Highlights from the debriefs of TestMagic's top scorers  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in ,

I've been reading through various post exam debriefs by top GMAT scorers on TestMagic. Below is edited snippets of text from some of the posts I came across - the parts that seem most helpful to me.

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790 (q50, v51) - TwinnSplitter

My General View on Prep:
I liken prepping for these tests to an athlete preparing for the season. Rather than sort of work each muscle each day, they specifically target one muscle at a time, spending one day doing bicep only workouts, another doing chest workouts, etc. In the same way, I believe that you should target each specific aspect of the test, concentrating on it and really getting in the mode for it, then moving onto the next type of question. However, when you move on, still do 10 questions a day for each previous section you've done. So, for example, if you start off with quant, then two weeks later you focus on SC while doing 10 quant questions a day. Then, when you move on to CR, you do 10 quant questions and 10 SC questions a day, while still keeping your main focus on CR. Note that using this method, you will be spending progressively more time as you get closer to the test, which is probably a good idea anyways.

I think that your knowledge of each subject will become much more solid in this way than it will in the wishy washy way of just doing a little bit of everything all the time. Then, once you start getting closer to the test (i.e. perhaps two weeks before), and after you've targeted each specific section and feel you're sufficiently prepared, then just work on all of them together, the same way an athlete starts doing more general stuff rather than working out once he/she gets closer to game day.

How to Decide Which Aspects to Target First and For How Long:
I believe that, in general, 2 weeks on a specific subject will give you an absolutely solid grasp on it. However, if there are some sections that you feel need more work than others (i.e. if you're strong in CR but weak in SC), then you could spend only one week on the one you're strong at and 3 weeks on your weakness.
In my opinion, it is best to put quant first for two reasons:
1) this site has a lot of great quant questions/resources, and it's easier to utilize them if you're caught up and fresh in quant,
2) Quant is the easiest to keep fresh by doing a few problems a day, so if you put it in the beginning then you still probably won't forget most of it by the time the test comes around.

As far as what to put second, I believe that it is best to put your biggest weakness in verbal second. Why? Because the topics you put near the beginning will be the ones you get the most practice on, since you'll spend 2 weeks targeting them and then will also do 10 questions a day in these topics from then on.

In other words, here's the prep plan I would recommend to most people:
Quant (2 weeks)
Biggest Verbal Weakness (2-3 weeks)
2nd Biggest Verbal Weakness (2 weeks)
Verbal Strength (1-2 weeks)
All Types of Questions, General Prep, and Practice Tests (2 weeks)

For a total of about 10 weeks.

My own prep was a little different from my recommended, namely in that I didn't prep for CR and RC and thus only targeted two types of questions (quant and SC). However, as I said before, I basically had already targeted CR and RC by preparing for the LSAT.

My prep went as follows (spread over 8 weeks, with two weeks of non-prepping because I had midterms):
Quant (2 weeks)
SC (2 weeks)
General Prep (2 weeks)

While I certainly spent a good amount of time preparing for this test, I didn't do some amazing number of hours (i.e. Ursula's 200 hours). I did about an hour a day on weekdays (not including time spent on TestMagic, which I found to be a great way to procrastinate!), and around 5 hours a day on weekends for a total of about 90 hours. However, if you include time spent on CR and RC for the LSAT, which was about 60 hours, then it totals to 150 hours. I really would have liked to spent more time preparing, but I knew it was impossible, since the University of Chicago is famous for its enjoyment in torturing undergraduates with a ridiculous amount of work (the school's nickname is "where fun comes to die", or "the level of hell daunte forgot").

Note: Any time I found some helpful information on this site, I copy and pasted it into a word document. In general I think this is a good way to keep track of all of the important stuff you see on the site. And, because I did that, now I have a ton of stuff to share with you guys (see resources for each section).

