First, shout out to phantombanker for his original work "How I got a 770 on the GMAT with minimal effort while working banking hours" which I attempted to pay homage to with the post title.
Re: This Post
This post applies mostly to the Quant section of the GMAT, which was by far the most challenging portion of the exam for me. For those of you who can ace the math no problem, I'd still say it is worth a read as a lot of the advice I have concerns exam strategy and approach. Won't be of much help with the Verbal section though.
A good deal of the information that follows was sourced from various GMAT articles and guides, which I then aggregated along with my own notes . . . AKA some bullets points and/or text are copied verbatim from other sources. So not all my own words; I just incorporated advice I found particularly insightful into my study guide.
I started my GMAT journey last July, with the expectation of applying to schools in the fall of 2017. As a native English speaker who has always read a lot, I was able to hit maybe the 93rd to 99th percentile in Verbal consistently without studying, so I focused my study entirely on Quant. Given the weighting differential between Verbal and Quant, I really only had to get a "decent" Quant score to reach the 720+ range I was targeting, which seemed perfectly achievable at the time given that math has never been a subject which I have struggled on.
My study process was well-thought out, and I was extremely diligent in my preparation.
- I studied extensively using a variety of resources - MGMAT, GMAT Hacks, GMATclub resources etc.
- Took all 6 MGMAT CATs and all 6 Official CATs.
- Detailed error logs of everything. And I studied A LOT.
My first official exam was in October, on which I scored a 700 with a 42 Quant (47th percentile). Disappointed, I continued to study and took another crack in November, which resulted in another 700. Improved my Quant score slightly to 44 (54th percentile), but Verbal fell a bit. Thought ok a little more improvement and I'll be alright, and scheduled another test for December. The third time was a heartbreaker – I choked and about 15 questions into the Quant section I knew I was toast, and thought about just walking out with the test unfinished. Another 700 with a Quant score of 42; my performance had declined after hours and hours of studying. Given my non-elite undergrad and work experience, a 700 wasn't going to cut it for the schools I would consider (especially with such a terrible Q/V split), and I didn't end up applying for the 2017 intake. Also, by that point I was wondering WTF is wrong with me . . . I consider myself pretty fucking smart (unlike the majority of you on WSO . . . lolzzzz), have always been a great standardized test-taker, and while not an absolute math whiz am very comfortable with numbers.
In January, I did some serious reflecting on my performance and spent a lot of time mapping out an improvement strategy. My sub-50th percentile quant scores and the sense of shame that accompanied them actually became a huge motivator for me - yes, I needed a great score to get into a Top 10 MBA program, but now I felt like I needed a to prove I WAS NOT FUCKING RETARDED. Scheduled my exam for May, and over the next few months I studied my balls off using a variety of prep resources, in addition to really trying to prepare myself mentally with respect to strategy.
And boom when that 770 flashed on screen . . . YAHTZEE MOTHAFUCKA!
I was absolutely elated, it sucked studying so much and would have been nice to get that score on try #1, but at least the time I spent wasn't for naught. (On a related note, the Sunday before I took the GMAT I went to church for the first time in a long while. Prayers were answered, and since we all know correlation implies causation . . . ) On a more serious note, WSO has been a great resource for me over the years, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to give something back. The next section notes the issues that I identified as trouble spots for me personally (after my first 3 exams, pre-770), followed by my general study advice and strategy.
Main Issues I Was Having / Areas for Improvement
- Especially when I didn't recognize quickly how to solve a problem.
- Needed to gain speed in problem recognition and be able to find the solution path quickly.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Do tons of problems until you tend to recognize what they want quickly.
- Would go into problem immediately and start frantically calculating trying to solve w/time constraints.
- There are some things that I knew OK but took me too much time to get right.
- Reading too quickly / misreading the question occurred far to often.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Best way to speed up your quant solving is to memorize the multiplication table!
- Was blindly applying techniques to solve questions, this is a terrible idea.
- Unnecessary complications in questions that could be solved much faster (not able to see shortcuts).
- Ability to emulate calculator - not what GMAT tests. Don't get bogged down w/complicated calculations.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Don't need long division - GMAT reliably uses a set of simple numbers. When it doesn't, you can usually approximate. Determine the amount of calculation needed based on the answer choices.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: There is no math section on the GMAT. There is only quantitative reasoning.
