1. It’s a question we hear all the time: which books should I use to prepare for the GMAT? Although in 2017, we are living in an increasingly digital world, this is one corner which has remained remarkably analog: young students everywhere still see physical books as an essential part of their test prep.

    We’ve explained elsewhere why you should use the GMAT Official Guide in your studies. But the truth is that not even the OG on its own can suffice. It has some serious shortcomings that have to do not with its specific characteristics, but simply with that fact that it is… a book. While we here at examPAL see books as wonderful parts of our everyday life, in the domain of test prep they have inherent disadvantages.

    What are these problems? Why will books on their own never prepare you for the GMAT?

    Books, GMAT and what sets them apart

    The reasons books are, on their own, inadequate for GMAT prep, has as much to do with the GMAT itself as it does with books. The test has a string of characteristics that render book-based study insufficient. We will explore these now:

    • The GMAT is adaptive; books are static: the GMAT is a CAT: a Computer Adaptive Test. This means that virtually every question you see on the test is a result of your performance until the point that you answer it. Doing well? Hard questions are headed your way. Got a few wrong? You may be seeing some easier ones. Books, of course, are not and cannot be adaptive. So while the GMAT dynamically serves up questions of varying degrees of difficulty, zeroing in on your precise proficiency level, books are, by definition, a tedious plod through a string of predetermined questions, most of which – crucially – – are simply irrelevant to you, as they are either above or below your difficulty level.
    • The GMAT is pluralistic; books are uniform: what we mean by this is not, of course, that there is more than one solution to any question; there definitely isn’t. Rather, the point is that for most questions, there is more than an answer strategy to get to that solution. This is the founding principle of our PAL mindset: all questions can be solved with either a Precise, Alternative or Logical strategy, but most can be solved by more than one, leaving the choice up to the individual test takers, and dependent on their own strengths and weaknesses.

    Books, of course, reflect none of this. They tend to provide us with one explanation per question, assuming that what is good for the test writers is good for all. Even when more than one solution strategy is presented, we aren’t given any tools to choose the one that is right for our strengths and weaknesses. This lead us directly to the next issue:

    • The GMAT is flexible; books are rigid: the GMAT is not about knowledge, but about something we call “cognitive flexibility.” The GMAT presents us with one question after another that differ from each other in difficulty level, subject, length and most crucially, as just noted, several different possible solutions. Since time is such a significant factor on the test, we must almost immediately decide which way to go for each question. Cognitive flexibility, then, is the ability to quickly decide which solution is the right tool for us. Books don’t help us with this at all; they offer no help in analyzing the best solution tool for us.

    This leads us to next problem

    • Books don’t give us feedback: this is a fairly obvious shortcoming, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Effective study needs to be geared towards our personal progress and challenges. This may be true for any test, but the GMAT’s adaptiveness makes it all the more the case: the GMAT is going to react to our personal performance by feeding us questions that match it. Shouldn’t our study regime do so as well? Books, of course, do none of this. Aside from telling us, for each specific question, whether we got it right or wrong, books will give us no insight into the reasons for our mistakes and the way in which our performance in one topic relates to another, or even reflect our study progress.
    • The GMAT is virtual; books are physical: as noted, The “C” in CAT stands for “Computer.” We’ve already discussed the adaptiveness this entails, but that’s not all: there is simply value in becoming as accustomed as possible to the test’s interface ahead of time. Simple things like solving a question on paper and then choosing an answer on the screen are worth practicing. The guiding principle is: we want as few surprises as possible on test day. Our mind has to be devoted entirely to solving questions, never to figuring out where to write our notes down or where to focus our eyes.


    So… No Books Then?

    Not exactly. As noted above, we certainly recommend incorporating the Official Guide for GMAT into our study routine. Other books can also be helpful. But all of these can only serve us tools in a larger study regime. Whether taking a course, using private tutors or studying on our own, books can help – but cannot be the cornerstone of our studies.


    Dave Green
    Senior tutor and professional test-prep writer. Interdisciplinary wizard, with Master’s degrees in economics, philosophy, and political science at HUJI.

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