Question Trends and Prep Strategies

I recently took the GMAT test and noticed a few trends in the Quant section:

1.  Arithmetic was crucial (the basic operations, fractions, decimals, PEMDAS, etc.).  The GMAT tests critical thinking but the basic components, the 1’s and 0’s, the nuts and bolts, are composed of arithmetic.

2.  There were very few “formula questions”. Formula questions are those that require very little critical thinking and rely largely on knowing a specific mathematical concept, rule, equation, or formula.

3.  There was very little geometry and no coordinate geometry. Geometry questions are often heavily rooted in formulaic information like rules and properties, but can be made more difficult by combining concepts (whether multiple geometry-related concepts or geometry and other concepts, like algebra).

What does this mean?

The GMAT tests your problem solving approach not your knowledge of specific content areas.  Success does not come from just memorizing facts and formulas but from consistently applying an organized approach to your problem solving.

How can you prepare?

Practice being organized!  Practice how you will take the exam.  Have separate sessions, one devoted to solving questions and another for just examining each question for guessing strategies.   One type helps with “test simulation” where you do your best (without judging yourself) to answer questions.  The other is done with unlimited time to give you ample opportunity to think about the questions. There is value in analyzing a question from different angles and in thinking about the different ways that you can attack a problem, but you also need plenty of practice slaying the GMAT lion with your bare hands in a reasonable amount of time. Always practice with an erasable pad and marker.  Have a consistent way that you write variables and make sure that you are writing them in a clear way so that you are never confusing one variable for another or for a number.  Have a consistent way that you do your arithmetic and how you organize your arithmetic on your pad.  Fill in all of the blanks in your basic content puzzle (If you get confused by long division figure out why:  develop a consistent approach and stick to it!). These basic ideas are often overlooked for “sexier” tricks and tips but are far more impactful on your score.

Memorize critical facts!   Yes, above I said that the test is not about memorization BUT by doing some memorization of basic information such as the divisibility rules; common fractions, squares, cubes, square roots, and cube roots; and some common equivalents (square root of 2, 3, 6, abs value of x = square root of x squared, special quadratics) you will put yourself in a stronger position for solving difficult arithmetic and for making inferences.

Practice using alternative strategies!  The GMAT rewards flexible thinking.  There are usually numerous ways to answer a question.  For example, for a question that has variables in the answer choices you can solve algebraically or by picking numbers. There are some questions that lend themselves to estimation:  Try it so that you can develop the instinct for when to use the strategy.  Test day is not the time to try out new things.  While you practice make sure that you understand alternative strategies so that come test day you can choose the strategy that is easiest.

The bottom line is that the GMAT is not a content test but a critical thinking test.  Successful test takers are so because they develop successful organizational habits, memorize the critical facts and formulas, and have multiple approaches for answering questions.  In my most recent test my most valuable tool was my organization.  By deciding on a consistent approach to problem solving, yours can be too.

In my next post I’ll take a closer look at some example questions from my GMAT to provide some insight and strategy on the latest from GMAC and the GMAT. Keep an eye out for that!

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