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How to Read Properly for GMAT Reading Comprehension (Part I)

This guy is good at GMAT Reading Comprehension.
This guy Scans and THEN he Skims. Like a pro.

You just want the full 65-page PDF? It’s here:

The GMAT Reading Comprehension Guide

You Don’t Read Fast Enough for the GMAT

That’s not a value judgment or insult; that’s a statement of fact.

Top scorers in Verbal simply read more quickly. The people who roll the Verbal section up and smoke it? Usually finished in 60-65 minutes out of the total 75.

What makes the difference for them? Simple. They read more quickly.

But How am I Going to Learn to Read Faster?

That’s a valid question, and quite honestly I can’t teach someone how to read properly. Fast readers tend to get fast through years of training and learning their own shortcuts.

I’m not talking about champion-level speed reading here. I’m just talking solid, grad-school researcher-level reading: approximately 450-600 words per minute.

In the end, I can’t force someone to read but I can give some advice. The horse might die of thirst, but I can assure you that I did drag his ass over to the river.

I Could Never Read That Fast!

Do you want the good news first? Yes, you can. It’s not as hard as it seems.

Do you want the bad news now?

Nope? You’re getting it anyway: you’re going to have to practice your ass off to achieve this.

Basically, a lot of people don’t like to read and don’t do it enough. No judgment, just fact. If you think I’m talking about you, 1) get over yourself and 2) pick up a fucking book.

You’ll need to spend time reading. Not really paying a huge amount of attention to what, except that it needs to be accessible and at a reasonable level of difficulty.

My recommendations would be Scientific American and The Economist. These publications tend to have a reading level more or less on par with the GMAT.

Get copies as often as you can and read them.

Change your phone’s wallpaper so that when you grab the phone and start working out your stubby little thumbs you see this message:


Get your magazines. Love your magazines. Read them on the train. Read them in the car (assuming you’re not driving). Read them in the shower, for all I care. Just read whenever you have a moment.

God forbid, you might actually learn something in the process.

Applicable Strategies for GMAT Reading Comprehension

So you want to learn to read faster…

There are things to do. Remember how you’re supposed to read the stuff I told you to? Apply these principles whenever you do.

The more you read, the more practice you’ll get. Unsurprisingly, the better you’ll do on GMAT Verbal.

How to Read for the GMAT and Life

Strange as it might seem to suggest learning a totally different way to read, many people really do have problems with the density of material on the GMAT.

It’s not just reading passages: the faster you can break down the important parts of a sentence or an argument the better you’ll get at Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning, respectively.

However, let’s focus on Reading Comprehension because that’s the most obvious place to apply this knowledge.

GMAT Reading Comprehension is Meant to be Confusing

I mean… duh.

The passages are intentionally written using language and structure that is non-standard. They are designed to be hopelessly dense and confusing on the sentence level.

If you spend too much time trying to read for the details of the passage, you’ll simply find yourself mired in the details.

The solution to this problem is very counter-intuitive: go faster.

In fact, that is almost always the answer to how to proceed in GMAT Reading Comprehension—just read faster—and by that I do in fact mean “take in less information.”

The GMAT Reading Comprehension Guide

How in the Everloving Hell is That Helpful?

Structure, Not Content. Please.

If you’re getting too focused on the irrelevant details it’s very difficult to see the larger structure. What you’ll find is that many of the questions (up to 80% of them) will be based on structure and the specific details of the passage are totally irrelevant for these questions.

In fact, a colleague of mine—a fine GMAT instructor—swears that anyone with the proper training can read a GMAT RC passage in 30 seconds and get 80% of the questions correct! The point of this is not dick-waving, but rather to highlight that structure is the only thing that can possibly be gleaned in this 30-second window.

Imagine: if you got 80% of the RC questions right, you could even forget about the detail questions and still get a great Verbal score!

GMAT Reading Comprehension Means “Read with Less Care”

As a general rule, the Reading Comprehension section of the GMAT—again counter-intuitively—requires the least care to read. That is, fine-toothed, detail-oriented reading.

In terms of detail-oriented “care reading”: read Data Sufficiency questions with the most care, then Problem Solving, then Sentence Correction, then Critical Reasoning, and only then Reading Comprehension.

Reading for Structure

However, if you’re reading only for the general structure of the passage, you’ll find that you actually can read the passages in 30 seconds to two minutes.

But What About the Details?

Remember that the passage is always sitting right there in front of you. You can refer back to it if you encounter a detail question.

In fact, because the passages are written in this intentionally obtuse, confusing language, you actually stand a better chance of understanding the gross structure of the passage when you read it at a pretty fast clip.

It’s just like quicksand: if you don’t want to sink, run quickly across the surface.

This guy failed at GMAT Reading Comprehension.
Reading too slow? Don’t be like this fool.

If not, well, tell me what you find down there.

You Can Force Yourself to Read Faster

You want something objective to do? Here you go.

Find a utensil: a pen, pencil, box-knife, or finger (please don’t take a box-knife to the Test Center). Run the utensil over the words as you read—just like a five-year-old. Yup.

But I’m a Grown-Up! I Don’t Need to Use My Finger While I Read!

And I’m sure you can tie your own shoes like a big boy, too. Do you want a cookie? Listen for a minute and you might learn something.

Take the utensil and follow its tip. This is important: follow the tip and NOT the words. Let your eyes relax and take the words in with a relaxed focus.

NEVER let the tip of the utensil drift back. This is how most us waste precious time while reading: our eyes drift back and read things multiple times. The worst part is that we don’t even realize that this is happening!

