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Case Study Details

Emily A: 590 to 720

Emily came to me totally fresh to the GMAT. Though she had taken the GRE a couple years prior to our tutoring, she was very rusty on the math and, with her busy work schedule, needed structure and targeted instruction. She anticipated that she’d need more help in Quant, which was indeed the case, based on her diagnostic results.

Case Study Description

Diagnostic Exam

Emily scored a 590 on her diagnostic, with a 41 Verbal, 29 Quant breakdown. The verbal score of 41 was already stellar — 92nd percentile — so Quant was where we really wanted to devote our time. What was noteworthy about her Quant performance was that her accuracy was actually very high: Of the questions she answered, she got about 75% of them right. The issue was that she ran out of time and didn’t answer the last 12 questions! As I gathered at our diagnostic session, she knew the concepts, but when we discussed her approach, it was clear that she was taking long, circuitous approaches to questions that she should’ve been able to solve much more quickly. 

The antidote for this was twofold: 1) The obvious solution of getting her up to speed on core Quantitative content. This is a prerequisite for success on GMAT Quant, but in a situation like Emily’s, it was clear that she knew much of the content; what was sorely lack was a grounding in proper strategy, leading to component #2 of our preparation: Developing the proper reasoning framework for approaching Quant questions. As I’ve belabored throughout my blog and website, the GMAT is a reasoning test, and your preparation, at all phases, must entail proper commitment to and development of the reasoning skills the GMAT rewards. With these goals in mind, we dove into the prep

Developing Good Habits

Though Emily was weaker in data sufficiency, we started by doing untimed problem solving questions only for the first few weeks. This might seem crazy: if timing was her issue, why was she doing untimed questions? The reason: In my 15 years of experience, I’ve learned that when students have a flawed or inefficient approach toward the GMAT, doing timed sets will only reinforce these bad habits. Instead, we needed to reset her approach, starting from the ground up. So we spent the first couple sessions doing a deep-dive into core Problem Solving methods. Things such as the difference between top-down and bottom-up thinking, the importance of being goal-oriented and letting the goal dictate all of the math you do, avoiding mindless and unnecessary math, and slowing down to identify your options before you dive into execution. As Emily developed these skills, we continuously reinforced them at our sessions by reviewing questions she’d missed or knew that she’d spent too much time on. Once we built this base, we then moved onto Data Sufficiency, where many of the Problem Solving abilities she’d developed would quickly transfer over. And indeed, Data Sufficiency came naturally at this point to her. And this shouldn’t be surprising: though DS might seem intimidating at first, strong performance there is largely a matter of developing a rigorous logical framework for approaching the questions, so as you get more familiar with what questions you should be asking yourself and what steps you need to take to efficiently assess whether a statement is sufficient, gains should come pretty naturally. 

Harder Questions and Quizzes

After the first 6 weeks of prep, Emily’s reasoning skills had clearly sharpened, and the results were showing in her approach and in her time management (we had her start timing herself after week 3). At this point, we had her move on to tougher questions and timed quizzes from the GMAT Official Questions. Here, we did run into some hiccups: Unsurprisingly, certain tougher concepts were giving her difficulty, especially Rates and Work, Probability, and Number Properties. I wasn’t surprised, as these are some of the most common trouble spots for students on Quant. Knowing that she needed to master these topics, I had her watch my proprietary videos on Rates and Work, and we spent a couple sessions reviewing the concepts and strategies behind Number Properties and Probability, which we reinforced by having her work through some of the tougher questions in my database. Her performance here gradually improved, and after addressing some time management issues on her quizzes, she moved on to practice exams. 

Practic Exams and an Exam-day Letdown

Emily got off to a blistering start, scoring 710, 720, and 740 on her practice exams. My rule of thumb is that once a student scores in their desired range on two consecutive practice exams, they have the go-ahead to take the real thing. So with these scores in her pocket, she took the exam a week after her last practice test. We were both optimistic, but the results of the real thing were a bit lower than we’d hoped: 680, with a Quant 45 and a Verbal 39. On her practice tests, she’d scored between 45 and 48 on Quant, so the score there wasn’t too surprising, but her Verbal scores had been between 42 and 45, so we were both pretty shocked by that drop. So what happened? When we reviewed Emily’s ESR, there was a clear culprit: Reading Comprehension, and, in particular, the first Reading Comprehension passage. Though the first RC passage is usually medium-level difficulty, Emily froze because of nerves and underperformed on that passage. The CAT consequently adjusted the difficulty of her subsequent passages to a lower level, imposing a ceiling on her RC score and thus on her overall score. This was disappointing, but not a cause for discouragement. Emily was obviously a strong reader and capable of a high score, so we devoted a lesson to really refining her RC approach and supplemented this with a steady dose of medium and hard passages from older GMATs. We’d saved three practice exams in case she needed to re-take it, so she took two of those during this period, and did well again: 730 and 740. 

The Big Day

Having addressed what we were sure was the last major obstacle in her preparation, Emily sat for the exam 20 days after she scored 680. And this time, the results were what we wanted: 720, Verbal 42, Quant 46. She’s now attending Wharton!

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