How I Targeted Each Section

Quant:

General Strategy: My prep for quant consisted of three parts (in this order):
1) Going through Kaplan's Math Workbook, underlining all of the important concepts, making notecards of these concepts, and doing the practice problems to strengthen these concepts.
2) Scouring TestMagic for all of the great resources that I knew it had on quant, and making notecards of the concepts in these resources. (resources listed below).
3) Doing tons of quant problems from my many question sources (sources listed below).

I think the most important thing in quant is knowing how to set up an equation from a word problem. If you can do this, you will get 95% of your quant questions right, guaranteed. How can you get good at this? Through practice. See my list of sources of quant questions below to see where you can get practice at this.

Probably my biggest weakness starting out in quant was number theory, as I believe is the case for many people. My advice on cracking this type of question would be to do several of these problems, because it's really just the kind of thing that you get better at with practice. There are several great number theory problems on this site, as well as in the sources I'll list below. As you do more of them, you just get a knack for knowing how to go at it.

Here's how I went at number theory problems: First, I would try to use mathematical logic to lead me to the correct answer. Most of the time, this would work, and I would pretty much know what kind of numbers are relevant to the question (i.e. negative fractions, positive intergers). I would then think what would occur with these types of numbers, and this would lead to the answer.
However, if I was unable to crack it using mathematical logic, I would simply try to plug numbers in, using Alakshma's strategy of plugging in
(-2, -1, -0.5, 0, 0.5, 1, 2).
Generally, I would come to the answer sooner or later.

For permutations and combinations, I initially spent way too much time on them

Sentence Correction

General Strategy: As I said when discussing my PP1 results, I only got around 65% of these right on my first test. By the time of the test, I averaged 1 wrong out of every 100 questions. Here's how I improved so much:
First thing I did was buy Manhattan GMAT's Sentence Correction Guide. While it's true that, as everyone says, OG is the bible for practicing verbal, I would say that this book is the bible for learning the rules of SC. This book is so comprehensive it's amazing. I cannot emphasize enough what an important role this book played in achieving my score. Also, the friend I told you about who got a 750 without studying did actually spend a couple of days studying. The only thing he studied was this book, and as a result his verbal score jumped from 40 on PP1 to 44 on the actual GMAT.

Here's how to utilize the book:
First, go through Manhattan GMAT's SC guide, highlighting every important point (which, in my opinion, is almost every point in the book) and then making notecards out of those points. Memorize them every chance you get (I did this whenever I rode the bus). At the end of each chapter, Manhattan GMAT lists a set of problems in OG which test the concept you learned about in that chapter. Doing the problem set knowing what type of error you're looking for will make you adept at noticing that problem.

Then, once you have gone through every chapter in Manhattan GMAT, and done the corresponding problems in OG, do OG again, starting from problem number 1. This time, you won't know what type of error you'll be looking for, but you'll have become so good by doing the problem sets that you will start noticing that you've gotten MUCH better at SC.

Regarding doing the problems in OG more than once: I remember someone saying in their debriefing that as long as you're not memorizing the answers in OG, you can do the problems over again, and you can also take PP and have it be an accurate predictor. I couldn't agree more. Read the explanations, but don't memorize them, so that you can practice as much as possible on real GMAT questions.

Critical Reasoning

General Strategy: The way I approached CR problems was much different than the way Kaplan (and most books) recommend it. Unlike most people, I don't read the question stem before I read the stimulus. Rather, I read the stimulus first, trying to get a thorough understanding so that regardless of what the question is, I'm ready to attack it. I really think that this helped build my logic skills, so that I was better prepared for any kind of CR question than I would have been if I had a more question-type-specific approach. I feel that had I tried to read the question first, I'd be so focused on trying to find the assumption/implication that I wouldn't understand the argument as a whole intricately enough to analyze the answer choices appropriately. One reason I trusted this approach is that TestMasters, the company known for being the best LSAT prep course, recommends it (and the LSAT is 1/2 CR, so you figure an LSAT prep course would be particularly privy to how to approach the problems). However, each person should take the approach they feel is best!

