How to Study for the GMAT Effectively

What Does Studying “Effectively” Mean?

At a high level, effective studying is studying that maximizes your return on study time. Everyone always tells you to study hard and to study for a long time, but studying smart is even more important. You can study for all the time in the world, but what really counts is how much you learn from studying.

Studying smart can be defined as:

  1. Studying topics that will increase your score the most. For example, if you could spend one hour studying probability and get two additional questions correct or spend one hour studying number properties and only get one additional question correct, it would be “smart” to spend that hour studying probability.
  2. Studying in a way that you actually learn information that will improve your score. This sounds obvious. That’s because it is. Still, a lot of people don’t do it. A lot of people take practice tests, score them, and then move on without learning from their mistakes. Almost as bad, I’ve seen people glance at the correct answers; checking the correct answer for that problem doesn’t do you any good at all, because that exact problem isn’t going to be on the GMAT. The point of studying is not to get through as many practice questions as possible. The point of studying is to learn.

I will first discuss how to choose which topics to focus on and then discuss how you can study so that you maximize your learning. This method requires more thought than traditional studying, but it ultimately far more effective.

Choosing What to Study

The important thing to realize here is that you can get questions wrong and still get an exceptional score. Moreover, you do not need to get a top score in both Verbal and Quant to get a top score on the overall GMAT. What do I mean by this? Five percent of people will get 95th percentile or better on the Verbal section; likewise, five percent of people will get 95th percentile on the Quant section. However, there is not a lot of overlap between these two groups. If you are able to get 95th percentile or even 90th percentile on both sections, then your overall score will be around the 99th percentile.

This has significant implications for how you should allocate your time when studying. If you are already getting 90% of geometry questions right, but you are only getting half of algebra questions right, you have a lot of a lot more room to improve your score by practicing algebra questions. Here are the steps I used to allocate my time:

1. Take a diagnostic test

Before you start studying, the very first thing you should do is to take a practice test. This will help you make sure that you don’t waste time studying topics where you only have room for marginal improvement. After all, you are busy aren’t you? It does not need to be a full test, but it does need to contain a wide range of questions and you must have access to the answer sheet. As you’re taking the test, make sure you record your answers in a neat, easy-to-read fashion, on a separate piece of paper

2. Review your answers

Now that you’ve taken the practice test, the more important work begins. In order to improve, you need to know what you got wrong and what you got right. Go through the answer key. As you do, mark down, not only which questions you got wrong, but also the topic tested in that question (e.g. algebra, number properties) and the type of question (e.g. data sufficiency, sentence correction). Make sure you save your original answer sheet. We will need it later.

3. Identify your weaknesses

Up until now, these steps have been fairly run-of-the-mill. Now, I am going to suggest you deviate slightly from test-taking orthodoxy. Look at the topics and questions types that you got wrong most often. Write down the number wrong at the top of the page. Done? Good. You are going to focus almost exclusively on studying those topics for the time being (not forever, mind you, but shoring up your weaknesses needs to be a priority right now). Many people focus too narrowly on learning why they got specific questions wrong; learning from your mistakes is important and necessary to effective studying (more on this below), but you can set yourself apart by extrapolating larger concepts that you need to work on and using those weaknesses to drive your studying. In short, understand which types of questions are get wrong most often.

4. Work on your weaknesses

Now that you have identified your weaknesses, you must work on eliminating them. This means studying and understanding the core concepts behind topics you struggle with. If you struggled with number properties, do you understand all the rules of even and odd numbers? If you struggled with probability and combinatorics, how well are you able to apply the combination and permutation formulas? You can find a concise overview of the main concepts on the Quant section here (LINK) and an overview of the grammatical rules tested on the Sentence Correction section here (LINK). Do not completely overlook other topics, but, for now, you should focus the bulk of your time on your weaknesses. You will see a much greater improvement of your score for the time you put into studying. Put another way, if you focus on your weaknesses, your score improvement per hour studying will skyrocket. Perhaps soon I will come out with a full guide on how to plan a study schedule. For now, I would recommend you allocate your time, roughly in proportion to how many questions you got wrong for each topic.

5. Repeat

Inevitably, if you study hard enough to remedy your weaknesses, eventually they will cease to be weaknesses. Maybe they’ll even turn into strengths. Wouldn’t that be great? As you can imagine, this means that you will no longer receive the same marginal benefit from studying them. At an interval that works for you, you should take another practice test and reassess your weak points. At a minimum, try to do this every two weeks.

