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The Surprising Key to GMAT Success (hint: it doesn’t involve Probability)

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Get Used to Repeating Questions

“The secret is reps, reps, reps.” –Arnold Schwarzenegger

gmat-early-barbell

This guy knows what he’s doing.

It’s painfully common for me to hear a new GMAT student say “I’ve bought all the books and the courses and downloaded things from the bad place and I have 20,000 questions so I’ll never need to get bored and I’ll never have to repeat a question!”

This is a student who will not reach 700—at least not without a serious mindset shift.

It really doesn’t matter what you’ve read on the GMAT forums. Don’t get me wrong: the forums are a great resource for explanations, but they’re worse than a sewing circle for poisonous gossip about preparation strategy or judging the difficulty of questions.

Practice the Questions That You Get Wrong

Let’s be honest. If a person learns ALL of the questions in the Official Guide and can do ALL of them in an efficient way in two minutes or less without excess expenditure of energy, that person should be able to reach 650+ on the GMAT.

By the way, when I say “in an efficient way,” that VERY RARELY means “the way it’s done in the back of the book.” Word to the wise: OG explanations are “correct,” but they’re certainly not efficient.

The only realistic way to do this is to go through the Official Guide question-by-question, mark the questions in order of perceived difficulty, and then repeat the questions that you found difficult.

Over and over. Until they’re not difficult. If that takes five times, ten times, or more, so be it. If it takes getting the questions explained by a professional like me, so be it. Getting help will be an investment in your future.

The Rub is This

No one ever fucking does it. They don’t complete the Guides! They don’t repeat the questions!

I’m saying that with a grain of salt—700-level folks do—but that’s why they’re above 90th percentile!

As a note, the 650 number is a conservative estimate. It’s very likely that a person who really internalizes how to do all the questions in the three Official Guides would be able to reach a 700+.

However, there’s simply not a sufficient density of 700+ questions in the OGs to approximate the difficulty of the real exam situation.

Getting hit with 30 or so 700+ questions in a row is a feat and it’s something that top performers will ultimately have to practice in order to ensure good performance. Practice material from other sources is usually necessary simply to reach this density.

Why Should I Stick to One Book?

That’s not what I’m saying.

The Official Guide provides two key things: it gives a good scope of what you’re likely to see on the GMAT. It’s pretty much impossible that you’d find a concept on the real exam that you haven’t seen in one of the three Official Guides.

That’s nearly 1500 questions. If you know all of them and know them well, you’ll be fine.

As a note, when I say “concept,” I mean topics covered on the exam. The individual algorithms for the questions—that is, “the way to solve this particular question” can of course vary.

The key is to know the concepts well enough that you can improvise a little bit with the algorithm. You’ll be looking for the “best way” that you can find under the high-pressure exam circumstances.

But How Do I Do the Same Thing Over and Over and Not GO COMPLETELY MENTAL?

Don't have a bathyscape? Just plug your nose and dive.

Don’t have a bathyscape? Just plug your nose and dive.

Simple: Go Deep, Not Wide

 

Here’s a nice little trick for dealing with repetition.

I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping a log of all the Official Guide questions. I’d suggest creating a log where you have a space to rate the questions from 1 to 5 in order of difficulty.

The ratings are as follows:

1: I can do this next time with zero problem
2: Pretty confident, but not 100%
3: Maybe it was correct, maybe not. Still not sure I could do it next time.
4: It was wrong, but I think I understand why.
5: Help!

Once you have all the questions in the book logged and rated 1-5, you know that you’re ready to begin the repetition phase.

How to Repeat Questions

–Ignore the 1s.

–Take the 2s and do them a couple more times (repeat every 2-3 days) until they become 1s.

–Take the 3s and do them a couple more times (repeat every 2-3 days) until they become 2s.

–Take the 4s and do them a few more times (repeat every 2-3 days) until they become 3s.

–Take the 5s and get some help if necessary and do them as many times as necessary until they become 4s, then 3s, etc.

Rinse and Repeat. Once all the questions are 1s and 2s you’ll be pretty safe to take the exam.

But I Remember the Answer is D!

Awesome! Now can you go up to the blackboard and show me how to get there, step-by-step, in a way that gets you there in under two minutes?

Yeah, I didn’t think so. Now sit down and shut up.

Look, I’ve been teaching GMAT preparation for more than 11 years. I’ve forgotten more about this test than most people will ever learn.

Even now, I’ll forget the exact algorithm (not concept) for certain questions. It might take me a bit of exploratory work to figure out the simplest way.

Long story short, it’s about the process of solving, not about the actual answer choice. Memorizing that the answer was D will get you absolutely nowhere. Memorizing its basic question type and the general technique for tackling this question will get you to 700.

What About When I Reach 700?

Are you there yet? I didn’t think so.

Still, because I’m nice, in a future e-mail I’ll you a few books to crack ONLY when you’ve finished with the Official Guides. These books give a better idea of the process for solving difficult questions—honestly, that is significantly more important than the extra questions themselves.

I personally recommend these resources because I’ve personally used them at various times in my career. And for anything not on this list? Ignore it.

That’s why I recommend using any additional materials as textbooks ONLY–that is, learn techniques and principles from them by reading the explanations. DO NOT USE THEM AS QUESTION BANKS.

You ARE reading the explanations and not simply using the practice questions, right?

I only say this because it was as if the scales lifted from my eyes on the day that I realized there was writing about HOW to do questions in my Physics textbooks—it wasn’t just random-ass questions in the back that I had no idea how to do.

These GMAT texts are no different. They are the textbooks written by experts—their techniques and methods for solving questions will help you even if the questions themselves aren’t as precise as Official Guide questions.

Any Questions? Comments? Just reply to this e-mail!

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PS I’m looking for specific questions to create video explanations for, so if any come to mind just reply to this e-mail and I’ll create and post an explanation at youtube.com/gmatcoach .

 

About the author

Rowan Hand Head Coach Rowan Hand has been a GMAT tutor and content developer for more than 10 years. Rowan has coached hundreds of clients in private and group classes. Former clients have gone on to Harvard, LBS, INSEAD, Wharton, and other excellent business schools.