Ah the GMAT, what a difficult, stressful, and massively important test. Wouldn’t it be nice if business schools only cared about your GPA, letters of recommendations, and a rock solid interview?
Everyone has to take a standardized test to get into B-school, and the vast majority will take the GMAT. The point of these tests is to make it simple for admissions offices to quickly differentiate between candidates, so this test really is your biggest opportunity to say, “Hey! Pay attention to my application!”
Don’t look at improving on the GMAT as some sort of annoying hoop to jump through, but as a fantastic chance to show business schools that you are capable of confronting challenges head-on and coming out on top. You know how that classic quote that goes “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”? Well, a great GMAT score shows MBA programs that you have perspired a lot.
So whether you’ve just taken a practice test or have already taken an official GMAT in a test center, you’re reading this right now because you want to know exactly how to get that improvement. After all, you’re going to put a lot of hours into this project, so they might as well be spent working intelligently.
How Many Hours Should I Study?
This is really going to depend on how much time you’ve already put into the GMAT. If you have already put in 10 hours a week for the past 8 weeks and your score is stagnating, you’re not going to get anywhere by just practicing more. You’ll need to really focus your studying to improve specific weaknesses (more on that below).
With that said, if you’ve barely put in any practice, and either took a practice cold or just took a GMAT in the testing center to see if you could immediately get the score you wanted, you’ll really benefit from putting in many weeks of practice.
You’ll want to put in 6 to 8 weeks of prep work if you’re a native English speaker and 8 to 12 weeks if you’re not. The extra time for non-native English speakers is suggested because to ace the GMAT you’ll need to develop the ability to comprehend every question quickly, without pausing for thought on the sometimes difficult vocabulary and grammar used on the test. Sometimes, even native English speakers who haven’t spent a lot of time reading, will be advised to take this extra period of ‘English practice’, just to make sure they’re up to speed.
The general wisdom with GMAT prep states that you’ll want to put in about 50 hours for a 50-point improvement, 100 hours for a 100-point improvement, and 150 hours for a 150-point improvement over the course of your weeks of studying. That means if you’re giving yourself 8 weeks and want to earn 150 points, you’re looking at putting in about 19 hours per week of studying, including practice tests and practice drills.
If you’re already scoring highly and are trying to get a 95th to 99th percentile score, plan on putting in somewhere between 100 and 150 hours no matter what. You may be trying to improve just 50 points, but that means picking up points on the hardest questions the test has to offer. This is really when identifying problem areas and focusing on those exclusively is going to count.
So without further ado…
The Essentials for Picking Up Points on Your GMAT Score
Read through all of these tips and follow as many of them as you think apply to you. Obviously every test taker is different, but you’ll likely find some useful tip in each of these which could very well translate to one or two extra questions, and therefore 10 or 20 extra points on the test.
1. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Get out your pen and paper and make two columns. Now, think back to the last time you took the GMAT, be that the real thing or a practice test. In the left column write down every single thing that went well, and every piece of material or question type that you felt confident on. In the right column, list everything that went wrong.
Literally everything. If you wasted time on a sentence corrections question, note it. You’ll have to work on your pacing on the verbal question. If the AC was super high and you felt too cold, write it down. You’ll have to wear layers next time you go to take the test. If you missed a bunch of questions you felt like you really understood, write down what each and every one of those questions was about.
Point of fact, this tip is so important you should do it all the time! Maintaining a rigorous error log of your successes and mistakes, and doing a weekly review to see what you’ve fixed and what you haven’t, is a practice you should integrate your routine study sessions.
2. Build Up Your Strengths First, Then Spend The Majority of Your Time Addressing Weaknesses
You need to answer as many questions correctly on this test as you possibly can. Well, yeah duh. But seriously! If you feel confident about geometry, work to make sure you can get every single geometry question you see on this test correct. Make those free-throws. If you’re not acing the material you understand, you’re missing the easy points.
