much
Your personal and professional achievements will serve you well; there is no question about it. Don’t ever let anyone discount what you have done. Be proud of your hard work and your accomplishments. Continue doing great things. Find your passions and pursue them. However, please also be savvy enough to view the strength of your candidacy dispassionately and honestly. Take a look at the students at HBS or Wharton, or Booth, or Stanford. See anyone who has not done seriously impressive stuff with her life? I didn’t think so. Although your accomplishments may be considerable, the accomplishments of your competition are also likely to be great. And, at the end of the day, if you’d like human eyes to actually read your application and take notice of all the great things you’ve done, a strong GMAT score will certainly help.
Some Helpful Performance Coaching Tips
Believe You Can Do It, and Say You Can Do it
Do not talk yourself out of a great GMAT score. Instead, talk yourself into a great GMAT score! Remember, your thoughts become your words, and your words become your actions. Believe in yourself!!
Embrace Your Individuality
You have a number of things that make you special. Embrace them. Maybe you like studying at 3am while listening to punk rock. Maybe you learn math very quickly but struggle with reading comp. Maybe you are super hardworking. Discover what makes you different from your peers and use these differences to your advantage.
Forget About What Others Think
One of the easiest ways to fail is to worry about what others think of you and then change your study habits because of that apprehension. Try your best to be the best person you can be. Strive to climb the highest peaks. Strive to find your passions. Strive to make a difference. However, forget about the impression on others that your efforts may make. You’re studying for the GMAT on Friday nights – so what? You’ve already taken the test twice and are sitting for it again – so what? You goal is HBS or bust – so what? You’re an obsessed perfectionist what it comes to learning quant – so what? Just let your light shine and forget about what others think or say.
Get Rid of Negative People
When studying for the GMAT, one of the best things you can have is a positive network of people who are supporting and encouraging you. If your friends are urging you not to spend an extra hour mastering sentence structure, ignore them. Stay close to people who understand how important it is that you meet your goals, not to those clueless folks who can’t see into you and don’t have your best interests at heart.
Be Optimistic, Not Pessimistic
You can do this! As with many activities in life, attitude has a big role to play in success. When you are optimistic about something, you are more open to it and more likely to absorb it and take advantage. Attitude also plays a big role in your well-being during your months of study.If you’re inwardly, or outwardly, grumbling each time you sit down to study, you’re likely to be less focused, and you’re definitely going to be unhappy. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your GMAT study materials; don’t poison that time with unnecessary misery!
Don’t Unnecessarily Criticize Yourself – Don’t be Overly Judgmental About Yourself
We all experience bad days. We all encounter problems that are tough to solve. It’s important not to magnify the bad while discounting the good. Try to look at your progress objectively. If you’ve made significant progress over the last few months, it’s important not to criticize yourself over one unproductive day. Instead, take a step back and look at the big picture. Look at how you’re trending over time. Be fair and kind to yourself.
Be Inquisitive and Curious
I’ll be the first to admit that some GMAT issues are difficult to master. However, I’ve found that the students who develop a genuine interest in learning the material are the ones who, in general, perform the best on the GMAT. If you really care about what you are learning and if you become inquisitive about the content, you just may begin to see the elegance that exists within the GMAT, and you may just earn that higher score that sets you on a path for higher personal and professional prosperity.
I’m sorry for making you read such a long article. I have much more insight to share, and I could have continued writing, but to spare your sanity, I didn’t. I genuinely hope this article helps you to earn an impressive GMAT score. If you have further questions or need advice or just need someone to bounce ideas off, I’d be more than pleased to help you. You can email me at:
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