Archives For how to study

gmat-self-studyYou’ve been thinking for a while now about going back to business school. You’ll go sometime in the future…but you haven’t started to do much about it yet.

Well, break out your pencils* and get ready to take advantage of your new membership in the GMAT Exercise Club! We’re going to set up a custom program for you to get the score you need by summer’s end—and then you can decide whether to apply this fall or to wait a year or two.

*Okay, okay, you don’t use pencils for this test anymore, nor is there an actual GMAT Exercise Club, and I can’t really give each and every one of you a completely customized, individual study program. But I can tell you what to start doing today to get yourself ready to take the GMAT by the end of the summer, as long as you make the commitment to get your brain in gear, do a little bit every day, and conquer Mount Everest…er, the GMAT.

This article will assume that you plan to study on your own. If you are still deciding whether to study on your own, take a class, or work with a tutor, the following article discusses the pros and cons of each approach: How to Choose an Approach: Self-study, Class, or Tutor.

Here’s how to develop a study plan that’s appropriate for you.

Week 1: Take a CAT

Your first step is to take a practice CAT under official testing conditions (including all 4 sections: essay, IR, quant, verbal).

It’s best to use a test-prep company CAT for this, not GMATPrep (the official practice test from the makers of the GMAT), as the purpose for taking this practice CAT is to gain insight into your strengths and weaknesses. While GMATPrep is the closest thing to the real test, it provides no data with which to evaluate your performance. Save GMATPrep for later in your study.

Right now, you might be protesting: but I haven’t studied anything yet! That’s okay. In fact, that’s the point! You need to determine what you do already know or understand and what you don’t so that you can set up an effective study plan for yourself. Don’t stress about your first score—use it as a study tool.

It is smart, though, to make sure that you learn a little bit about one particular question type before you take that test. Unless you’ve studied for the GMAT before, you probably haven’t seen anything like Data Sufficiency, so review that question type before your first CAT.

If you take an MGMAT CAT, use this two-part article to analyze your results: Evaluating Your Practice Tests. (The link given here is to the first part of the article; you can find the link to the second part at the end of the first part.)

Week 1: Choose Your Materials or Program

Next, you need a study plan. To start, figure out what materials you’ll use to study. At the least, you will need two things:

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GMAT-Boot-CampPrepping in 14 days is obviously not the ideal situation. There are limits to how much you can learn in such a short period of time.

Still, sometimes people get stuck. Maybe you haven’t gotten the GMAT score that you need to be competitive at a particular school and 2nd-round deadlines are fast approaching. Maybe you’re on a waitlist and the school has indicated that your chances would be better if you could lift your score. Whatever the circumstance, there are some things that you can do to try to achieve a score boost in a short period of time.

Make no mistake: you’re going to have to work hard! You’re going to live, sleep, and breath the GMAT for the next two weeks. You’ll also need to set realistic expectations for yourself: nobody is going to jump from a 500 to a 720 in two weeks.

Getting Started: Time and Resources

First, if you can take these two weeks off of work (or at least some of the time), then do so. You’re about to undertake a mental marathon; you can’t waste brain energy on many other mental tasks and still get through your GMAT tasks effectively.

If you can’t, then cancel all of your other plans. Outside of work, you’re only going to be working on the GMAT.

Second, it’s important to identify your study resources and set up a solid plan from the start. You don’t have the luxury of trying something for a week (or even a few days!) and then discovering that it isn’t working for you.

At the least, you need the materials in the below list. The starred (*) materials are made by GMAC (the company that makes the real test); GMAC’s materials consist of real, past GMAT questions.

It’s best to practice using real problems, but note that practice problems don’t actually teach you how to get better at the test. You’ll also need material designed to teach you how to get better—this is what test prep companies do.

  1. *The Official Guide for GMAT® Review, 13th Edition
  2. *GMATPrep CATs (practice exams)
  3. Additional practice exams that give you performance data (any test prep company, including ours, sells these)
  4. Materials that teach you all of the math and verbal facts you need to know as well as strategies for answering different kinds of math and verbal questions
  5. Test-taking strategies, including time management, educated guessing, and so on

Items 4 and 5 might come in the form of books, online lessons, classes, or even private tutoring. Expect to spend some money, particularly because you’re trying to do this in 14 days!

