You’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.
Quant is easy: multiply the number of questions by two. For instance, if you have 3 questions, you have 6 minutes to complete the set.
Verbal is harder. For every Sentence Correction (SC), give yourself 1 minute and 20 seconds. For every Critical Reasoning (CR), you get 2 minutes.
For Reading Comprehension (RC), start with about 2 to 2.5 minutes for shorter passages or 2.5 to 3 minutes for longer passages. Then add 1 minute and 30 seconds for each problem you do. Select 3 or 4 problems—no more (most OG passages have 5 to 7 problems, but the real test gives you only 3 or 4 per passage).
For your verbal problem set, add up the individual times and now you know how long to give yourself to do that set.
For RC, I usually do the passage twice. The first time, I do only the odd-numbered problems. The second time, a month or two later, I do the even-numbered problems. (Feel free to swap the order of odd and even!) Each passage can do double-duty, as long as I wait long enough between to (mostly) forget what was happening in the passage.
Do the set! Pretend it’s a real testing situation. You have to finish by the time you run out of time. Cut yourself off and guess when you hit a problem that’s too hard to do in a reasonable timeframe.
Above all, do NOT tell yourself, “Oh, I’m studying, so I really want to try each problem to the best of my ability, no matter how long it takes.” If you do that, you will build very bad habits for this test! Your main goal is to study how to take the GMAT—and the GMAT is not expecting you to get everything right.
In fact, the test writers expect you NOT to be able to answer everything. They want to know whether you can properly assess a situation, identify bad opportunities (questions that are too hard or will take too long to do), and appropriately cut yourself off and move on to another opportunity. After all, good business people do that every day.
If you haven’t already read my post on what the GMAT is actually all about, read it right now.
I did the set. Now, should I make another?
Not so fast! You did the set, but you haven’t really learned much yet. Most of your learning comes afterwards, when you review your work and the decisions that you made.
You want to do two levels of review. First, look at the set as a whole. Did you make appropriate decisions about how to spend your (limited) time and mental energy? If you could have made better decisions, what and why? If, in hindsight, you realize that you really should have cut problem 3 off a lot faster, then figure out the moment at which the scale should have tipped. What was the clue that should have made you say, “I don’t think so. Buh-bye, annoying problem!”
If you weren’t able to get to some of the problems because you ran out of time, first tell yourself that, on the real test, your score just tanked. You can’t do that next time. Second, feel free to try those problems now—but you still have to time yourself.
Then, dive into the individual problems. You can use this this article about the 2nd Level of Learning on the GMAT to help you analyze your work. Occasionally, you’ll run across a problem that you feel you “should” know how to do, and you’ll want to try it again before you look up the answer. That’s perfectly fine; go ahead and try it. You don’t even need to time yourself this time around. In fact, if you want, feel free to look up anything you want in your books or elsewhere to help you try to figure out how to solve it. If, in the end, you can’t get anywhere with it, go ahead to the solution and see what you can learn.
Okay, I reviewed the set. NOW can I make another?
Yes! As long as you promise me that you really did thoroughly review and learn from the previous set. A lot of students will just plow through a million sets without really learning from them. Obviously, I don’t want you to do problems but not learn from them.
Okay, as you get further into your studies, you’ll have more and more material to review. Now, you’re going to start making larger sets—perhaps 8, 10, 12, or even 15 questions.
When you make sets of 8 or more questions, make sure that you are pulling from at least 2 different topic areas (e.g., algebra and geometry, or modifiers and parallelism plus inference and weaken).
Between ½ and ¾ of the questions can cover topics you’ve studied in the past week or so, but the remaining ¼ to ½ has to be from longer-ago topics. This is how you’re going to work in your review! Toss in a fractions problem from 3 weeks ago. If you get it right, great. If you miss it, then maybe you need to schedule a little time to review fractions.
By the time you get through all of your Strategy Guides, you should be making sets that cover topics from across the spectrum. At this point, you might even decide to buy GMAC’s GMAT Prep Question Pack #1, a bank of 400 practice problems integrated with the GMAT Prep practice test software. (I’m not including a link because it’ll just break in future. Go to www.mba.com and look for the product in their store.)
You can tell the software to give you a mix of, say, 10 DS and PS questions that are medium or harder difficulty only. The software will choose the actual topics.
I know I said this once already, but it’s so important that I’m going to repeat it: the vast majority of your learning comes AFTER you have finished the problem set, when you analyze both the problem itself and your own work. Don’t just do problem set after problem set!
Good luck with your study. Do you have any other tips to help your fellow students create effective problem sets? Tell us in the comments section below!