July 8, 2012
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” – The Matrix
I guess that, since you are still reading this post, you are considering taking your prep to the next level and entering the GMAT matrix. Truly mastering the GMAT requires that you peel back the veneer of the test and understand the patterns behind the test or, as we commonly say here at Kaplan, learn the inner-calculus of the test. One of my favorite sayings about standardized tests like the GMAT is that “the GMAT never repeats, but it rhymes.” This is one of the great things about preparing for a standardized test. The test-maker must use a framework of question types, answer types, passages, etc. in order to truly standardize the test. There is a specific set of skills that the test-maker includes in the test each and every time. With that in mind, let’s peek inside the matrix of GMAT test prep.
In order to learn the patterns of the test and master the GMAT, there are a few key things to do and keep in mind as you prep.
1) The Problem Fades and the Concept Remains
As you prep, do so with an eye toward the bigger concept behind a particular question. Ask yourself what the test-makers are really testing with the question in front of you – what vital skill or skills are they including. Don’t fight with individual questions or let one miss throw you on that particular topic. The specifics of the questions (names, numbers, etc..) will be different on test day, but the concept being tested will absolutely be there. Identifying the concept being tested and/or the type of question focuses your approach and narrows your options. Get into the habit of identifying the question type and primary concept each time you approach a question in practice. The tougher questions are usually just a combination of more basic skills stacked on top of each other. By thinking strategically and identifying the concept(s) and question type, you take the mask off the question.
2) Mastery First, Timing Later
When you first start to prep, it should not be about timing. Your GMAT timing will not improve in the right way until you are better able to read the patterns in the test, so don’t fret about timing until you have built the content mastery to back it up. When you get to the point that you can spot the concept being tested and the strategy you should use to tackle the question when you glance at the question, then you are ready to turn your attention to timing practice.
3) Review every explanation
In order to build the mastery noted above, it’s important to review every explanation, even when you get a question correct. Too many people neglect this step, but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to truly being able to see the matrix of the test! Often, people prep by just doing question after question without fully reviewing their approach. While it’s important to check the answer, it is equally important to review why you chose the answer that you did. Your goal on the GMAT is to be correct AND efficient. The hardest thing to do is to read all of the explanations for the questions you got right. You want to make sure that you 1) got the right answer for the right reason and 2) are approaching the question in the most efficient way.
4) Make mistakes with a growth mindset
In order to really master the GMAT, your response to mistakes needs to be appropriate. Too many test-takers let mistakes define their performance and dampen their eventual improvement. Mistakes are good if viewed in the right light. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. They are the ideal opportunities for improvement. Mistakes represent the glitches in your ability to read the matrix that must be identified in order to be fixed. It’s much better to make these mistakes before test day so that you have the ability to fix, reinforce, and strengthen your approach. Therefore, don’t be afraid to make mistakes in your practice. Make them boldly so that you can sharpen your mastery as you fix them!
5) Use full-length practice tests to target areas of study
In your prep and mastery building, full-length tests are important, but it’s not the score that is the vital component. While a score is important as you track performance, it is more important to track the trends in your performance. The first thing is to make sure that you understand the basics about how the test is scored. For instance, long strings of missed questions are typically worse than missing the same number of questions spread out. Also, there is a steep penalty for questions left unanswered at the end of a section. Your review of the test should take these things into account. It’s also important to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. As you review, put your questions into categories: 1) answered correctly and with the best strategic approach, 2) answered correctly but could tweak the approach to make it more efficient, 3) answered incorrectly because of a misread or silly error (face-palm moment), 4) answered incorrectly but the content is somewhat familiar, and 5) answered incorrectly and the content needs a lot of review. These categories are placed in the order of approach as well. Tackle the issues that are easiest to fix first to quickly boost and tighten your approach, and formulate your study plan on the basis of this analysis. Taking test after test does not do as much for you as using your test performance as a tool to inform the practice that you will do. Take another practice test after 15-20 hours or so of solid practice and repeat the analysis.
6) The How Matters (Just not in the way that you think…)
How you answer the questions on the test definitely matters; however, it’s with an eye towards efficiency rather than the official, linear quantitative or verbal route. The test-makers do not require you to show your work or demonstrate the “proper” steps. As a matter of fact, stop thinking about the textbook route as the “proper” route! Too many test-takers feel like they are somehow copping out by using a strategy or shortcut to get to the answer, but that is actually preferred. You are not only being tested on your content knowledge, but more importantly, you are being tested on your ability to recognize the best and most efficient approach to a question. Take the red pill, learn to read the test matrix, and use that to master the GMAT!
How you prep matters! Prep with an eye towards learning the patterns behind the test and improvement will happen. Combine your quest for mastery with a solid study plan to maximize your improvement. Experts see and use patterns! While you contemplate what your approach will be – red pill or blue pill – I hope to see you soon in the GMAT matrix!
February 16, 2012
It is essential to remember that the GMAT is about more than just doing the math correctly. The GMAT is really a test of your critical thinking abilities – that is, your ability to not just do the work, but to figure out exactly what that work is.
To that end, the GMAT will often present you with problems that would take too long to solve if you do all of the math that is possible. I have had countless students approach me to tell me that if they were not timed, they could solve all of the math questions. However, they just cannot find a way to complete the problems in time. Additionally, all the extra math provides opportunities for careless errors. I always tell these students the same thing – do only the math you absolutely need to in order to reach the correct answer.
This is especially true on data sufficiency questions. Data sufficiency questions are all about your ability to answer the question, rather than determine exactly what that answer is. Thus, your focus should be on deciding if the information given could be used to solve, rather than actually solving. On many data sufficiency problems, though certainly not all of them, you will not need to do any math at all to arrive at the answer.
Below, you will find one such question. Give it a shot and see if you can reach the correct result without doing any math at all.
Team X won 40 basketball games. What percent of its basketball games did team X win?
(1) Team X played the same number of basketball games as Team Y.
(2) Team Y won 45 games, representing 25 percent of the basketball games it played.
This problem illustrates how important it is to approach data sufficiency questions strategically. By following a set method, we can find our answer without doing much, if any, math.
First, we want to determine what information we would need to find out in order to answer our question. By identifying this, we can check our statements for sufficiency more quickly. Since we are asked what percent of games Team X won and are told that Team X won 40 games, we know that we need to find out how many games Team X played in order to answer the question. Now when we check our statements, all we need to do is determine whether we know how many games Team X played – any additional math is unnecessary and is not a good use of our time.
Statement 1 tells us that Teams X and Y played the same number of games, but not the actual number of games. Thus, statement 1 is not sufficient.
Statement 2 tells us that Team Y won 45 games, which represents 25% of the games Team Y played. From this, we could calculate the number of games Team Y played, but we do not know anything about Team X. Therefore, statement 2 is not sufficient.
Together, though, we know how many games Team Y played from statement 2 and that Team X played the same number of games from statement 1. Since we now could calculate the number of games Team X played, the statements are sufficient together.
Notice that we did not have to do any math to reach the solution. On GMAT math problems in general, and especially on data sufficiency questions, you want to do as little math as possible. Math takes time and opens up opportunities for errors, so we only want to do math that is essential to arriving at the answer.