You’ll become painfully aware of this as you get better at reading while using a utensil. Be careful never to let yourself drift back.

Active Reading vs. Passive Reading

Reading with a utensil is the single most effective way to engage in what is called “Active Reading.” This is reading for a purpose: taking as much information in as possible.

It is contrasted with “Passive Reading,” or letting the words wash over us as if we were reading a Dan Brown novel on a beach.

Active Reading involves leaning forward, processing the information as we go along, blinking every so often (thereby allowing the brain to file information), and summarizing each main point as it is introduced.

Most often, this involves leaning forward and focusing.

The Scan/Skim Method

(Now–following on from the last section–before I have to remind you, pick up a pen or pencil and follow the text).

People who practice “proper” speed reading claim that even after a brief glance, all of the information on a page is stored somewhere within your unconscious mind.

“Reading” is simply allowing yourself to unlock and process this information.

It’s an interesting idea—maybe it’s true and maybe not. But let’s work from that assumption for a moment.


Try an initial read—a Scan—of your reading passage in no more than 30 seconds.

In order to do this most effectively, simply drag your utensil down the middle of the entire passage—as if you were vertically cutting the passage in two. As before, focus only on the tip of the utensil and don’t try to process the information.


Now go back to the passage and read it line-by-line with the utensil. Go just fast enough that it seems a little bit uncomfortable—as if you’re not getting as much information as you’d like—but get the basic gist of what you’re reading.

Based on the VERY general context you got from the initial Scan, this Skim will provide you with much more useful information.

Now go away and try a passage with SCAN.

Back already?

Now go away again and try a different passage with only SKIM.

See which technique you prefer. Does one seem to work better than the other? Stick with it.

See how much less information you take in. It really does seem to make less sense, doesn’t it?

Strange, but it works.

Still hate reading? This might well remind you of an uncomfortable truth.

In order to get good at GMAT Reading Comprehension, you’ll have to learn to enjoy it—even the math, even the reading, and even the fact that the test and testwriters are trying their damnedest to screw you over.

Luckily as human beings we are a very adaptable lot.

We can learn to love anything. Much as victims of Stockholm Syndrome begin to experience love for their captors, we must learn to love the GMAT.

Think about it like this:

Wimbledon champions or concert musicians don’t inherently love “tennis” or “the violin” as an abstract concept. Rather, these people were introduced to the sport or the instrument at a very young age.

They’ve been playing for so long that they don’t know anything else. More importantly, it’s not the abstract notion of what they do—there is no a “honor of well-played tennis” to anyone except an armchair fan.

Rather, these super-adepts do what they do almost unthinkingly, and they get addicted to minute improvements.

They learn to see little things that are wrong—little details that would be invisible to anyone else—and they spend their time working on improving these imperceptible things because they understand that this will give them the edge over the competition.

In short, the love is not “for the game,” but for the tiny, incremental improvements that can be made.

Even if you hate the GMAT as a concept—and believe me, I do more than most people—you can learn to love getting better at the GMAT.

The GMAT Reading Comprehension Guide

How to Beat GMAT Work and Rates Questions

“I looove your rates process. I think I finally understand it!” — Camila M

The way you write your guides are brilliant! Your approach made things seem much clearer. Keep the good stuff coming! –Duc Anh T, 2017

gmat rates questions
Distance = rate x time, naturally.

Do you struggle with GMAT Rates questions?

Let me guess: most GMAT questions seem OK, but you just can’t figure out why you’re not succeeding with Work and Rates questions.

You’re a smart person. The rest of it’s working. Why are Rates posing such a problem?

Believe it or not, you’re not alone.

There’s actually a pretty simple explanation for this problem. Work and Rates questions aren’t really “math questions” in the same way as the rest of the GMAT. They require a bit more practical, real-world type of problem solving.

You may even be looking at this book because nothing else has worked.

There’s a reason for that, too: most GMAT books teach a lot of complicated, over-technical variations of Rates questions and then ask you to learn specific cases in which to apply specific equations.

This is nonsense.

By focusing on the practical aspects of Rates questions, we’ll be able to better understand how one simple framework can essentially answer every single Work or Rates question.

With just a little bit of guidance in how to apply math to real-world situation, you’ll be able to break down any GMAT Work or Rates question and figure out how its moving parts fit together.

Throughout the text, you’ll see as many relevant variations on Work and Rates questions as possible, but remember that it’s hard to be absolutely exhaustive.

At 50+ pages, this guide definitely covers quite a few variants you’re likely to encounter.

It Can’t Really be that Easy

No one said it was going to be easy–it’s just not as bad as you might think!
How to Beat GMAT Work and Rate Problems will teach you how to tackle every conceivable variation of Rates questions in a way that ramps up difficulty until the fattest, most evil Rates questions finally seem achievable.

Even if you think Rates questions aren’t that big a deal, you might just find a few ways to clean up your thinking–and that’s never a Bad Thing on the GMAT.

The YGC GMAT Rates Guide will teach you:

–How to fit any GMAT Work or Rates Question into One Simple Framework.

–How to Set Up Rates Questions Tidily the First Time. Every. Single. Time.

–Clear, Non-Technical Approaches to GMAT Work and Rates Questions.

–You know, more stuff.

No one reads the technical stuff.

Do you find math really boring and stuff? Do your eyes just glaze over when you’re reading equations? Are math people boring and funny-smelling?

Yeah, it’s a problem.

Rather than shove all this boring stuff down your gullet with a ton of technical language and a different equation for any number of abstract circumstances, the How to Beat GMAT Work and Rate Problems is written to be read quickly.

