Ultimate GMAT Prep Strategy shared by a 760 (Q49:V46) scorer

I was going through Testmagic forums when I got to see this post. It is an amazing read and an ultimate lesson to be learnt. Just go through the profile and then relate it to the score achieved on the GMAT. A truly inspirational success story to all those preparing for the GMAT. Read on:
For the impatient, I’ve divided it into sections so you can find the specifics you’re looking for:
• Profile
• Prep materials & schedule
• Getting the most out of OG
• Scores
• G-day
• Conclusions
Female, age 46. First attempt at GMAT – had never even heard of it until 3 months ago. First language German, but have worked in English and French for over 20 years (living in Montreal). Bachelor of Fine Arts (1979), M.Math. in Computer Science (1982). Last academic exam of any kind was 22 years ago…
Prep materials & schedule
After deciding in January that I wanted to return to school for an MBA, initial research on the web suggested I should give myself 2-3 months to prepare for the GMAT, particularly since I’d been out of school for “a while” (yeah, right…).
I read various reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, then ordered:
• Kaplan GRE & GMAT Math Review Third edition
Kaplan GMAT 2004 edition with CD-ROM
Official Guide 10th edition
Towards the end of my prep I added deltacourse.com for additional background on combinatorics and probability (not covered in Kaplan Math book).
After I had researched and ordered prep materials, I decided on my strategy, and set up a detailed study schedule. I figured that my main weaknesses would be very rusty math in general, data sufficiency problems (had never seen this format before), speed/time management, and exam psychology (handling the pressure, building up stamina to focus for 4 hours). My total prep, ignoring a 1-week break due to an urgent consulting project, worked out to 8 weeks, averaging 2 hours on weekdays, and 10 hours over the weekend = total of approx. 20-25 hours per week = 160-200 hours.
My overall strategy was to focus exclusively on math for the first four weeks, then work on math along with verbal for the second four weeks. I worked through all of KapMath (every single problem) in those first four weeks, and also did all the PS and DS practice sets in PowerPrep. Another part of my strategy was to complete all the Kaplan materials in the first 5-6 weeks, while also starting to introduce OG and PP practice sets in week 3. This allowed me for the last 2-3 weeks to work only with OG and PP, which are definitely closest to the real thing. To build up speed and stamina, I did all PP practice sets and all OG problems under timed conditions. I also did both PP CATs, and 3 of the 4 Kaplan CATs (see below for scores). I decided to forget about doing the 4th Kaplan CAT because I was getting close to G-day, and didn’t want to risk undermining my confidence, so I finished on a high note with PP CAT2.
Getting the most out of OG
In OG, I did 100% of PS and DS problems, about 50% of CR, 80% of SC, and 30% of RC. In all sections, I did all the problem sets that are included in PowerPrep. I found that those are a good way to practice on the computer screen, which feels a bit different than reading problems in a book. Note that the practice sets are EXACTLY the same as the early questions in each section of OG (for example, the first 96 problem solving questions from OG are the ones that appear in the six PS practice sets in PowerPrep), so I skipped the early questions in each section when doing OG. The practice sets are not timed, but I just noted my start time on my scratch paper to get used to proper pacing.To get the most out of OG, I made myself a standard answer sheet with 40 rows for a batch of 40 questions. The sheet had these columns:
Question #
Careless error
Concept error
In the Time column I wrote down the starting time on every 10th question, and the end time on the last question. For the Question #, I had preprinted 1-40, and then just wrote in the first actual # for that batch (e.g. 1 = 261). I recorded my answers in the A-E columns, and used the next two columns to track my reaction while I was doing a problem. For any problem where I felt it took me a long time, I marked an X in the “Slow” column – sometimes an “XX” if it was really bad. Similarly, while I was working through problems, I used the “Unsure” column to keep track of any questions where I wasn’t 100% sure of my answer, or where I ended up guessing. This allowed me later on to include those questions in a second review, even if I had been lucky enough to answer them correctly the first time.
I would always try to work through a complete set of 40 problems in one 80-minute session, just to build up my stamina and focus. I didn’t mix up problem types – I simply did 40 DS, or 40 PS, or 40 SC etc. After answering a complete set, I used the “Correct” and “Wrong” columns to score myself. Unfortunately OG doesn’t contain an answer grid, so the correct answer is embedded in the explanation. But I tried NOT to read the explanation at first, and just to find whether I had answered correctly. On any question I got wrong, I would then immediately try to solve it a second time. You learn a lot more by figuring something out yourself than by reading the solution. Only after I had completed the initial scoring and second attempt for wrong questions, I would then go through the explanations – for ALL questions, regardless of whether I got them right or wrong.
That’s also when I used the last two columns in my grid for any questions that I had wrong on the first attempt. I would put an X under “Careless error” if I got a wrong answer due to sloppy math, or careless reading of a question or answer. I would put an X under “Concept error” if there was something more fundamental about the problem that I didn’t understand or hadn’t noticed. All this nitpicking analysis turned out to be extremely helpful. I realized that more than 50% of my mistakes were in the “Careless error” category. I also found that there were very few problems that I couldn’t solve correctly on a second try, i.e. before reading the solution.
I kept all of my answer sheets in a binder, and in my final week of prep just focused on my problem questions (any that I had marked as wrong, slow, or unsure).
Scores (in chronological order)

