How to boost your GMAT score – The 3 big lessons I’ve learned from teaching the GMAT
1. Practice does NOT make perfect.
I grew up accustomed to the mantra, “Practice makes perfect.” It is so popular it was accepted as fact rather than tested for validity.
But I have found through personal experience and observation of my students that practice does not even come close to making perfect – indeed it can have unintended consequences.
Reinforcing the wrong habits or wrong standards, can lead to calcification of misinformation and even injury. Look at marathoners whose knees hurt all of the time. It seems reasonable to say it is the super-human mileage, yet there are runners who regularly complete ultra-marathons without injury. Why?
It’s all about form.
A successful marathoner understands how her body works. She understands when to push harder in training and when to back off. And she respects those limits. She finds a coach who can help her exceed those limits when she’s ready to improve. She knows that it isn’t about the miles, it’s about the way you run those miles.
The same principle holds for GMAT prep. Your success does not hinge on how many problems you complete for practice, but the problems chosen and the way you complete the chosen problems.
Quality not quantity.
“ . . . sure, sure, sure.”
This is the killer for many students. Sure I’ll do quality problems. Sure I’ll do quality review. Sure I’ll go for concept mastery….
Students attracted to the GMAT are largely competitive and compulsive. You don’t have to play sports to be competitive, even orchestras rank musicians. If you are drawn to any pursuit that ranks participants, you have some competitive juice. So give it up “lovers-not-fighters”, you like to win.
You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t. And I wouldn’t have written this if I didn’t like helping you win.
So let’s embrace that and move along.
Here’s the scoop, you will not win the GMAT battle if you hold on to your bad practice habits. Period. No matter how smart you are. Brute force on the GMAT will not bring out your best score. (**but some students can do well enough with brute force so cost/benefit analysis on your own here)
The students who do best give up their ego-driven practice habit, the if-I-work-every-GMAT-problem-I-find-then-I-can-dominate-the-GMAT habit, and instead they adopt a habit of inquiry. They become more interested in the underlying concepts of a problem than in the solution. The solution matters, but in early study it’s all the ways to understand the question and givens that matter more.
Here’s how that helps you.
The GMAC (company behind the folks who write the GMAT) is not so kind as to recycle their questions verbatim so your ability to respond to one question does not aid you in answering the broader concept question – and it’s derivatives – unless you understand the concept tested in the question and can link that concept to other ways in which you may see the concept tested.
Wax on, wax off.
No kidding. One of the fastest ways to boost your score is to boost your speed – without diminished quality in responses. So how do you go faster?
What do you see? Do you see the number 56? How does that help?
It doesn’t. In the world of standardized tests, 56, means 7 x 8. Yes, it could also mean 14 x 4 or 28 x 2, but really it means 7 x 8.
x^2 – x – 56 = 0
If you see a quadratic you factor it. Automatically.
(x – 8)(x + 7)
The faster you factor, the faster you recognize the potential values for x: 8, -7 so you can move to the next part of the problem, the actual challenge of the question. But first you must recognize that 56. Remove the friction
So how do you “see” the 56?
Do your Multiplication tables.
*(for 10-20 days depending on your joy. If you don’t enjoy, keep doing. If you do enjoy, you probably don’t need to do them!)
Just this simple exercise frees your brain to work more challenging problems. The practice can be calming and extra bonus, the quadratic factoring becomes automatic. Thinking of a shortcut? NO flash cards! You must write these out by hand. That’s the only reliable way to have the information readily accessible.
A clear head lets you tackle the main challenge. Know your basics so clearly that you can understand any question the GMAT throws at you. The GMAT math was written with 6-8th grade curriculum in mind (give or take). It is math you can do. Know the basics, then improve your technique.
3. Mental – Emotional Connection
It’s more than test day.
Anxiety about the material, about the test, about your chances for getting into your most wanted program . . . can be crippling. Anxiety can surface in so many ways.
Some students will over-prepare: work every problem known to mankind and memorize flashcards on topics that are at best tangential to topics covered on the GMAT.
Others will put off studying during the week to cram in one monster session over the weekend, possibly pounding energy drinks to stay alert even if the brain’s cognitive powers are diminished.
Both strategies lead to suboptimal results.
Most students are more efficient and effective when they study at short, frequent intervals. Spending 1-3 hrs. of study per day during the work week and a slightly longer 4-6 hour session over the weekend is plenty of time to cover the right material at the right depth.
What to do
So consider blocking that time on your calendar. And don’t allow anyone or anything to encroach upon it.
Do nothing except study during the time blocks, and do NOT study outside of the time blocks. Before you begin to study, develop an agenda and stick to the agenda. Tell others not to disturb you during your study sessions. Silence your phone and disable your email client. Once the study period is over, close your books and enjoy the rest of your day GMAT-free and guilt-free.
Study time does not have to be in the morning, but certain studies of cognitive function – how your brain works – indicate you can maximize learning and “your best work” about 2.5 hours after waking. There are practical considerations, but for those who can manage to do an hour of GMAT prep before heading to the office, you’ll thank yourself later.
Similar cognitive function studies indicate that while you may be able to power through “work” all day and into the evening, your brain’s ability to learn is significantly diminished after 6p. Zapped. Done. Leave your busy work: organizing study materials, reviewing confident material, and planning study agendas for after 6p if needed.
Why it works
Segmenting your time not only creates periods when you SHOULD be studying, but also creates time periods when you SHOULD NOT be studying. Reduce GMAT guilt and keep a normal – if GMAT-centric – life. Periods of downtime can be very helpful for rejuvenation, relation, and socialization. The longer your GMAT process, the more important this is.