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How to Study for the GMAT: Fooled by Randomness

How to Study for the GMAT: Fooled by Randomness

Because of the unique nature of the GMAT, many test-takers find that their progress hits a plateau about a month or two into their preparation. This fact isn’t a denunciation of the student’s ability or their study materials, but, more often than not, a consequence of how these students prepare for the exam. If you’re at a point in your preparation where you feel you comfortable with your grasp of the exam’s content, but see that your ability to answer GMAT style questions is stagnating, then this advice might apply to you.

As you probably know from my other blog posts, I’m a firm believer that the nature of preparation for the GMAT differs drastically from the way you would prepare for a traditional exam. Content knowledge is necessary, but after that, it’s about understanding the unique style of GMAT questions and the reasoning skills that the exam is designed to address. Let’s take a recent student of mine as an example. For the sake of privacy, we’ll call her Amanda.

Amanda came to tutoring after having self-studied by going through the preparation guides of a reputable firm and working through all of the questions in the Official Guide. My first question for her was: How did you do the questions? Amanda took what would seem to be a logical approach: She took a practice test, where she noted that her Quant was weaker than her Verbal. Then she read through all the study guides, did the exercises, and then opened up the Official Guide and started doing the questions in sequential order and in batches of 20. After each batch, she’d review the explanation in the Official Guide for the questions she missed, and then she’d move on to the next batch.

Does anything stand out to you as problematic here?

My humble opinion is that there were several flaws in her approach.

#1: She didn’t time herself

When you’re working through Official Guide questions, you should always be timing yourself. Remember, these are retired GMAT questions, so you want your practice with these questions to replicate the GMAT to the extent that’s possible. Just as importantly, timing yourself lets you identify inefficiencies. Based on Amanda’s approach, a question that she answered correctly but that took four minutes to solve wouldn’t raise a red flag, even though it should! Getting a question right is great, but if it takes you substantially above 2 minutes to do so, you could probably learn something from that question, and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by simply overlooking that question.

When timing yourself, you should also do it on a question-to-question basis, not in batches of 10, 20, etc. Why? As I discuss below, redoing questions should be an important element of your preparation, and if you do batches of 20, you might be hazy on some of those earlier questions when it’s time to review them.

#2: She didn’t take advantage of a principle that should be fundamental to your preparation: Mistakes are teachable moments!

What I mean by this is that the biggest gains you’ll see in your preparation will come from studying situations in which you made mistakes. But “studying” doesn’t simply mean reading the explanations in the book. It means reviewing your work, analyzing where you went wrong on the question, and re-doing the question with your initial mistake in mind. Your ultimate goal is to find something generalizable from this question that you can apply to other, comparable situations. Did you make sure to look at the answer choices before starting your calculations? Were you able to categorize the question? Did you consider plugging in numbers in the appropriate situation? These are all fundamental questions to ask yourself when you’re reviewing a question, and by simply reading an explanation, you won’t develop enough insight into your mistakes to avoid the same error the next time you’re in a similar situation.

#3: She didn’t focus on her weaknesses

Taking a diagnostic test before she began studying was a sound idea, but the whole point of this diagnostic is to help isolate your strengths and weaknesses. By diving into the OG, Amanda essentially neglected all the data that her diagnostic test provided. Though the idea of doing questions that sample all content areas is important (after all, the real exam will test concepts randomly throughout), it’s generally a bad idea to dive into such an approach until you’ve done practice sets addressing your specific areas of weakness. Otherwise, it will be difficult to develop the type of conceptual understanding necessary to answer higher-level questions for that topic correctly.

Though Amanda did a lot right in her preparation, the above three are examples of the issues many students have when they begin studying for the GMAT. If you’re just starting to study for the GMAT or if you’ve been studying for a couple months but have hit a plateau, it might be worthwhile to reconsider how you’re studying.


Erfun Geula
Erfun Geula

Erfun Geula is a professional GMAT tutor, based in New York City. He has scored in the 99th-percentile of the GMAT three different times, he has written and edited hundreds of practice GMAT questions, and he has over 7,000 hours of tutoring experience.

  1. Dear Erfun,

    Thank you very much for this article! I’m just starting my studies, and I planned to do the same thing as your student. I’ll definitely change my studies now that I’ve read your advice 🙂

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