Want to revisit it? Just read it again. There’ll be something for the GMAT beginner as well as the 680-scorer who just needs a bump over the 700-mark.

Sometimes it’s just not enough to see the questions worked.

That’s why, as a gift for purchasers of the YGC GMAT Rates Guide, I’ve put together a mini video course with worked explanations of eight different ultra-difficult GMAT Rates questions.

Each of the eight videos comes with a set of notes regarding that particular problem. Read the notes to understand the talking points in the video–and also have a hard copy of the problem in front of you.

If you’ve ever worried about GMAT Rates questions, this is the guide for you.

What’s the best way not to see more GMAT Rates questions? Get the ones you do see correct.

Check out what previous clients have to say about Rowan’s GMAT expertise:

I cannot recommend Rowan highly enough… with his help I was able to go from 640 on my first attempt to 720. He has a firm handle on the content of the test and, maybe more importantly, is able to articulate the problem-solving skills required to tackle GMAT questions. —Fraser B

So good news–got a 720. Still in shock to be honest. Didn’t think it was possible given my last score. Thanks again for all your help. –David F

How to Beat GMAT Work and Rates Problems

GMAT Probability Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

Probability was initially developed for gambling. Given the gamblers I know, that means it can’t be particularly complicated.

gmat probability
Just remember, in life and GMAT, not every situation is a finite game system.

Why we base the global financial system on it is another question, but Quantum Mechanics uses it as well, so I’ll admit I’m being judgmental here.

Looked at one way, Probability attempts to give us a mathematical way to predict the future, which isn’t necessarily the most accurate. It’s a bit like trying to predict the weather if you live somewhere other than London (for me, it’ll be rainy and grim).

CORRECT Probabilistic Thinking is Not Common

Or maybe lots of people think that they are good at it, or they “have a system,” or some other nonsense, but they are actually completely terrible at it.


What it means that other people are terrible at Probability is that you get a bunch of language tossed around freely that means pretty much nothing.

In short, these people confuse likelihood with Certainty and overestimate the upside of something while downplaying the ever-present possibility that something catastrophic could happen (cf. 2008).

Now, in a very Zen sense, we cannot of course predict the future, so just maybe injecting a “maybe” actually is a very useful idea. To paraphrase Socrates by way of Don Rumsfeld, “there are unknown unknowns” in the world, so a bit of agnosticism wouldn’t harm any of us.

The problem comes, of course, in situations where we overreach and accidentally end up in that confused (and wrong) Certainty. Situations where this is useful are few and far between, and usually involve gambling; that is, the House likes to make money, and people who are too confident are easy marks.

So… any time we hear the words odds, chance, likelihood, or any mathematical “prediction” of the future, it’s time to put the skeptic’s hat on. There exists a good chance (hahahaha) that a deep misunderstanding is afoot.

Let’s start with a definition of “chance.” And it isn’t going to work to go tautologous and say something like “likelihood.” Let’s step inside the local William Hill (or on to that riverboat if you’re in the US) and make a guess.

Probability was Designed for Gambling

This isn’t a conjecture; it’s a real thing. Probability was originally developed to help bookmakers create odds so that the reliable bettors would be encouraged, more effectively, to part with their cheddar.

Then it might be little surprise that many GMAT Probability questions continue to involve finite game systems. That’s what the math is invented for!

Now it just might be that playing the horses or pretending to be Daniel Craig at the baccarat table with your clip-on bow-tie can, over time, instill a keen intuitive sense of Probability in a person. Try it and let me know how that goes. I’ll be waiting here.

If there’s any truth in that conjecture, I’d wager (hahahaha) that it’s because bettors have skin in the game. If they don’t get fairly good at these things, they’ll lose their shirts! It always helps to have a bit of incentive.

If you don’t understand Probability, the GMAT will ruin you.

That’s your skin in the game.

GMAT Probability might seem unapproachable, but that’s exactly why I’ve written this book: it is designed to be a fairly painless way to make sure that you DO UNDERSTAND the topic before you walk into the Test Center.

Let’s start with this: Some ways we misunderstand Probability

Many years ago, in the time when the band Creed dominated the airwaves, I worked as a radio DJ (don’t ask). Now, as it turned out, there was a tiny window that I faced while on the air.

Quite often, the weather report that I was legally obliged to read read “there is a 30% chance of rain.” And lo and behold, I would look out the window and it would be raining. But I would be legally obliged to say that there is a 30% chance of rain.

Clearly I used this as an opportunity to inform the wider public of basic Probability theory (and give them a good does of “Higher,” likely for the fourth time that hour, also legally obligated–cf. PAYOLA).

Those listeners loved me, I’m sure.

Second: Order of Selection Affects Probability, and this Confuses Folks

We simply don’t often think about the fact that selecting things in different orders affects the Probability outcome. Check this classic GMAT question:
If a family has four children and each child is equally likely to be a boy or a girl, what is the probability that they will have exactly two boys?

I mean it might seem that if you want four kids and want half of them to be boys, then the odds of that happening would be fifty-fifty.

Yet in practice, the probability is actually three-eighths. Just keep scratching your head for a moment: the answer, along with many others, is in the book…


Flipping a coin. Oh, the classic example again.

Let’s assume it’s a perfectly weighted coin that would never land on its side, etc. etc. In short, the chance for each flip is exactly 50-50 for Heads-Tails, respectively.

Let’s look at the following situation:

I’ve flipped this @%(*@$^! coin thirteen times and they have all been Tails! The next one MUST be Heads.

