Monday, April 6, 2009

First step: Defeat the GMAT

It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.
-- Winston Churchill

Anybody can score high on the GMAT. It's just a matter of effort and strategy. This is a recommended GMAT study program to help you achieve that top GMAT score. It's a one-stop solution for anybody who is asking "how should I study for this exam?" Feel free to follow the whole program or to pick and choose what you like and incorporate it into your personal strategy.

I had to dedicate some serious time to prepare for the GMAT. Recovering from a disappointing first run, I retook the exam and scored a 740 (50Q, 41V, 6.0 AWA). This isn't the best score in the world, but something I can live with considering nearly a 10 year break from any formal education. After ten years in the military, my quant skills needed a serious refresher, to say the least.

I did not take any paid prep courses, but what I did do was study from every GMAT prep book I could get my hands on. I also read many GMAT blogs and discussions, digesting everyone's various approaches. The volume of GMAT help available was enormous, but my need to find a one-stop solution still left me seeking a coherent strategy.

What I devised is a structured, self-paced program that anybody who enjoys solving complex problems with a clear analytical structure can follow, and I might say, succeed. For those who have already begun studying for the GMAT, you are aware of some of the challenges. With so many books, which should I use? How can I best use my time wisely? What kinds of questions should I focus on? How do I best record my performance to achieve maximum improvement?

The following is a one-size-fits-all GMAT study regimen that will apply to anybody who likes to systematically solve problems. This write-up will help you come up with a coherent study plan and general strategy. For more tactical information on specific problem solving, rely on the reference material and GMAT forums listed below. The tactics will vary from person to person. The most important thing is to first establish a methodical and strategic approach to beating the GMAT.

Please feel free to disseminate, change, or otherwise adapt as you wish.

The centerpiece of this study plan is the following two spreadsheets:
I borrowed the baseline for the answer sheet from Eric at Beat the GMAT. He definitely deserves the credit for starting this kind of approach.

Using the Results Tracker and Answer Sheet together is a powerful tool that will bring structure and clarity to your studying. By using thd spreadsheets, you will for instance be able to:
  • Practice only all questions you missed
  • Practice only the questions you missed because of rushing or silly mistakes
  • Practice only the questions you missed because of concept errors
  • Practice only questions you got right but had to guess on
  • Systematically record which sections you are having the most trouble with
  • Track your improvement in time spent per question
  • Track your performance on complete practice exams
  • Practice answering all questions on a computer screen and not on paper
  • Recognize which sections and questions you should repeat, and target exactly those questions
The Answer Sheet is a way to record your answers to each and every question you do during your study program. When you download it, it will be saved as a blank form. Go ahead and "save as" this form for every type of question you have to do.

Answer Sheet

At the bottom of the answer sheets you will see various tabs in short hand. They stand for the following:
  1. OG - Official guide
  2. OG Extra - Official guide for verbal/quant review
  3. Kaplan WB - Kaplan workbook
  4. PR WB - Princeton Review workbook
  5. Kaplan 800
As you answer questions in these books, record all your answers in this spreadsheet while you're solving questions. Get out of the habit of writing in a book. The spreadsheet also encourages you to mark each question if you are "slow" or "not sure." That way when you review, you can still work on questions you got correct but were slow at, or review questions you got correct but were possibly partially guessing or not in complete command of. You can also of course review only the questions you missed. When marking a question as incorrect, you will also mark whether you missed the question because of a silly mistake or a concept mistake. When it comes to repeating questions, this will allow you to focus on either learning new concepts or avoiding silly mistakes and traps.

To make use of the spreadsheet after solving problems for the first time, simply sort the spreadsheet to quickly identify the sub-set of questions you wish to repeat. Scroll the spreadsheet to the right so that your original answers are concealed, and use the next column to repeat those questions. You can repeat this process as many times as you wish. I suggest doing so until you are able to answer 100% of the questions correctly without any "not sure" or "slow" responses.

While the above will track each and every possible question available in your books, the Results Tracker will capture the bigger picture. It breaks every study material section into approximately 20 question sections, which is the size of question "chunks" I recommend you work with. Next to each of these sections, which are organized by type of question and the source of questions, fill in the date, the number incorrect, the percentage correct, and the average time. As you work through your study program and fill in every section, you will quickly see where your performance faltered. That is why there are columns 2 and 3. Repeat the sections where you need the most amount of work. Once you get each section to 95% accuracy with under 2 minutes per question, you can feel comfortable that you have reached a satisfactory proficiency for that type of question.

