Archives For Stacey Koprince

c-trapHave you heard of the C-Trap? I’m not going to tell you what it is yet. Try this problem from GMATPrep® first and see whether you can avoid it

* “In a certain year, the difference between Mary’s and Jim’s annual salaries was twice the difference between Mary’s and Kate’s annual salaries. If Mary’s annual salary was the highest of the 3 people, what was the average (arithmetic mean) annual salary of the 3 people that year?

“(1) Jim’s annual salary was $30,000 that year.

“(2) Kate’s annual salary was $40,000 that year.”

I’m going to do something I normally never do at this point in an article: I’m going to tell you the correct answer. I’m not going to type the letter, though, so that your eye won’t inadvertently catch it while you’re still working on the problem. The correct answer is the second of the five data sufficiency answer choices.

How did you do? Did you pick that one? Or did you pick the trap answer, the third one?

Here’s where the C-Trap gets its name: on some questions, using the two statements together will be sufficient to answer the question. The trap is that using just one statement alone will also get you there—so you can’t pick answer (C), which says that neither statement alone works.

In the trickiest C-Traps, the two statements look almost the same (as they do in this problem), and the first one doesn’t work. You’re predisposed, then, to assume that the second statement, which seemingly supplies the “same” kind of information, also won’t work. Therefore, you don’t vet the second statement thoroughly enough before dismissing it—and you’ve just fallen into the trap.

How can you dig yourself out? First of all, just because two statements look similar, don’t assume that they either both work or both don’t. The test writers are really good at setting traps, so assume nothing.

Second, imagine that you’re teaching your 10-year-old niece how to do algebra. She’s never done this before but she’s pretty bright. She understands your explanation of what variables are and how they work. She knows that, if you give her an equation with 3 variables, and then give her values for 2 of those variables, she’ll be able to solve for the third one. What answer is she going to pick on the above problem?

Hmm. She’d pick (C) also, since that gives her values for two of the three variables in the equation that she can write from the question stem.

It’s obvious, in fact, that using the two statements together will allow you to find all three salaries, in which case you can average them. In the test-prep world, this is what’s known as a Too Good To Be True answer. If your 10-year-old niece, who just learned algebra, could get to the same answer, then chances are you’re falling into a trap. Stop, take a deep breath, and scrutinize those statements individually!

Here’s how to solve the problem.

Step 1: Glance Read Jot

Take a quick glance; what have you got? DS. Story problem: understand the story before writing.

The question asks for the average of the three salaries. What do you actually need to know in order to find an average? Right, the sum. So can you find the sum of the three salaries?

Jot that on your scrap paper: M + J + K = ?

Step 2: Reflect Organize

The first sentence provides an equation, so translate it. (Note that the second sentence says Mary’s salary is the highest.)

The positive difference between Mary’s and Jim’s salaries has to be MJ, since M is larger. Likewise, the positive difference between Mary’s and Kate’s salaries has to be MK, since M is larger.

Here’s the translated formula:

MJ = 2(MK)

Step 3: Work

By itself, that doesn’t look very helpful, but anytime DS gives you a formula that isn’t simplified, simplify it. Multiply out the right-hand side and also get “like” variables together:

MJ = 2(MK)

MJ = 2M – 2K

- J = M – 2K

Notice two things: first, negatives are annoying. Second, this formula (so far) doesn’t look anything like the question: M + J + K = ?

Is there any way to remedy those two things?

Move the –J over: 0 = M – 2K + J.

Notice that 2K is never going to fit the question, which has only K. Move that away from the others: 2K = M + J.

Interesting. The right-hand side now matches part of the question. In fact, you could substitute:

M + J + K = ?

2K = M + J

Therefore, the question becomes 2K + K = ?

If you know what K is—only K!— then you can solve. (Note: we call this process Rephrasing. Use the information given in the question stem to rephrase the question in a more simplified form.)

“(1) Jim’s annual salary was $30,000 that year.”

J = 30,000. If you plug that into M + J + K = ?, it isn’t sufficient. If you plug that into 2K = M + J, you get 2K = M + 30,000, which still isn’t sufficient. Knowing only J doesn’t get you very far. This statement is not sufficient; eliminate answers (A) and (D).

“(2) Kate’s annual salary was $40,000 that year.”

Bingo! If you know Kate’s salary, then you know the sum of all three. This statement is sufficient to answer the question.

The correct answer is (B).