- Simple arithmetic errors – dumb mistake ex. doing math in head, rushing, scratchwork legibility.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Learn some mental math tricks - they will save you time on the exam.
- Ensure you pick the right answer choice for DS problems.
- Need to minimize computation errors.
- Watch out for unit conversions, "except" problems.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Write everything out; DON'T perform calculations in your head.
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Scratch paper usage - transcribe clearly, set up problem correctly the first time! Write neatly and legibly, organized, have system, write out steps (easier to go back and spot mistakes).
- SOLUTION/TIPS: Slow down. Take your time. Focus intensely only on the step you're on at that moment.
Notes & Review Materials
- whitecollarandsuspenders Total GMAT Guide (study guide/notes I made and may share)
- PS and DS question notebooks (wrote down problems I got wrong b/c I didn't know the concept well)
- Flashcards (things that you should memorize ex. variations of 3 special quadratics)
- GMATclub Quant Guide, GMATclub Flashcards
Books & Courses
- Target Test Prep course (really good)
- MGMAT – Strategy Guides
- MGMAT – Foundations of Math
- MGMAT – Advanced Quant
- GMAT Hacks – Total GMAT Math
- Bunuel on GMATclub (guy is amazing)
CATs / Exams / Qbanks
- GMATprep CATs (6 total, 2 free w/GMATprep software, definitely buy the exam packs to get 3 - 6)
- MGMAT CATs (I didn't love them but still worthwhile, quant is very hard)
- GMAT Official Guide Questions – 2017 OG, Quantitative Review, GMATprep Qbanks (For practice questions and CATs, Official GMAT ones are by far the best, key thing is to get used to the style and format of the GMAT test writers and become familiar with the types of questions the GMAT will ask you.)
- GMAT Hacks – 1,800 practice question set (Breaks up the questions by difficulty, you know how well you are doing on easy/medium/hard questions. Answer explanations are very detailed.)
- MGMAT Online Practice Sets
- GMATclub Flashcard questions
- GMAT Club forum, you can search questions by Tags and by Difficulty.
Study Strategy, Tips, Etc.
- Number Properties and Statistics are most important IMO. You need to master them. Algebra is next.
- Remainders were a sub-topic I saw as important.
- Don't overlook Word Problems - Overlapping Sets, Distance/Time/Work/Rate
- Combinatorics and probability come up more at higher levels.
- Know Coordinate Geometry, they can make these trickier at higher levels.
- Gotta master fundamentals of Geometry, they also can throw you ridiculous geometry questions at higher levels, maybe a good time to guess (that was my strategy).
- GMAT = IQ test. Once you know math concepts, it's all about applying them to solve complex problems.
- Memorizing math formula's and doing thousands of practice problems alone does not = great scores.
- Though practice can help, the GMAT is all about problem solving and that for many cannot be taught.
Master the Foundations
- Get foundations into your head: memorize times table, geometry formulas, basic arithmetic rules, etc.
- Perfect your basic techniques. Get better at solving simple things and memorize some of the shortcuts.
- Know by heart the common percent values, square roots, powers, and fractions – this saves time.
- The ROI of concentrating on advanced concepts is small (unless trying to go from 49 to 51 or the like).
- Slow down your work on GMAT questions and focus on building your overall math fundamentals. Build up the base before tackling the more nuanced GMAT quant.
- Make sure you are hitting a certain percentage of the questions in each topic/subject. Set a goal such as 90% of questions have to be right in exercises, OG, or wherever.
- Knowing problem types is a great, but GMAT ramps up difficulty by execution. The difference between a low and high difficulty problem on the same subject is more about learning to identify and apply the right strategies, finishing problems in the correct amount of time, and seeing through misleading answers.
- These are the kind of skills gained over time through repetitive practice, not by reviewing content in one fell swoop. A constant exposure to material is always better for retention than occasional, intense effort.
Understand Question Types, Recognize Strategies to Solve
- Familiarize yourself w/test - question types, answer types, what each section is testing and how.
- Not many people feel that quant problems are predictive, but when you do enough problems they become predictable – you will begin to recognize patterns.
- Try to look for the simplest way of solving questions. Don't "buy" complex explanations. for 95% of GMAT questions there are simple explanations. For many questions there are more than one good way to solve - familiarizing yourself with all of them will help you find the simplest way to do it.
- Follow Bunuel's posts - he often provides very eye opening solutions that are quick and effective.