Mastering question types you’re confident with won’t take too long, most likely, maybe just a few weeks. That will give you a good baseline to work with as you begin your work addressing your weaknesses. Improving on the material that you’re currently bad at will be the really annoying part of the prep journey, so plan on it taking the greatest amount of time. But you’ll do it with a great study plan.
3. Build a Study Plan Based on Content and Question Type.
Simply sitting down and completing an entire GMAT prep book may take up 30 hours of your prep regiment, but those might not be 30 hours well spent.
Start by building a foundation of content you need to review. With the Quant section, go through every question you missed on your practice tests and figure out the exact topics they tested. Review those math concepts and practice them until they’re second nature.
Once you feel ok about content (or at least, better), then evaluate which types of questions you commonly miss. Fortunately, the official GMAT books are laid out by question type, so you’ll be able to practice specific question types. But don’t just sit down and do them all! Understand how they work, what common wrong answer choices look like, and what sort of approach you might be able to develop for them. But how?
4. Review Each and Every Question You Ever Get Wrong
Whether it’s in a practice drill or a practice test, go over each question you miss. Literally, every single one. Don’t just check the answer and move on!
Plan on spending twice as long reviewing a question as you did completing it the first time around. You’ll effectively need to work backwards to figure out how to get something similar to it correct next time around. That means re-reading the question to make sure you understand what it’s asking and the content it’s testing, figuring out why the answer you selected is incorrect, figuring out why the other wrong answers are incorrect, and, finally, evaluating what makes the right answer better than the others.
That last point is big, which is it’s in bold! Your task on the GMAT is always to find the best answer, which means the one that is better than all of the other ones. On that note…
5. Remember That The Majority of Answers You See Are Incorrect
Ok, this isn’t a studying tip, but it is a crucial point about mindset. A lot of people psych themselves out taking this test, looking at all of the answer choices on a given question and going, “Oh no, any of these could be correct! How do I choose?”
Reorient yourself. Remember that most of those answers are bad, and your job is as simple as identifying what doesn’t work and eliminating it. This is obvious on Quant. Obviously on that section, you’re just solving math problems and you know only one answer could possible be correct.
Apply the same logic to the Verbal. Sure, there are a lot of ways to think about the passages and critical reasoning statements the test provides for you, but most of the ways the answers suggest thinking about them are flat out wrong! There’s exactly one answer choice that’s less terrible than the rest, and that’s your correct answer.
6. Know the GMAT Format Inside Out
Go to this link and memorize the table you see there. You’ll want to know exactly how many questions are on each section of the test, exactly what types of questions you’ll see, and exactly how long you have to complete everything.
Once you know those fundamentals, use quality practice material (we recommend to use ours, or the Official Guides) to drill into you brain exactly what each of those question types look like. Pay special attention to the Data Sufficiencies on the Quant section and the Critical Reasoning in the Verbal. A lot of people find those especially tricky, and they do require a unique approach.
If you know exactly what question types you’re dealing with, you’ll develop a sense of which ones you feel more confident about. Again, you’re trying to win points. If you know that the Problem Solving questions are easier for you than the Data Sufficiencies, then first make sure you know how to get as many of the former and then spend a whole lot of time developing a strategy of the latter.
7. Have a Timing Plan
This one is big. One of the things that makes the GMAT uniquely stressful is that constantly ticking clock that you see in the corner of your screen. But that clock is a great tool if you know how to use it!
You have roughly 2 minutes per question on the test, but when you look at your score report you’ll see that you spend different average amounts of time on different question types.
Build up a plan for how long you’re going to spend on questions. Start by devising how much time you’ll spend on easy, medium, and hard questions respectively. A good guideline is to look at the clock every 5 questions and make sure that about 10 minutes have passed. If more have passed, you’re behind! Best to skip a question…
If you’re going to develop a timing strategy for specific question types, just have a rough idea along the lines of “I’ll make sure I put in the time to get all of the Reading Comprehension questions correct since I’m good at those, and let myself off the hook on the occasional Sentence Correction since I hate those.”
8. Use Process of Elimination
You’re going to guess on some hard questions. It’s basically inevitable. You’ll need to eliminate answer choices you know are incorrect to make that process easier.