Results Tracker

The first tab of the Results Tracker is also a place to record complete exam results. Record not only your score but the percent you got correct, as you will see this varies significantly depending on which vendor's practice exams you are taking. Also record how much time you had left in each section and comments/notes about that particular test.

The above trackers will also tell you exactly how many total questions you have completed. A rule of thumb may be something to the effect of:

1000 questions and you are very self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses and are well on your way to achieving your goals. 2000 questions and you feel like you've done all you need to, you've seen every question type out there and feel confident. But for many of us, this is only an over-confidence. You can still do better. As you approach the 3000 question mark, you will probably be at your maximum potential. These numbers do not include repeating all the questions you missed of course. Individual results will vary, but consider these numbers as a generic benchmark to start with.

So now that the mechanism is in place, let's get down to the 7 step program.

Step 1: Mentally prepare

Some people who are freshly out of school can probably just walk into a testing center and score a 700 with no preparation, while others can probably score a 700 after a little bit of review. On the other hand, many of us have been out of school for a while or are weak in math or verbal. If you fall in the latter category, be prepared for some serious work. If you can, plan on 2-3 hours every weekday and 10-15 hours each weekend for 14 weeks. If you can't give that much time per week, then you may need more weeks in the program. Obviously not everybody will need that much time, but this is designed as the best way to bring any starting level up to a maximum score.

This is a very ambitious program; up to 420 hours if you see it all the way through. I don't expect many people to actually spend that much time on their prep (nor did I), but consider this goal as a ceiling to work towards. How much time you actually spend will depend on your starting point, desired score, ability to focus, and distractions in your life. The point is that anybody can score high on the GMAT. The question is where you start, how high you want to score, and how much effort you are willing to give to bridge that gap. If you follow the rest of this program, you will at least know that you have indeed maximized your potential.

Plan on when and how you will study for this exam: whether it will be in the morning before work, after work, or a combination. Plan on where you will do it. Some people will have to go to a library or away from home to get the isolation they need. Before cracking the first book however, you need to take an honest assessment of your disposition, abilities to avoid distraction, and your level of dedication.

Step 2: Gather the necessary study materials

With so much study material out there, it is easy to get off track and waste time on inferior reference material. Luckily for you I've already gone through every book on the market and have boiled things down to what you will need:

Book materials:
  • GMAT Official Guide
  • GMAT Official Guide for Verbal Review
  • GMAT Official Guide for Quantitative Review
  • Kaplan GMAT 800
  • Kaplan GMAT Premier Program
  • Princeton Review Workbook
Other materials:
Note that you can buy the books really cheap used on eBay. It is also a place to sell them once you are done with the whole affair. I also used the Princeton Review Math/Verbal Workout and the Kaplan Math/Verbal Workout books, but found those to not be as effective. Your time will be better spent using the program prescribed here. I won't comment on all the other references/web sites available out there, but I will say that the above list is the most important and useful. Manhattan GMAT supplements are pretty good for targeting specific weaknesses. If you find that you can do every question in the above books with 100% accuracy and still want more practice, have at it.

Step 3: Plan your study schedule

This regimen is set up for 14 weeks, but you can easily adjust to fit your own timeline.

Weeks 1-2: Diagnosis and general study. Become familiar with the test and its structure. Take a GMATPrep practice test to establish a baseline. Get a thorough understanding of each type of question and determine the order of your strength and weakness for the types of problems.

Weeks 3-4: Problem Solving
Weeks 5-6: Data Sufficiency
Weeks 7-8: Sentence Correction
Weeks 9-10: Reading Comprehension
Weeks 11-12: Critical Reasoning
Weeks 13-14: Review as needed and only complete full practice exams.

Note that the above list should go in order of most difficult question type (for you) to least difficult. The above was my order and I believe is consistent with many people. Obviously if English is not your first language, then the order may be reversed.

Why focus on only one question for two weeks? Wouldn't you forget things over the weeks? Those are fair questions. What I discovered was that complete immersion will drill home the subject matter much more effectively than a cross-spebtrum approach. In order to mitigate losing skills over time, incorporate at least 10-20 questions each day from previous subjects just to stay fresh. This is why you do your strongest subjects last - you will actually be spending a lot of time reviewing previous subjects as you get further along in the program.

After studying a subject intensely for two weeks, it should become ingrained in you and not perish in a matter of weeks. The key to success here is total immersion in the question type for two weeks - you should be dreaming about it at night.

Step 4: Begin your 2 week diagnostic period

Assuming you are starting from square one, grab the Kaplan Premier and the Princeton Review workbooks. Read both from cover to cover. Unfortunately this is one of the most painful steps. However, it's necessary to become familiar with the GMAT and to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Answer the practice question sections in the Answer Sheet you downloaded here. Remember to "save as" the blank Answer Sheet for each of the separate question types.

