Let’s face it, studying is not fun. It’s usually something you struggle through, is discouraging, tedious and expensive, and requires faith that it will pay off in the end. Here’s the good news: it will pay off, but only if you do it correctly. These are some good rules to follow.
Most people start studying between 1 month and 1 year before the GMAT. Remember, starting early doesn’t mean you necessarily have to study more, just over a longer period of time. I would suggest trying your first problem 4 – 6 months before test day. Set aside 2-3 hours a week in the beginning, and gradually ramp up your review. Despite what you may otherwise hear, it’s not a test for which you can easily cram.
Take practice tests. Plan on taking about 5-7 over the course of your preparation. Don’t cheat by not doing the essay. Yes, I know, it’s annoying; I went though this too. But you have to practice reading long, boring passages after three hours of testing, not just after two. Think of these as scrimmages before the big game.
Ever sit down to study, turn on music, pick up some coffee, IM friends, check your email, then realize you have to leave in 30 minutes? Great, so don’t do that. Instead, dedicate those couple hours to reviewing the topic at hand, and nothing more. Take copious notes of your trouble spots. Practice many similar questions at once. If you get a question wrong, attempt it a 2nd time before reviewing the explanation. Don’t read through the practice book passively and expect the information to be absorbed through sheer familiarity. If you can’t explain a topic to someone else, you don’t know it well enough.
Without any (internal or external) feedback of your progress, study time is wasted. Instead, hone in on those nagging topics by giving them more attention. A passive studier goes through the textbook from page 1 to 300. An active (and ultimately more successful studier) creates a personalized “textbook” by assessing and reassessing his/her strengths and weaknesses and targeting their practice accordingly.
Many Small Goals
Each time you sit down to study, set a goal for that practice. This can be, “take notes on key points in Chapter 6,” “memorize these 4 formulas for these type of Quantitative questions,” or “practice and review all 30 sample questions in this section.” You will be more apt to focus and less inclined to justify stopping early or doing a cursory job. On a macro level, set longer-term goals to “get a 650 on my next practice test” or “review all probability questions by next Friday”. Most importantly, constantly reassess and redirect your targets. Maybe one section is giving you more trouble than another – don’t default to spending equal time on each topic because each has 20 practice questions to review.
Don’t expect your tutor or teacher to hold your hand. It may be tempting to drop $1,200 on a class and think you’re done. This will backfire. Trust me. If you do register for a course, show up ready to learn. Use it to identify material that’s confusing, and study that on your own. A more cost-effective approach is to only work with private instructors to target your weaknesses when you really need it. It avoids the fundamental “teach-to-the-middle” flaw of a classroom environment. Feel free to combine courses and private tutoring, but be prepared to spend some money. For private lessons, show up with problems that are troubling you and direct your instructor to your weaknesses. Your instructor cannot read your mind. The more you bring with you, the more he/she will be able to help. For example, instructors may customize practice sections ahead of time based on a student’s personalized analytics, but you are ultimately responsible for directing the study yourself. Intersperse these lessons throughout the course of your study so you have time to reassess where you’re at between each session.
The benefit of working hard while studying is that you ultimately have to do less of it. And when you sit down, do it right and actively, otherwise you are inefficient with your time and money.