If you don’t rephrase up front, and instead go through all of the work of plugging in the values for statements (1) and (2), then you may still discover the correct answer. You’ll take longer, though. You may also fall into the trap of assuming that statement (2) won’t work because it looks so very similar to statement (1) and that one didn’t work.

Key Takeaways: Data Sufficiency

(1) Don’t just write down the information in the question stem, shrug, and go straight to the statements. Push yourself to try to rephrase the question before you go to the statements.

(2) Use standard math steps and your test-taker savvy to help you know how to simplify. It’s standard algebra to try to get “like” variables together in equations. A negative sticking out in front of an equation is ugly, so that was clue #2. Finally, you’re ultimately trying to match the information in the question (M + J + K = ?), so try to rearrange your rephrased equation to match the question as much as possible. Then see whether you can substitute in to make that question simpler!

(3) Keep an eye out for Too Good to Be True answers. If an answer seems pretty obvious, then there’s a good chance you’re falling into a trap!

* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.


Navigator-gmatRecently, we talked about how to create Official Guide (OG) problem sets in order to practice for the test. I have one more component to add: track your work and analyze your results to help you prioritize your studies.

In the first half of this article, we talked about making problem sets from the roughly 1,500 problems that can be found in the three main OG books. These problems are generally regarded as the gold standard for GMAT study, but how do you keep track of your progress across so many different problems?

The best tool out there (okay, I’m biased) is our GMAT Navigator program, though you can also build your own tracking tool in Excel, if you prefer. I’ll talk about how to get the most out of Navigator, but I’ll also address what to include if you decide to build your own Excel tracker.

(Note: GMAT Navigator used to be called OG Archer. If you used OG Archer in the past, Navigator brings you all of that same functionality—it just has a new name.)

What is GMAT Navigator?

Navigator contains entries for every one of the problems in the OG13, Quant Supplement, and Verbal Supplement books. In fact, you can even look up problems from OG12. You can time yourself while you answer the question, input your answer, review written and video solutions, get statistics based on your performance, and more.

Everyone can access a free version of Navigator. Students in our courses or guided-self study programs have access to the full version of the program, which includes explanations for hundreds of the problems.

How Does Navigator Work?

First, have your OG books handy. The one thing the program does not contain is the full text of problems. (Copyright rules prevent this, unfortunately.)

When you sign on to Navigator, you’ll be presented with a quick tutorial showing you what’s included in the program and how to use it. Take about 10 minutes to browse through the instructions and get oriented.

When you reach the main page, your first task is to decide whether you want to be in Browse mode or Practice mode.

Practice mode is the default mode; you’ll spend most of your time in this mode. You’ll see an entry for the problem along with various tools (more on this below).

Browse mode will immediately show you the correct answer and the explanation. You might use this mode after finishing a set of questions, when you want to browse through the answers. Don’t reveal the answers and explanations before you’ve tried the problem yourself!

Here’s what you can do in Practice mode:

—Start the timer, work on the problem, then input your answer (at which point the timer will stop). The program will automatically save the time spent for that problem, as well as your answer. (If you did the problem off-line, you can also manually enter the time spent.)

—Flag the question as a guess. This is especially helpful when you’re doing a set of problems and want to review your guesses more carefully afterwards.

—Tag the question for re-do. You have three options: Yes, No, and Maybe. Later, you can sort your problem list to look at all of the ones you’ve tagged Yes, for example.

After you’ve submitted an answer, take a look at the explanation (if you have access). There are written explanations for every OG13 and OG12 quant problem, as well as every OG13 sentence correction problem. There are also more than 300 video explanations across all problem types—DS, PS, RC, CR, and SC—from OG13.

If you make your own Tracker, you’ll need a row for every problem in whatever books you’re going to use. You should be able to label the source book, question type, and problem number. You’ll also want to include columns for time spent, whether you answered the problem correctly, whether it was a guess, and whether you want to mark it for later review.

Analyze Your Stats

As you use Navigator, it will keep track of all of your statistics: the time you spend on each problem, whether you answered it correctly or incorrectly, and so on. If you use your own Tracker, make sure to record these statistics.

Review Your Answers
Within Navigator, the Review Your Answers button will show you a list of all of the problems you’ve completed in the system. You can sort by the basics (book, question number, topic) and you can also sort by other interesting metrics, such as whether you got the question right, how much time you spent, whether you flagged it as a Guess or Do Again problem, and even how hard the problem is. (We’ve tagged all of the problems with one of four difficulty levels based on how our students have collectively done on that problem.)