At the end of the two weeks take a GMATPrep official practice exam. This is the only official GMAT practice exam and will provide you with the best estimate of your current scoring range. In fact, you can assume your real GMAT score will be within 20-30 points of this result. So if you are already scoring around or near 700, you can adjust the rest of your study schedule as you see fit. Perhaps you only need a little more review, or perhaps you are shooting for that 800.

Easy ways to adjust the remaining study schedule is to simply cut everything in half - allow only one week for each type of question instead of two. Alternatively, you can only redtce the time for the types of questions you are already acing.

By the end of this initial two weeks you should have a clear understanding of the exam and where you stand. Now is time to get into the heart of the program.

Step 5: GMAT Immersion

Adapt the above schedule to fit your needs. The key is practice, practice, practice. Order your weeks in order of weakest question type to strongest, and adjust the time accordingly. By absorbing yourself in each type of question vice a cross-sectional approach, you will pick up the subtleties and expertise only possible from a true mental immersion. If you are dreaming GMAT questions, your friends may find you weird, but you know that you are on the right track.

The key is to use the two spreadsheets I provided at the top of this page. I recommend always starting with the OG (Official Guide) and working your way from there. Do all the problems in the OG, record all your answers, and then repeat the questions you had trouble with. Re-sort your answer sheet to list only those questions you missed. This is where you can fine tune. Perhaps re-sort only those you missed because of conceptual error or those you were slow on. Or perhaps you have time to even redo the ones you got correct but were not sure about. If you only narrowed the answers to two and guessed correctly, there is still improvement to be had! Also make sure you do the appropriate Kaplan GMAT 800 section. It's very likely you will have to redo each section several times before you can answer everything correctly.

Make sure to time all your studying and record your progress and overall results in the Results Tracker, including your complete practice exams, which is the first tab. Recording your complete exam results will not only serve as a benchmark, but also allow you to fairly compare the various sources of practice tests out there, including the Kaplan, Princeton Review, Manhattan GMAT, and GMATPrep. Record your performance and the time you had left in each section. Also record any notes about the exam that will help your future efforts, such as "spent too much time in first 10 questions" etc.

At the end of each two week program, take at least one complete Kaplan GMAT exam. You will have three available on the CD that came with the book (the fourth one didn't work for me), one online test, and one in the book itself. Kaplan is reputed to give slightly lower scores than the real GMAT, but at least this way you won't build false confidence. If you want to do extra practice exams in this phase, do some of the Princeton Review online CAT exams. Those on the other hand yield what I believe are inflated scores. Their online interface will also give you some frustrating errors. Save the six Manhattan GMAT CAT exams for the last two weeks as you focus on overall test preparation.

As your world becomes more engrossed with the GMAT, you may also find these web sites of interest:
These forums are an excellent reference for those practice questions where the answer explanation just does not cut it. You can be certain that if you come across a difficult question with an enigmatic explanation, you are not the first one to do so. This is especially true with GMATprep questions which don't even provide an explanation. The above forums will probably have a thread on those kinds of questions. They are also a good place to relate to others who are in the same boat as you. Sometimes reading other people's success stories can give you that extra motivation you need during a tough week.

Step 6: Two week review

Your last two weeks before the exam should be spent taking complete exams and reviewing areas of weakness. I suggest taking one each Saturday and Sunday for each of the the two weekends prior to the exam (approximately 7 days out and 14 days out), and one more the weekend before the exam. Use only GMATprep and Manhattan GMAT CAT exams for the last few weeks, as they are the best GMAT simulators. Use the weekdays to analyze the mistakes you made over the weekends, and to work on your weakest sections.

Manhattan GMAT CAT exams provide an outstanding analysis platform to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and they have some of the best questions and explanations. By this point in your preparation, you will be very well adept at analyzing your results, and will really apprecaite Manhattan GMAT's automation. Their 6 practice online exams will identify which questions you are missing by difficulty, while also breaking down question categories into sub-types (i.e. geometry, algebra, etc.). All these practice tests will also help you build the stamina you need for the real test day.

This is also the time to take that second GMATPrep practice test. It probably won't help your preparation, as you've already put in 95% of your effort. However, it will help to familiarize you with test interface and your score should hopefully fill you with confidence for test day. I suggest taking this test 7-10 days prior to the real test. Don't take it too close to the real test because by then it will be too late to do anything about it.