Recommended Prep Approach:
I think that the reason I was so good at CR is because, as I said above, the LSAT is half CR, and its CR questions are MUCH more difficult than those on the GMAT. They are extremely nitpicky, which helps you become very logical and helps you spot the errors in GMAT arguments in a second. Thus, I would recommend buying the "Next Ten Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests", which contains 500 LSAT CR questions. If you don't want to buy the book but still want a few LSAT questions, download this free LSAT test. Do those when you're targeting your CR skills, and then start doing the CR in the OG once you start getting closer to the test (just to get used to the GMAT's style of CR).
As far as boldfaced questions, I didn't specifically prep for them, although the LSAT contains some questions which are similar (argument structure questions). Like others have said, process of elimination is pretty helpful in the boldface.
For those of you still looking for boldface questions, I heard that akasans has posted a lot of boldfaced CR's on the site.

Reading Comprehension
Use the RC's that come in that LSAT book (linked above in the CR section) as practice. The LSAT passages are much more complex, and the questions are much more specific, so that you'll be forced to get better at remembering what you read! Use the LSAT book when targeting RC, and then as the test nears, start doing the OG


740 GMAT - From a 510 to a 740 (47q; 44v) - bdutt

Strongest advice I can give:
The GMAT is essentially 20 different questions asked over and over again with different wording and answer choices. The Official Guide (made by those bastards at the GMAC, the guys that make this test) should be your bible. I saw at least 5 questions on the GMAT that were straight out of the book.
-It is a test of Stamina --> Always practice with large practice sets (e.g., 30-40 questions in a sitting). Always work with a timer. Practice giving yourself stringent time limits (e.g., 1 minute and 15 seconds for each question). Make your practice sessions in 3-4 hour blocks if you can so that you get used to sitting down and focusing as you will have to on test day.
-Unless you are scoring 700 right off the bat, plan on a big time commitment --> I spent roughly 3 hours a day on weekdays, 4-5 hours on saturdays, and maybe 1-2 (or none) on Sundays. Towards the end of your studying, plan on taking at least one practice test a week (ALWAYS WITH THE ESSAYS)
-It is a test of confidence --> Getting confidence is not always easy, but as cliche it is, the more you practice the more confidence you will get. Look at my princeton review practice scores below. I was sure I was gonna get a 610 after repeating that score 3 times. The more you practice, you will find that it becomes routine answering questions. I couldn't believe that I could ever get a 740 6 months ago.
-FOCUS ON YOUR WEAKNESSES - Everyone can sit all day and confidently do the easy questions and feel good about it. The real challenge is bearing down and focusing on questions that make you insane, that are so easy to just skip over in studying. The ones that you would get wrong three times in a row. Always debrief after practice tests and practice sets and take time to understand questions you got wrong, and also questions that you got right but took you 10 minutes to complete or that you just guessed on (which implies that you didn't quite get the concept)
-FLASHCARDS - yeah, I know it's dorky, but EVERY time you don't understand something or you get something wrong, write it on a flashcard and provide a numerical or verbal example. Look these over every day.

760 (q49 V47) - larzke

-- Conviction --
First and foremost, you have to keep reminding yourself that your GMAT score is a direct function of the time and effort you put into preparation ... your score is NOT an intelligence gauge, it is a reflection of how well you have prepared for this specific test, how good you've become at answering GMAT questions. It's quite a narrow study area, and it CAN be mastered.

-- Impact --
If you want to maximize your score, then consider that a couple of months with little social activity is not going to kill you in the long run.

-- Practice Strategy --
With EVERY question or set that you do, you need to monitor your timing, and see whether the errors you make are "concept" errors or "careless" errors.

1. Concept Errors

If you do not know how to approach a certain problem, if you find the answer explanation has a much quicker way of doing this (even if you got the question right!), if you had to guess, if you took 5 minutes to solve the problem, etc., then you know you need to go back to the theory and work on your understanding of the concept or the best approach to a certain question type. Number property problems are notorious for having shortcuts that you may not know.

