GMAT Tip of the Week: Five Ways To Focus Your Studies For Back To School

If you’ve had grand plans all summer of taking some time to focus on the GMAT so you can apply to business school, but you’ve gotten sidetracked with barbecues and weekends at the beach and other outdoor activities, you’re not alone. Summertime was made for procrastination and recreation. But as sure as every Target and Wal-Mart ad out there is advertising “Back to School” specials on notebooks and backpacks, whether you’re entering kindergarten or hoping to enter Harvard Business School soon, it’s back-to-school time, time to get on a more regimented study routine. If, like most students, you’ve let your study habits wane over the endless summer, here are five ways to get back in gear to hit those October Round 1 deadlines or the January Round 2 deadlines with a positive GMAT experience this fall:

1) You can’t go home again.

Some of our best-laid plans to study are easily derailed when we walk in the door and return from work life to home life. Whether the couch beckons for a 10-minute rest that turns into a marathon of your favorite fall TV shows or your phone or roommates alert you to something going on that evening (it is, after all, summer for almost an entire month more, and fall can be fun too), it’s easy for a few minutes of transition time to turn into a wasted evening. If you have study plans, go straight to studying, whether it’s at a library, a coffee shop, your office, or another place you know you’ll get work done. At work you’re on a mission from 9 to 5; immediately get back on a different mission and don’t lose that focus and momentum. Even if you want to rest, rest with a coffee or an email/internet check at your study location; don’t put yourself in a situation where it’s easy to get sidetracked entirely.

2) Be accountable.

Do you find it much easier to get your day job done than your “evening job” of studying for the GMAT? Almost all of us do, and most of the reason is that we’re much more accountable to our day job. And it’s usually not even the fear of losing your job and its paycheck – it’s more that you work with other people, and you’d just be ashamed if they caught you dropping the ball, showing up hours late, missing an entire day for no reason, etc. While ultimately you’re accountable to the paycheck and health insurance, day to day you’re more accountable to coworkers in an interpersonal way. So replicate that with your GMAT study: find a friend who’s studying for anything (if not the GMAT, maybe the LSAT or a CFA exam) and make plans to study together. Let your roommate know that you’re studying until 9pm and won’t be home, and let her look at you condescendingly if you’re home too early. Tell your parents to text you and ask how your study session went. Studying for the GMAT is often a solo act, but if you can involve that accountability to others you’ll be much less likely to put it off.

3) Be flexible (but still accountable).

Many study regimens are ruined because they’re resented. A lot of us are all or nothing – we’re all in for two weeks of studying ever Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, but as soon as we miss one, that leads to missing two and to getting totally off track (the same thing is true of diets, workout routines, New Year’s resolutions, or really any kind of self-improvement). And be honest – one of those nights you’re planning to study someone will suggest a happy hour or you’ll have to work late or a friend will be in town for just one night. You will have to miss a day. The key is to not let that throw you off the whole cycle. One way to avoid that – focus less on specific shifts and more on what you want to accomplish each week. If it’s two weeknights and one weekend morning, then tentatively plan for “Mondays and Wednesdays unless something happens” and then if on Monday the company picks up the tab while everyone heads out to watch Monday Night Football, you now know that you have to shift that Monday session to Tuesday. The key is much more to spend that duration of time studying, not necessarily that exact block of time on Monday night. Let yourself have balance; just don’t let yourself blow the whole thing.

4) Focus on achievement, not activity.

John Wooden’s famous quote “Never mistake activity for achievement” appears throughout the Veritas Prep books, and for good reason – many students count the hours they studied or the number of problems they did (activity) but don’t really know what they’ve learned or accomplished after a study session. The GMAT forum are full of those “I reviewed each book 4 times but my score still didn’t improve” threads in which people lament that the time they spent didn’t directly translate to success. What’s more important than how much you study is how much you learn – and the good news is that it’s much easier to stay motivated and engaged when you’re focusing on takeaways than just repetition. So theme your study sessions – for example “tonight I’m going to stop fearing quadratic equations” or “today I’m going to take inventory of all my silly mistakes and see which ones come up most often”. Simply grinding out problems gets tedious and doesn’t lead to success; taking time at the end of each session to summarize what you’ve learned and gameplan for the next session will show you incremental value each time you study, and is just a more effective way to learn, too.

5) Take practice tests.

Former high school and college athletes can all attest – practice may be a grind, but scrimmages and games are fun. The same is true for studying for the GMAT – if you find yourself just reviewing notes and grinding out drill problems, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll burn out and get bored. Plus there’s no one-size-fits-all study method out there; some people need to focus on Sentence Correction, others Data Sufficiency, and others pacing or algebra fundamentals. The best way to know where to spend your time AND to stay engaged and “urgent” is to take practice tests every couple weeks. Algebra or grammar drills on a Tuesday can get old fast, but getting that game day experience can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel and get motivated to fix mistakes and improve scores. Make sure that practice tests are a part of your well-balanced study regimen.

As the summer draws to a close and we’re all inundated with Back to School ads, use them as a reminder – if you want to go back to school over the next couple autumns, there’s no time like this fall to start making that wish a reality. With fall crispness in the air and, yes, sales on pencils and notebooks and backpacks, the time is right to become a student again.