6. Review your wrong answers

So, you’ve reviewed and re-reviewed your weaknesses, and worked diligently to eliminate your weaknesses. Now, you are in the final stretch in the week before test-day. If you’ve been following my instructions–and I hope you have been, this is genuinely good advice–you should have saved all of your answer sheets from practice questions and tests. Go back and test yourself on all of these questions. It will be like your own personalized practice test. If you’ve been studying well, you should get a decent number of them right–isn’t that a great confidence booster? Once you’ve done this, go back over the questions you got wrong again and test yourself on only those questions. Do this until you have gotten every question correct.

Studying So You Learn

How you study is equally important to what you study. Not only that, how you study is more important than how long you study. Let me repeat that: how you study is more important than how long you study. A lot of people confuse studying long with studying effectively. Studying more does not translate to a better score if you are not learning. You spent 100 hours studying for the GMAT, took a dozen practice tests, and worked through four prep books. Congratulations, unless you get a good score, you just wasted 100 hours of your life. No one cares how hard you study; business schools certainly don’t care. They care about your score and to get a good score you need to study effectively.

How do you do that? Here are a few tips that I found particularly helpful when I prepared for the GMAT. As I’ve stated before, I studied entirely on my own and scored a 780 the first time I took the GMAT, so I like to think that my method of studying works fairly well.

Focus on understanding the core concepts being tested on the GMAT

As you study topics that you are weak on, go through slow and methodically. Don’t just read about how to do problems. Study how to do them. Take a moment to pause periodically and think through why a rule of math makes sense. Try applying a formula yourself. Write out another example if you have to. I promise this will not take as long as you think, but after you are done studying, you will actually retain the knowledge. Impressive buildings are built on strong foundations and, so too, your impressive GMAT score must be built on strong foundational knowledge.

Here’s an example. Suppose you get a problem about combined work wrong. That is: it takes Person A 2 hours to paint a house and Person B 3 hours to paint a house. How long does it take them if they work together? The formula for combined work is 1Combined Rate=1Rate 1+1Rate 2. So here, that means 1Combined Rate=13+12. If you solve this, you’ll find that they would finish the house in 1.5 hours, but that is beside the point. Derive the formula yourself. Come up with an intuitive explanation for it, so that you can figure it out on your own in the future. Then try thinking of another example and applying the formula to it. I thought of that example above in under 30 seconds. I guarantee you can think of a basic example yourself in equal or lesser time. Suppose those 30 seconds allow you to get one additional question correct on test day? What a great use of time.

Do not move on from a wrong answer until you can articulate why your answer was wrong and the other answer was right

Trying to figure out why you got a question wrong is not fun. Plain and simple. If you got it wrong in the first place, most likely it was because you lacked some level of understanding for the concept being tested. But when you study concepts you don’t understand, you will improve most rapidly. I look forward to when I get a question wrong (not very often anymore), because that represents another opportunity to improve.

A lot of people go over the answers to practice tests and then look at the right answers. They check which answer was correct, but then they move on, sometimes as quickly as they can. It is worth taking as much time as is required to understand how you should have approached the question and which concepts/rules/knowledge would have allowed you to get the question right. Speaking from experience, it is easy to get sidetracked with the number of practice tests you take or the amount of prep guides you read. Let me tell you now, you are better off spending an hour going over five wrong answers, than you are spending twice that long answering questions, which you are not learning from.

Don’t ignore hard skills

Although you must devote time to building the knowledge tested on the GMAT, you should not forget about the hard skills being tested. How good are you at doing arithmetic quickly? Not good? Well, then you better improve, because you are going to be doing a lot of it on test day and you won’t have a lot of time. I’ve provided several resources to improve your mental math abilities on this page (LINK). Not a very fast reader? Don’t have a great vocabulary? Try reading more often. I’m serious, you can practice reading like any other skill. Start reading an hour per day and you will probably find the Verbal section easier.

Final Thoughts and Summary

In conclusion, to get the most bang for your buck (your “buck” being time in this case):

  1. Take a diagnostic test
  2. Review your answers
  3. Identify your weaknesses
  4. Work on your weaknesses
  5. Repeat
  6. Review your wrong answers

When you study, maximize your learning by:

  1. Taking the time to understand concepts being tested
  2. Not moving on from wrong answers until you can articulate how to solve those questions
  3. Not ignoring hard skills

Studying this way will be more painful. It will tax you mentally. But you will be glad you did it. I promise you, studying properly is nowhere near as painful as having to retake the GMAT.