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3 Strategies for Success on the GMAT

The GMAT, while certainly not a test requiring you to focus on remembering facts, covers a fair bit of academic ground (reading comprehension, writing, data interpretation, algebra, probability, number theory, etc.) and employs novel question types. So although there are a fair number of concepts with which you must be familiar, the exam is ultimately a test of your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. These are skills which undeniably improve with practice.

So what is the best way to prepare? I’d like to suggest that there are three important concepts to keep in mind when studying for the GMAT:

  1. Set a target score

  2. Develop a customized study plan

  3. Think like a CEO, not like a student

#1 Set a target score

You’d be surprised at how many students don’t do this. If you don’t clearly think through what you are trying to achieve when taking the GMAT, you put yourself at serious risk of not meeting your implied expectations. At the same time, you also put yourself at risk of overinvesting in test prep.

So, for example, if you are targeting a top 10 MBA program, a reasonable goal would be a score of 700. Your study plan and practice tests should help you march towards that score.

At the same time, business school is not like law school. An MBA application depends on much more than your GMAT score. Sure, it’s very important. But your personal narrative, recommendations, resume, etc. all matter a lot too – and they take time to complete. Time is a scarce resource, and you don’t want to spend more than is necessary on GMAT prep.

So, if you are trying to go to the #20 ranked business program, perhaps a score of 675 would be sufficient. When you receive that 690 on test day, does it make sense to regroup and study heavily for 2 more months and re-take the exam? Or, does it make sense to spend that time building a solid application? If you have thought these things through and set a target score of 675, that 690 means you are in good shape and should move on from the GMAT.

#2 Develop a customized study plan

For someone just beginning their GMAT journey and looking for a base of knowledge about the exam, or someone who only needs an average score on the GMAT, a one-size-fits all GMAT course can be a good, cost effective idea. But these classes tend to “teach to the mean.” So, if you are starting from a particularly weak base, or alternatively are looking for a 700+ score (or if you don’t have a lot of time to study), something far more customized is likely a better option.

Now, “something much more customized” could mean a lot of different things. It could mean simply assessing your strengths and weaknesses, documenting them, and then taking a typical prep course. However, instead of doing the assigned homework, you customize your experience to spend more time practicing where you need it. It also likely means making a concerted effort to ask questions about things you don’t understand during class.

Of course, a GMAT tutor who diagnoses your situation upfront, assesses your skills in various areas, explains things in a way that ensures you personally can understand them, and helps you develop a highly customized study plan is perhaps the best example of “something much more customized.” Online test prep programs and apps that are “adaptive” and help you measure and track your performance in different skill areas can also be effective.

What you don’t want to do, however, is simply buy a prep book, and randomly start picking it up for a few hours each week. That’s a recipe for spending much more time studying than you need to and probably getting very frustrated with your lack of improvement.

#3. Think like a CEO, not like a student

Most students who begin studying for the GMAT, upon literally seeing a multiple-choice math problem, understandably but incorrectly approach coming to the correct answer as they would in a math class. They try to figure out what formula to apply and start to work out the problem very directly. That is an example of “thinking like a student.” It can work OK, but it’s not the most efficient approach, because the GMAT is not designed to figure out who literally knows mathematics the best.

In fact, the designers of the GMAT try to limit the math knowledge required to about a U.S. 10th grade level. Instead, they are trying to test the critical thinking skills of the test-taker, using math as the vehicle. So what approach are you supposed to be using? I call it “thinking like a CEO?” CEOs have a million different priorities and must make decisions balancing many factors and by considering different alternatives. They never have all the information they need. And they can’t spend too much time on any one topic, or they’ll get overwhelmed. They must synthesize information from multiple sources quickly and reach a conclusion about what path or decision is best.

You need to think like a CEO when taking the GMAT. If you quickly and directly can calculate the answer to a question, great. Do it. But if it seems complicated, it’s almost never a good idea to simply “start calculating.” Instead, consider different wants to approach the problem. Eliminate obviously incorrect answers. Break the problem down into more manageable pieces. And so on. Many math questions on the GMAT can be easily “solved” without using much math at all. Here is an example of effective problem solving on the GMAT.

About the Author

Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru in 2010. He holds a B.S. from Indiana University and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

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