Among the many myths that abound regarding optimal preparation for the GMAT, one of the more common and, unfortunately, more harmful ones is that there exists a direct relationship between quantity of practice tests taken and score improvements. And, unfortunately, this myth is perpetuated by large GMAT classes that will advertise 6 or 8 or…
I get it. The GMAT is a timed exam, and, faced with the challenge of completing more questions than you have time for, it’s all too natural to deal with rigors of time management by rushing through questions. Maybe you get through a tough quant question, realize you’ve already spent two minutes, and quickly do the final math in your head instead of writing it out, as you normally would. Maybe you’re combining statements in DS and just jump to a conclusion that the answer is C without concretely establishing evidence to justify your answer. Maybe you realize you’re a couple minutes behind in Verbal, so you only superficially read through a CR passage and overlook a small, but important point in the author’s conclusion. Or maybe you do read through the author’s argument carefully, but you get down to two choices and don’t want to “waste” anymore precious time, so you just guess between the two questions. If any of this describes your approach to the GMAT, you’re not alone, though I hate to be the bearer of bad news: in employing this kind of time management strategy, you’re fundamentally putting a ceiling on your score!
To understand why such a time-management strategy is counterproductive, we need to understand how the GMAT scoring algorithm works. Conventional wisdom goes something like this: the GMAT CAT is adaptive, providing me harder questions as I do better. Thus, to get a good score, I need to make sure I get the tough questions right. Therefore, I’ll devote my study time toward these harder questions. Though this is an understandable and well-intentioned perspective, it’s unfortunately misguided. The reality is that the GMAT CAT determines your score based not on the difficulty level of the questions you get right, but instead, on the difficulty level of the questions you get wrong. Fundamentally, the scoring algorithm is trying to determine the level of difficulty at which you miss half the questions. And the implications of this fact are profound. You can spend all the time you want mastering tough combinatorics questions, but if you take “easier” questions for granted and make silly mistakes, the algorithm probably won’t even give you these tougher questions. Instead, it will interpret your miss on that “easier” question as a sign that you’re not at that level and feed you even easier questions. Yes, you might then get some of these easier questions right, but the damage has been done. As far as the scoring algorithm is concerned, the ceiling on your score is lower because the difficulty level of the questions you missed was low.
So how should the above facts impact your time management strategy and your general study habits?
Time management: When you encounter a question that seems doable, don’t take it for granted and rush through it. As implied above, these questions matter as much or more than tougher questions you’ll see later in the exam, so you need to make sure you take the time to ensure that you fully understand the givens and the goal, and, equally importantly, take the time to double-check your work to ensure that you did indeed do all the math properly. For Verbal, this means making sure you’ve processed what you read, have paid attention to small differences in the choices, and that, when between choices, you take the time to properly identify why one choice is superior to another. This all might sound simple, but you need to make sure you’re employing these habits consistently on your homework; otherwise you’ll fall prey to bad habits that will be hard to rectify on test day.
Study habits: More generally, you should structure your studying in such a way that you first establish a concrete, airtight foundation in both the concepts tested on the exam and the necessary methodology to efficiently do these questions. If you’re working through the GMAT Official Guide, this means that you should make sure you’ve mastered the questions in the first half of the book before you move on to the second half. Really understand your mistakes, even your silly ones, and make sure to take measures that prevent you from repeating these mistakes later in your studying. Once you’ve established this foundation, it’ll make sense to move on to harder questions and concepts, but you need to be honest with yourself. If a “simple” but heavily-tested concept like percents is giving you difficulty, ignoring that fact and moving on to something “tougher” like combinatorics or rates will ultimately be an inefficient use of your study time and will lead to a score lower than you’re capable of.