If you make your own Tracker, use Excel so that you can sort the data by any column. You won’t get the difficulty data, but you can track everything else yourself.

The Statistics button will take you to a new window that summarizes your stats across all of the major topic areas and question types (using the same categories we use in our books). You can choose to display the data on a graph or in a table.

The graph feature is particularly neat. You can click on any of the boxes or circles in the graph to dive down into that data set, all the way down to the individual problems.

You can use this data to discover, for example, that you tend to spend too much time on Rates & Work problems on the whole. Your stats might tell you that, while Number Properties problems are okay overall, you’re really good at Odd, Even, Positive, and Negative, but you’re struggling with Divisibility and Prime.

All of these categories correspond to specific chapters in our books, so you can use the data to help you know what topics you need to review. (And the books themselves list OG problems by content area, so once you’re done reviewing, you can pick out a couple of new problems to try.)


You may discover that you have timing problems—most people do, in fact. I linked to two important articles in the first half of this series. Make sure to read both of those articles first. Then, learn all about Time Management for the GMAT.

If you are still struggling to cut yourself off (and we all struggle with this at least a little bit!), take a look at the But I Studied This! article and learn how to cut yourself off.

Final Words

You’re going to feel like you’re drowning in information while you’re studying for the GMAT. Make your life at least somewhat easier by tracking what you do. Your analysis of those stats will help you to prioritize your study, so that you don’t find yourself spending 3 hours on a topic that’s already a strength for you (or, worse, not having any idea what to do next because you’re not sure what your weaknesses are).

Finally, we’re always looking for good ideas about features to add to Navigator. If you have any bright ideas, please share with us in the Comments section!

data-sufficiencySome Data Sufficiency questions present you with scenarios: stories that could play out in various complicated ways, depending on the statements. How do you get through these with a minimum of time and fuss?

Try the below problem. (Copyright: me! I was inspired by an OG problem; I’ll tell you which one at the end.)

* “During a week-long sale at a car dealership, the most number of cars sold on  any one day was 12. If at least 2 cars were sold each day, was the average daily number of cars sold during that week more than 6?

“(1) During that week, the second smallest number of cars sold on any one day was 4.

“(2) During that week, the median number of cars sold was 10.”

First, do you see why I described this as a “scenario” problem? All these different days… and some number of cars sold each day… and then they (I!) toss in average and median… and to top it all off, the problem asks for a range (more than 6). Sigh.

Okay, what do we do with this thing?

Because it’s Data Sufficiency, start by establishing the givens. Because it’s a scenario, Draw It Out.

Let’s see. The “highest” day was 12, but it doesn’t say which day of the week that was. So how can you draw this out?

Neither statement provides information about a specific day of the week, either. Rather, they provide information about the least number of sales and the median number of sales.

The use of median is interesting. How do you normally organize numbers when you’re dealing with median?

Bingo! Try organizing the number of sales from smallest to largest. Draw out 7 slots (one for each day) and add the information given in the question stem:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.37.53 PM

Now, what about that question? It asks not for the average, but whether the average number of daily sales for the week is more than 6. Does that give you any ideas for an approach to take?

Because it’s a yes/no question, you want to try to “prove” both yes and no for each statement. If you can show that a statement will give you both a yes and a no, then you know that statement is not sufficient. Try this out with statement 1

(1) During that week, the least number of cars sold on any one day was 4.

Draw out a version of the scenario that includes statement (1):

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.38.22 PM

Can you find a way to make the average less than 6? Keep the first day at 2 and make the other days as small as possible:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.38.58 PM

The sum of the numbers is 34. The average is 34 / 7 = a little smaller than 5.

Can you also make the average greater than 6? Try making all the numbers as big as possible:

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.39.24 PM

(Note: if you’re not sure whether the smallest day could be 4—the wording is a little weird—err on the cautious side and make it 3.)

You may be able to eyeball that and tell it will be greater than 6. If not, calculate: the sum is 67, so the average is just under 10.

Statement (1) is not sufficient because the average might be greater than or less than 6. Cross off answers (A) and (D).

Now, move to statement (2):

(2) During that week, the median number of cars sold was 10.

Again, draw out the scenario (using only the second statement this time!).

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.39.59 PM

Can you make the average less than 6? Test the smallest numbers you can. The three lowest days could each be 2. Then, the next three days could each be 10.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.40.21 PM

The sum is 6 + 30 + 12 = 48. The average is 48 / 7 = just under 7, but bigger than 6. The numbers cannot be made any smaller—you have to have a minimum of 2 a day. Once you hit the median of 10 in the middle slot, you have to have something greater than or equal to the median for the remaining slots to the right.

