Thanks for the reply and the thread feed link - great advice in both!
You're spot on I think in saying that I need to finish the books first and foremost. I've got to believe it's a common trap to want to jump from "learning" to "testing" too quickly, which is exactly what I've done here I think.
I've done a deep-dive on what is going on w/ my Quant in the last couple days, and I think I've gotten a better understanding of what has been holding me back. Allow me to share in the hopes that maybe someone out there is making the same mistakes and this will be helpful to them. This is hardly groundbreaking insight, and most all of this info can be found on this forum someplace or another, but I think it bears repeating as it is such an easy mistake to make for GMAT hopefuls.
Think of GMAT prep as three phases: Learning, Practicing, and Testing. It's kind of like the ubiquitous "Crawl, Walk, Run"
In the "Learning" phase you are focusing on understanding concepts from an academic perspective. It's not about test-taking strategy yet; it's about understanding the material and being capable of reaching solutions (largely) absent of a time constraint. Given that the concepts in the GMAT (quant) are advertised as 9th-10th grade math, "Learning" might more accurately be referred to as refreshing, or more likely refreshing + making conceptual connections. You are also learning METHODS which have been developed in the interest of speed. Sometimes it is OK, even better maybe, to have your own way of doing something. As long as you understand it, it's conceptually sound, and you are arriving at the right answer, what's the big deal, right? Not the case on the GMAT. For the sake of your timing, you must be open to adopting new methods to solve familiar problems! Use whatever study material you like - I'll give another free plug for Manhattan here because their series is awesome.
"Practicing" takes what you've learned and starts to frame it all in the context of the GMAT as a test. Practice problem sets show you the multitude of ways that the core concepts can be presented, repackaged, and/or combined. Unlike most workbook questions I've seen which are designed to demonstrate a single concept, test questions use a number of ways to disguise what they're really asking about, and they combine concepts in unfamiliar ways to throw the test taker off balance. Being able to decipher the concept that is being tested is 50% or more of the test. Well written practice problems will flex this mental muscle. (There are a lot of people saying "duh" right now). (Side note: one thing I picked up in the forums was to keep an error log
as you practice. Do it! I've put one together, and it's already been really helpful)
The other half of "Practicing" is test-taking strategy. Anyone who has done any amount of GMAT prep, knows that Time is a major factor on the test, and knowing when to walk away from a problem can be as important or more important than solving it. Solving a problem correctly in 5 or (gasp) 6 minutes can be far less beneficial from a scoring perspective than working a problem for 2 minutes and then making guess and moving on. Maybe you can get away with that once or twice, but blow up on 4 problems to the tune of 5 minutes and you just shaved 12 minutes off your test - the equivalent of 6 questions done within time standards! It only snowballs from there.
Last part, "Testing". At this point you are getting into the CAT tests, polishing your skills, maybe honing in on a couple problematic concepts, and generally working towards achieving a comfort level with the testing process as a whole. Even at this point, getting wrapped up in the actual score is FAR less important than analyzing the finer points of the performance and understanding WHY you got the score you did.
OK, so what happens if you're too cool for school and cut straight into the "Testing" because you want to know how you are stacking up, NOW? For me the result has been an error cycle. Allow me to explain. If you cut corners on the learning aspect, you are either leaving yourself open on concepts that you skipped, or, more likely, you are using a method which, while correct, isn't going to cut it from a time perspective. Either way the result is time mismanagement, which ultimately translates to finishing flat and killing your score. As I began to go through my CAT tests and really look into what I was doing throughout the section, I realized that in most cases I was starting out well, dropping a few 700-800 questions here and there but by and large staying above the 80th percentile. The problem was that on almost every question I was running over the time limit, sometimes by quite a lot. In some cases I was taking 4 minutes to solve a question correctly that a more efficient method would have allowed me to solve in 2 minutes, but in other, more damaging cases I was taking 6 minutes then guessing and getting the question wrong anyway! Double whammy.
The first type of time-overrun, call it poor methodology, demonstrated precisely why I needed to go back to the prep books - because that's where GMAT prep books shine, in teaching you a simple, quick, repeatable method with which to tackle complex problems. The double whammy blowups produced a bit of an A-Ha moment for me, and really drove home the concept of if you can't solve the problem in 2 minutes, you probably aren't going to be able to solve in in 6 minutes. So swallow your pride, throw up your best guess and move on - you weren't going to get them all right anyway.
To finish the CAT narrative, I would be doing well through the first 20 or so questions then at some point I would realize that, crap, I only have like 15 minutes left Then the errors would start flying. I would say that while rushing through the last 15 or so questions I was missing 66% or more, and would often miss the last 3-6 questions consecutively. As you probably know, that is the kiss of death on a CAT test like the GMAT, and so it was for me. My sample set for this conclusion is 8 CATs, most of which bear out this result to one extent or another.
Your first question at this point should be: how on earth did you take 8 CATs before figuring out that you had a timing problem? Fair question. The answer, and my final point here, is that I was taking the tests for the wrong reasons, for a score. I wasn't reviewing the tests afterwards or applying any sort of retrospective critical thought, so I wasn't learning anything about why I was scoring the way I was. CAT tests are a learning opportunity, treat them as such. They produce data to apply to future tests, they expose areas of weakness. And they aren't perfect indicators for how you are going to score on the actual GMAT anyway, so fixating on the score is kind of pointless.
That ends my thesis. As I move forward I will post an update to see how well what I've put down here matches reality (taking the actual test in approx 1 month).
Thanks, good luck, and happy studying!