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Improving your speed and accuracy on relatively simple arithmetic and algebra will increase your chances of achieving a top quant score on the GMAT. Yes, the exam is primarily designed to test your reasoning skills, but since time is a major factor, shoring up these core skills may help you perform more efficiently and consistently, thereby freeing up that little bit of extra time you need to let your reasoning skills shine and achieve a significant breakthrough.

How much of a difference can this make? I think it can be huge. Many times when I work with people who have already done a great deal to prepare for the exam, I am impressed by the speed with which they can do the conceptually difficult parts of a problem. But they’ll take an additional 30 seconds or more to do a few simple arithmetic or algebraic manipulations, and even more tragically, they will sometimes make errors on these tasks.

You can often save time if you are skilled at what I call the three F’s: fractions, factoring and FOILing (First, Outside, Inside, Last = distributing expressions). Are you confident in adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions? Can you quickly convert common decimals and percentages to fractions and vice versa? Do you recognize when to factor or FOIL?

Here’s an arithmetic example. Do you know how to simplify the expression on the right? Did you convert the 3 to 3/1 and then multiply 2/7 by 1/3? If so, that’s good, but here’s a shortcut: when a fraction is divided by a whole number, the numerator of the fraction stays the same and the denominators are simply multiplied together. So in this case, 2 stays in the numerator, and the denominator becomes 7×3 = 21. You can apply the same concept to algebraic expressions to save time, too.

So if you find your core skills lacking, you might find that devoting some prep time to relatively easy arithmetic and algebra drills will improve your consistency, confidence and scores more than tackling another advanced quant book.



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Cross-Training for the GMAT

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Just as athletes mix different types of training to develop strength, agility, speed, and endurance, you can work a variety of study techniques into your GMAT prep regimen to boost your performance on exam day. Three important types of work include content work, speedwork, and practice exams.

Content work involves learning or refreshing your knowledge of the concepts tested on the GMAT. It includes class time, tutoring time, and time spent doing problem sets online or in books. Your goals for content work are to master the concepts, to master the strategies associated with every question type, and to improve your speed. Do not time your work on every problem. Rather, take the time to absorb each concept thoroughly, connecting the dots so that you will understand each topic from many different perspectives. This is critical because the GMAT tests your ability to reason and think on your feet. It measures how well you can diagnose new twists and apply your skills to variations on the classic problems. Yet while you don’t always want to worry about time when you do content work, you do always want to look for shortcuts and ways to improve your speed, even on simple tasks.

Introducing speedwork into a GMAT prep program is something that I’ve seen produce remarkable results, especially among people who have already studied for months and hit a plateau. Simply select 10 verbal and 10 quant questions, and strictly limit yourself to two minutes per question, roughly the average time per question. Use a stopwatch, kitchen timer, or an app on your phone – something with a buzzer that goes off after two minutes. When the buzzer goes off, write down your final answer, if you haven’t finished the problem already. If you finish a problem early, don’t use the extra time on the next problem. The goals of speedwork are to improve your decisiveness and to give you a sense of how long two minutes is. To improve your pacing on the exam, you need to have a sense of when you’re going overtime on a problem.

Of course, taking several practice exams is essential to prepare for the GMAT. But what makes the difference is how you go about it. First, do not study from books for months and save all your practice exams (CATs) for a week or two before your test date. Schedule your CATs one to two weeks apart. Secondly, take your practice exams seriously. Treat each one as if it were the real thing. Tell yourself you’re going to give it everything you’ve got and stick with it until the very end. By the time you get to the real exam, your brain will say, “I’ve done this several times before,” and before you know it, you’re in the “zone.” After taking each CAT, review your results thoroughly – the problems you missed and the problems you got right. Finally, if possible, take your practice exams at the same time of day that you’re scheduled to take the real exam. Get your mind and body in the rhythm of focusing for nearly four hours at that time of day so you’ll be ready to deliver a peak performance on exam day.