Make sure you amend your theory sheet (more on that later) with the relevant new concepts to learn by heart. Record the question on your list of failed questions (more on that later) so that you can practice it another time.

I do not recommend doing CATs or long practice sets before you have gone through a comprehensive theory review, and again, I highly recommend the Manhattan GMAT books to do this.

2. Careless Errors

Slap yourself and take note of what you did wrong. Don't just curse, shrug and move on.
Was it a 3^2=6 error? Then make a note that you need to be extra careful with powers that have low roots and low exponents.
Did you confuse your hastily scribbled 0 for a 6? Tell yourself to write more carefully.
Did you fail to consider statement I combined with statement II in DS? Tell yourself to write down I), II) and I+II) on EACH DS question you do.
Did you find an answer but it was not what was being asked? (one of my weaknesses)? Practice with tough Kaplan questions. They often explain everything in hours and then ask a question in minutes, or they set you up to confuse a radius with a diameter, etc.
Keep track of the type of careless errors you make so that you expose to yourself what your weaknesses are, and work on improving them.
Careless errors are very tricky to get rid of, and you have to develop a certain amount of rigor in your work without forfeiting too much in speed. More on timing later.

In the final moments of your practice, you will get seriously frustrated by errors, because by now you shouldn't be making them anymore. Keep telling yourself that errors are an opportunity to learn how to improve your performance. If it's a concept error you have the chance to learn something that will allow you to get the same type of question right if you get it on the GMAT. If it's a careless error, you still have a chance to whip yourself into shape to be more careful.

-- Timing --

You'll find a time when you're getting questions right but are taking too much time. Certainly, with enough time I'll answer EVERY question correctly! In fact, I have found that the true challenge of the GMAT is not *whether* you can solve a particular problem, but *how quickly* you can do it. You will need to train yourself to see through wordy and concept-stacked GMAT questions quicker and quicker as you progress. Learning to apply the theory is one thing, getting it internalized so well that you can apply it without thinking (like tying your shoe laces) is another.

Secondly, when you have read through and have interpreted the question stem, it is tempting to rush to doing a calculation, but know that you usually have enough time for only ONE calculation approach. If you screw up, decide to re-read the question, and then find out you actually need to calculate something slightly different, you will probably already have blown your 2 minute average for the question. Train yourself for the mindset that you get ONE shot at answering each question, so make sure your question interpretation is right the first time.
...
Also, very important, you need to start to develop a feel for when your two minutes for a question are up without constantly looking at the clock. Learn to make a choice at that point. If you're confident you'll be able to answer the question correctly with one more minute, and you've been doing ok on timing so far, by all means, go for it. If you're still struggling with finding the right approach, if you're stuck, or if you don't have the faintest idea on how to do the question, guess and move on.

-- Theory Sheet --

Some people call them flash cards, you can call them whatever you want. I had a couple of sheets of paper that had little remarks about all concepts that I had struggled with at first, lists of numbers I wanted to know by heart, permutation/combination formulas, etc. I recommend making your own sheet rather than using someone else's, as one person's weaknesses are not the same as another's, and there's the old student curse that lets you remember stuff better once you create a cheat sheet for it. There's no substitute for your own sheet. Review this sheet every night before you go to bed, and repeat repeat repeat -- that's the best way to internalize these things.

-- Failed questions --

ome may find this too laborious, but as soon as I felt I had a good grasp over all GMAT concepts, I started to keep record in an MS Word document of EVERY question that I got wrong on practice CATs, on GMATClub challenges, from the official guide, etc. My final version of this document spanned as much as 42 pages, but it was excellent practice, because after enough questions you won't really remember the first one anymore, and it really ensures you don't keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I greatly recommend it.
...
-- Setbacks and Confidence --
...
First you need to master the theory, that's just step one. Then step two is to become increasingly comfortable with tougher and tougher questions. First you'll panic, then you'll slowly start to get them right, with pathetic timing. Then, slowly, you'll become quicker and more successful. The more you practice, you better you'll get, it's as simple as that.