If you're wondering about the AWA - most people know it's not very important. However, you don't want to walk out of there with a low AWA score either. The Princeton Review book offers great insight into how to attack the AWA. Just develop a formula for the 5 paragraph answer and you should be fine. I suggest practicing 2-3 complete AWA essays on the side to get a sense for the timing and details. Then on each full length practice exam you take, simply write out the structure of how you would write the essay (first line of each paragraph). If you feel you need more work, write out the whole essay. If you properly grasp the formula the AWA essays need, then you should be able to master it in 2-4 hours. After all... it is graded by a computer! The AWA is just a formula expressed in words.

Step 7: Physically prepare to take the exam

Ideally, you will schedule the exam after a long weekend or even take time off work for a couple of days to ensure you have 4-5 days of no responsibility except the GMAT. If you are taking the GMAT at 8am, take your practice tests at 8am. If you will have to wake up at 5am to drive to the testing center, spend the 3-4 days before the exam getting up at that hour, and take a complete practice test precisely at 8am. Replicate your testing conditions as well as possible. This includes adjusting your sleep cycle to the exam.

There is no right answer to the question "what should I do the day before the exam?" Should you study or just relax? That's up to you, but I recommend reviewing your notes just to ease any nerves, and to definitely conduct a test drive to the testing center if it's in an unfamiliar location. Make sure you allow for traffic when you drive there for the real test. You don't need any added stress the day of the exam. Eat a good meal the night before, and a high carb breakfast the day of the exam.

Some specific study tips
  • Speed versus accuracy
When starting out, most will have to sacrifice either speed or accuracy in their problem solving. My suggestion is to first achieve accuracy and only later worry about speed. Always time yourself so you can monitor your performance, but don't worry about how long it takes to solve problems at first. In fact, don't worry about your time until you are getting nearly everything correct. Once you have figured out how to solve the relevant type of problem, only then begin to work work on shortcuts and ways to improve your time. I believe that this will naturally come anyway with practice. Once you practice enough, you will recognize the type of problem you are dealing with and will be able to streamline the solution.
  • Do problem sets in groups
Try to practice questions in sets of 20-30 non-stop. The Results Tracker is set up for 30 questions at a time, which should take you about an hour per round. This will help your mind focus on the study material and dig deep into the question type. As you probably noted as a theme, the ability to focus is critical in your study/practice sessions.
  • Use of Test Book Simulator
I also recommend using the Manhattan GMAT Test Book Simulator as much as possible, or at least while taking the actual full length exams. Get in a habit of quickly filling out the ABCDE answer grid on it like you will do on test day (during the time the instructions are being displayed on the screen). There's no use wasting actual test time to setup your test book. The test book is essentially dry erase graphing paper, and you should use two small vertical columns for each ABCDE column, and two horizontal rows for each question row. This sounds unimportant, but every little bit helps.
  • Scratch paper
Another small tip is to do your scratch work on graphing paper when you practice. I used regular lined paper for my first exam, and graphing paper while preparing for my second exam. I found that I was able to organize my math problem solutions much better on graphing paper, and it was also a better simulation for the actual test day. The closer your studying emulates test day conditions the better off you will be come test day.
  • 3 x 5 cards
Keep 3" x 5" note cards (or similar) to record concepts that you just learned or keep missing. On one side write the type of concept, on the reverse side write the explanation. For example, it may be a certain GMAT grammar rule, or a reminder about a trap you keep missing in the math section. Carry these cards around with you and just shuffle through them when you have a free minute (standing in line, on the subway, etc.).
  • Always use the Results and Answer Sheet trackers
You wouldn't use an investment strategy that doesn't record its results. Why should you invest so much time into studying for the GMAT without using similar methods to record and refine your own performance? Use the excel spreadsheets I provided here or create your own - but never waste time on a set of questions unless you can evaluate your performance and fit it into your overall strategy.
  • Focus on the hard questions
If your goal is a 700+ on the GMAT, focus on practicing the hard questions. Those are generally the last third of each OG section and the Kaplan 800 questions. If you are on pace for achieving a top score, you will max out the difficulty level on the real GMAT in the first 15 questions and will be coasting in the "hard questions bucket" for the rest of the test. So expect that practically all your questions on the real GMAT to be the difficult question type. Therefore, make sure you practice accordingly. The Princeton Review main GMAT study guide has questions broken by difficulty level if you want a better understanding of this idea.

Closing Thoughts

I learned a lot from others while I prepared for my GMAT, and I wanted to write about my experience to help give back to future test takers. I'll be glad to answer questions, and please feel free to comment if this program helped you or if you have any improvements to suggest.

Just remember that the GMAT does not test intelligence. It tests your commitment to practice, practice, and practice.

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