Day 0: Read Two Articles

Before you do anything, learn what the GMAT really tests.

Next, learn about the second level of GMAT study.
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Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born. (“The Making of an Expert” by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007)

gmat deliberate practiceStandardized test-taking is a skill–like winning a chess game, swinging a golf club, or playing a Bach concerto. And to master a skill, you need high-quality practice. Of course, the more content you know the better, but no matter how much you study for the GMAT, you won’t improve without practice. (I tried reading a book about snowboarding before my first time on the slopes, with predictably laughable results.) According to the scientific research, the most efficient and most effective kind of practice-the way Tiger Woods become the golfer he is today–is called “Deliberate Practice.”

If you spend time reading motivational blogs such as LifeHacker you’ll see many articles about “Deliberate Practice.” You may have even heard of whole books–Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin or Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell–about exceptional individuals such as Bobby Fischer and Tiger Woods. All those blogs, as well as Colvin and Gladwell, base their ideas on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and probably the world’s number-one expert on expertise. His good-news thesis can be summed up as follows:

New research shows that outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate talent or skill. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

First of all, relax. You may have heard about Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule. Apparently, it takes about 10 years and 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to achieve true mastery. Yes, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, Mozart, and other one-in-a-million people needed 10,000 hours to get to where they are. Luckily, the GMAT is much less difficult to master than golf, chess, or composition. Also, you’re not looking to be one in a million–at best 1 in 100 (a score of 760-800)–so you don’t need 10,000 hours. Maybe a few hundred hours, depending on how much you want to improve.

But what is “Deliberate Practice?”  And how do you apply it to the GMAT? At the end of this article, I’ve given you a few links, but to save you time, I’ve pulled my favorite Ericsson quotes and applied them to the GMAT:

1) Get motivated.

The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. Psychological Review. 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3)

Moving outside your traditional comfort zone of achievement requires substantial motivation and sacrifice, but it’s a necessary discipline. (Ericsson et al., “The Making of an Expert”)

If you’re reading this, you want a higher GMAT score. You’re already motivated. If you need more motivation, research schools. Take a diagnostic test and see how far you are from your dream school’s median. After that, the best way to get motivated is to sign up for the real GMAT a few months from now. (How many people don’t lose weight until they schedule the wedding or high school reunion?) Continue Reading…

Imagine two students sit down to study GMAT questions together. The first takes out 100 addition questions and gets all of them right. gmat improvementThe other takes out 100 of the most-difficult, 800-level GMAT questions one can find, and gets all of them wrong. Who benefits more from this type of studying? It’s an absurd thought experiment since it’s fairly obvious that neither of these students is benefitting much from their study method. But over my years of teaching the GMAT, I’ve seen far too many students who fit too closely into one of these two camps. Students who are great at quant but not at verbal, yet spend all of their time doing quant questions because they are “more fun”. Other students are determined to score 750 and spend all of their time and effort doing as many 700-800 level questions as they can find, not seeing an improvement, and thinking that the solution is to see more 700-800 level questions. This isn’t some profound discovery, but too many students miss this critical point:

You get better at the GMAT by identifying a weakness, learning a better/faster method to attack that weakness, and practicing that method until it becomes habit. Repeat.

Note that this doesn’t mean that you have to do 50 rate questions and by question 50, you’ll be a master at determining the train schedule between two different towns. Nor do you need to do every question in every GMAT-related book you can get your hands on. If you’ve been to a Manhattan class, you’ve seen first-hand that our instructors’ goal is not to do as many questions as we can cram into a class. There are some topics in class where we only look at 4-5 questions, but we spend an hour breaking down the methods, key words, traps, and wrong answer choices that will be similar to the methods, key words, traps, and wrong answer choices that students will one day see on the real test. The goal is never to see why Answer Choice E is a trap answer. It’s to see why Answer Choice E fits into a certain category of trap answers and learn how to avoid that category of trap answers come test day.