The smallest possible average is still bigger than 6, so this statement is sufficient to answer the question. The correct answer is (B).

Oh, and the OG question is DS #121 from OG13. If you think you’ve got the concept, test yourself on the OG problem.


Key Takeaway: Draw Out Scenarios

(1) Sometimes, these scenarios are so elaborate that people are paralyzed. Pretend your boss just asked you to figure this out. What would you do? You’d just start drawing out possibilities till you figured it out.

(2) On Yes/No DS questions, try to get a Yes answer and a No answer. As soon as you do that, you can label the statement Not Sufficient and move on.

(3) After a while, you might have to go back to your boss and say, “Sorry, I can’t figure this out.” (Translation: you might have to give up and guess.) There isn’t a fantastic way to guess on this one, though I probably wouldn’t guess (E). The statements don’t look obviously helpful at first glance… which means probably at least one of them is!


DropScoreI’m reviving an old article I first wrote five years ago (time flies!) because the topic is so important. I hope that no one ever again experiences a significant score drop on the real test (or even a practice one!), but the reality is that this does happen. The big question: now what?

If this happens to you, the most important thing to do next is figure out why this happened. If you can figure out why, then you may be able to do something to prevent a score drop from happening again.


1: Official Test Conditions

Did you take your practice tests under official test conditions? Did you:

  • Do the essay and IR sections?
  • Take only two 8-minute breaks (the first between IR and quant, the second between quant and verbal)?
  • Complete the test in one sitting (e.g., you didn’t do the verbal section later that evening or the next day)?
  • Pause the test, look at books or notes, eat and drink during the test, or do anything else that wouldn’t be allowed on test day

If you did not take your practice tests under official testing conditions, then your practice scores were likely inflated—possibly just a little or possibly a lot, depending upon how far you were from official test conditions. If your practice test scores were inflated, then the bad news is that your scoring level wasn’t as good as you thought it was. In other words, your official test didn’t represent as much of a drop as you first thought (and, possibly, the official test didn’t represent any drop at all).

While this is not great news, it is crucial to know, because it tells you what the problem is. You need to figure out in which areas you’re falling short and do what you need to do (math, grammar, time management, problem-solving skills) in order to improve. (And don’t forget to take tests under official conditions in future, so that you get a true picture of your current scoring level.)

2: Timing

Mismanaged timing might be the most common cause of big score drops on the test. If your scores keep jumping up and down on practice tests and you’re not sure why, your timing may be the culprit.

Timing is so crucial because of certain consequences that can kill your score. You tend to make more careless mistakes when you’re rushing. You may get multiple questions wrong in a row. You may run out of time entirely before the section is over. All of these things will have a negative impact on your score.

There are two major categories for mismanaged timing: too slow and too fast. These two categories lead to three common scenarios:

  1. Run out of time before the section is over
  2. Finish the section with lots of time left
  3. Finish just on time—but a review of the timing patterns shows that you spent too long on some, then rushed on others to catch up. (We call this “up and down timing.”)

The vast majority of students who mismanage time badly enough to experience a big score drop will do so by going too slowly at some point on the test and, consequently, either running out of time with questions left or being forced to move too quickly at other points, thereby increasing the error rate.
Continue Reading…

gmat-integrated-reasoningYour performance on Integrated Reasoning (IR) can affect the part of the test you really care about: the Quant and the Verbal. Follow the below 3 Keys to Success and you’ll be sitting pretty on test day.

Key #1: Minimize Brain Power Expended

Too many students have made this mistake already: they don’t study (or barely study) for IR, then kill their mental stamina during this section. When quant and verbal roll around, they’re mentally exhausted and what was already a hard test becomes impossible.

Your IR score does not directly impact your Quant and Verbal scores, but you’ll always have to do the IR section before you get to quant and verbal. In order to avoid an adverse outcome, you want to make sure that you can get a “good enough” score on IR without doing too much.

What’s a good-enough score? As of March 2014, the general consensus is to aim for a 4 or higher on IR; if you’re planning to apply to a top-10 school, aim for a 5 or higher. (The top score on IR is an 8.)

NOTE to future readers! The advice in the previous paragraph will likely change over time, so if you are reading this a year or two from now, check our blog for more recent advice.

