Three Pillars of a Successful GMAT Strategy

There are three pillars of a successful GMAT preparation strategy:

1. Systematic Approach to Studying: GMAT is a test of advanced application of some fundamental concepts within a timed limit. The scientific way to ace GMAT is by mastering these things in the following order

  1. Master the Fundamental Concepts
  2. Master the Application (of the concepts on increasingly difficult questions)
  3. Master the Timing (Once you have achieved the required accuracy on the questions, start timing yourself)

A lot of people begin their GMAT preparation with practicing GMAT questions within time limits. Now, this is like trying to master all the three things (concepts, application, and timing) at the same time. Clearly, it doesn’t work as the candidates find out sooner or later. The idea is to first build the fundamental concepts that GMAT tests (In Quant, it means concepts such as those in geometry, number systems etc, and In verbal, it means grammar concepts for Sentence Correction and fundamentals of reasoning for Critical Reasoning), and then try to apply those concepts on increasingly difficult level of questions. Only when a person starts seeing a good accuracy on medium and difficult GMAT questions should he or she time him- or herself. Rather, in many cases, timing falls into place automatically as the person becomes increasingly comfortable with and confident about GMAT questions.

2. Deliberate Practice: We all have heard the phrase “Practice makes Perfect”. So, people practice as many questions as possible, believing that they’ll get perfect. And they do become perfect, but in solving questions, not in solving them correctly! People practice thousands and thousands of questions without improving much. And then they become clueless as to why they are not improving.

Clearly, the answer lies in their approach to practicing. They are practicing to solve the maximum number of questions, ‘hoping’ they’ll learn a few things in the process. Well, there’s another way that is better than just ‘hoping’. The way is Deliberate Practice. Well, it means practice done deliberately i.e. with a specific purpose. What is the purpose? To strengthen the fundamental concepts and their application. Because ultimately, GMAT is about these two things. If you get these two things, most of the times your timing will fall into place naturally. And with these three in place, you are ready for the success at GMAT.

Therefore, practice with an intention to learn from every question. Focus on “How to get to the answer”, not on the answer itself. Remember, you are not going to see the same questions on your GMAT. Therefore, what is going to help you during your GMAT is your approach to solving questions, not how many questions you got right during your practice.

Now, to get the most learning out of your practice, keep an error log with the following fields:

  • Source of Question (e.g. OG 2016, VR 2016 etc)
  • Question Number
  • Type of Mistake
  • Concept Tested
  • Why I rejected the correct option statement
  • Why I selected the incorrect option statement

A mistake can be made on one of the three levels:

  • Conceptual
  • Application
  • Timing

The corresponding three mistakes can be called conceptual mistakes, application mistakes, and silly mistakes. So, in the field “Type of Mistake”, you should fill in one of these three options.

In “Concept Tested” field, you should write down the concept tested in the question. In Quant, it could be Geometry, Number System, Algebra etc. In Verbal, it could be Subject-Verb Agreement, Assumptions, Main point etc.

The last two fields in the error log are especially relevant for the verbal section since, in the verbal section, you are expected to read all the five option statements. So, if you have gotten a question incorrect in verbal, you must have selected the incorrect choice, and you must have rejected the correct choice. Both of these mistakes offer learnings. And you should keep a record of these learnings because these are going to take your score to the next level. Besides, error log also helps you see patterns in your mistakes. It may be that you always get even-odd questions wrong or that you always make silly mistakes in Weaken questions. Such patterns can be extremely helpful in boosting your score.

The last thing I would say on the topic of ‘practice’ is that you should try to restrict yourself as much as possible to official questions. A lot of unofficial questions are of poor quality and are not representative of the questions that appear on GMAT. If I combine the number of questions in OG 2016, Verbal Review 2016, Quant Review 2016, and the GMAT Prep Question bank, you have around 1900 official questions, not a small figure. However, you shouldn’t waste them. Practice them deliberately, and you’ll find they are enough.

3. Attitude: I think someone has rightly said, “Attitude is everything”. I believe a right attitude is a necessary condition to excel at GMAT. A right attitude consists of not treating GMAT as a pain, being interested in learning, and avoiding self-criticism. If you treat GMAT as a pain, you’ll not be able to spend as much time as you possibly can on your preparations (who wants to spend time on a pain!), and also, you’ll not be able to concentrate as much.

There are some people who are so eager to ace GMAT that they consider learning not as a way to ace GMAT but as an obstacle on their way to GMAT. They say, “Sir, please help me clear the GMAT. Learning – I can do even afterward” However, if GMAT is worth its salt, such a strategy cannot work. You have to learn your way to success at GMAT.

Lastly, avoid self-criticism beyond a point. A lot of test takers start from a low point and go through a lot of struggles during their GMAT preparation. What happens in some cases is that the test taker starts criticizing himself so harshly that he loses his confidence or drive to continue to prepare. It might help to know that almost all test takers go through some struggle. Also, even though I have scored 770 on GMAT and have been teaching GMAT for a while, I still get questions wrong. If I had stopped getting questions wrong, I would have sat for the GMAT and scored a perfect 800! So, the idea is that you shouldn’t indulge in a lot of self-criticism when you don’t get things right. Keep persisting! Things will eventually start clicking!

I believe these three – Systematic Approach to Studying, Deliberate Practice, and Right Attitude – are the pillars of a successful strategy for GMAT preparation. However, I’d like to add a few more points that I think are also quite important:

  1. Regular Studying yields way better results than irregular sporadic studying. So, it is recommended that you study daily for at least a couple of hours and more on weekends. I wouldn’t suggest spreading your GMAT preparation over more than 6 months.
  2. Quality over Quantity: As in all other things of life, quality matters more than quantity even in GMAT preparation. So, it’s not just the number of hours you study but also your concentration during those hours that determine your success. So, it is recommended that you stay away from distractions as much as possible while you are studying.
  3. Quality over Money: Clearly, there are many choices available in the market for GMAT preparation. I think while choosing any source for GMAT preparation, quality should be your top-most and perhaps the only criterion. It is important to understand that even if you spend lavishly on your GMAT preparation, it’ll still not be more than 1–2% of your MBA cost. When you know that GMAT is going to play an important part in your applications, isn’t it rational to make quality a much more significant criterion than cost?
  4. Unofficial Mocks – There are many companies that offer mocks e.e. Manhattan, Veritas etc. I haven’t found any of these to be representative. I believe your actual score can be plus minus 50 from your score in these tests. That’s a range of 100. So, I do not recommend these mocks to assess your level. However, you can take these mocks just to build your test-taking stamina.

This is all I had to say now! Let me know if anyone wants to know anything else! 🙂

This article has also been posted on Linkedin (Link), GMAT Club (Link), and Quora (Link)

About Chiranjeev Singh

An Alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad and with scores of 780 (2017) and 770 (2013) on GMAT and 99.98%ile on CAT, Chiranjeev is one of the most qualified GMAT tutors in India. Chiranjeev has earlier served as Director of Curriculum at e-GMAT. Chiranjeev has been helping students ace GMAT since 2012. He follows a concept-based methodology to teaching GMAT and is very committed to student success. You may contact him for any private GMAT tutoring needs at He conducts online sessions for students across the world.

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