Well, actually, no. The Probability actually recycles every flip. What came before has NO MATHEMATICAL BEARING on what comes next. That means your Probability is now:


That’s it! If the previous outcomes don’t matter at all to the current outcome and therefore give us no sort of context for the next toss, the only thing that could possibly matter is the current toss.

The Past Predicts the Future, yet again.

Yet Another One: Fourth

If the universe really is infinite, then an infinite number of things that we would normally take for granted don’t have to happen.

If I drop a pen it might not fall.

The Sun might nova overnight and fail to rise tomorrow.

The Official Guide might give a useful explanation in the back.

I reiterate: these things COULD HAPPEN. Most anything, even in violation of the self-satisfied (and not always valid) laws of Newtonian Physics, could happen. Why do I say “most anything?”

Because there exists a chance that I’m wrong. (See what I did there?) However, the math will agree with me.

In short, something being possible doesn’t mean that it is going to happen or is even probability. It’s probably pretty damn unlikely. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but the math needs to account for it.

Other fallacies, such as Base Rate, Confusion of the Inverse, etc.

These are beyond the scope of what the GMAT will discuss and for this reason–as well as for your sanity–I will ignore them.

At the end of the day, however, Probability is too complex a topic to get into simply through one blog post or video:

Remember, Probability is one of the most misunderstood GMAT Quant topics.

It’s rarely taught in secondary school. It requires a different type of thinking from Arithmetic or Algebra. There are so many variations on it that it’s hard to know when to apply a specific formula.

Worst of all, it’s actually sort of nonsense because it’s trying to predict the future, which we know from Critical Reasoning is a no-no. Right?

Hmm… perhaps.

Probability might be a bit of a dumb sort of math, but it’s on the GMAT to stay. The advantage of it is that, like other topics such as Standard Deviation, the GMAT only really scratches the surface.

If you get good at these basics, Probability questions will seem like free points.

How to get good? Glad you asked:

Rather than blind you with multiple variants of different probability equations, The GMAT Probability Guide presents the core concepts of Probability–

–Independent Probability

–Dependent Probability

–Conditional Probability



–and more… in ways that prove to you that Probability is actually totally accessible with a small shift in your thinking.

The GMAT Probability Guide shows you the basic ideas of Probability in plain language through numerous worked examples, and goes step-by-step through solutions ranging from the simplest to the most beastly GMAT Probability questions.

For those who are struggling to make their Probability skills meet what they know they’re capable of–these questions can’t be THAT difficult, can they?

No. They’re not. That’s the point.

The GMAT Probability Guide gives a slew of explanations, examples, and bad jokes that will take you all the way to Probability mastery.

I’m not saying that this book will solve all of your problems–but I wager it will solve the Probability-related ones. Yes, I said “wager.”

The GMAT Probability Guide

Read a few pages and see!

Quit Trying to Game the GMAT Algorithm Already

“You can’t tell if the machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart.” –Jaron Lanier

It won’t do any good.

What do I mean?


There. I said it.

Why would we consciously give away our autonomy to a computer?

It seems a bit bizarre to me that we would just assume that the GMAT—“the machine” in Lanier’s quote–is infinitely intelligent.

After all, the GMAT was written by a bunch of people in a damp basement in Iowa City, Iowa. A lot of them were academics at one point… and then they weren’t.

That’s why they’re writing the GMAT.

So how are these people so much smarter than the rest of us that they create unanswerable questions?

Hint: they’re not.

It’s actually doing ourselves a disservice ever to think that the test can create a scenario that we can’t solve.

Rather, we need to learn how to think about the GMAT in a healthier way.

First, bear in mind that most GMAT questions, given enough time and perhaps a clearer explanation of “what the test wants,” are eminently solvable.

Imagine this thought experiment:

Let’s say you’re confident in your knowledge of the topics studied on the GMAT.

If you were given one GMAT question each day (IR plus Quant and Verbal) for 90 days—with unlimited time to answer–how many would you get correct?

It would be pretty much all of them, wouldn’t it? Or at least enough to get a very high score.

So it’s really not about the questions not being solvable, is it? It’s more about the questions being solvable within the time frame.

If you knew the proper tricks and techniques, of course, the questions would be solvable within the time frame.

It also follows that, given a sufficient amount of time, energy, and study, that almost anyone could get a great GMAT score. However, that time could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to several years.

GMAT Algorithm 2

The pertinent question to ask yourself is whether you have enough time to do so before you submit your application!

Read on for actionable advice to mentally conquer the Bastard Algorithm (after the break).

So far we have discussed the pitfall of assuming that the computer is “smarter than you.”

(Hint: it isn’t).

In this article, we’ll dig deeper into what the GMAT Algorithm really looks for to calculate your score.

As a note, if you expect that this will help you “game the computer,” just stop reading right now and unsubscribe from my e-mail list. Srsly.

That said, it is important to have some concept of how the scoring works so that you’re not running around assuming that it’s all about “percent correct/incorrect.”

The one useful thing to remember about the algorithm is that the percentage of correct and incorrect questions doesn’t really matter that much—at least not compared to the difficulty of the questions you’re thrown.

Put these two pieces of information together and what you’re looking at is that the GMAT is more like running a gauntlet than it is about “getting 90% of the questions correct.”

In short: you have to perform well under pressure, but it’s assumed that there will be a few blips or errors.

Everyone makes mistakes—in fact, you can miss a handful of questions and still get a 51Q, PROVIDED THE QUESTIONS YOU ARE ANSWERING ARE DIFFICULT ENOUGH.

In fact, assuming that the questions aren’t conquerable will aim your thinking in the wrong way. You need the mental agility to try different techniques to answer the question.

