The 5 Strategies That Helped Me Score 780 on the GMAT

Last week I wrote about the day I scored 780 on the GMAT. That post was purely about my experiences on test day — from what I ate in the morning to how I kept my mind sharp during short breaks in the exam. Today I’ll dig into some of the specific strategies I used to ace the GMAT.

Note that many of these strategies overlap heavily with Veritas Prep’s own GMAT prep philosophy — I do work for Veritas Prep, after all — so regular readers will probably see some overlap between this post and the advice they read on this blog on a regular basis. Here I describe how the “rubber met the road” for me as I put these strategies to work.

The Strategies I Found Most Useful
I’ve always been pretty good at math and my quant scores on practice tests were all around the mid-40’s. And my verbal scores were lower and ranged from the mid 30’s to low 40’s. In the weeks of studying before taking the test, I had a shift in thinking about the strategy of the GMAT. Excuse the clichè, but I really started to “Think Like the Testmaker.” I thought “What is the GMAT and what does it reward?” It’s a test to get into graduate business school, not a graduate math program nor a graduate English Literature program. As a result, the GMAT is not looking for the number crunchers or the grammar Nazis but for those who would do well in a business program — those who can interpret, distill, manage and simplify complex, loose data and transform it into usable information to make decisions and solve business problems. In order for the GMAT to be a useful tool for admissions officers, it must be a relevant test of the skills needed for an MBA. And in order for the GMAT to be relevant, it must reward the type of thinking that is consistent with what admissions officers at MBA programs are looking for. As our Director of Academic Programs, Brian Galvin says, “The test is not a test of what you know, but a test of how you think.” Now this makes perfect sense since the GMAT would not be a very good test if you could simply memorize a bunch of stuff and do well on it.

Most of the strategies I list here have some relationship to how the test rewards that certain type of thinking that makes you an effective business person.

Problem Solving
“Always look at the answer choices before you start to solve a problem” (Page 25, Lesson 10)

This was very useful for me on the problem solving section. I would traditionally try to read the question, solve the problem and then look for which answer choice matched my solution. However, sometimes, the answer choices gave clues to what I needed to look for in the solution as well as whether there was a shortcut that I could use to save time. If a question asks me to multiply a bunch of horrible-looking numbers together, and the answer choices were in exponent form and were all an order of magnitude away, then it’s a giveaway that I can estimate and just get close. Or, if I’m dealing with a geometry problem and I see roots of 2 and 3 or ?’s in the answer choices, I know I’ll be dealing with an isosceles/30-60-90 triangle property or some kind of circle property. There were definitely 3-4 questions on the test that I used this strategy for. I was able to cut a lot of time down by using estimation, thereby saving time for problems that I needed it on.

The Business Takeaway: “Good business people are able to effectively use the limited resources at their disposal to solve a problem.” Remember that answer choices are resources too and they can often help guide you on how to approach the problem.

Data Sufficiency
“Spot the con” (Page 36, Lesson 8)

Data Sufficiency was frustrating for me because although I knew the math concepts, I kept on getting fooled by little details and assumptions I was making. The math itself is not hard, but the GMAT often obscures information or hides information in the question stem or individual statements to try to trip you up. You often have to re-arrange or translate the information given to actually make it useful to the problem. Other times, the test will embed information in one statement in the other statement, fooling you into thinking you need both statements when one of them is sufficient alone. When studying for the test, I followed a simple hierarchy of answer choices:

A & B

When I think I have reached an answer choice, I will double check for any tricks or hidden information that might get me to a nearby answer choice. If I think the answer is A or B, I double check to see if the other statement can be sufficient as well, making it D. If one statement is clearly insufficient alone and I’m thinking A or B, I check to make sure I don’t need the clearly insufficient statement to be true, thereby making the answer C. If I think the answer is E, I check to see if I missed something that actually allows me to solve the problem with C. If I think the answer is C, I check to make sure there’s no embedded information in A or B that allows me to do it with one statement alone. Finally, if I think it’s C and am sure that A and B don’t work, I’ll check to see I assumed something I shouldn’t, actually making the correct answer, E.

The Business Takeway: Good business people are generally able to make decisions with less information but know when they are making unfounded assumptions and need to do more research.

Reading Comprehension:
The “STOP” reading methodology.

I definitely had some trouble with reading comprehension on my practice tests, missing about 1 or 2 questions per passage—far too many to score well on the verbal section. I found that my strategy for dealing with reading comprehension was a bit flawed. I was trying to read the question first and then skim through the passage to get the answer to the question. This didn’t work so well since many of the questions require an understanding of the passage as a whole, not just individual parts. As a result, I started employing “active reading” using the Veritas Prep STOP methodology. I changed my strategy and spent more time on the first question reading the entire passage carefully while actively looking for the STOP elements of Structure, Tone, Organization and main Point. This way, I had a much more clear understanding of the passage from the first read through and could immediately identify things such as:

  • What is this passage seeking to do?
  • How are the paragraphs organized and what is the point of each one?
  • Is the author arguing for/against something or simply presenting information? If he’s arguing for/against something what evidence and logic does he use to support his position?
  • How do these specific examples or pieces of evidence support his claim or act as counterexamples?

By taking more time up front to read the passage carefully, I found it much easier and faster to answer the subsequent questions about the passage. So instead of spending 2 minutes on each of 4 reading comprehension passages for a total of 8 minutes or so per passage, I instead spent 4 minutes first carefully reading the passage, looking for the STOP elements and then spending about 30 seconds to 1 minute on each of the subsequent questions.

