Ray L: 610 to 740
Ray came to me in a desperate state: He had studied for the GMAT for over 7 months, during which he’d taken a Manhattan Prep course and a Target Test Prep course, but he couldn’t break the 700-barrier. Over the 3 months before we started meeting, he’d taken the exam three times, with scores of 680, 690, and a 610 on his most recent exam.
We knew we had our work cut out for us, but there was cause for encouragement: he’d scored as high as 44 Quant and 41 Verbal on his prior exams, so we knew that he had a solid base. The real issue was undoing some of the bad habits he’d developed during his studies.
Unlearning Bad Habits
While prep courses certainly have their merits, one of the most common stumbling blocks for students taking these courses is that they tend to develop a rigid, formulaic approach toward the questions. Instead of developing and refining their pre-existing reasoning abilities, students of these courses often try to adopt the sometimes superficial strategies these courses endorse, even if doing so requires looking at the questions from a framework divorced from the student’s core reasoning abilities. In Ray’s case, this issue was most apparent in his approach toward Critical Reasoning and Data Sufficiency. He’d learned to take diligent notes on Critical Reasoning, and while doing so isn’t an inherently bad idea, it quickly became apparent that this was working to his detriment. Instead of actually internalizing the arguments, he used taking notes as a crutch, and when it came to analyzing the choices, he had difficulty drawing the proper connections between the choice and the argument. This was one of situations in which less is better. We did a total CR overhaul, starting from the basics of argument structure and moving onto choice analysis. I had him practice these strategies without taking notes, and the results were stellar, so it was time to move on to his DS strategy.
In DS, he had two issues:
- Similar to CR, he took copious notes, writing down almost the entire statement verbatim but preventing himself from using his pre-existing math abilities to make sense of the statement.
- He committed the grave error of pigeonholing questions: When he saw a question, he’d immediately categorize it as, say, “a Quadratic Equation” question or “a work-rate” questions. While there are certainly some benefits to pattern-recognition on the GMAT, the fact is that categorizing questions oftentimes leads to strategizing before you’ve even digested the situation! Instead of taking the question on its own merits and letting his pre-existing reasoning and conceptual skills come to the surface, he was imposing concepts in situations that didn’t necessarily merit it. Again, the antidote here was “less is more” approach. After we did a deep dive on core DS methodology, I had Ray stop doing homework questions by topic and instead just do them randomly from the Official Guide and from the GMAT Official Questions pack. The goal of this homework strategy was to get him to look at these questions less from the angle of the “topic” and more from the fundamental reasoning framework that the GMAT rewards. Again, this all came pretty naturally to him, so we moved on to the next phase of our preparation.
During his preparation, Ray would spend weeks at a time focusing on specific question-types or concepts while ignoring others on which he felt more comfortable. This approach is, of course, understandable. If you identify a weakness, it makes sense to spend a disproportionate amount of your study time addressing that weakness. But by completely neglecting other concepts and question-types, many of his hard-won GMAT skills atrophied, and this showed in the inconsistency on his practice tests and on the real thing. So, once we addressed his core issues, we had Ray do a two-week study plan consisting of questions across the board:
On one day, he’d do 5 random questions of each type from the GMAT official guide, one at a time.
On the other day, he would do one 20-question quant quiz from the GMAT Official Questions, and one 20-question verbal quiz, both timed.
The logic behind alternating here was the following: On days on which he did questions one at at time, he’d be able to immediately review his results and review the questions with the core strategies we had in mind. When he encountered issues, he could reference our lessons and the framework we’d developed to understand where and why he went astray.
On the days he did the quizzes, we were preparing him for the big shebang: practice tests and the real thing, with all the nasty time management complications that arise with these. Ray did well on the quizzes, but as is often the case, he ran into some time management issues.
Time management is one of the most common issues confronting GMAT test-takers, and Ray was no exception. He had a lot of misconceptions about time management, but one major one that was preventing him from seeing the score we wanted: because Quant questions should take 2 mins on average, he felt compelled to rush at the end of questions to make sure he hit the proper timing. This is a big no-no. Ultimately, to do well on the GMAT quant, you don’t need to answer a high percentage of questions correctly, but you do need to make sure that the questions you spend time on are ones you answer correctly. This necessitates what I call an “all-or-nothing” approach: If you feel confident that you can answer a question in a reasonable amount of time (up to 3 minutes), spend that time ensuring you’re thorough and don’t make a silly mistake. Yes, you might fall behind on time, but that’s ok! The whole point of the GMAT CAT is to push you to failure, so if you answer correctly the questions that you know how to do, you’ll inevitably run into questions that are beyond your abilities. When you encounter these questions, the strategy is simple: guess! My rule of thumb is the following: if you read a question twice and can’t identify a concrete pathway, then you should guess on it. Don’t try a bunch of different strategies in the hopes of making progress, but instead save that precious time for the questions you know how to do. I had Ray practice this strategy and gave him a detailed table outlining different timing benchmarks for him to get a periodic sense of where he was on time, and after practicing these skills on a couple quizzes and practice exam, he finally broke through on his practice tests. 720, 730, and 750! It was time for him to take the real thing, and the results were all he was hoping for and more: 740, with a Quant 47, Verbal 44.