For example, in Quant:

–sometimes you won’t see the clever trick, but brute-force calculation will get the answer well within the time frame!

–maybe you want to use brute force, but the answer is staring you in the face—without even needing to calculate!

In Verbal:

–it is possible that the answer is the obvious one!

–many times the “clever answer” is actually a red herring!

(This is a very important reason to spend time wrestling with tough questions and constantly attempting to improve your solutions!)

Put another way, you’re restricting this ability when you assume that you “can’t do it.” More on that next week…

So far we have discussed a basic concept of how the Algorithm calculates your score.

Then we discussed the pitfall of assuming that the computer is “smarter than you.”

Now, we’ll address the common concern that “the GMAT is just smarter than I am.”

Oh, dear.

As long as you tell yourself that the test is smarter than you, then you’re doing yourself a disservice—to paraphrase Jaron Lanier (see above), you are diminishing yourself by giving an unfair advantage to this arbitrary, computer-based, eminently scientific and technical exam.

However, the choice to let it be soul-destroying is yours and yours alone.

The GMAT exam is ridiculous. It can be conquered. It is not a living, breathing thing.

That said, the GMAT can adapt, within reason, based on the information that you give it. There are a lot of those—enough that trying to figure them out and “beat the computer” is a thorough waste of your time and energy.

HOWEVER, the GMAT is not “smart” because it is not alive. It does not think; it reacts to fixed inputs that you provide.

The GMAT is not above you, yet to think so diminishes your capacity to conquer the GMAT.

Another important thing to bear in mind is that the GMAT is designed to be consistent.

That is, a 630 on one day should be worth the same as a 630 three months from now. The only way that this is possible is when the questions are written in a consistent way.

It follows that there is an underlying structure to the questions, and that it is learnable. After all, the writers of the questions need to make them consistent, so they must learn a pattern to write them.
If the writers of the questions can learn the patterns, you certainly can as well.

Let’s break this down into a few useful tenets to study by:

–The GMAT is a total pain in the ass

–The exam is difficult to do under timed conditions.

–The exam is not alive. Therefore, it cannot be “smart.”

–Giving the GMAT Algorithm more credit than necessary will restrict your ability to answer questions effectively.

–Any GMAT question can be solved given enough time and a clear enough understanding of its mechanisms.

–GMAT questions are scientific and consistent; it is possible to learn their underlying structures.

Remember: don’t give the GMAT too much credit. That’s exactly what it wants you to do.

Video: A Difficult GMAT Combinations Problem!

The 2016 Official Guide is not a major difference from the 11th, 12th, or 2015 editions.

This is particularly true when it comes to difficult questions. However, certain things are noticeable over time.

One of these trends has been in Combinatorics (you might think of this as Permutations and Combinations, but Combinatorics is a better umbrella term as it includes all forms of counting problems.

Sometimes GMAT Combinatorics problems involve counting problems that are embedded within Probability questions, and sometimes they are as simple as applying the Combination formula.

Arguably, trying to blindly apply any formula with a Combinatorics problem is risky. It’s a lot better to build an equation based on the description of the question implies.

This video will teach you an example of doing just that.

This is a NEW question in the Official Guide for GMAT Review 2016 (OG2016 or OG 2016), Problem Solving PS 152!

“A three-digit code for certain locks uses the digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 according to the following constraints. The first digit cannot be 0 or 1, the second digit must be 0 or 1, and the second and third digits cannot both be 0 in the same code. How many different codes are possible?
(A) 144 (B) 152 (C) 160 (D) 168 (E) 176”

This question has an unusual structure, and can only be built from scratch.

No number of permutations or combinations equations will get you to identify the split here. Watch the video and enjoy!

Check out more at

For another non-equation-based Combinatorics video, check this out:

Click HERE to arrange a

PS How do you prefer to work through counting problems?

PPS What is your favorite counting technique?

GMAT Sentence Correction: a Quick Score Increase?

Over too many years teaching GMAT, one thing comes up repeatedly.

For almost everyone, the place to gain points most quickly is Sentence Corre

Last Minute GMAT Grammar eBook

The quickest and easiest guide to GMAT Grammar!
The quickest and easiest guide to GMAT Grammar!

Most people thoroughly misunderstand the section and tend to rely on “doing it by ear.” While this technique works a good chunk of the time—the easier it is to do the better your Standard American English is—it will not help in sticky circumstances.

So you’re already good at Verbal?

Look, even if Quant seems like a greater concern over all, spending even two or three hours improving your Sentence Correction could reflect very favorably on your ultimate GMAT score.

First, you want to understand how the GMAT perceives grammar.

Are there any true gaps in your grammar knowledge? For most of us, there are.

Are there things that you thought were correct but you’ve found not to be correct?

Are there things that you didn’t actually know were grammar errors?

Enter Last Minute GMAT Grammar – my new book, free on Amazon until 28 November 2014.

The book is meant to be a quick and effective review of GMAT grammar.

You can read it in one to two hours, and no matter where you find yourself in your GMAT prep—from just beginning to taking the exam tomorrow!—you will be able to find actionable points immediately.

Last Minute GMAT Grammar eBook

As GMAT takers understand—sometimes all too well—a grammar review is necessary for both native and non-native English speakers.

Sentence Correction is one of the most underestimated sections on the GMAT. People just seem to think it’s easy!

This is certainly untrue.

Check out some facts:

–I’ve taught GMAT for nearly 15 years. During this time, I’ve noted that the Sentence Correction section is the section where students see the most progress in the shortest span of time.