After doing this, I went from 1 or 2 errors per passage to 1 or 2 RC errors in the entire verbal section.

The Business Takeaway: When presented with foreign, unfamiliar subject matter, the effective business person is able to focus on and extract the most important elements from an otherwise esoteric source of information.

Critical Reasoning:
Focus on the specifics of the argument and ignore any answer choices that don’t directly address the linear logic of the argument.

I’ve found that a lot of the wrong answers I was choosing on the CR section were answer choices that were true, but did not directly address the specific path of logic that the argument uses. Often times, an answer choice that more appropriately fits the argument’s reasoning turned out to be the correct one.

For example: “Ever since the CEO of the company implemented a company-sponsored health care program, the productivity per employee has been up 12% over last year. Since there were no other incentive programs created in the last year, the rise in productivity must be directly attributable to the employees’ happiness with the CEO’s program.”

When asked which answer choice would most WEAKEN the conclusion of the argument, a popular wrong I answer I might have selected may have been:

“Incentive programs have been shown by business studies to be generally ineffective at boosting employee productivity.”

However, the correct answer choice would have been:

“Over the last year, over 15% of the staff of the company has been laid off, while the company has shown the same level of business activity.”

As you can see, the first answer choice is very tempting since it has the words “incentive program” and “employee productivity” in it. However, it only states that it is a general case and not an absolute rule. The second answer, while it may not sound as good, actually directly addresses the argument’s logic in that the rise in per employee productivity may have actually been the result of employees having to cover for the laid-off employees’ workload.

Using this general strategy, I was able to much more effectively identify the trap answers that did not relate directly to the pattern of logic presented in the argument.

The business takeaway: Effective business people have a tight focus on the things that really matter when faced with critical decisions and do not get dissuaded by irrelevant facts or information.

Sentence Correction:
Approaching sentences with the goal of creating logical meaning instead of “relying on my ear” or on idioms to correct sentences. And getting rid of “junk.”

Sentence Correction was my worst verbal subject before I started studying. I kept on getting a good number of questions wrong and was not able to identify any solid rules to follow so I just started memorizing the particular structures of the sentences on the questions that I got wrong and saying “OK, this is the idiomatic way of writing this.” This became completely unmanageable because there was no way I could hold all those idioms and constructions in my head with a sufficient level of accuracy.

Then I thought, “Well, the GMAT really shouldn’t reward my ability to memorize idioms. Otherwise, the people with the best memory and not necessarily those with the best reasoning abilities would do well on the test.” As a result, I changed my thinking and started to approach sentence correction from a logical standpoint. Instead of relying on a vast library of idioms, I took a small subset of grammar rules (mostly those in the “agreement” category) such as verb tense, pronoun agreement, modifier agreement, subject-verb agreement, and agreement between equivalent elements. I found that almost all of the sentence correction problems could be solved by applying this relatively small set of rules to them. It was much more manageable and made much more sense:

  • When describing things or events in the past, your verbs better agree when they are also describing things in the past.
  • When you have a singular subject, use a singular pronoun and use a plural pronoun for plural subjects.
  • Make sure the sentence is modifying the correct subject. “Since she had been behaving well all day, Liz rewarded her dog with a treat.” Who was well-behaved, the dog or Liz? I saw this type of thing a lot on the test.
  • Make sure that comparisons are also logical and that the elements are equivalent (nouns to nouns, actions to actions, etc). “Like other dog collars, Fido had a plain metal name tag.” The dog collar and Fido (the dog) are not equivalent. You would need “Like other dog collars, Fido’s had a plain metal name tag.”

Dealing with sentence correction using this frame work was infinitely easier than trying to pull out the proper idiom from my memory bank. There wasn’t a single question on the actual GMAT where I had to actually KNOW the proper idiom to use in that situation. In fact, there were several instances where I saw that a wrong answer choice contained a “nice-sounding” idiom that ultimately ended up being the incorrect answer choice because it did not conform to one of the rules above. Had I “used my ear” like I was doing before, I would have certainly gotten those questions wrong.

Finally, the difficulty on the harder sentence correction problem wasn’t so much that there were harder and more obscure rules that were thrown at me as much that the GMAT just put a bunch of junk in my way to hide where the real subjects and antecedents were. So a tricky sentence would read something such as:

“The committee that handles the country’s budget, made up of six senators and six congressmen from twelve different states, are currently deciding what programs to cut in order to reduce the deficit.”

You see how this is trick since the sentence hides the verb “are” from the singular subject “committee”. By cutting out all the fluff, the sentence would ready to me as:

“The committee, ::junk junk junk junk::, are currently deciding ::junk junk junk junk::”

Now, it’s plainly obvious that the “committee” requires a singular verb of “is” instead of “are.” For many of the problems, I was so focused on the critical elements in the sentence, I don’t even remember what the subject matter of those sentences were after answering the question!

There are probably only 2 dozen or fewer grammar rules that you actually have to know to do well on sentence correction—much easier than memorizing a whole list of idioms!

The Business Takeaway: Effective business people are able to avoid distracting information and sort through to the most important elements.

In conclusion, the same skills that are rewarded on the GMAT are the same skills that are required to become successful MBAs and effective business people:

  • creative, efficient problem solving
  • effective management, transformation and interpretation of data
  • ability to extract the most important elements from unfamiliar sources
  • clear focus on the path of logic or reasoning behind a proposal or plan of action
  • and finally, the ability to ignore extraneous, distracting information that is irrelevant to the task at hand

When you are studying for the GMAT, keep in mind that the GMAT rewards this type of thinking and you will be able to tell which strategies will actually be effective on the GMAT and which strategies will not.

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