GMAT Tip of the Week: Planning Your Study Schedule

Happy Labor Day weekend, readers!  In honor of Labor Day, we offer this study tip (or series of tips) for those of you about to get to work on your GMAT studies.  As you plot out your study plan, keep in mind that the GMAT is a test different from others you’ve taken.  Cramming will not work and repetition leading to rote memory isn’t all that effective either.  Remember, the GMAT is a test of how you think, so while you study pay attention to your thought process. 

We recommend:

1) Be wary of studying too much
This may seem a little counterintuitive, but in many respects it is more worrisome when a student plans to study too much than it is when a student plans to study too little.  Why?

- A focus on the sheer quantity of problems you study or the duration of time you spend often misses the mark.  Your job is to learn the test by paying attention to patterns in how it is written, subtleties in the concepts it tests that could make for good question fodder, devices that often trip you up, “silly” mistakes you make all too frequently, etc.  Saying “I spent 5 hours at the library” isn’t nearly as valuable as saying “I feel very comfortable with the way Data Sufficiency is constructed”.  So don’t make duration or quantity your prime goal – set subject-specific goals and then spend the time necessary to get there.

- Procrastination is directly proportional to available time.  If you have six weeks until your test date, you have a sense of urgency; if you have six months, it’s too easy to study hard for 2-3 weeks, take a weekend off, then get a call about going out of town the next weekend, etc. until you’ve wasted a month in the middle of your study calendar.  Often when people plan to study for six months instead of for three, they still study for three months… just a disjointed three months (two here, then a break, then a week to review where you left off, then a break…).  Instead of setting up a procrastination-intensive schedule, plan on a 9-10 week schedule first.  Then after week 2 or 3, ask yourself if you feel like you’re on pace with what you planned.  If you’re behind where you’d like to be, then stretch your schedule by a week or two with a specific purpose in mind.  For example, “I’m adding two weeks to focus on basic math.”  That way you don’t lose your momentum if you do need longer, and your study sessions have purpose – you’re not doing GMAT problems because you said you would; you’re working on fundamental algebra because you know you need to.

2) Give your study sessions themes
As mentioned above, one of the easiest ways to waste time and become disenchanted is to go to the library “to study”, without a purpose or a plan.  Not only do you spend time spinning your wheels, you also burn through practice problems and practice tests without extracting maximum value.  Just “doing problems” without pausing to note takeaways, you lose much of the value.  If you come away from problem #84 knowing only “the answer is B”, you’ve studied inefficiently.  If you know that “the key is to remember that if a variable could be negative you can’t multiply or divide by it in an inequality, so you have to consider both options…when you see that inequality sign, make sure you assess each variable for the possibility that it could be negative” then you’ve learned a skill that’s transferable to other problems.

So set up your study sessions with themes and goals.  For example:

Monday — review exponent properties and do 3 sets of 10 algebra problems that use exponents.

And then at the end of your study session, make notes about what you learned.  For example:

Monday — exponents — NOTE: make sure to factor exponents that have addition/subtraction so I can apply exponent rules; don’t be intimidated by negative exponents… those are just reciprocals; I feel comfortable with most problem solving exponents problems but need to work on DS.

This way you’re focusing on what you learn, not just about content but about how you think.  Make your focus as you study not as much on what you do, but what you learn.

3) Work on timing, but not at the expense of learning
The GMAT is a timed test and at some point you’ll need to be able to solve problems under those conditions.  But especially early in your studies, and even later as you’re focusing on shoring up weak areas, it’s more important that you take the time to really understand a problem or concept than it is for you to adhere to a time limit.  The GMAT loves to test “reverse engineering” (testing whether you can see a concept from Z to A when most of us learn it from A to Z), exceptions-to-the-rule (2 is the only prime even number), and other elements of out-of-the-box thinking, so it’s quite helpful for you to spend time working through and really pushing the limits of problems, and not just feeling crunched for time, guessing, then reading the solution.  People learn quite a bit more of what they “discover” through trial/error and logic than what they read or are told, so don’t be afraid to lose the stopwatch for a few study sessions and just explore the GMAT’s array of concepts and question types.

If you do some timed sets and practice tests as a part of – but not the only part of – your study regimen, you’ll certainly blend pacing and expedience into your arsenal, but make sure that you don’t do that at the expense of true understanding.

4) Prove it — don’t look it up
This may not be a study schedule strategy, per se, but it’s worth adding and ties into the other suggestions.  If you focus on learning and not on quantity, and you focus on understanding at least as much as you focus on pacing, you give yourself this opportunity – when you don’t know a concept, force yourself to think it  through and prove it to yourself.  This is infinitely more powerful than looking at your cheatsheet or at the solutions page – you won’t have those devices on test day so don’t get addicted to them, and if you’ve proven a rule to yourself you’ll always have that ability again…you’re not reliant on memorization.  Too often we’re rushed in study situations – we want to get as many questions done as possible, or we’re trying to get done with our homework set quickly so we can go home.  But looking up a rule wastes a valuable opportunity to really learn and remember it – again, make learning your priority.

5) Take practice tests — and analyze them!
Students often hit the first part but completely neglect the second.  Any time you block 3-4 hours on your calendar to take a practice test, make sure that you have 1-2 hours within a day or two to analyze what you learned.  While the experience of taking the test is helpful – it builds stamina, familiarity, etc. – the real value of that test is that it gives you insight into where you need to improve.  What mistakes do you make under pressure?  How can you better allocate time across the section?  Which concepts escaped you when you had to be ready for everything and couldn’t just tune your mind to “today is an algebra day?”  Practice tests are an essential component of your study plan, but mainly because they give you an opportunity to learn about yourself.  Make sure that you take time to extract that full value from each practice test.

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