- Stay away from the longhand approach. Take shortcuts: Plug in the answers and or eliminate them. When it comes to problem solving, because the GMAT supplies five possible answer choices to each question, the task is not to calculate or derive an answer, but to choose one, a subtly different task.
Review and Error Checking
- Keep an error log of all your mistakes and/or guesses (see attachment for a good template), analyze questions, read answer explanations – understand WHY question was right/wrong.
- Read the answer explanations of all the questions (including the ones you got right) and see how the questions writers are thinking (will be useful later in the prep process).
- Periodically go back to the questions you got wrong, esp the hard mean ones that you did not know how to even approach and make sure you can solve them and know the path to solve them.
- Do the mistake analysis on the questions! Not enough to just classify mistakes in a pretty error log
- Comb through your performance. Identify problem spots. Locate weaknesses. Track your progress on each question type and each skill. Ultimately, the goal is awareness.
- You want your common mistakes/errors in mind when you take test so that you can consciously avoid them.
- Write a reason for making a mistake - figure out exactly what it is! (Not knowing something? Forgetting a formula? Confusing concepts? Not reading the question carefully? Making a silly mistake? Rushing?)
- What did it teach me? What did I learn from it? Each error is a learning opportunity - use it.
- Next step is to turn mistake into action item - how to ensure that you never make that mistake again?
- When solving questions be very conscious about the time it takes you to answer the questions. Always time yourself. If average time it takes you to answer is too long, go back and learn more on topic.
- It doesn't matter whether you got the answer right if you can't get it right in a timely manner. Time is just as important as getting the answer right.
- The most important time is the total and average (per question).
- Questions are becoming wordy, in OG spend some time observing the trend and styles of questions.
- Many people can solve simple questions in about 1 minute w/o problems. However, those who solve with conventional method of approach take about 5 minutes in solving a difficult question. Thus, very helpful to learn various techniques and tips that can guide test-takers to solve difficult questions in just about 2 minutes.
How to Approach/Solve Questions
Plan of Attack
- Read through the question carefully.
- What is being asked?
- Any clues in question (ex. the word "integer")
- Write stuff down (neatly!)
- Glance at answer choices (PS)
- Any possible CMTs given questions stem? (DS)
Determine strategy to solve
- Have plan for each question type.
- Simplify/factor aggressively.
- Any time saving techniques or quicker solutions?
- Look for shortcuts and/or patterns.
- Use smart numbers?
- Plug in answer choices?
- Minimize careless errors.
- Mind your timing.
- Write neatly.
DO NOT waste time on problems you don't know how to solve! Move on to guessing strategies.
General Strategy Tips
- Balance between speed and accuracy is the key to a higher quant score.
- Must answer every question, so guess and move on if needed.
- Avoid guessing 2 questions in a row. If pressed for time, solve every other question.
- Try not to miss too many questions in a row.
- Practice consistent scratchwork, and follow that pattern when you take the GMAT.
- Don't try and interpret question difficulty - ignore the difficulty level of each question
- Focus on problem at hand – not last question, not what score will be, etc.
- If you encounter a hard question that you are not sure how to solve, take a moment to pause and think of any unusual / backsolving / etc paths to find the solution.
- After reading a question, stop for 5 seconds and instead of fully engaging yourself, take a casual look at it and think if an easier solution exists. Don't just rely on your reflexes, use your brain too.
Specific Strategy Tips
- Pay attention and keep track of units
- Do not miss an important detail in the beginning of the question - this is a common catch
- Don't forget about "Unique" numbers
- Check whether you have considered: positive numbers, negative numbers, fractions/non-integers, zero, the biggest number they'd let you use, and the smallest number they'd let you use.
- Answer the right question - don't answer the wrong question/solve for the wrong variable
- An easy way for the GMAT to cause this is by including an extra variable or an extra step.
- Don't Multiply/Divide variables across inequalities (unless you know it is positive)
- If you multiply or divide both sides of an inequality by a NEGATIVE number, you have to flip the sign.
- DS Problems are not drawn to scale – don't fall in love with the figure!
- You have to consider various ways that the angles and shapes could be drawn
- PS problems drawn to scale unless noted, but make sure to check
- Don't forget that a definitive "no" answer to a Data Sufficiency question means "sufficient."
- Recognize logical solutions to seemingly complex problems.
- More problems can be solved by approximation than you think.
- When you round up or down, make a note of which way you've adjusted.