So how does this relate to your own studying? Let’s talk about what a productive 1-hour study session might look like by examining what many of my own study sessions looked like while I was studying for my GMAT.

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gmat lightbulbYou 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?

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I know what Statement 2 is telling me; it’s saying ˜Become a carpenter!’

Why is this question here? Why am I here?  When’s the civil service exam?  Garbage men still have a union. . .

gmat paranoiaHave you lived that movie?  Paranoia is only human and the old saying is true: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  Paranoia is a primal reaction, developed to help protect humans from animals with sharp, pointy teeth.  Unfortunately, it is not helpful when one is facing questions with sharp, pointy teeth.  Even though the GMAT is out to get you.  Failing to control your paranoia is a hidden reason for underperforming on the actual exam.

On this blog, I and others have discussed many factors crucial for success: foundation skills, strategies, timing, precision, and so forth.  And it’s like I say about L.A.—everything you ever read [here] about it is true.  However, after honing these skills, after achieving mastery, too many test takers succumb to their paranoia and thus revert when taking the actual exam, especially for the first time.  Even 99th percentile skills will crumble if undermined by irrational panic and the results will not be gratifying.  (Have you ever watched the Chicago Cubs play a post season series?)   To succeed, folks must understand the difference between dispassionate, objective analysis—I’ve never gotten a combinatrics question right in life, why do I think I’ll have a divine inspiration today?—and irrelevant fear—They’re going to tattoo a scarlet L on my forehead.  Just as folks plan question and timing strategies, they must develop tools to banish their internally generated negative visualizations.

How do you tell the difference?  Objective analysis responds to the stimuli on the monitor.  Paranoia is a response to internal doubts.  (Notice how this is parallel to the nature of the exam—search for the answer on the screen, not in the opinions in your head.)  Sometimes, after you’ve read a question twice (everyone has a sinking feeling the first time), you hear yourself singing, I’ve got the ˜I don’t know where I’m going but I’m going nowhere in a hurry’ blues.  That’s the truth, not paranoia.  Bail out.  As one of my acting coaches used to say, Only schizophrenics don’t react to the reality around them.  Conversely, paranoia is when your thoughts of impending disaster revolve around your supposed shortcomings rather than the material on the screen.  As I’ve said before, if while taking the exam you find yourself thinking about how big a dumb ass you are, check the question—if it doesn’t read, Which of the following best describes how big a dumb ass you are?, you’re thinking about the wrong thing.  That is paranoia.  No kidding—you knew that.

Well then, why do people recognize the difference between analysis and paranoia but still succumb to the latter?  Because they try to do the impossible.  They try not to have thoughts of failure.  That’s impossible—you can’t override human nature.  I have feelings of paranoia, even though I’ve always scored in the 99th percentile.  I still have them”even though I don’t really care about my score anymore.  Instead, you have to recognize irrationality in yourself and laugh it off.  I say to myself, Save some of that craziness for menopause.  Then I giggle, read the question again, and really listen to the words.  And if I still don’t get it, I say, Screw them if they can’t take a joke.  And bail out.

Maybe some of you can’t make jokes to yourself during the exam because you’re worried about your entire future.  That’s part of the problem—if a chunk (or all) of your mind is thinking about things other than the words on the monitor, it will lower your score.  It’s the difference between worrying about being the hero or the goat and just seeing the ball and hitting the ball.  Feelings of failure while taking the exam are like stage fright.  That’s what stage fright is—standing up there thinking you look like an idiot.  You say, No, it’s much different—they give me a piece of paper that says I’m an idiot.  No.  Really.  It’s the same.  So, I’ve got another suggestion for you, if you didn’t like the first one.

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gmat catsLet’s talk about the Do’s and Don’ts to get the most out of your CATs.

Know WHY you take CATs

Practice CATs are very useful for three things:

  1. Figuring out your current scoring level (assuming you took the test under official conditions)
  2. Practicing stamina and / or timing
  3. Analyzing your strengths and weaknesses

The third one on the list is the MOST important”that’s how we actually get better at this test!