-- Verbal --

1. RC - Reading Comprehension

I must confess I haven't really gone through the Manhattan GMAT RC book in great detail. The strategies I have read about are around how you can quickly take logical notes of what you read. I don't do this, and I don't recommend it. You need to be able to do this in your head, as writing it down will lose valuable time. My approach is to say what you would want to write down out loud, without making a sound. So move your lips, but don't let any sound come through. This forces you to verbalize your thoughts (which is better than just thinking -- you'll skip stuff), and if you keep quiet, you can use this approach while taking the real GMAT.

A key point about RC is that -- and this will sound stupid but it is often neglected -- you need to understand the text.
Do NOT skim and scan. You are being tested for comprehension of the text, not your ability to pick details out of paragraphs without really knowing what the full story is. Questions like "what do you think that author would most agree with" can NOT be answered without REALLY understanding what the story is about. With time pressure it will be very tempting to rush to the questions and think you'll read the relevant passage when they ask about it, but I believe this is exactly the trap you want to keep out of.

What I do is I read the first paragraph twice, maybe three times, because it often sets the tone (which you'll be asked about) very quickly. Summarize the first passage -- out loud but quietly -- in very simple laymen terms, if necessary in your own language, as if you're explaining it to a child. The GMAT tests your ability to filter the wordy mumbo-jumbo, awkward sentence constructions, and understand in Sesame Street terms what is being said.
If you come across an important paragraph that gives a new side to a story, read it and make absolutely sure you understand what is being said. Read it twice. Read it three times if necessary. Your body will scream no because that clock is ticking, but if you understand the text well, the questions will mostly be a walk in the park. If you don't, you'll be spending a lot of time trying to get the pieces of the puzzle to fit, and doing what you should have done in the first place -- trying to understand the text.

Do not try to bluff your way through the questions by scanning text fragments for clues or words that correspond to an answer item. Those answers are often traps, and the real answers are often hidden in overly simplistic or overly complicated answers that, if you're bluffing, look like unlikely answers, but, only if you really understand the gist of the story, you can recognize as being correct.

Timing, of course, is still key here. Practice a text and its questions in e.g. OG11 and time how long you took on average for each question. If it's more than 1 3/4 minute per question, you need more practice. But first and foremost, make sure you understand the text. Do not skip to the questions if you don't understand the text, you will be punished for that.

2. CR - Critical Reasoning

This I didn't find terribly difficult once you get used to the question types. Do a hundred of these questions from OG and you'll know the typical question wordings. The advanced stuff is really around recognizing out of scope items, e.g. a conclusion that seems logical but cannot be drawn based just on the information in the fragment, or reasons that make sense but that are never mentioned in the text.

Also look out for the following --
"All answers weaken the argument EXCEPT" is not the same as "which answer strengthens the argument". The right answer will often be irrelevant to the argument, and will neither strengthen NOR weaken the argument, and thus is correct.


740 (49 Quantitative - 91 %ile, 41 Verbal - 93 %ile) from 630 - ilano

- Giving practice tests is very important, to help you better manage time. Give the full tests at a stretch, especially while the test day is approaching.
- Practice as much as possible on the computer. VERY IMPORTANT
- Use forums like this one to exchange ideas. For exchanging ideas, you first need to develop an idea, and to develop an idea, you need to start thinking. These forums make you start thinking (this seems like a question applicable to the CR section). It is very important to think laterally!
...
Reading Comprehension:
- Always use a COMPUTER to practice Reading Comprehension. I even used to change the font to "Verdana" 12 similar to the one used on GMAT.

760 (Q49, V46) - ursula

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:


Time | Question # | A | B | C | D | E | Slow | Unsure | Correct | Wrong | 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).

...

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.

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