You already know how to learn—you’ve been learning all your life. The problem is that the way you learn best for school is often not the best way to learn for the GMAT.
At the first level, you’re learning all of the “basics” (note that I do not mean “easy” when I say “basics”): the facts, the rules, the question types and how they work. That first level is necessary but it will only get you so far. As you progress through this material, you’ll need to start adding in a second level of understanding—and most people don’t make this leap.
Before we start, if you haven’t yet read What the GMAT Really Tests, go do so.
Why do I need a “Second Level” of learning?
When was the last time you read a GMAT problem and had no idea where to start? When was the last time you did a GMAT problem, checked the solution, and thought, “What? I didn’t even know they were talking about that!”
Notice that I didn’t ask whether you’ve experienced these things. We all have, even those of us who score in the 99th percentile. It’s just a matter of time until we hit a question like this. Your goal is to maximize the amount of time until it happens again. : )
Okay, so what IS the “Second Level”?
This second level of study involves learning how the GMAT test writers put questions together, including the right and wrong answers. You can learn how to take the test by analyzing the way these questions are put together.
When you do this, you learn to recognize what the test writers are trying to obscure—because you’ve seen something similar in the past. You learn to speak their language, essentially. The more parts of new problems you can recognize, the better you’ll do on this test. Those of us who score in the 99th percentile don’t do so because we have some magic ability to figure everything out in three seconds. Rather, we’ve taught ourselves to recognize various bits of GMAT language, so that we have a huge advantage on most new questions.
Think about that the last time you were reading a new question and a “light bulb” went off in your head because you knew what to do. That was recognition!
Your goal is to learn to recognize as much as you can, so that you have as many “light bulb” moments as possible on test day.
How do I Learn to Recognize?
You already know how to do this to some extent; you’re just not aware of it. You’ve learned that when you see a plus sign (+), you should add. You’ve learned that when you see a subject in a sentence, you should anticipate a verb. You’re already recognizing common language and math patterns; you just need to take it to another level for the GMAT.
Go pull out an OG problem that you’ve done recently. Choose one that was neither super easy for you nor super hard. (Notice that I don’t mention whether you should choose one that you got right or wrong—you should do this exercise with every single problem, regardless of whether you got it right!)
Next, ask yourself the questions listed in this How to Analyze a Practice Problem article. It’s often easier to find shortcuts or figure out how to make a guess on problems that you understood. If you answered it correctly, ask yourself where you can imagine someone falling into a trap. How was the problem set up to try to get people off track?
On verbal, every hard problem has at least one tempting wrong answer choice—a choice that actually looks / sounds / feels better than the right answer! Learn how to distinguish these. How would someone justify choosing that tempting wrong answer and crossing off the right answer? You’ll be teaching yourself how to spot—and therefore avoid!—the traps.
Know The Code
While you’re analyzing, keep a stack of flashcards with you. On one side, write “When I see…” and on the other, write “I’ll think / do…”
Whenever you see something that causes you to think, “Oh, that’s what they were saying?” or “That’s what I should have done?” or even just “Wow, I never would have thought of that,” pull out a flashcard.
Go back to the original problem text and ask yourself which pieces were the clues. How should you have known that they were really asking for XYZ or that ABC would be a good approach? How can you know in future? Then start making a flashcard.
Do not write the entire problem on the flashcard. You won’t see that same problem on the test. You have to figure out what it is about the wording or construction of the problem that would still pop up on a different (but similar) future problem.
What we’re doing here is decoding problems; you’re learning how to translate GMAT-speak into normal language, or how to Know the Code. Here’s an example of how to decode a quant problem.
Applying Your Analysis
Next, based on what you’ve figured out by analyzing this one problem, ask yourself what activities will help you to get even better.
- For content and timing issues (facts or solution processes), go back into your books and review the relevant material. If needed, make flashcards to help remember anything (including any GMAT “codes”).
- Seek out alternate solutions from instructors and fellow students. The forums are a great place to look, as are programs specifically designed for this (such as MGMAT’s OG Archer). In particular, alternate solutions may give you a more efficient way to do the problem.
- For process issues, drill! If you messed up that negative exponent, go find a set of exponent drills that will help you practice. If you mistakenly thought that a Strengthen question was actually an Inference question, first study how to tell the difference, then go look only at the question stems of 5 or 10 questions and see whether you can now reliably distinguish between these two types.
- For careless mistakes, figure out why you made the mistake and come up with a new habit to implement that will minimize the chances of repeating that kind of mistake.
- Figure out both how and when to guess. Don’t just think about this when you know you have no idea how to do the problem. What if you were behind on time, so you had to guess on this one? How would you do it? If you’re having the “but I should know how to do this” feeling, at what point should you cut yourself off?
This is taking forever / I’m not doing enough problems
Your goal is not to get through 1,000 problems. Your goal is to learn as much as possible from the problems that you do tackle.
All of this analysis takes time. You could easily spend 10, 20, even 30 minutes reviewing a single problem (which includes going back through books, making flashcards, seeking out alternate solutions, and so on).
Spend the time. This is actually how you learn to get a great score on the GMAT!
Putting It All Together
When you’re done with a problem, look at everything and ask yourself, “If I see something similar in future, how will I recognize what I need to do?” Look at your Know The Code flashcards again. Do you need to add or change anything? Then move on to the next problem.
Every few days, do a mixed set of OG questions, including some from topics you’ve studied recently but selecting others randomly. When you’re done, guess what? You’ve got a new set of questions to analyze.
Analyze every problem you do. Otherwise, you wasted your time doing that problem in the first place.
One last note: your Know The Code work will help you to know when you really don’t know how to do something. If something totally foreign pops up while the clock is ticking, guess and move on. Afterwards, you can go back and try to add this one to your repertoire; don’t bother trying to figure it out while the clock is ticking.
Go try out this Second Level of learning and let me know what you think. Happy studying!