Kaplan Diag..... 630 Q39 V39 week 1
PowerPrep CAT1.. 750 Q47 V47 week 2 (before touching OG)
Kaplan CAT1..... 640 Q38 V38 week 4
Kaplan CAT2..... 650 Q37 V40 week 5
Kaplan CAT3..... 640 Q36 V40 week 6
PowerPrep CAT2.. 770 Q50 V47 week 8 (after OG)
Real GMAT....... 760 Q49 V46 week 9
The day before G-day I just took the day off – no studying of any kind. I got my stuff organized, went for a walk, read, had a nice supper, watched some mindless TV (American Idol – made me realize that I’d much rather write the GMAT than have to sing in front of millions of people!), then went to bed early.
I had visited the test center the week before, so I was not stressed about finding it, parking, locations of washrooms etc. My appointment was at 9am, and I got there at 8. After the formalities, they let me start immediately. And since I was one of the first 3 people there, I got a workstation at the far end of the room – nice, no traffic! I put in my earplugs and went to work. I had done my last practice CAT using earplugs, just to get used to the feel. It’s a bit weird to be typing without hearing your keys click, so it’s good to try it before G-day. But for me earplugs were definitely good, since I have trouble concentrating when there is noise.
I was happy to get the Analysis of Argument question first – in my practice CATs I’ve always found that one easier than the “blank page” of the issue question. But the issue question wasn’t too bad either, and I got through both with no problem. I did not use a template of any kind, but just followed the Kaplan advice on taking 8 full minutes to read and digest the question, think about it, and make an outline, and not to get overambitious (get in, make three points in a coherent manner, get out). Other than reading the Kaplan strategies, the only prep I had done for AWA was to put in a serious effort on the AWA sections in each of my practice CATs. I didn’t even look at the list of topics beforehand. I’m pretty confident I should score in the 5 – 6 range, but will post my score when I get it.
The Quant section was pretty much what I expected from OG. Slanted towards the more difficult end of the OG spectrum, but nothing totally unexpected. I was a bit surprised about the number of DS questions - I would guess about 50%, compared to the 33% suggested by Kaplan. Questions covered a pretty broad range – arithmetic, algebra, word problems (surprisingly no work or mixture problems), geometry, coordinate geometry, number properties, and 3 or 4 combination and probability questions. Those were pretty simple – positively benign compared to the stuff that vreddy posts in the PS forum . Nothing on standard deviation, but a couple of questions involving mean and median – simple concepts, but with slightly tricky packaging (one in DS format).
Altogether I ended up having to use process of elimination with 50/50 guessing on two questions, and gave up on one geometry question after a couple of minutes of headbanging – the approach just didn’t come to me. Even though I knew I could probably figure it out eventually, this was around question 17, and I just guessed and moved on. My overall timing strategy worked out very well, and I solved the last question with about 10 seconds to spare. If I had wasted time on that geometry question, I wouldn’t have made it to the end. My basic strategy was to divide the 75 minutes into 3 blocks, and try to stick to completing 1/3 of the total questions in each time block, i.e. at the end of question 12 to have at least 50 minutes left on the clock, and at the end of question 24 to have at least 25 minutes left. I felt that difficulty increased during the early part of the test, but it hit a plateau around the half-way mark. In fact, some of the later questions were easier, so I’m glad I had enough time to do them.
After I got through the Quant I was a bit more relaxed. I started off with some SC and CR, and quite quickly was hit with the first RC passage (about 40 lines). And then I immediately got a second RC passage (about 75 lines – one of those dreaded science passages half written in Latin). Fortunately I had read about the possibility of back-to-back RC passages in one of the posts on this forum, so I just focused on the task at hand, and figured I’d catch up later on my overall timing. I used a similar overall timing strategy (1/3 of questions every 25 minutes, i.e. after Q 14 have 50 minutes left, after Q 28 have 25 minutes left). For the verbal you need to be a bit more flexible, though, depending on where the RC passages pop up. So after Q14 I was about 3 minutes behind, but with 2 RC passages out of the way I was actually in good shape. Then I got all SC and RC for a while, until another RC (social science) around Q26 or 27. By this time I was getting a bit tired, but I just told myself that I was in the home stretch. