Imagine two students sit down to study GMAT questions together. The first takes out 100 addition questions and gets all of them right. The 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.
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.
1) 15 Minutes of Reviewing Old Questions
If there’s one thing that I think students don’t do enough of, it’s this right here. In my experience, the single thing that benefitted me more than anything else was torn from the last few pages of The Official Guide for GMAT® Review 11th Edition. These sheets of paper had nothing except numbers for each question of each question type in the guide. I tore out those sheets and would only write two things on those sheets: the answer to each question and a mark next to each number that I wanted to review. I went through the book from beginning to end, but without fail, I always started every study session by reviewing all of the questions that I previously had trouble with, in whatever question type I was studying that day. Since the questions are generally ordered from easiest to most difficult, I was able to do most of the first 50 questions without too much difficulty. But even though the GMAT considered the 18th Data Sufficiency question to be easy, I did not. Not the first time I saw it, anyway. By the second time, I recalled my previous mistake and solved it correctly. By the third time, I knew the answer, but I could also explain every step that I would take to get to that answer. By the fourth and fifth time, I was no longer doing the actual math, but I could immediately see everything that I would do to solve the problem and could logically understand why one statement was sufficient but not the other. And once I was able to do the first half of Data Sufficiency questions from the Official Guide without any trouble, I knew that I could do almost any Data Sufficiency question that I would see on my real GMAT in the lower 50%ile of difficulty. And then I would keep working.
2) 25 Minutes of Doing New Questions
Not satisfied with being able to get a 50%ile meant moving into new questions. But notice that 25 minutes wasn’t going to give me time to do 100 questions and that’s good. I wouldn’t be able to remember all those 100 questions at the end of my study session anyway. But I could do 10-15 questions in that time. Although I didn’t always keep track of my time while studying, I do recommend that to students now. I had a pretty good sense of timing with questions and whenever I was spending far too long on one question, I would put a star on my answer sheet to remind myself to add this to my list of questions to review. If I were studying again today, I would also give myself a set number of questions for each study session to make sure that my timing as a whole was on par with what I would have on test day: approximately 2 minutes per question. And when I was finished with my set of new questions and looked to see which questions I got right and wrong, you can already predict what I was about to do next.
3) 15 Minutes of Reviewing Those Questions
If the purpose of studying is to get better at something, then this is the first step towards meeting that purpose. Find a mistake and correct a mistake. But don’t stop there. I’ve talked before about the different types of questions you should be reviewing but it boils down to this: anytime you can become more accurate or more efficient at solving a question, it’s worth the time to learn how. So don’t stop after you looked at the questions you got wrong. Go back and see if there are other grammatical errors you didn’t see in each Sentence Correction problem. Search for a faster way to do the computation in a quant question. Look at the answer choice you almost selected in Critical Reasoning and figure out exactly why it wasn’t strengthening the question like the answer choice you did select. If you get a tough group of questions, this will often require more than just 15 minutes. But before you close your book, make sure that these lessons will stick with you.
4) 5 Minutes of Updating Your Questions-To-Review List and Writing Down Takeaways
My list of questions to review had two different markings: an X next to each question I got wrong and a star next to each question I spent too long on or felt unconfident in. Some questions would have both marks next to them. But those were the questions that I would look at first at the start of my next study session, and it was important to keep that list updated. I also ended my study session the same way that I end every paragraph in a Reading Comprehension passage: with a takeaway (or two or three) from my hour of studying. These could be something simple like, “be more careful with your computation” or “write things down on paper instead of solving them in your head”, or they could be something bigger like “triangles circumscribed by circles that have one side equal to the diameter are right triangles”. I think this is another under-valued technique and also emphasizes why a 6-hour studyathon on a Saturday isn’t going to be nearly as valuable as 6 1-hour study sessions throughout the week. When you close your book at the end of the day, there are only so many things that your brain will be able to recollect. So the next time you sit down to study for the GMAT, remember that getting better isn’t about what you get right or wrong now: it’s about what you are going to get right or wrong tomorrow.