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By Chris Ryan, Director of Instructor and Product Development, ManhattanGMAT.
You've just accepted your fate. "I have to take the GMAT," you admit to yourself. And now you admit one more thing: "No, I can't walk in and take it cold."
So you contemplate all the research you have to do. Tomorrow you'll start trolling the online forums, talking to friends about their GMAT-prep experiences, and haunting the "Study Aids" aisle of your local Barnes & Noble. But right now, you don't want to buy anything. You want general principles. Whichever books you pick up, whatever course you take (or not) - how should you think about preparing for the GMAT?
Here are five tips to guide you.
1. Go to the source.
Many religions have holy books, right? The Official Guides from the GMAC, in their orange, purple and green splendor, are the holy books of the GMAT religion. Every other book, as good as it may be, is just commentary. Only the Official Guides contain problems retired from the real GMAT. Thus, your efforts must be centered on the Official Guides.
The other "holy" source is GMAT Prep, the free practice-test software that you should download from mba.com. This software has its drawbacks, but it also has two unique benefits: it uses the real GMAT algorithm, and even more importantly, it contains retired GMAT problems, many of which aren't in the Official Guides. There are two tests offered on this software; you should consider 'saving' at least one of them for later in your preparation to use as a measuring stick. The GMAC folks have told us that they plan to release more products soon; these should also become part of your GMAT preparation depot.
Though the GMAC sources are the best, don't ignore third-party resources. Not surprisingly, I believe that the ManhattanGMAT resources are great. For instance, our computer-adaptive exams supply crucial explanations and analytics that GMAT Prep lacks. Our Strategy Guides break down the core principles and give you lots of relevant practice.
But one way to measure the greatness of any third-party product is the degree to which it reflects the content of the GMAT. And when it comes to the content of the GMAT, GMAC products have no equal. (This is why ManhattanGMAT's curriculum is built around the Official Guides, which all of our students receive.)
2. Build up, not down.
We see it all the time: whole herds of students go running off to find super-hard problems. "If I can crack these," the herds think, "I can do any GMAT problem."
Don't follow the herds.
How you do on the GMAT is determined by your floor - the level of problem that you can absolutely, positively get right every time, without hesitation or anxiety.
So you should spend more time truly mastering the easier problems. And by "mastering," I mean ensuring that you can do the problem, not only correctly, but also quickly, easily and confidently under tough exam conditions - as if Dirty Harry were leveling his .44 Magnum at you and asking if you feel lucky.
By "mastering," I mean knowing everything there is to know about the problem - the underlying principles, the subtle application of those principles, the embedded tricks and traps.
I mean knowing how to teach the problem. Knowing how to write a similar problem.
Once you have built this knowledge and skill, then progress upwards. It's like building a brick wall - don't put the next layer on until the current layer is in place. Of course, for top scores, you'll need to practice against some really tough problems. But make sure all the lower levels are solid first.
3. Turn enemies into friends.
Should you play to your strengths or attack your weaknesses?
Ideally, you'll do both. But if you have to choose, especially early on - pick the weaknesses.
Let's say you're a genius on Critical Reasoning, but you're terrible at Sentence Correction. Which should you work on? The Sentence Correction. Why? Because the test is adaptive. If SC is weighing your performance down, you'll never get the really hard CR problems. You'll never get a chance to prove just how brilliant you are with CR.
So face your demons. Eat your vegetables. You hate geometry? Then do those problems first. Consider them the enemy plans that have fallen into your hands - and extract all the intelligence.
Then, as you master individual enemy problems, turn them into your friends. Become totally comfortable with them. Then, when you walk into the GMAT, none of the questions will throw you off your game plan.
4. Mix it up.
You know you should do a lot of topic-based work - especially in your weak areas. And you know you'll have to take practice tests to prepare for the GMAT's adaptive format, which is both less familiar and more stressful than a paper-based format.
That's all well and good. But don't limit yourself to topic-based work and practice tests. Topic-based drills are indispensable, but they give you a crutch - you already know what kind of problem you're facing. In contrast, the GMAT throws you problems in random order by content area.
So you need to develop your eye: your ability to recognize patterns, perceive key traits, classify problems and bring relevant strategies to bear.
In this regard, practice tests would seem to help you here - and they do. But you can't, or shouldn't, take a practice test every day. You can burn yourself out all too easily. After every practice exam, you need time to study the detailed "game film," draw out lessons and fix the issues. That's several days of work - before you take another practice exam.
So what should you do when you're not taking practice exams?
Short drills of mixed-topic problems from the Official Guides.
The GMAC has already done the prep work for you - they've jumbled up the problems by topic but arranged them in order of difficulty. So do 5-10 problems in a row. Don't skip any. Treat the exercise "as if" you were taking the GMAT. And then spend double the time afterwards reviewing and mastering each problem.
You can do this kind of drill every day, especially as you get closer to the real exam - and your GMAT muscles will grow strong.
5. Know what you know.
It's two weeks to the exam. You've done a ton of work, and your head is kind of swimming.
Stop making your head swim. Start reviewing and redoing problems.
At this point, it's much less important to cram new stuff into your brain than it is to organize and strengthen what's already in there.
Don't worry about trying to cover everything under the sun. Instead, go for depth over breadth. Force yourself to revisit problems you "think" you know. You'll be surprised at what you don't really know.
Master a few representative problems from each topic tested on the GMAT. Know everything about these problems. For each one, have a crystal-clear approach plan - and also a Plan B, C, and even D - that you can execute correctly, quickly, easily and confidently while taking enemy fire.
Now work those problems again until you've licked them. You want to walk into the exam with a bunch of friends - that is, Official Guide problems that you know cold, inside and out.
Oh yeah - you should take one or two more practice exams in the last couple of weeks, but don't overdo it!
With these principles in hand, you'll be well-equipped to study for the GMAT in order to put your best foot forward on test day. But bear in mind that nothing will replace good old-fashioned elbow grease - statistics from GMAC show that the amount of time spent studying, both in terms of hours and weeks, correlates positively to performance on the test (100+ hours and 8+ weeks for the best average results, if you're curious). Let's call this Tip #6 - there aren't any shortcuts to success on the GMAT!
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