–Still, I find the Sentence Correction section to be the place where students never quite get it right. In point of fact, difficult—mostly idiom-based—questions will always require a certain amount of memorization of what the testwriters expect of you in a certain situation.

Is that actually grammar? Arguably, no. However, that’s the way it is and there’s no use in fighting the test. Better just to beat it on its own (unfair) terms.

All in all, it is easy to gain competence at Sentence Correction, but it is difficult to gain total mastery for the reasons addressed above.

This separates it from the other sections—in the others, sufficient training can lead to actual mastery. That is, if you “get it,” you will be able to reach 95-100% mastery on Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning questions.

Perhaps—and maybe I’m wrong here—this is because Sentence Correction is the section that requires the testtaker to hold the most specific information in her head for the longest period of time.

That is, you have five answer choices, sometimes with 3-5 errors per choice. Not to mention you have no reason to assume that the correct choice will sound “poetic” or “appealing.”

Like all parts of the GMAT Verbal section, the Sentence Correction section is more about eliminating incorrect answer choices than about choosing a correct answer choice.

That is, you must be able to throw out bad answer choices before you’ll be totally certain that your preferred choice is in fact the best among a bad lot of choices.

Notice that many of the answers won’t sound good or even right to the ear. They might seem a somewhat off, but not all that much. Often there is an answer choice that “sounds better.” That is, it sounds more like speech.

Last Minute GMAT Grammar eBook

However, that doesn’t matter at all to the GMAT. GMAT grammar uses what it calls “Standard Written American English.”

Of course there is no true standard of American English (or, more correctly, there are a handful of them and none of them are 100% consistent).

However, all of these points are covered in Last Minute GMAT Grammar. When GMAT usage differs from standard usage, I will note this.
What is the best move for you, today, to improve your Sentence Correction score? Put simply, this: Last Minute GMAT Grammar eBook

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Are you Making the #1 Biggest Mistake in Your GMAT Preparation?

CLEARLY there is A LOT to study for the GMAT.

However, what exactly is necessary to do is more of a mystery. During my nearly 15 years as a GMAT tutor and consultant, one thing appears to be more of a problem than most.

A very common circumstance is to find the person who studies 4-5 hours a day, but makes less progress than she feels is reflective of the time spent.

This is very true. However, the time spent can be maximized if focus remains on one thing: technique.

Again, it is very true that certain data elements must be known—if not memorized—during GMAT prep.

It is hard to succeed without knowing all of the Special Triangles, for example, or understanding the concept of Parallelism in Sentence Correction.

Nevertheless, no matter how much time is spent worrying about these details, they pale in comparison to focusing on the execution of the ideas.

Thus we can split GMAT prep into two fields:

1) Data – the concepts you can memorize

2) Execution – the algorithms or techniques used to solve individual problems

3) Efficiency – the speed at which 1) and 2) can be combined

What can improve this?

Well, the first step is of course to know the data parts backward and forward.

This does take a certain amount of study, and I suggest that all students begin not worrying about how long they’re taking.

That takes a while, but when you’re finished, Step 1 is completed.

Then: learn the reasoning. That is, learn to think how the testwriters think. This is possibly the most ignored part of GMAT preparation.

For my part as a GMAT tutor and consultant, I insist that students use a limited range of material and learn that material perfectly before moving on to zillions of practice questions.

Repeat the same question? What?

Yes: just like a football player practices the same kick over and over again, a basketball player spends hours perfecting her free throws, or a musician practices scales until her fingers bleed, you must practice hard questions until the reasoning required is simply IN YOUR DNA.

The limited time that you have to answer questions on the GMAT makes it necessary that the correct answer becomes the intuitive answer. Intuition is built through experience.

Forget the standard, woo-woo meaning of the word “intuition.” The concept is hardly voodoo: you “intuitively” do what is habit.

Build the right habits, and success will follow.

There is no other solution. You need to find a reasonably broad group of questions—such as The Official Guide for GMAT Review—and nail these questions until none of them give you trouble.

Then, and only then, move to Step 3.

Start timing yourself, giving yourself 3 minutes per question for 10-question sets. Then crank it down slowly—over a couple of weeks–to 1.5 minutes per question.

Do as many practice exams as possible, studying your incorrect answers carefully and noting the reasoning used to solve the most difficult. Find the tricks. Take notes on the hard part of each question.

At this point, it is fine to pursue other questions–on a limited scale–such as Advanced GMAT Quant or other such guides.

Your GMAT preparation now becomes more like an athletic event—you are trying to break your new time rather than assuming that because you have seen a concept once that you can execute it again properly every time!

Remember, it is a race, but only the people who train properly become the champions!

If you have any questions about training, contact a GMAT Coach today!

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p.s. What is the Number One thing you can do today to improve your GMAT score?

p.p.s. What action can you take in the next five minutes to streamline your studying?

The Surprising Key to GMAT Success (hint: not Probability)

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

Does the GMAT repeat questions? 

There’s obviously a lot of interest in this topic, and I can give you a quick answer. No, but sort of sometimes.

It all comes down to what you mean by “repeat questions.” If you mean the same questions with the same words and the same numbers and all that shit, then it’s a big, fat NO.

If, however, you mean a question that asks the same concept in a slightly different way–often more than just replacing numbers for a Quant question, for example–then sure. You can assume that there’s a relatively fixed number of concepts that you’ll encounter on the GMAT.

Trying to break those down into minutiae is a topic for years of study–luckily you can find people who have written books about specific topics–but if you make the focus larger and more global, then you can certainly find quite substantial similarities.

