Studying for – and struggling with – the GMAT

Stacey Koprince —  December 20, 2011 — 5 Comments

Have you been studying for a while now but having trouble getting to your goal score or making the kind of improvement that you want to make? If you’re getting frustrated with your progress (or lack thereof), let’s try to figure out what’s going on. It’s entirely possible that you have some problems of which you’re unaware, or that you’re studying in an inefficient or ineffective way.

There are a number of additional articles linked in this article. If you read something that applies to your situation, click on all the links you see in that section. Also, ask for advice! There are so many resources out there that it can be overwhelming, but most companies offer free advice and you can also benefit from talking to fellow students. (We offer free advice on our forums.)

Time Management

Almost everyone has timing problems (unless you’ve already explicitly fixed them), so don’t gloss over this section. I talk to students every day who tell me their timing is fine and then I ask a few questions or we look at their tests, and timing is a problem. I’m actually surprised on the rare occasions when I talk to someone who truly doesn’t have any timing problems.

In fact, if you’ve been studying for a while and know that you’re learning things but your score doesn’t seem to be changing much, then you almost certainly have a timing problem. Another common sign: your practice test scores seem to be all over the map and you feel like you don’t have any consistency. That’s almost always due, at least partially, to a timing problem.

Most people seem to think that, if they finish each section on time or ahead of time, then time management is not a problem. Let me make this very clear: you can finish the section on time and still have severe timing problems. The single most common issue is spending too much time on really hard questions (which you then mostly get wrong anyway because they’re hard!) and then rushing on easier ones to make up the time, resulting in careless mistakes on questions that you did know how to do.

Before you do anything, read this short article: In It To Win It.

Next, analyze your most recent practice test to see whether you have any timing problems and, if so, what they are. Then read this time management article and start doing what it says. (Note: read that time management article even if you don’t have timing problems; there’s still a lot of good information in there that everyone needs to know.

One major source of timing problems is what I call the mindset problem. Many people try to approach this test the same way they approached tests in school: they try to get everything right. I’m going to set this next sentence apart because it’s so important:

If you try to get everything right, you will not get the best score that you could get on the GMAT.

That sounds really bizarre, doesn’t it? How could it be that trying to get things right will hurt us? Read the understand how the scoring works section of the time management article (linked above). If you want more detail, read the Scoring section of Manhattan GMAT’s free e-book The GMAT Uncovered Guide. If you have an account with us (even a free account), the Guide is already sitting in the Downloads section of your Student Center. (Note: it’s in the Downloads section as of the date of publication of this article; it could move over time.)

Content

You may also, of course, have content problems “ maybe modifiers are driving you crazy, or combinatorics. What should you do about these kinds of problems?

First, recognize that not all content areas have equal value. Some areas are more commonly tested than others, and those areas are obviously worth more of your study time and attention. For example, modifiers are one of the most commonly tested grammar areas, so if you’re struggling with this topic, you need to find a way to get better. Combinatorics, on the other hand, is not tested very frequently “ most people will see either zero or one combinatorics question on the GMAT. So if you’re struggling with this topic, good news! Forget about it. If you’re going for a 700+, study enough that you can get an easier combinatorics question right, but assume that you’re going to get a harder combinatorics question wrong “ if you’re even offered one. (This is true even if you’re going for a 99th percentile score. Combinatorics is my least-favorite area of quant and I struggle with the harder ones, but I’ve still scored in the 99th percentile multiple times on the test.)

How do you know which areas are more or less commonly tested? I’ll give you some ideas here, but this does change over time, so it’s important to do fresh research whenever you read this. (This kind of question is a great one to ask on the forums by the way. Not sure how best to use the forums?Read this!)

On quant in general, algebra and number properties are more commonly tested and geometry is not as commonly tested. Statistics, fractions, percents, and general word problems are more commonly tested, while probability, combinatorics, sets, and digits are less commonly tested.

