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

Does the GMAT Repeat Questions? No, but you do.

Or: How to Repeat GMAT Questions…

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

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

gmat-early-barbell

This guy knows how to repeat GMAT questions.

It all comes down to what you mean by “repeat GMAT 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 (link)–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!). 

Let’s recap for a moment:

  1. The GMAT does repeat concepts, but it doesn’t repeat GMAT 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 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 is to repeat GMAT 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 client 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 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. They don’t repeat GMAT questions out of the Official Guide!

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 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 GMAT 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 GMAT 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 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 Advanced Questions

–Manhattan Advanced

–Jeff Sackmann’s books such as GMAT Hacks, GMAT 111, etc.

(As a note, please stick to Official GMAC-produced materials–the all say “Official” in the title!–for Verbal because other stuff can steer you wrong. This is only more true as your level increases…).

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 How to Repeat GMAT Questions – How Does It Work?

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.

Simple: Go Deep, Not Wide

How to repeat GMAT questions: plug your nose and dive in.

How to Repeat GMAT 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—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 rowan@yourgmatcoach.com.

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PS I’m looking for specific questions to create video explanations for, so if any come to mind just send me an e-mail at rowan@yourgmatcoach.com 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.