The GMAT requires you to find many things. You have to find flaws in answers, you have to find signals in math questions that tell you what they’re testing, you have to find common patterns in arguments, you have to find common grammatical errors in Sentence Correction questions, you have to find key missing information in Data Sufficiency questions, and on and on. I’m going to reveal the most important tool for finding all these things. You’ve heard of it before: Looking.
Yes, looking. The key to finding all these things is that you must look for them. That may sound blindingly obvious, but the reality is that most GMAT test takers aren’t doing it. Or, rather, they aren’t doing it with any specificity. Most people end up taking the GMAT in a passive way. The questions pop up on the screen, one after another, and you just hope that you notice things. This is a terrible way to take the test. You cannot let the GMAT simply wash over you and trust that you’ll just see things. You have to be an active test taker, not a passive one, and look specifically for the things you know are going to be tested. There are endless examples on the GMAT of things that you will not reliably spot unless you are deliberately looking for them. (Go to YouTube sometime and search for “awareness test” if you want to see some amusing demonstrations of how difficult it can be to see something when you aren’t looking for it.)
Here are some examples.
There are many excellent techniques that can be used to avoid algebra on the GMAT. For example, sometimes you can plug the answer choices into a problem and see which one gives you the right result without having to write an equation. But that requires recognizing in the first place that you have an algebraic word problem even when there are no variables. You have to be paying close attention to word problems and looking for those in particular that involve unknown quantities related by algebraic rules. If you don’t look for it, you probably won’t see it. A technique that you don’t know when to use is of very little value to you on the GMAT.
The GMAT likes right triangles. Some of the right triangles it especially likes are those that have integers for all three sides. We call these Pythagorean triples, and some examples are 3-4-5, 6-8-10, and 5-12-13. This means that when you get a right triangle problem, one of the first things you should do is look for these numbers. Check for 3s, 4s, 5s, 10s, 8s, 13s, etc. Don’t assume you’ll just spot them; you should be actively seeking them out. Identifying them will save you a lot of time.
There are hundreds of rules of English grammar, but the GMAT tests only a small number of them, and really there’s only a handful that are used heavily on the test: subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, idioms, misplaced modifiers, verb tense, parallel construction, and a few more. This means that a major part of success on Sentence Correction questions is looking specifically for these errors. Don’t assume you will just notice them. If you want to reliably spot parallel construction errors, you must look for parallel construction errors. If you want to reliably spot misplaced modifiers you have to look for misplaced modifiers.
Critical Reasoning questions require you to analyze arguments and find their flaws. One of the most important things you need do therefore is look for flaws. You have to approach arguments with critical, skeptical mindset. The moment you read an argument you should be challenging it, questioning it, looking for problems. You will not simply notice flaws, you must look for them.
Another application in Critical Reasoning is looking for common argument types. The GMAT loves certain argument types and goes to them over and over. Among their favorites are causal arguments, which argue that A caused B; sampling arguments, which extrapolate to a larger group based on a sample; and analogy arguments, which compare two things and argue that what is true for one is true for the other. These argument types are all over the GMAT in Critical Reasoning questions and in Argument Essay prompts, but you have to look for them in order to find them. So make a deliberate point of checking arguments for causal relationships, samples, and analogies. Don’t trust that these types of arguments will announce themselves to you; you have to hunt them down.
One of the keys to Reading Comprehension questions is having good process-of-elimination skills. Most people tackle answer choices by looking for good stuff. That is, they look for something good in each answer, something to like. Often that’s enough — you find one answer you like and the rest you don’t. But too many times you’ll find more than one answer you like, or you’ll discover that you don’t like any of the answers at all. The solution is to stop looking for good stuff, spin your perspective 180 degrees, and start looking for flaws. This is one of the most valuable parts of the process of elimination. Look for reasons to eliminate answers, not reasons to keep them. When you do this you will notice all sorts of details that didn’t seem very important before, but now give you clear reasons to get rid of certain answers. But you will only spot these flaws if you are deliberately looking for them. You have to become the prosecutor, and it’s your job to make the strongest case against each answer choice. Subtle flaws in answer choices don’t jump out at you. They have to be ferreted out.
Don’t Just Study, Remember to Look
One of the big benefits of preparing for the GMAT is that you can learn what it actually tests, and study those topics and rules. But don’t forget that the point of learning these things is be able to take advantage of them on the actual exam and you will only do that if you see them. The GMAT will not present the key elements of a question to you on a silver platter. You need to hunt and dig for them and the first step is to be looking for these things from the start.