***I apologize for the length of this post! I’ll try at some point to cut it down, but for now, feel free to fast forward to the Advice Section, or read the whole thing.
Haven’t really posted on here very often except for once to solicit some advice, but I have been a frequent reader of the past few months and used a bunch of things I learned on this site, so I figured I would try to give back and post my debrief.
I don’t really have a crazy inspirational story like some people on here, and I hardly consider myself or my score a long shot, but nevertheless, the GMAT is a brutal test that doesn’t treat anyone nicely, so hopefully someone will be able to use or relate to my advice. After a little less than three months of studying, I took the test yesterday (3/6/12) and scored a 730 (Q48 V42), which I was very happy with. I will certainly not be taking it again.
I am a pretty typical GMAT test taker, although not necessarily a typical Gmatter. I am a native English speaker, born in the US, went to a top liberal arts college here, and majored in Accounting and Business Administration. I worked in Big 4 consulting out of college about 2 years, and then switched over to a startup consulting firm about 6 months ago. I plan to apply two application cycles from now (so Fall of 2014 enrollment), and am probably targeting the same schools as everyone else on here. Also note that this round of studying was not my first time studying. I had studied intermittently here and there a couple different time after college, but never got fully dedicated enough to take the test, nor did I ever have an actual plan. I simply point this out to let you know that I didn’t start from the ground level this time with studying.
Goals: I started out with the goal of a 700, but as I went on, upped it to a 720. I was considering a retake if I scored a 700 or 710, but wasn’t sure. 720 was my goal simply because it’s above average at every school in the country. I figured anything above that was icing on the cake.
1. MGMAT Live Online Course
2. MGMAT Subject Books
3. Official Guide, Verbal/Quant official Guides
5. CAT’s (MGMAT and GMAT Prep)
1. MGMAT #1 (12/6/2011) – 670 (Q44 V37) – Took this before I started studying again. Was pleasantly shocked by the results, but I think my math score was very inflated. I stopped the timer a few times, used a calculator for some simple math that I’d forgotten how to do, etc.. Probably was more like a 40 or so at best. Also, as I said, I had some GMAT experience before, so this wasn’t completely foreign to me.
2. MGMAT #2 (1/23/12) – 660 (Q44 V36) – This was after going through most every subject area in Quant. My math score was more legitimate here, but still stopped the timer a few times. Either way, I felt like I had learned a ton of Quant and was much stronger. I had barely studied verbal at this point so wasn’t concerned at all about my score there, but did realize that I should probably start getting after it a little more.
3. MGMAT #3 (1/29/12) 700 (Q40 V44) – Studied a bunch of verbal this week, and it paid off. May have gotten a little lucky with the overall number, but was definitely stronger. A 40 in Quant was probably pretty representative of my overall skill level. I had barely/not at all gone through any weak areas at this point.
4. MGMAT CAT 4 (2/6/12) – 680 (Q42 V40) – This was probably pretty representative of my overall state at this time. I had some glaring weaknesses in quant still that I needed to go through, and my verbal was decent. I felt a little down about dipping below 700 since I’d gotten there, but I knew there was plenty of time.
5. MGMAT #5 (2/12/12) – 710 (Q45 V41) – Going through weaknesses paid off big time here. I looked at error problems from my CAT’s and redid the strategy books where necessary, as well as the appropriate OG problems. Didn’t review verbal much that weak, but I think I made huge strides in two big areas, which probably accounted for the 3 point Quant gain.
6. MGMAT #6 (2/20/12) – 740 (Q47 V44) – Continued to plow through weaknesses, and the week before this test was probably my best week of studying. Plowed through more weak areas for Quant, and really worked on verbal stamina (see tips below for further discussion of stamina issue).
7. GMAT Prep #1 (2/26/12) – 720 (Q45 V44) – Felt really good about getting a similar score that was at my goal level on my first official practice test. However, I found this test to be significantly different from MGMAT’s CATs. The math was much less computational, and the verbal passages were shorter for the most part. I knew I would have to focus on error logging this test since it was so much different than Manhattan. This was also the first test I wrote the essays for. Didn’t find that it all that much of an effect on me.
8. GMAT Prep #2 (3/3/12) – 690 (Q42 V42) – Was really disappointed with this setback, until I did a full analysis of my test. I had really been focusing on timing the last few tests, and beating each one of my timing splits. Unfortunately, on this one, I got way to caught up in it, and finished 10 minutes ahead on each section. Review of both sections revealed a TON of careless mistakes, and few patterns of weak areas. This made me feel a lot better, and I knew that on my actual test (in just a couple of days) that I would really have to stick exactly to my timing splits.