Practice CATs do not help us to improve while taking the test. If you have been training to run a marathon, you don’t learn how to get better while you’re running the marathon itself; you’re just trying to survive. : ) Rather, you learn how to improve in between races while doing all kinds of training activities and analyzing your performance.

DO take a CAT at the beginning of your study

Many people put off taking their first CAT, often because they say that they haven’t studied yet so they know they won’t do well. Your goal in taking your first CAT is NOT to do well. Your goal is simply to get a handle on your strengths and weaknesses. Whatever they are, you want to know that right away so that you can prioritize your study.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the 5 question types before that first exam (particularly Data Sufficiency) but don’t worry about learning all of the formulas and grammar rules. Some you already know; others, you don’t. Your first test performance will tell you what you do and don’t know.

One caution in particular here: a decent percentage of the people who put off their first CAT do so because they’re feeling significant anxiety about taking the test. These are exactly the same people who do need to take that first test early”pushing off the practice tests will just exacerbate your anxiety.

DON’T take a CAT more than once a week

Have you ever had this happen? You take a CAT and you get a score that you don’t like. Maybe you even really mess things up”run out of time or finish 20 minutes early”and your score plummets. So, a couple of days later, you take another CAT to prove to yourself that the bad test was just a fluke.

If you’ve ever done that, you wasted your time and a practice CAT, both of which are very valuable.

That bad test was not a fluke. Something happened to cause that performance. Figure out what it is and fix it before you spend another 3.5 hours taking a second test.

In fact, whether you like the score or not, whenever you take a CAT, don’t bother to take another until you’ve addressed whatever issues popped up during your analysis of the first test. (This article will help you analyze MGMAT CATs.)

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In the first half of this series, we talked about the big picture stuff: overall mindset, what the GMAT really tests, and how that impacts timing and the study process.

Now, let’s dive into the details. There are three big components to studying for the GMAT:

(1) The Content (actual facts / knowledge tested)

(2) Question-answering Techniques
(a) The main question types and sub-types
(b) Techniques that cross question type, such as picking numbers or using foreshadowing to anticipate the direction of a sentence.

(3) Test-taking Strategies (such as pacing strategies)

Most people start with the first component, content, and that is a great place to start”but many people never fully move on to components 2b and 3.what would stacey do gmat Those who do will often leave those components until too late in the process

(1) Content

Yes, there is a lot of content to learn on this test. Keep two things in mind here. First, you’re almost certainly going to need some outside help in the form of books or online materials that teach you the specific content needed. Lists of practice problems will not be enough here. I won’t list specific books / resources, because I’m obviously a biased source. : )

Second, you could study content forever. Don’t. Remember what this test is really about: making decisions. Learn a majority of the content reasonably well, but feel free to forget about less-frequently tested material that is also difficult for you. Your best decision in those circumstances is to get those questions wrong quickly.

(2) Question-answering techniques

Each question type has certain strategies associated with it. For example, all Critical Reasoning questions can be answered using a certain 4-step process, the details of which change slightly depending upon the specific CR sub-type.

Sentence Correction questions have a regular process and alternate strategies for harder questions.

For Reading Comp, half the battle is knowing how to read a passage and what to ignore.

The majority of data sufficiency questions need to be rephrased. Many DS questions are very cleverly worded”it’s not always immediately possible to tell what the question is really asking or what the statement is really saying. Rephrasing will help you to understand the true significance of the info and save you time and effort in answering the question.

The above strategies all concentrate on one particular question type. What about cross-type strategies? For example, many math problems tend to try to hide or disguise information, whether DS or PS; our task is to figure out how to decode the problem so we can answer the question.

Many math problems are presented as story problems, regardless of content area. As a result, we need to study how to translate stories into math.

Any problem solving questions that don’t use real numbers can be solved by choosing your own numbers to turn an algebra problem into an easier arithmetic problem. Most people know they can use this technique when there are variables in the answers, but this technique can often be used when the answers represent percentages or fractions as well”anything that doesn’t represent an actual value but rather a relative value.

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