That’s not to say “this is a Geometry question.” Hopefully you recognize that a triangle question is, in fact, filed under Geometry. Rather, you’d be better off to look at the level of the specific concept that the question is asking about: e.g., “this question asks how I would apply Triangle Inequality Theorem to a 45-45-90 triangle.”

You’ll also see the same concept repeated at different levels of difficulty. 

The basic mechanics of how to answer a question might appear at a relatively low level, such as “here’s a case where I have to know that the middle term of the binomial expansion (a+b)^2 is 2ab,” or “the they in this sentence could apply to more than one plural antecedent.”

Then you’ll get a similar idea at a substantially more difficult level…

…such as “I can’t actually figure out what the value of the middle term is, but I can see which term in the expansion is meant to be the middle term and I’m only looking for the coefficient of the middle term, so I can infer that this coefficient is my answer” (if that doesn’t make sense, see this question) or “there are multiple plurals, but committees is the only sentient thing, and therefore capable of working with the verb make decisions, so I can safely use the they in this case even if it sounds crap.”

What you’ll see is that while you do questions more and more, you’ll see similarities between them. Eventually, you’ll hardly see a question where you don’t know what the question is asking. 

That said, you might not necessarily be able to figure out the approach to the question–that is, how to dig in and get started! This is something that does require a breadth of questions to discuss, but that said, most of the raw topics are covered in the three Official Guides (you know, the fat one and the two little ones, which are different from the fat one! (affiliate link)).

This guy knows what he’s doing.

Let’s recap for a moment:

  1. The GMAT does repeat concepts, but it doesn’t repeat questions literally.
  2. GMAT questions use the same concepts at different levels of difficulty.
  3. Once you’re familiar with the concepts, you will want to find variations to determine the best approach to the concepts

With all that in mind, we still haven’t reached the Master Key to GMAT preparation: repeat, repeat, repeat your GMAT questions.

“Whether in sports, running the same drills over and over, or in business practicing a sales pitch or refining a presentation, we gain through preparation a sense of mastery and self-confidence that can be taken into the real game.” –Joe Montana

To repeat… (see what I did there?)…

The key to success on the GMAT is to repeat the questions that you get wrong.

Strangely, many people seem to think that one of the best things that they can do to prepare for the GMAT is to find as many questions as possible.

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.

This can come eventually, but give it time! Make sure you know the basics before you run all over the terrain, scratching at the surface but never digging deep enough to find the treasure.

Forget what you’ve read on the GMAT forums. Yeah, yeah–the forums are a great resource for explanations, but they’re worse than a sewing circle for poisonous gossip about preparation strategy AND PARTICULARLY about judging the difficulty of questions.

Learn the Damn OG Already

In direct negation of what certain forum-lurkers might say: I suggest that if you learn all the questions in the Official Guide (affiliate link) and can solve them quickly and easily, you will be able to get a 650+ on the GMAT.

The point, of course, is that very few people really actually do that.

To wit: Do you seriously, literally (not figuratively) know how to solve every question in the fat Official Guide?

If so, can you explain it to a kindergartner?

If that’s not the case, then you have some work to do, son.

Now–as a note for the trainspotters in the audience: the 650+ is probably a conservative estimate because this is based on the fact that there are relatively few 700+ questions in the Official Guides. In fact, the density available in these guides is probably not sufficient to compare to a GMAT exam where the testtaker is performing at a 700 level.

That said, if a person truly understands the concepts given in the Official Guides, there is not necessarily any reason that this person couldn’t take the learnings necessary to reach this point and extrapolate for more complex questions that… wait for it… repeat a concept that has already been seen.

But Why Would I Stick to One Book?

Back up a second.

There is nothing to say that you need to use ONLY the Official Guide. The Official Guide has some notable faults, not least of which is that its explanations of specifically why a correct answer is correct are dubious at best.

However, the Official Guide does provide a generally good idea of what the scope of the GMAT is.

That is, it is unlikely that you would encounter a question on the GMAT regarding a topic that is not addressed in at least one of the 1500 or so questions within the fat Official Guide and its skinny supplements.

Practice–and Re-practice–the GMAT 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.” OG explanations might “correct,” but they’re not necessarily designed to be 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.

Do this 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 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, of course, do just this—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. It is also something that top performers will ultimately have to practice in order to ensure good performance.

Like it or not (in my case “or not”), practice material from other sources is usually necessary simply to reach this density.

There Are Other Good Books for Learning Specific GMAT Topics

My opinion of non-Official GMAT questions, with a couple of notable exceptions, ranges from “run, don’t walk” to “kill it with fire.”

However, you’ll find some pretty good information in these books. The first one is a slight cheat because it is Official Questions, but the explanations have been edited with care and precision.

GMAT Official Difficult Questions

Manhattan Advanced

Jeff Sackmann sets

At various times, I have worked through each of these with students, and while I do not find all of the material to be “perfectly written” GMAT questions, the topics covered are important.

The Most Important Thing

…is not the topics themselves, but the core concepts plus the GMAT-specific methods to solve the problems because they’re all written in that obtuse, annoying way.

This is what the books recommended above cover in great detail, and what the student’s focus must be on when using them.

Back to Repetition – How Does It Work?

Go deep, not wide.

In all my years as a GMAT tutor in London, I cannot stress enough that students keep a log of all the questions they complete.

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.

How to Rate Questions

1)  I can do this next time with zero problem

2)  Pretty confident, but not 100%

3)  Maybe it was correct, maybe not. I can probably do it next time.

4)  It was wrong, but I think I understand why. Still not sure I could do it next time.
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

1)  Ignore the 1s.

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

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

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

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

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

But What If I Remember the Answer?

