Seven Strategies for Crushing the GMAT
By: Celine Tarrant
There are literally hundreds of amazing guides and resources online, many of them written by top GMAT scorers, tutors and experts. Re-hashing the same information would be pretty useless. Instead, I’ll focus on the seven things that I believe helped me bump my score from a 680 to a 740 and raise my quant score by 10 points from 39 to 49.
From talking to lots of fellow test-takers, I’ve found that a lot of people tend to overvalue study materials and hours spent, and undervalue motivation, good habits, and deliberate practice. No books or tutor are a substitute for putting in the work. Here are my seven tips for crushing the GMAT:
1. Understand the role of the GMAT in your story.
People debate endlessly about how important the GMAT is in the context of your whole application, but truthfully, the answer is different for everyone. Depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your profile, you’ll know if the GMAT is simply a box to check off, or a way to differentiate. The GMAT is also one of the few parts of your applicant profile that isn’t set in stone. It can be hard to beef up your work or extracurricular experience on a tight timeline, but your test score is completely in your hands.
Educate yourself on the GMAT requirements of your target schools. Most MBA admissions consultants will tell you that if your score is within your school’s 80% range of GMAT scores, you should be fine. This is good general advice if you have no glaring issues (low undergraduate GPA, large split difference in your Q/V composite scores, etc.), but you may need to address gaps in your application and the GMAT is a good vehicle to do so.
For my own application, the GMAT was critical as I had a low GPA with specific weaknesses in quant classes and was applying with less than 3 years of work experience. In addition to my new quant-y job, I thought I could overcome this with a great GMAT score with a decent Q/V split. Knowing this, I knew I couldn’t settle for a low quant score, and knowing that the GMAT could basically make or break my application was a huge motivator even when I was tempted to settle for a good, but not great score. Likewise, I’ve met a few applicants who were killing themselves to get a big score (750+) when it was pretty clear that their time would have been better spent elsewhere.
tl;dr: Be pragmatic about what score you need, strive for it and make sure you don’t under- or over-invest in it depending on your circumstances. Concurrently, be realistic about the odds — the chances of getting into a top school with a GMAT score below 700 are slim.
2. Make a time-bound goal.
Initially, I took the approach of studying for months, deciding I would pick a test date when I felt “ready”. Newsflash: if you take this approach, you may never feel ready. Studying for the GMAT is a huge time-suck and on top of a full-time job, it’s not sustainable for a long period of time. If you spread your studying over a long period of time with no defined end, you run the risk of burning yourself out.
When I re-wrote the test, I booked a date and then put 100% into studying. Knowing I was racing against the clock and that there was an end immediately in sight was super motivating.
3. Engage in deliberate practice.
After a long, mind-numbing day at the office, it’s easy to let yourself go through the motions of studying without really gaining any knowledge or improving your skills. I am definitely guilty of this. When it comes to GMAT studying, quality is more important than quantity. You need to strive hard for deliberate practice and focus on improving your weak areas.
Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.
How did I finally start engaging in deliberate practice?
I never studied for more than 1 hour straight.
I set a very specific goal for each session. For example, my goal could be to master combined rates questions (note that I say combined rates, not just rates). By focusing on such a narrow topic for 1 hour straight, I was able to cover it in it’s entirety and basically solidify it in my mind.
I would end each study session with practice questions and grade them right away to get feedback on whether my tactics were working or not.
If you’re doing it right, deliberate practice should feel physically and mentally exhausting to the point where you need a rest. You should also be seeing tangible results in your practice question sets.
4. Commit to memorizing a few things.
For some reason, I really resisted the idea of memorizing things. It reminded me of being back in school, memorizing pointless facts and regurgitating them! Once I finally got over myself and memorized a few key things, I was able to get through quant questions much faster.
On top of the obvious things you need to memorize (formulas, number properties rules, etc.) I recommend memorizing:
Squares and cubes up to 20.
Common fraction to decimal to percent conversions.
Multiplication up to 14.
Common powers of 2 and 10.
6. Stop bouncing around between resources. Do your research, then just stick with it. Use official resources.
So many people become obsessed with what resources they use. Yes, it is extremely important. But it is also a classic procrastination technique. At a certain point you need to get off the forums, stop debating the merits of different books and just get some actual work done.
Here’s what Emilie & I used/recommend (this is mostly geared at people who struggle with quant):
Manhattan GMAT Math Foundations — super helpful if you suck at basic math or are in need of a thorough refresher. If you can’t factor, manipulate fractions and exponents, and forget simple algebra, do complete this book.
Manhattan GMAT Books — Number Properties is the only one I would recommend.
Veritas Prep — expensive, not worth it.
Empower GMAT — weirdly, I found these videos extremely soothing to listen to. It also saved me a ton of time I usually would usually spend reading. There are answers and detailed video explanations to tons of OG questions.
Target Test Prep — online prep and tutoring geared towards test-takers that have a hard time with quant. The videos make you feel like you have a tutor right there with you and the content is amazing value for the price.
OG Books — a must have.
Official Practice Tests — don’t waste time or money on non-official tests. The real ones are the ONLY ones worth doing. When you sign up on the official GMAT website you will get two free practice tests with your download of the GMATPrep software and you can purchase four additional tests which we highly recommend.
7. Learn test-taking strategy.
The GMAT was not designed to let you solve every question in detail. In fact, you should be able to answer almost every quant question without even solving for the answer! Using number properties knowledge, test cases, or testing answers, you can eliminate most answer choices. I found Empower GMAT helpful for fine tuning my quant test-taking strategy. Like any skill, this needs to be practiced. It feels really weird at first to actually skip questions on a practice test, but you need to get comfortable with this strategy well before test day!