GMAT Tip: The Right Way to Study

Photograph by Steve Debenport

This tip on improving your GMAT score was provided by Brian Galvin at Veritas Prep.

If you’re considering a graduate business degree, you’re already an elite student by world standards.  A small percentage of the population even graduates from college, let alone heads back almost immediately for more. So congratulations are in order.

But here’s where your experience as an college student can hurt you: Much of the way you’ve studied in the past is less effective than you’d think for a test like the GMAT. Many students have spent much of their academic career memorizing flashcards, reviewing notes, and going over old exams and study guides until it all makes sense.

While none of this is “wrong” in terms of GMAT study, these strategies frequently fall short of a test-takers goals. Why? The GMAT isn’t a content-based test focused on proving that you’ve learned the material (which is mostly junior high and high school-level content) but rather an assessment of ability, particularly problem solving and critical thinking. So you may know the material cold and be able to recite by heart the problems you’ve studied, but when the GMAT puts a twist on the line of questioning, you’ll be stopped in your tracks.

The keys to effective GMAT study are simple: Do new problems regularly, and learn takeaways, not facts.

Our minds have been trained over years of schooling to remember facts and to memorize structures.  It’s why you may have gotten As for four years of high school Spanish but not be able to understand a minute of Telemundo, or why you may have aced math tests throughout your K-12 years but be a little worried about adding and subtracting fractions on the GMAT. You, like many, probably memorized your way through school, and the GMAT isn’t a test that rewards that nearly as much, so you’ll need to push the envelope with your studies.

Consider the example of “remainders,” a concept that comes up regularly on the GMAT. If you’re memorizing from a flashcard, you’ll likely remember that: Dividend divided by divisor equals quotient plus remainder.

That’s useful, but not necessarily sufficient for success on the GMAT—whose problems can look like this one, which appears courtesy of the Official Guide for GMAT Review, 13th edition, in the Problem Solving section:

When positive integer x is divided by positive integer y, the remainder is 9. If x/y = 96.12, what is the value of y?

(A) 96
(B) 75
(C) 48
(D) 25
(E) 12

This problem “reverse engineers” the concept of remainders. Here you don’t start with a dividend and divisor (say, 15 divided by 4) and then have to do the problem (4 times 3 is 12, so the quotient is 3 and the remainder is 3, which means that the result is 3 and ¾, or 3.75). Instead, you’re given two parts of the problem (the answer, 96.12, and the remainder, 9) and your job is to examine the process of division to see how they relate.

It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll have memorized a rule or process to answer it, but if you take a look at a simple division problem like the one above (15 divided by 4 can be expressed as 3 remainder 3; 3 and ¾; or 3.75) you can show yourself how they relate. The remainder, divided back over the divisor (3 divided by 4) leads to the decimals. So in the GMAT problem, 9 divided by y has to be .12, or 9 = .12y and you can find that y = 75.

But take a look at this twist—another problem from that same Official Guide, but this time in the diagnostic test section—to see why it’s important to face new problems and train yourself to think conceptually:

If a and b are positive integers such that a/b = 97.16, which of the following cannot be the remainder when a is divided by b?

(A) 4
(B) 12
(C) 22
(D) 28
(E) 96

This problem is eerily similar, but it’s different enough that you can’t simply apply the same process used for the previous problem. You’ll again need to think: What role does the remainder play in this problem? The remainder divided by b has to be 0.16, but since that gives you two variables (the remainder and b) you’ll need to think more conceptually. Note that 0.16 is the same as 16/100, and 16/100 reduces to 4/25. What does that mean? The remainder has to be a multiple of 4, since “remainder divided by b” has to lead to a fraction of 4/25. Since 22 is not a multiple of 4, C is the correct answer.

The two important study concepts for GMAT test-takers are:

(A) You have to do new problems— through homework sets, practice tests, and question banks—so that you continue to focus on the application of knowledge and not just the knowledge itself.

(B) You need to think conceptually and not simply memorize a set of rules and processes. The two problems above both test similar concepts in almost the same setup, but they’re different enough that someone who has memorized one of those problems will still typically struggle on the other.

While many of the study habits that worked in high school and college will help you on the GMAT, the GMAT is a new beast, one that focuses more on application than knowledge. So to be successful on the GMAT, you’ll need to push yourself in that direction by continuing to test your knowledge on new problems.

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