Good! I’m very happy that you do. It shows that your short-term memory is intact, so get more than four hours of sleep and don’t lick any aluminum and that shouldn’t be an issue for you on the exam.

Now–the real question–can you get me there, step by step?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Let’s be honest here: in nearly 15 years of GMAT tuition, I’ve forgotten more than most people will see regarding GMAT preparation.

Still, I forget exactly how to do certain problems—it takes me a little bit of exploratory work to figure out how to do the problem.

In short,

It’s About Process, Not “Answer Choice B.”

Or A or D or any of the others. This isn’t a test in high school. The answer choices will shift in position and content depending on the whims of the computer.

Memorizing that an answer was B is totally useless. However, remembering the basic question type and the technique for tackling it will get you everywhere.

What About When I Reach 700?

Are you there yet? I didn’t think so.

Still, because I’m nice, I’ll give 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. Quite honestly, that is significantly more important than the extra questions themselves.

I personally recommend these resources here 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— learn techniques and principles from them by reading the explanations. 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—I mean for some reason I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t just the shit at the end of every chapter: a collection of random-ass questions 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.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or comments please get in touch at [email protected].

Note: all links are affiliate links that help keep this site operating.

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 .

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Are You Reading Too Fast to Succeed on the GMAT?

GMAT prep is a tough business, and it seems as though only the smartest can score well.

I am a firm believer that with enough time and dedicated practice, anyone can reach a 700+ GMAT level.

However, this requires a sincere mindset shift. In fact, it requires that the test taker approach the GMAT exam unlike any other exam that he or she has likely taken.

It’s simple to learn to read how the GMAT expects you to! Read on…

The first thing to remember about the Reading Comprehension section of the GMAT is that it is the section that must be read with the LEAST care.

Yes, that is right. The least.

In terms of the most to least care required, the sections go: Data Sufficiency, Problem Solving, Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and only then Reading Comprehension.

Like the rest of the GMAT, the Reading Comprehension section is written specifically to be obtuse and confusing.

But the passages are simply bewildering. How can you interpret 250-500 words of this at a time?

The simplest: read with less care.

A colleague of mine—a fine GMAT instructor–often tells clients that 80% of the questions in the Reading Comprehension section can be answered after only reading the passage for 30 seconds.

This might seem extreme, but he is stressing the fact that structure is king.

The passage has a particular structure and 80% of the questions will be based on this structure.

Looking only for structure, you can read much more quickly.

Details don’t matter. Remember, you always have the passage directly in front of you, so ignore the details and check them later!

The best benefit of this might be passive: remember that the passages are written in obtuse, confusing language.

Therefore, you are less likely to be tripped by bizarre language or complex sentences if you don’t try to understand 100% the first time.

If this is a problem for you, speak to a GMAT tutor today!

Find your problems. Train them away. Call or e-mail for a free consultation.

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p.s. Remember that beyond the major concept of each passage, content is only there to confuse you!

How Pessimism Can Boost Your GMAT Score

Today I heard something very interesting while listening to a speech by author, investor, and general crazy person Tim Ferriss.

On one hand, I was excited to hear him echo what I’ve always said about “imagine the worst that could happen”—

–that is, imagine that you never prep, “fail” the GMAT, and don’t get into the school of your choice (seriously—try it!), something I got from Buddhist meditations on death—

–on the other, I was fascinated to hear Ferriss’ totally different source: stoic philosophy, notably that of Lucius Seneca.


Stoicism has long had its appeal among the “getting things done” crowd—it is a school of thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome who were also businessmen, politicians, and even emperors.

That is, these philosophers believed in accomplishment rather than navel-gazing, and accomplishment is what we’re here to discuss.

Invisible scripts hold us back all the time: “I’m not good enough,” “the GMAT is too difficult,” “I don’t know how to do math,” etc. are things we may be saying to ourselves without even knowing it!

Seneca introduces an exercise that allows us to define, then conquer these scripts.

Ferriss proposes an exercise adapted from lessons in Seneca’s writing. He calls it “negative visualization,” a form of “practical pessimism.”

1) Take out ONE piece of paper. On this paper, draw three columns. (Whether the paper is held as “portrait” or “landscape” depends on your number of worries!)
2) In the leftmost column, list all of the “Worst-Case Scenarios” that would come about in your GMAT prep.
3) In the second column, list all of the ways that you could mitigate or reduce the likelihood of the events in the first column.
4) In the third column, list all of the ways that you could reverse the events of the first column. That is, specific, line-by-line actions you could take to return to exactly where you started.

Next, Seneca suggests spending a certain amount of time each month—up to three days in his case—“rehearsing” the worst case.

Seneca would ask that you spend this time living in the worst conditions possible, eating the cheapest food possible, and wearing the most ill-fitting, uncomfortable clothes possible.

In so many words, he suggests becoming a tramp for a few days of the month.

Now, of course, this is a thought experiment rather than a real experiment, although I commend anyone willing to try it. (Check out Neville Medhora’s “homeless experiment ( for details.”)

Take a couple of minutes right now and do the paper exercise.

Sit for another five to ten minutes, close your eyes, and imagine living the “worst” of these situations.

Better yet, do this exercise once a week and keep the results in your notebook. Keep a log of how your fears adjust over time.

Is it really as bad as being hit by a bus? If you were hit by a bus, how would you go on with life? What would you do?

Is any of this as bad as studying and learning what you need to learn about Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, or Data Sufficiency?

Good. I didn’t think so.

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p.s. What is worse than getting hit by a bus? How would you deal with it?

p.p.s. “Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerve give to wisdom.” –Mark Twain