Again, most of the answers are bad. Treat them as such, and you’ll have a much easier time narrowing it down to answers that seem ok. When you’re stuck between two answers, try to eliminate one instead of figuring out which you like more.
9. Use Good Prep Resources and Get Help!
Ok, you might be reading this list so far going “How do I possibly do this myself?” You might not be able to develop good strategies and content review yourself!
At examPAL, we’ve built our system to be adaptive and fit the study plan to the student. We do this by using an AI to analyze your performance, as well that of all other students who have used our platform and to integrate this into a specific recommendation. Are you really good with equations? We’ll suggest solutions and tools which leverage this capability. Do you struggle with long, confusing word problems? We’ll suggest methods to help you get past this block, for example by breaking down the question or getting help from a friend (the answers!). Point of fact, we’ve categorized all solution tools into 3 basic categories, which we call Precise, Alternative, and Logical, that reflect fundamentally different ways of solving a given problem. Your ability to use these different tools in real-time, that is your ability to select the best possible tool for a given question, is a very large part of what determines your potential success. If you’d like more details, check out a short video and blog on the subject here.
10. Practice In a Realistic Testing Environment
You can understand the format of this test inside out, know all of the content, and have a great guessing strategy planned out, but at the end of the day, taking the GMAT in a testing center is a unique and kind of terrible experience.
Do what you can to simulate that experience while doing your practice tests:
- Practice somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted.
- Schedule your practice test for the same time of day you’ll take the real thing.
- Make the room cold if you can. Seriously. They keep those testing centers cold.
- Go somewhere unfamiliar, like a study room in a library or a strange conference room in your office.
Most importantly, do the practice exam in one sitting, with breaks exactly like the real GMAT – being nice to yourself during practice will only make it harder on the real thing!
11. Use Estimation
This is a key Quant strategy. You don’t have a calculator on the test, so you’ll want to avoid any unwieldy math. The good news is that the people writing this test really reward approximation and estimation, so do so as often as possible.
For instance, if you need to know 38% of 70 for some question, figure out what 40% of 70 is and say that’s close enough. Need to find 40% quickly? Well, that’s just 10% four times, and since 10% of 70 is 7, then that four times is 28. So 38% of 70 will be just less than 28.
To speed up these estimations, make sure to learn the basic multiplication tables and special numbers (like pi) by heart.
12. Know Formulas and Tricks Inside Out
For instance, with right triangles, you don’t just want to know Pythagorean Theorem, but also your 30-60-90 and 45-45-90 triangles. Don’t know what those are? Check out our lesson on triangles.
Similarly to estimation, knowing all of these rules and tricks by heart will help you speed past the ‘uninteresting things’, namely calculation, in order to get the interesting ones, i.e. actually thinking about the question.
13. Read Like An Academic
Maybe you’re in college now, but maybe it’s been a few years! If you want to succeed on the Verbal, you’ll need to be a really savvy reader.
Get in the habit of reading 60 minutes per day, which is about how long the GMAT’s Verbal section takes to complete. Read challenging material, like classic novels or high caliber publications like The New Yorker, The Economist, Scientific American, Wired, or The New York Times. You’re looking for excellent writing with sophisticated vocabulary.
Take time analyzing those texts too. Once you get in the habit of practicing Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning problems, start asking yourself questions about the texts you’re reading that you think GMAT writers might devise.
14. Keep a Running List of Any Words You Can’t Define
These words don’t just have to come from GMAT test materials or words you read in those high sophisticated publications and books. You’re encountering advanced vocabulary every day, whether you notice it or not. Maybe you overheard someone say “iconoclastic” today and you were never quite sure if that meant “iconic” or “breaking icons.”
Don’t just keep track of every word you don’t know, but every word you couldn’t reasonably define if your friend asked you to. Put together flashcards with all of these words and study the heck out of them. The more vocabulary you know, the less of a chance you’re giving the GMAT to throw you off with something unfamiliar.
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