Judgment Day: 3/6/12 – 730 (Q48 V42)
In terms of before the test, did everything that everyone suggests to do. Got a decent night’s sleep, at breakfast, looked at a few problems just to wake my mind up, and also actually went to the gym in the morning for a light workout, which helped me relieve anxiety and feel better about myself. I work out most days, so I knew it wouldn’t tire me out too much. I got to the testing center 30 minutes early and was actually seated at my computer 20 minutes before 2 pm and ready to start.
I plowed through the essays, which were very typical, and even though I didn’t want to take a break after them, did so anyway, because I knew I’d be tired later in the test.
Then I took on Quant, and, like always, got beat up pretty badly. After finishing it (right on time), I felt pretty good about how I’d done. Not great, but not bad at all. Further, I was within a minute of all my timing splits, which as I stated above, was my goal. I found that there were a bunch of Data Sufficiency Number Properties, which was by far my biggest weakness area before the test. Fortunately, I had gotten so many wrong on all of my CAT’s, and had redone them so many time, that many of the one’s I got on the real thing were similar. I felt great about that.
Verbal: I was hoping to pick up points in verbal, and maybe even add to what I had done in practice tests, to help support my more inconsistent Quant. However, I felt horrible during verbal. I was very tired, and struggled to focus. Additionally, I was very focused on time, as was my goal, and found that I was about one minute behind halfway through. I was pleased with this, since making up a minute in verbal for me was very easy. Then, however, I got a brutal RC passage about space and galaxies and who knows what else, but the worst part was that it was twice as long as any other passage I’d seen in GMAT prep or the OG. I ended up reading it two times, and even though I usually make up time in RC because I am a fast reader and spend no more than 30-40 seconds on each question, I ended up being about 8 minute behind my timing splits with 15 questions to go after this passage. Fortunately, since I am pretty quick at Verbal, I was able to make up the time, but was definitely not as careful as I had been in the first half, and I’m confident that I paid for it in my overall score.
Score Report: I was pretty nervous when I was waiting for my score to pop up since verbal hadn’t gone quite as well as I would have hoped, but when I saw my score, I was obviously very happy. It was the best I’d ever done in Quant, and even though my verbal wasn’t where I wanted it to be, I’d obviously used a lot of that energy to get a better quant score. Either way, I was happy.
My Key Takeaways/Advice
I have obviously given little pieces of advice here and there, but I’ll try to organize them below and explain them a little bit more:
1. Study by Topic:
This is huge. It is so helpful to pick something (say, Rate x Time problems), read the MGMAT book
or whatever other study guide you use, and then do every problem you can find with them until you get it and get it good, including all variations. Once you get this, you can move on to the next problem. Further, when you get one wrong, or don’t know how, look at the correct answer, but not the explanation. Try to figure out how they got the answer. It can be a lot easier when you know what number/goal you’re working towards to recall how to do it. This approach can help connect the dots between what you studied and fully applying it.
2. Save timing for later:
I’ve seen this advice every now and then, but I think it’s imperative to not think about timing until you’ve learned the concepts. For me, there’s that moment of clarity when all of a sudden you get something, and often, you can’t get that moment if you’re pushing yourself with time limits. I distinctly remember sitting at a Starbucks in Manhattan when I was up there for a weekend, and I was wrestling with my biggest nemesis at the time, the aforementioned Rate x Time problems. After spending at least twenty minutes working through a “Chase” problem, it finally clicked. From then on, just about every RxT problem was easy for me, and I never spent more than two minutes on them. If I hadn’t spent twenty minutes on that one problem though, and allowed my brain to figure it out, I don’t think I ever would have gotten to that point. This happened with a bunch of other areas too.
3. Weekly CAT’s are vital, but only once you’re ready:
I wouldn’t start doing CAT’s until you have a decent subject matter base. In my mind, that means going through everything at least once. There’s no point in thinking about brutal things like timing and 40 problem sets when you haven’t seen 25% of the problems tested yet. However, once you get through everything, CAT’s are invaluable, and tell the bets story of your overall status. As a former college athlete, I relate them to videotape, which “never lies”. I would do one a week to give you progress reports each week, and spend at least a full night of studying redoing every problem you got wrong and guessed on until you get it. Also, if you use the MGMAT CAT’s, use the Assessment Reports. They tell awesome stories about how you’re doing, and they organize it all for you without you having to do any work.
I learned about the Kaplan Quiz Bank
up from another member who discussed it in her debrief. I used this thing all the time. Eearly on, I did them untimed to gain exposure to a bunch of different types of problems, and further, to keep my mind in “GMAT mode”, as this same poster said (I’ll link her debrief, which many of you have probably read, below). Further, the “Flag a Problem” feature creates an instant error log
for you, which like the Assessment Reports, saves you time and energy. I redid my flagged problems at least 3 or 4 times each, and knew the concepts like the back of my hand. Further, since I work in team rooms on client site at work, it was not feasible for me to pull out the OG and bang out 15 problems when I had some downtime, but the Quiz Bank allowed me to do it discreetly and easily.
