The 2 Biggest Mistakes GMAT Studiers Make

by on October 8th, 2012

Recently, a new student asked me what he could do to get the most out of our class and his study time over the next several months. He’s not the first person to ask me this, but when I was responding to him, I realized that I really needed to write this down and share it with all of you. Many of you have heard me say these things in various forms in articles, blog posts, or forum responses over the years – but here they are in one place.

So, without further ado, the 2 biggest mistakes that people make when studying for the GMAT:

#1 “Doing” instead of “Analyzing”

Most people try to study for the GMAT in the same way they studied for school – and, for most people, that isn’t going to lead to a 700+. The GMAT is not a math test or a grammar test – really, it isn’t! It’s a reasoning test – and I’m not just referring to critical reasoning. The GMAT is really a test of how we think. If that’s not your primary focus when studying, you won’t get the best score you could get.

Two things here. First, do NOT make the mistake of equating “doing” hundreds of problems with learning. You learn when you analyze problems – the actual problem text, your thought processes and solution, alternate solutions, and so on. All of this analysis takes place after you have answered the question. I’m going to repeat that: you’re not learning much while the clock is ticking – rather, you’re testing yourself to see whether you learned what you wanted to learn before the problem even started.

Read the “How to Learn” section of this article on Developing a Study Plan. (You can find the how to learn section in the second half of the article.) That section contains links to additional articles; read those as well. Then go start doing what they say!

#2 Prioritizing “Correct” over “Efficient”

Clearly, we do want to answer questions correctly; if we get everything wrong, we’re not going to get a very good score. The issue here, though, is one of priorities. Timing is just as important as accuracy, yet everyone starts off prioritizing accuracy over time (and many, if not most, people never change that mindset).

That’s a school mentality again – there, accuracy really was more important than timing. The GMAT is a different beast, though, and you’re going to have to retrain your brain accordingly.

Further, do NOT tell yourself that you’re going to master all of the content first and then you’ll figure out that timing stuff “later.” Unless you have unlimited time to spend studying, you need to deal with timing right from the start.

Start with In It To Win It, a short article that will help you start to make this major shift in your overall mindset. Remember, the GMAT is actually testing you on your ability to set priorities, make tough decisions (such as cutting off a problem), and spending your limited time wisely, all things that good business people do every day.

Next, read the Time Management mega-article. Bookmark this one; maybe even print it out. You’re going to keep coming back to this over and over again. Start doing what it says, today.


1) Do we need take-aways for this article? Short and sweet: don’t make the above two mistakes!

2) Okay, I thought of one more. If you find yourself making these mistakes, and you’re not sure how to fix things, find an expert and ask! If you’re taking a class, talk to your teacher. Ask for help on the forums. Make sure to describe the struggles you’re having as clearly as possible and provide enough detail that the teacher advising you can give you advice tailored to your


  • Stacey,
    Thanks for this article. I was just trying to find flaws in your article (Sorry - I regard you as my teacher. Please forgive me. However, I am just testing myself.)

    Claim"the GMAT is actually testing you on your ability to set priorities, make tough decisions (such as cutting off a problem), and spending your limited time wisely, all things that good business people do every day."

    If good timing -> good business leader. However, 'good timing' is a sufficient condition but not a necessary condition!

    I could also pick on "all things" - communication skills? people skills? "good" business people? "Good" in what sense?

    Please let me know your thoughts. An awesome article again.

    A request - can you please post some CR and RC articles?

    The Dark Knight

    • It's good! Test yourself! :) The GMAT is designed to test what are called "higher order reasoning skills." That's both within individual questions themselves and globally, across sections and across the entire test. For the vast majority of test-takers, there is insufficient time to address each question to the best of your ability - so you have to make decisions about where to spend that time. 

      You've got the sufficient and necessary thing reversed. It's necessary to have good timing - if you have really bad timing, you'll get a lower score than you'd otherwise get. But it's not sufficient to have good timing - you need more than just good timing to get a great score. :)

      Re: CR and RC, I have written a TON of these in the past 1-2 years and nothing's really changed much with CR and RC; that's why I haven't written many lately. Go browse / search through the archives!

  • Stacey,
    I went through the article. I have heard that the initial 10 questions are essential for us to be able to get iinto the desired score range. However, if we flip-flop (wrong /right) on initial questions, it becomes difficult later on to catch-up. Any thoughts on that?

    Also, say for instance a student is really good at SC and RC. Do you think that he will get CR questions based on previously answer CR question or SC/RC question? I have seen that MGMAT graph goes up and down depending on the previous question, irrespective of the type of question. Any thoughts?

    The Dark Knight

    • The first 10 questions thing is a myth - they don't lock you into a certain scoring range, and you don't have to get them all or almost all right in order to get a great score. Now, someone who is going to score >90th percentile in that section should expect to get more than half of the initial 10 questions right - but that person should expect to get a greater percentage right throughout the entire section. And it's NOT enough to have a good performance early on. If you slip, run out of time, start making careless mistakes towards the end, then your score will drop. You have to have a steady performance throughout.

      If you haven't already, read the Scoring section of our free e-book The GMAT Uncovered Guide (it's in your student center already if you have any kind of account with us, including a free account). Also read these two articles:

      The questions you're given are based upon your collective performance to that point in the test - so based on all three, SC, RC, CR. There are also other factors to consider, of course - eg, the test wants to give you a certain number of find the assumption vs. strengthen questions, so future questions given do depend to that extent on what you've already been given. They don't, though, give you CR based just on CR performance, SC based just on SC performance, and so on.

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