Do not put your IR study off until the last minute. At least 6 weeks before the test, start to learn about the four types of IR problems: Multi-Source Reasoning (MSR), Table Analysis, Graphical Interpretation, and Two-Part Analysis.


(1) the strategies needed to answer each question type

(2) the one or two question types you like the least

I’ll recommend one of our own products to help you with this: our IR Interact lessons. You’ll learn everything you need to know via a very engaging series of interactive videos, and best of all, it’s completely free (as I’m writing this right now—no promises for future!).

Key #2: Know When to Guess

Next, do you generally like quant or verbal better? How do you feel about fractions, percents, and statistics, the math topics the most commonly tested on IR? Do you like those topics more or less than you like critical reasoning problems? Do you like pulling data from tables and manipulating it to conclude something? Interpreting graphical information? Or do you prefer synthesizing material from two or three primarily text-based sources?

Decide what topics you like least and combine that information with the one or two question types you like least. For instance, let’s say that you dislike fraction and percent topics the most. You also hate graphs and you aren’t too thrilled about tables either.

Continue Reading…

gmat-problem-setsYou’ve heard a million times that you’re supposed to create Official Guide (OG) problem sets in order to practice for the test. But how do you actually do so in a way that will help you get the most out of your study?

Fear not! This article is coming to your rescue.

Initially, when you’re studying a new topic or problem type, you won’t do sets of problems; instead, you’ll just try one problem at a time. As you gain experience, though, you’re going to want to do 3 problems in a row, or 5, or 10.


Because the real test will never give you just one problem!

The GMAT will give you many questions in a row and they’ll be all jumbled up—an SC, then a couple of CRs, then back to another SC (that tests different grammar rules than the first one), and so on.

You want to practice two things:

(1) Jumping around among question types and topics

(2) Managing your timing and mental energy among a group of questions

When do I start doing problem sets?

You’re going to use problem sets to test your skills, so you’ve got to develop some of those skills first. If you’re using our Strategy Guides to study, then at the end of one chapter, you’ll do only two or three OG problems to make sure that you understood the material in the chapter.

Later, though, when you finish the Guide, do a set of problems that mix topics (and question types) from that entire book. Make sure you can distinguish between the similar-but-not-quite-the-same topics in that book, and also practice your skills on both problem solving and data sufficiency. As you finish subsequent Guides, your sets can include problems from everything you’ve done so far. Keep mixing it up!

How do I make the sets?

You’ll need to balance three things when you create a problem set:

(1) Number of problems. Initially, start out with about 3 to 5 problems. As you gain experience and add topics, you’ll increase the size of the sets—we’ll talk more about this a little later.

(2) Type of problem and content.
(a) For quant, always do a mix of Problem Solving (PS) and Data Sufficiency (DS). For verbal, mix at least two of the three types; you can include all three types in larger sets.
(b) Do not do a set of 3 or more questions all from the same chapter or content area—for example, don’t do 3 exponents questions in a row. You know exactly what you’re about to get and the real test will never be this nice to you.

(3) Difficulty level.
(a) For all types except Reading Comprehension, the OG places problems in roughly increasing order of difficulty. Problem 3 is easier than problem 50, which is easier than problem 102. Include a mix of easier, medium, and harder questions in your set.
(b) Note: your personal strengths and weaknesses will affect how you perceive the problems—you might think a lower-numbered problem is hard or a higher-numbered problem is easy. They are… for you! Expect that kind of outcome sometimes.


Next, calculate how much time to give yourself to do the problem set.
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gmat-quantStop! Before you dive in and start calculating on a math problem, reflect for a moment. How can you set up the work to minimize the number of annoying calculations?

Try the below Percent problem from the free question set that comes with your GMATPrep® software. The problem itself isn’t super hard but the calculations can become time-consuming. If you find the problem easy, don’t dismiss it. Instead, ask yourself: how can you get to the answer with an absolute minimum of annoying calculations?



Number of Votes

Percent of Votes for Candidate P

Percent of Votes for Candidate Q






















* ” The table above shows the results of a recent school board election in which the candidate with the higher total number of votes from the five districts was declared the winner. Which district had the greatest number of votes for the winner?

“(A) 1

“(B) 2

“(C) 3

“(D) 4

“(E) 5”


Ugh. We have to figure out what they’re talking about in the first place!

The first sentence of the problem describes the table. It shows 5 different districts with a number of votes, a percentage of votes for one candidate and a percentage of votes for a different candidate.