- The answer choices are a major hint to whether approximation is appropriate. If the answer choices are spread out (as in the previous example), approximate away!
- USE THIS STRATEGY: https://www.manhattanprep.com/gmat/blog/2016/10/1…
- You need to be prepared that the timing will not go as you wish; you may get a hard start or a few questions in a row that will get you down. Stay calm, remain flexible and adjust to the test.
- Plan to be stuck. Plan to be freaked out. Plan to panic. Don't do it but have a plan for all of these situations. Know when it is time to cut bait.
- Never ever ever spend more than 3.5 minutes on a single question. After 3 minutes, if you still can't see a solution, figure out an alternative approach, or start a guessing strategy.
- You can, at any point, decide to guess and move on. The most important juncture, though, is at the 1-1.5 minute mark, by which point you should have the question more or less figured out.
- Once you hit the 2 minute mark, you're probably not using the most efficient method, and your approach could easily take another minute or more.
- If you reach 3 or 4 minute mark, you probably don't know what you're doing, and are unlikely to figure it out.
- In short, the longer you've spent on a question, the more you should consider guessing and moving on.
- Time you've spent so far is a sunk cost, you're far more likely to benefit from spending remaining time on the rest of the test rather than continuing to look for a way to deal with question you're struggling with.
- The most important guessing strategy is simply to guess at all. It's the best way to ensure that you properly manage your time. You almost certainly won't get every question right, and it's best to save time on some of the ones you don't have the skills to answer.
- Any strategic guessing is a bonus. Sure, if you guess on five questions and consistently narrow the possibilities to three choices instead of five, you'll probably guess right twice instead of once. That'll help your score. But it isn't worth spending a lot of extra time trying to "out-think" the test.
- That said, there are some other things to consider. None of these approaches is foolproof--the GMAC knows them too--but they will point you in the right direction.
- Avoid choices that stand out, ex. if only one of the five choices has a square root, it's probably wrong.
- Avoid extreme choices - if one answer is much larger or smaller than the rest, don't choose it.
- Approximate, particularly useful on geometry where you might be able to "eyeball" size of angle or line.
- Look for "matched sets." If 6 and -6 are both choices, it's more likely that one of them is correct. On percent and fraction questions, matched sets include those that add up to 1 or 100, such as 1/9 and 8/9.
Exam Day Tips - Health/Wellness/Science
- Obviously make sure you get plenty of rest the two preceding nights and are healthy in general.
- On exam day, eat a banana before you start and another during one or both of your breaks. Only eat a light meal before the exam, nothing heavy. For me, banana + Clif Bar is a good combo.
- Drink Gatorade before you start and during your breaks. Feed that brain with some glucose. Yes, Gatorade.
- Wash your face with cold water during your breaks. Increases alertness and feels fucking great.
Exam Day Tips - Other
- When I took the CFA exams, I liked to wake up at 5am and get the brain going by reviewing for 2 hours. Just felt good to refresh the morning of, and evidently it worked (or at least didn't harm me too much).
- DO NOT DO THIS FOR THE GMAT! The first 3 times I took the GMAT I did just that, and was noticeably "sluggish" during the test. Think of it like a sprint.
- When I got my 770, I didn't even think about the GMAT until I reached the exam center, and only spent a couple of minutes mentally preparing myself (i.e. "follow your plan of attack" and "if you are bogged down just guess and move on" etc.) while waiting to be called.
- Can't guarantee this approach is best for everyone, but it was for me - my brain felt a lot fresher and was able to operate at peak performance for the duration of the exam.
- Also, if you take or plan on taking any ADD/ADHD medication for the exam, I'd go easy on the dosage. It helps for the CFA exams when you gotta crank for 6 hours, yes. But remember, the GMAT doesn't have a math section, it has a quantitative reasoning section, and I think those meds actually hurt performance.
I've included the workbook / error log that I made, should be a useful template although I had to upload it as an xls file so not sure about compatibility. Left a little bit of my info too - take a look on the summary tab down below and you can see my quant scores as well as the correct/incorrect answer pattern that got me that. Kinda interesting.
I'd recommend you try and memorize the flashcard set I made, as well as the multiplication table (made things so much easier to be able to know 19*13 = 247 and the like off the top of my head). The other two flashcard sets are good, relatively comprehensive study material.
Mod Note (Andy): top 50 posts of 2017, this one ranks #11 (based on # of silver bananas)