This was my number one secret to success.
One other thing I used this for was practicing the Verbal section. I found that it was hard to replicate the verbal section when doing the OG, since it breaks up CR, RC, and SC. I also had found that I was doing significantly better in sets of 10 percentage wise than I was on the CATs, and I thought that it might be because of fatigue during the CATs. To combat this, I would do my math strategy/problems work first at night, and then after about 1.5 or so hours of that, would switch to verbal, and did 41 question mixed verbal sets to get used to pushing through the tiredness and maintaining focus. Note that I would not do this unless you are already pretty strong in verbal, and I did it mainly because I had no pattern of weakness in any one area (e.g. Sentence Correction – Modifiers), so my problems must have laid elsewhere.
6. Study with someone
One thing that I remembered from college was that I loved to study with people. Usually, when studying for a big test, I would do a bunch of review on my own, and then would talk it out with a friend, going over areas of weakness, working through them together, and explaining my areas of strength to him, who may not be strong in that area. All of these things provide another learning mechanism – it can be really useful to see how someone else does it, in person, with the ability to ask questions, and additionally, it can be great to work through a tough problem together. Plus, when you know something they don’t know, it boosts your confidence and helps cement your understanding when you explain it. Finally, it breaks up the monotony and loneliness of daily studying on your own. It’s easier to take on this test with someone than alone.
7. Use Timing Splits
I thought this was common knowledge, but I was shocked how many people I know that are studying don’t use them, even though they complain about timing issues. One additional piece of advice, which is fairly ubiquitous, is stick to them ALWAYS, including if you’re ahead of schedule. It’s fine to be a couple minutes ahead, but don’t bank 7 minutes, because you’re probably making careless mistakes or guessing too much. Obviously, you don’t want to fall too far behind, but that’s more self explanatory. I found it useful to break my splits up more often than some people to do to give more frequent snapshots of where I need to be, but to each their own. One last point is that just because your pacing is typically good, I would still write it down on the real test, and check it, because the real test tends do go a little different than your CATs, and you want to make sure that if you do fall behind (or get ahead), you know what you have to do to get back on track.
8. Learn how to guess:
Guessing is great, and guaranteed you’ll have to do it a few times on the test, so you may as well learn how. I think there’s a post on here or on GMAT Club that discusses 10 great tips for Quant guessing. I’ll try to find that, but definitely learn the tricks to good guessing and practice them. For example, double answers on probability that try to catch you one step too early on the 1 – Trick. The fractions are often paired, with one of them being right. If you can use some reasoning to figure out if it’s high probability or low probability, you just might be able to get it right without doing any math. Obviously, that’s if you can’t do the problem the way it’s intended.
9. Admit you don’t know:
Many of us struggle with timing in Quant. As many other have said on here, sometimes you just have to look at a problem, admit you don’t know, do your best to make a guess, and move on. The trick is, make sure you admit it in 30 seconds and not a minute and thirty seconds! If you do that, make your educated guess, and move on, you will have banked over a minute to use on problems that you do know how to do, but just need an extra few seconds on. Do this a few times and you have up to 5 minutes extra to spread out on your strengths. Obviously, if you’re going for a 51, this might not be the best strategy, but if you’re more like me and in the 45-48 range, save your energy and your time for problems you are strong at.
Bottom line is this test sucks, but you have to be confident that you can handle it. Study hard enough that you really believe you can do it. Hammer areas of weakness, even though that goes against human nature. WE usually want to study what we’re good at because it feels good to get problems right, but this won’t do much for you. At the same time, don’t only do weaknesses to the point that you lose confidence. Make sure to keep up your other skills which are already strong, because you’ll need them to be good come test day, and it’ll keep you in good (or at least decent) spirits on those nights when you’re working through the hardest problems.
Personally, I didn’t make an error log
, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t study like I had one. I was pretty aware of my weaknesses, so I worked through those OG problems over and over until they were useless because I memorized them (not intentionally). Use the automatic error logs that are kept in MGMAT and GMAT Prep, and for me, the Quiz Bank, which in the end will be all that you study. I did little to no strategy the last two weeks, just looked at what I’d gotten wrong and tried to practice the skills I needed.
Last, read these debriefs. They’re pretty inspiring, and they’ll give you some great tips. I would never copy someone exactly, because we’re all different, but try things that people suggest, see if they help, and if they don’t, scrap it. Just because someone got a 780 doesn’t mean their strategies will work for you. On the other hand, just because someone got a 650 after months of studying doesn’t mean that none of their strategies will work for you because you want a 700. They might have the best strategies cause they had to struggle so much more.
Feel free to ask my questions, and I’ll do my best to respond. Thanks to all who have posted debriefs in the past, and commented on my advice post.