State of the Union: Your GMAT Study Strategy

As a nation braces itself for tonight’s State of the Union address – Democrats readying their hands for applause; Republicans clearing their vocal chords for boos; and children trying to figure out what to do when nothing else is on TV – GMAT candidates can use the State of the Union to prepare for their upcoming exams.

The intended purpose of the State of the Union is to take inventory of where the nation stands: what recent actions and policies have been successful and which need to change; what threats and opportunities does the country face; where are we, where do we want to be, and how do we get there? These are questions that, frankly, GMAT students don’t ask themselves nearly enough.

As a demographic group, GMAT students are among the most driven and hardworking people on the planet, but often those positive qualities manifest themselves in the most brute-force of study strategies: do more practice tests; solve more practice problems; spend more hours/days/months “studying”.  What these practices tend to miss is that the GMAT is by nature an analytical exam, designed to reward those who think critically, analytically, and efficiently not just about each problem, but about the entire process as a whole.  Browse a GMAT study forum and you’re likely to read countless comments and threads such as:

“I’ve been studying x hours per week for y months and my score has stagnated.  What do I do?”

“I’ve used the Official Guide 11th and 12th editions and the verbal and quant supplements in addition to three other books; where can I find more practice problems?”

“Experts please help!  How do I go from 570 to 720?”

These comments certainly don’t lack for motivation – the authors are clearly committed to putting in the work necessary to succeed.  Given that the GMAT isn’t a test of one’s capacity for hard work, however, but rather a test of one’s ability to efficiently solve problems, these comments miss the boat entirely.

To effectively succeed on the GMAT, most candidates will need to consciously think analytically about their study process – you’ll need to hold an informal “State of the Union” address for yourself every so often to determine how to effectively use your upcoming study time.  Simply “studying more” and “working harder” won’t produce success; you’ll need to think like an executive (or like the executive branch of government) to assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and a plan for moving forward.  To do so, ask yourself questions like the following, and use your practice test and homework results to help you answer:

1) Which concept areas are still giving you the most trouble?  How can you address those before simply diving into more tests or problems?

2) Which question types do you tend to miss most frequently?  Do you have a systematic strategy for attacking them or do you tend to “go by feel”?  If it’s the latter, how can you change your approach to be more consistent?

3) Which question types or content areas are costing you the most time?  How can you approach these questions differently to solve them more efficiently?

4) Which “careless” or “silly” mistakes do you tend to make most frequently?  Make sure that you note these and look out for them – it’s very easy to brush off “silly” mistakes in practice, but if you’ve made it once you’re vulnerable to making it again, especially under test pressure.

5) If the test were tomorrow, which topics or question types do you think would keep you awake tonight with worry?

6) Similarly, if the test were in three days, what would you spend tomorrow studying?

Based on these and similar questions, you should come up with a plan to study effectively and efficiently over the next few study sessions. What are your goals?  For example:

-I need to improve my pacing on the quant side, so I’ll do some timed drills  to help identify and set up word problems faster

-I tend to ignore strategy when facing Sentence Correction questions, and just go with “what sounds right”, so I need to train myself to consciously identify common errors.

-I just don’t feel  comfortable with exponents, so I need to refresh those concepts and look for patterns in the lines of questioning so that I know what to expect.

-I make too many assumptions on Data Sufficiency questions and need to train myself to double-check for them before submitting my answers.

With specific goals and targets for study sessions, you can better track your progress and get more value out of less study time.  If you can leave a 90-minute session at the library confident that you’ve improved upon a weakness, that’s a much more effective use of time than spinning your wheels on 3 hours’ worth of “just doing problems”.  Hold yourself accountable for takeaways at the end of each study session.  What did you learn?  How will you continue to improve upon it?  What does that mean for your next practice test?

The State of the Union address serves as an annual status check for the nation and its government; similarly, you should perform regular status checks for yourself as you prepare for the GMAT.  As you’ll note, the second word in the acronym “GMAT” is “Management” – perform these regular status checks to help yourself better manage the process of preparing for a management exam.  Quite simply, that’s the name of the game.