Hmm. So there were two candidates, P and Q, and the one who won the election received the most votes overall. The problem doesn’t say who that was. I could calculate that from the given data, but I’m not going to do so now! I’m only going to do that if I have to.

Let’s see. The problem then asks which district had the greatest number of votes for the winner. Ugh. I am going to have to figure out whether P or Q won. Let your annoyance guide you: is there a way to tell who won without actually calculating all the votes?

Continue Reading…

gmat-test-prepRight now, you might be thinking, “Wait, what? I don’t actively want to get stuff wrong!”

In fact, yes, you do. Let me take you on what might seem like a tangent for a moment.

Would you agree that one of the marks of a strong business person is the ability to tell the difference between good opportunities and bad ones? And the ability to capitalize on those good opportunities while letting the bad ones go?

Yes, of course—that’s a basic definition of business. What does that have to do with the GMAT?

The GMAT is a test of your business skills. They don’t really care how great you are with geometry or whether you know every obscure grammar rule in the book. They care whether you can distinguish between good and bad opportunities and whether you can drop the bad ones without a backward glance.

If you want to maximize your score on the GMAT, then you will have a short-list of topics that you want to get wrong fast on the test. My top three in math are combinatorics, 3-D geometry, and anything with roman numerals.

How do you decide what your categories should be? Let’s talk.

But I don’t really want to get stuff wrong… that’s just a metaphor, right?

No, it’s not a metaphor. I really want you to plan how and what you’re going to get wrong! If you haven’t already, read my post about what the GMAT really tests. (You can go ahead and read it right now; I’ll wait.)

In a nutshell, the GMAT is set up to force us to get some of the questions wrong. No matter what you can do, they’ll just give you something harder.

Ultimately, they want to see whether you have the makings of a good business person. One way to test that is to force you into a situation where your choice is between spending extra time and mental energy on something that’s too hard—likely causing yourself to run out of time and energy before the test is over—and cutting yourself off when appropriate.

How do I cut myself off?

First of all, put yourself in this mindset:

You’re at the office, working on a group project.

A colleague of yours is the project manager.

The manager annoys you because he (or she) keeps assigning too many tasks, some of which are not all that important.

Sometimes, you’re rolling your eyes when your colleague tosses a certain piece of work at you; you’re thinking, “Seriously, the client meeting is in 3 days. This is NOT the best use of our remaining time.”

Got that? Okay, now during the test, put yourself in that mindset. The test itself is your annoying colleague. When he drops a roman numeral question in your lap, or a 4-line sentence correction with every last word underlined, you’re already rolling your eyes and thinking, “Are you serious? Come on.”

Here’s the key step: let yourself get just a little annoyed—but with the test, not yourself. You’re not feeling badly that you don’t like the problem; you don’t feel as though you’re falling short. No way! Instead, your colleague is trying to get you to do something that is clearly a waste of time. Roll your eyes. To appease your colleague, figure out whether there’s enough here for you to make an educated guess. Then pick something and move on to more important tasks.

How do I know when to cut myself off?

Quick: name your top three annoyances in quant. Now do the same in verbal. Here’s another one of mine: an RC detail EXCEPT question on a really technical topic with very long answer choices. (In other words, I have to find the four wrong answers in order to find the one right answer… and the topic area is very long and annoying.)

That’s your starting point: you already know you dread these areas. Back this up with data: make sure that these really are the worst ones for you. “Worst” is defined as “I rarely get these right and even when I do, I still use too much time and brain energy.”

Next, check to see how commonly tested the particular topic or question type is. You can’t afford to blow off algebra—that’s too broad a topic. You can, though, blow off sequences.

For some topics, you do want to try to be able to answer lower-level questions. For instance, if one of my students just hates polygons (triangles, squares, rectangles), he has my blessing to blow off harder questions—the ones that combine shapes, for example, or that move into the 3-D arena. He does need to learn the more basic formulas, though, so that he isn’t missing too many lower-level questions.

Your particular mix of pet peeves will almost certainly change over time. Initially, I had some other things at the top of my list, such as weighted averages. Then, I discovered a much better way to do those problems, so 3-D geometry took its place.

Some topics, though, will always be weaknesses. I’ve never liked combinatorics and doubt I ever will. That’s perfectly fine, particularly when the topic is not that commonly tested anyway!

Sound off in the comments below: what areas do you hate the most? Your new strategy is to get those wrong fast and redirect that time and mental energy elsewhere!