For sentence correction, modifiers, parallelism, and meaning are quite commonly tested, especially as scores go up. Next we’ve got subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and idioms.

Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension aren’t testing actual facts or rules that you need to know in advance. Here, you might be struggling instead with the kind of reasoning you’re expected to do in order to work your way through a particular type of problem. Figure out which specific sub-types in these two categories are giving you the most trouble, and then seek out resources that clearly define and delineate how to recognize and address the different sub-types.

Here are some basic strategies for various major question types, just to get you started:

How to work through a Sentence Correction problem
How to tackle any Critical Reasoning problem
How to read a Reading Comp passage
Disguising and decoding quant problems
Rephrasing Data Sufficiency questions
Writing the GMAT essays

How to Study

Quality of study is more important than quantity. Many people do huge quantities of problems over and over, but we’re not going to memorize all these problems. If that’s what you’ve been doing and you’re struggling or taking forever, stop now! Change your approach and your mindset (Read the In It To Win It and Time Management articles for more on mindset).

What we want to do instead is use the current practice problems to help us learn how to think our way through future new problems. After all, whatever problems we do study, we’re never going to see those problems on the test. But if we can use those problems to learn how to think our way through GMAT problems in general, then we can answer many of the problems we’ll see on the test (and we’ll also know, from our mindset studies above, that there will still be plenty we can’t do, and we’ll guess and move on when needed.)

You learn to do that by analyzing, in great depth, the practice problems that you’re doing. This takes time, so you can’t do 100 practice problems a day. I don’t want my students to do more than 10 to 20 a day (except on practice test days), but they’re going to take several hours to do and then review these problems.

After reading the first overall analysis article linked above, you may want to see how this process works on real practice questions. If so, take a look at these five articles (one for each main question type):

Sentence Correction
Critical Reasoning
Reading Comprehension
Problem Solving
Data Sufficiency

Super-High Score Goal

What if you’re going for a super-high score (730+) and find that you’re stagnating “ you’ve hit 700 but can’t get far past that mark? First, acknowledge that these scores are rare for a reason; by definition, only a very small percentage of test-takers will ever get to those levels. Second, recognize that there aren’t many schools or situations in which a 700 would lead to a rejection. The top schools do reject plenty of 700 scorers, but for reasons other than the score. (The GMAT is designed to help the schools determine whether you can handle the work. If you hit a 700, you can handle the work just as well as someone else who hits a 730.)

Third, if you really are determined to push into the stratosphere, learn the differences between a 700-scorer and a 760-scorer. There are certain skills and certain habits that a super-high scorer has and you’ll need to learn how to develop them.

My Score Dropped!

Have you experienced a big score drop (more than 70 points) on a recent practice test or an official exam? If so, I know you’re disappointed, but you’re not alone. Lots of people have this happen. Your task now is to figure out what went wrong. If you do, then you can take steps to get back to the pre-drop level.

The worst case scenario is that your higher scores were artificially inflated (maybe you regularly skipped the essays and gave yourself half-hour breaks, or you took your tests untimed). If this is what happened, the bad news is that your score drop probably represents your true scoring level “ but at least you do know that now and can take appropriate action.

Key Takeaways for Studying and Struggling:

(1) If you have a timing problem, fix it. You probably have a timing problem; almost everyone does. : ) Yours may be more mild or more severe, but figure out what it is and get some help to try to fix it.

(2) All content areas are not equally important. Do try to improve your weaknesses, but make sure that you’re also spending more time on the things that you’re more likely to see on test day. Spending several days or buying an entire book just on combinatorics (or any other infrequent topic) is a waste of time!

(3) Make sure you’re studying in an efficient and effective way. You don’t want to have to take a year to hit your goal (or maybe never get there, if your study is ineffective!).

Stacey Koprince

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Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She also co-manages the company's GMAT curriculum and product line. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

5 responses to Studying for – and struggling with – the GMAT

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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