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and took some deep breaths, then attacked the passage making detailed notes to force myself to focus. It was definitely important, since there were 4 or 5 questions linked to that 3rd passage. Then some more SC and CR. I was just starting to think I was home free, when I hit question 38, and a fourth RC passage popped up! Fortunately I had enough time left to tackle it and answer the 3 questions, but I really had to grind it out at this point. The final question was a convoluted CR, where even with 3 minutes left on the clock, in the end I had to make a 50/50 guess.
1) PowerPoint CAT (before OG) is the best predictor of actual GMAT score
2) Kaplan is good for strategy and math review, but ignore their CAT scores. The CATs and specific practice tests (e.g. just DS practice test) are hard, but they helped me. Somebody in an Amazon review had mentioned that using the Kaplan tests is like an athlete training at altitude - it makes the real thing feel easier. Just stay away from Kaplan tests in the last couple of weeks before G-day, so you don't undermine your confidence.
3) OG is great, but you need to really work with it, not just read the solutions.
4) Speed, timing, and stamina are critical. All of these can only be acquired with practice.
5) I cannot overstress the importance of confidence, and remaining calm. The absolute worst thing you can do is to panic during the test. I have analyzed a lot of the forum posts from people who did less well than they had expected, and the most common cause is a psychological meltdown during or after the Quant section.
6) I had read that high scorers typically approach the GMAT as a challenge, or as an opportunity to "show their stuff", instead of viewing it as a scary hurdle that's trying to keep them out of B-school. Also, I had read that most people who make a second attempt improve their score, often by about 50 points. Anecdotal evidence suggests that much of the improvement is not due to additional prep, but simply less anxiety because of familiarity with the test format and environment.
7) In my prep, I focused a lot on building up my confidence with the goal of reaching my potential score on the first attempt. My 750 score on PP1 certainly encouraged me to believe that I could do very well (once I found out that I should just ignore the Kaplan scores!), but I would not have been able to pull off that same performance on G-day without the prep.
8) After visiting the test center the week before G-day, I did a few minutes of visualization each day - just closed my eyes and saw myself sitting at the workstation, doing well, moving confidently through each section, relaxing during breaks, finally answering that yes, I did want to see my score, and then seeing a 750 pop up on the screen. And on G-day, that's almost exactly how it went down, except that the 750 turned into a 760.
P.S. My username in this forum, Ursula, is actually my middle name, and it comes from the Latin “ursa”, which means female bear. On the day before G-day, a friend who has been teaching in the Canadian Arctic came for a visit, and she brought me a small pin, an Eskimo carving of a polar bear (she didn’t even know about my middle name!). I took it as a good omen, and wore the pin on G-day. So my final recommendation is to wear your TestMagic avatar when you write the test – it will work like a charm!


Shivam said...

A very good one!!! I just wish....

Anonymous said...

Thanks dude for such a useful post. I am really indebted to u...

amjed said...

Mr anonymous, It has to be more like "Than x Lady...".

Anyways, than ursula for sharing the experience with gmat, by such a wonderful article ...

Raj said...

Truly scientific approach. Will surely help a lot like me. Thanks for sharing the amazing experience.I can feel my heart beat while reading your blog, as if I were giving the actual exam.

preeti said...

Nice post for those dreaming to crack GMAT exam with great score.

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nancy john said...

thanks for sharing information really it is very useful

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Priyatamil said...

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