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Learn these three things for maximum GMAT success

Unlock your GMAT potential with the three components of our “GMAT Success Triad”

When it comes to dominating the GMAT, a lot of students are looking for the proverbial magic bullet — the one key thing that will lead to success. What do I need to do to crack 700 on the GMAT?, they ask hopefully. Unfortunately there’s no one thing. In fact there are three things, a “triad of GMAT success” that forms the basis of the game plan that I’ve used for years with my students to help them significantly boost their GMAT scores. I believe it can help you, too, so let’s dive in.

The GMAT Success Triad

Think about something you’ve mastered outside of academia — perhaps an instrument, a sport, or an artistic skill. Now think about what it took to develop proficiency in that area. Mastering the GMAT is no different. It is a learnable skill. There are no secrets on test day, but your preparation needs to be spent in the right areas and balanced across the three components that lead to success in any endeavor, including the GMAT: Content, Strategy, and Practice.

These three elements are like a Venn diagram with the sweet spot right in the middle. It doesn’t do you any good to start working a bunch of practice problems if you haven’t yet learned foundational concepts. But studying a bunch of content without corresponding strategy will only get you so far. And all the clever strategies in the world won’t help you on test day if you don’t practice them until they become second-nature. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail so that you know exactly how to prepare between now and test day.

Success Element #1: Content

It’s important to note up front that the GMAT bills itself as a reasoning test. In their eyes, they’re not so much testing a bunch of stuff you should “know” as they are your ability to “figure out” right answers given a set of parameters. That’s why strategy is such an important part of GMAT success (more on that in a moment).

That said, there are definitely some core topic areas you should brush up on. On the quantitative section, the GMAT tests basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. On the verbal section it’s English grammar, reading comprehension, and argument analysis. The Integrated Reasoning (IR) section tests pretty much the same stuff as the Quant and Verbal sections, just in more convoluted question formats. And the essay (AWA) asks you to do the same argument analysis as on Critical Reasoning questions, but in essay form.

Here are three tips for you when studying content for the GMAT. First, prioritize the Quantitative and Verbal sections over IR and AWA. Not only do they produce your all-important 200-800-point “main” GMAT score, but everything you learn there translates to the IR and Essay sections anyway. Second, focus on high-yield topic areas. The Pareto Principle famously says that 80% of your results comes from 20% of your actions, so prioritize the most commonly-tested question types rather than learning a bunch of arcane math formulas or grammar rules. Finally, avoid formula memorization as much as possible. You need to be able to adapt to whatever question the GMAT throws at you and formulas often make students too rigid on test day. Is it important to know the area formula for a circle? Of course. But when it comes to harder topics like quadratic equations or permutations/combinations, there are almost always easier ways to solve those questions than through pure formula memorization.

Success Element #2: Strategy

Strategy is the biggest differentiator for those who do really well on the GMAT. GMAT strategy includes things like proper time management, when and how to guess, and identifying common “trap” answers. Perhaps even more importantly, it also includes learning to solve certain GMAT question types in non-traditional ways.

Consider the following example:

A ball is dropped 192 inches above level ground, and after the third bounce, it rises to a height of 24 inches. If the height to which the ball rises after each bounce is always the same fraction of the height reached on its previous bounce, what is this fraction?

(A) 1/8
(B) 1/4
(C) 1/3
(D) 1/2
(E) 2/3

A lot of students will look at this as a “content” question. Your high school algebra teacher would tell you to let “x” equal “this fraction,” set up an algebraic equation, and solve for “x.” But what if instead you employ a strategy I call “working backwards” and simply test the answer choices to see which one works? The possible answers are right there for you and one of them is correct, after all!

Let’s see how this works. Start by testing answer choice C since it’s the middle number. If the ball bounces 1/3 as high each time, then on the first bounce it rises 64 inches (1/3 of 192), on the second bounce it rises 21.33 inches, on the third bounce…. Uh-oh! We can stop right there. The question tells us that the ball reaches a height of 24 inches after the third bounce, but we’re already down to only 21.33 inches after just two bounces, so 1/3 cannot be the correct fraction. We can now also eliminate answer choices A and B since the ball needs to bounce higher each time if it’s going to be at 24 inches after three bounces. Now let’s test answer choice D. Sure enough, the ball will be at 96 inches after the first bounce (1/2 of 192), 48 inches after the second bounce, and 24 inches after the third bounce. Choice D is therefore correct.

The beauty of strategies like this is that they give you a starting point when you feel stuck, they’re generally faster than the traditional algebraic approach for most students, and they give you built-in confirmation that you got the right answer. For more, check out our top 4 non-traditional GMAT math strategies.

Success Element #3: Practice

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi’s famously said that “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” Practice is what ties the first two elements of the GMAT Success Triad together, and how you practice for the GMAT is incredibly important. Here are three tips for you.

First, don’t cheat yourself by looking at the answer explanations too early. Have you ever gotten stuck on a practice problem and flipped to the back of the book to see what you’re missing? We all have. But you won’t have that luxury on test day, so use your practice time to train your brain to get creative, come at the problem from another angle, apply one of the strategies discussed in the last section, and overall do your best to figure out an answer at all costs (or at the very least eliminate clearly wrong answers to improve your guessing odds). That’s where the mental pathways of true learning are developed.

Second, schedule at least one really long study session each week. The GMAT is a grind and dealing with mental fatigue is a big part of doing well. Just as you can train your muscles to run an endurance race, so too you can train your brain to concentrate for long periods of time. The only way to get better at tackling hard reading comprehension passages at the end of a 3.5-hour exam is to practice for it.

Finally, take your GMAT practice tests under test-day conditions as much as possible. My high school basketball coach always said that how you practice is how you play in a game. The same is true for the GMAT. If you’re going to take your real GMAT on a Saturday morning, then take your practice tests on Saturday mornings. Close yourself in a quiet space, turn off your cell phone, and treat it like the real thing. Familiarity is a great way to overcome anxiety so the better you can simulate test day during your practice, the calmer and more focused you’ll be on the real thing.