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Developing the right balance between perfectionism and pacing can be one of the greatest challenges in preparing for the GMAT. In high school and college, many of us did well by adopting perfectionism as a winning strategy. We studied hard and expected to ace exams, perhaps getting 90+% of the questions right. The GMAT, however, is a different game. It is perhaps similar to competitive horse jumping, in which faults are accumulated for missing jumps or going over the allotted time.

The adaptive nature of the exam is designed to increase the difficulty of questions until you start to miss 30 to 50% of them, so what matters is the difficulty of the questions you get right and wrong. What I advocate is not worrying about the difficulty of the problems but rather getting as comfortable as possible playing a game that requires you alternately unleash and rein in your inner perfectionist.

Missing an easy question hurts your score more than missing a difficult question, and missing three or four questions in a row compounds the penalties. As a result, it’s best to work at a roughly even pace and give each question a fair shot. But because you’ll probably finish some questions in less than the average two minutes or so per question, it’s also essential to use that extra time strategically.

So what’s the maximum amount of time you should spend on any one question? In my opinion, your target max should be somewhere in the 2:30-3:30 zone. The stronger your skills are, the more you may be able to get some questions done in less than two minutes and therefore the more you may be able to flex to 3:30 on some questions. But of course, gauging all of this depends on your ability to know when you’re going overtime – something I’ll discuss in a future post.

To refine your pacing even further, avoid ever taking less than one minute on a question. If a question is that easy, the penalty for missing it will be severe, so it’s worth double-checking your work. In addition, solidify your core skills so you won’t miss easier questions because of test-day nerves and so you can build speed. Finally, focus on mastering sentence correction and target 90 seconds or less per sentence correction question. You will improve your success with sentence correction problems, and you will open up a little more time to consider the difficult critical reasoning and reading comprehension questions.

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Never Give Up on the GMAT

This marks the launch of the Simply Brilliant Prep blog. The intent of this blog is to provide GMAT and MBA admissions tips and insights not commonly found elsewhere. In addition, this blog will feature success stories and other relevant information.

One of the most important tips I can give someone preparing for the GMAT is, “Never give up!” This is the very last reminder I give my private tutoring clients just before they take the exam.

Too often, people tell me, “I thought I bombed the quant.” Already during the break between the quant and verbal sections, they tell themselves, “Ugh! I’ve got to take this thing again!” And so they give up on the verbal. When they get their scores, they find that they received their best quant score ever, but their verbal score was terrible.

The nature of the GMAT makes it very difficult to tell how you’re doing as you take the exam. First of all, the exam is adaptive, so you might think you’re doing poorly when in fact you’re just getting difficult questions and you’re doing well. The GMAT is designed to feed you more and more difficult questions until you start to miss 30 to 50% of them. This is why many people are shocked to find that when they break 700 on a practice exam for the first time, they’ve still missed such a large percentage of the problems.

Secondly, both the quant and the verbal sections of the exam may have up to 10 experimental questions each. These questions are experimental because the GMAC doesn’t yet fully know how difficult they are. So you might get an easy experimental question even though you’ve been doing well, and conversely, you might get a difficult experimental question even though you’ve been doing poorly. It’s impossible to know.

In addition, what may be a difficult question for other people might not be a difficult question for you. When people ask me, “How difficult is that problem we just did?” my answer is often, “It’s easy if you know how to do it. It’s impossible if you don’t.” That’s just the way it is for some problems.

And BTW, even if you do “bomb the quant,” you’ll want to pump that verbal section to get practice with as many difficult problems as you can.

Finally, the take-away strategy is not only “Never give up!” but also don’t worry about how difficult the problems are as you’re working through them. I’ve seen many people get defeated by focusing too much on whether the difficulty of the problems they’re seeing means that they’re doing well or doing poorly.

So how can you implement this strategy? Train your brain to perform the way you want to perform on test day by never giving up on practice exams. If you are tempted to give up, tell yourself that part of your training is to learn how to muster the motivation to keep going no matter what. Unless the building is burning down around you, stick with it! Just focus on one problem at a time and keep track of your pacing. Give it everything you’ve got until the very last question, and let the score take care of itself.

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