I’ve been speaking with a lot of students in this position recently – welcome to December. Most second round deadlines are rapidly approaching and some students, unfortunately, don’t yet have the score they want in order to apply. What to do?
What you CAN’T do
There are some things you can do – but we can’t expect miracles either. If you tell me that your test is in less than 2 weeks and you need to improve your score by 100 or more points, I’m going to (gently) tell you that such a goal is unrealistic. I’m not going to discourage you from going for it (it doesn’t hurt to try), but you should also start examining your other options are. These could include accepting your lower score, changing the schools to which you apply, or postponing your candidacy to a later round or a later year. Some people, thinking through this, actually end up deciding that they’d rather wait a year anyway and take their time with the whole application process.
(Just a note on that last point: a lot of people tell me that they would be devastated if they had to postpone for a year; when I ask why, I often get a variation on, “My parents / my significant other / my friends / my boss / everyone expects me to go to business school next year!” Well, sure, because you’ve been talking about it – but you’re an adult in charge of your own life. You’re allowed to change your mind! All you need to do is tell anyone with whom you don’t want to go into detail, “I decided it would be better for my career to wait until next year.”)
Most people in this position are hoping for substantial change (if you were only 10 or 20 points short of your goal, you wouldn’t be panicking in the first place). As a general rule, unfortunately, not a lot will change over a period of a few weeks. If, on the other hand, you have 4 to 6 weeks, you might be able to lift your score somewhat.
What you CAN do
I want to make very clear that the steps I’m about to discuss will not work for everyone. There is no guaranteed way to lift your score in a short period of time – if such a thing existed, I would be very, very rich. Still, if you’re in this position, you’re desperate, so you might as well try and hope that you’ll be one of the lucky ones.
First, most people have timing problems and this is one of the things that can get better in a period of 4 to 6 weeks. When I say “most,” I literally mean something like 98% of people have timing problems – even though many people tell me that they don’t. Trust me – you do. Nearly everyone does. Many people think their timing is fine because they don’t run out of time on the test – but that doesn’t mean that you have good timing. It just means that you don’t have one particular timing problem.
If you’re not convinced that you do have a timing problem, use this article to analyze your most recent MGMAT CAT. You can mess up the timing on individual problems even when you finish the test on time.
Okay, now read the In It To Win It article to “reset” your overall mindset. Follow that up with this article on Time Management. Then start doing today what the time management article says, particularly section 4 (One Minute Sense).
You won’t completely fix your timing in a short timeframe – it depends upon how significant your timing issues are. But if you can get better, then that might just help to lift your score. The worse your timing problems are, the more a really strong 4-to-6-week focus on this topic can help.
Next, if you haven’t already, use the first article I linked above to analyze your most recent MGMAT CAT(s). Get a good assessment of your current strengths and weaknesses. Next, look online to learn which topics and question types are most commonly tested. (I’ll also give a list here, but this can change over time, so this list is only good for the next 6 to 12 months!) Finally, compare the two. You want to identify the items that are weak for you and on the most-commonly-tested list. You don’t want the things that are your absolute biggest weaknesses – those are harder to improve. You want things that are of “medium” weakness and also commonly tested; these will give you the biggest return for your time investment.
As of now, here are the things that tend to be tested most commonly on the GMAT:
Algebra: anything to do with equations (linear, quadratic), including translating words into equations; exponents
Number Properties: positive, negative, odd, even, divisibility, prime
Fractions Decimals and Percents: fractions and percents (especially in “word” form)
Word Problems: statistics (average, median), general word problems that need to be translated to math
Geometry: triangles, polygons
Sentence Correction: modifiers, meaning, parallelism
Critical Reasoning: Find the Assumption, Strengthen, Weaken, Inference
Reading Comprehension: Inference, Specific Detail, Main Idea
Set a Plan
The whole point here is that we have limited time, right? So don’t try to do a little bit of everything. Pick a subset of things and tackle those strongly. Also recognize that you’re going to be working hard over the next 4 to 6 weeks – you’re not going to have much time for socializing, and this can be especially difficult over the holiday season. If you can’t commit, then maybe the best decision really is to postpone for a year.
First, if you don’t yet have the score that you want, it’s probably the case that you weren’t studying in the most effective way possible – so something about your study habits or methods needs to change. For many people, one of the most significant problems is what we call the “quantity over quality” approach. People think that, if they just do every last practice problem and every last practice test out there, then they’ll get the score they want. This doesn’t work.
If you’ve been following this approach, then you actually need to do fewer problems and practice tests – but you’re really going to start studying and analyzing your work as well as the problems themselves. Most of your learning actually comes after you finish working on a problem; you learn from your review and analysis of your work.
Read this first; it talks about how to analyze a practice problem. Unless you’re getting to this level of understanding, you’re wasting a lot of very valuable time. Want examples of how this actually works? Glad you asked – here are examples of the analysis of real problems, one for each question type:
And just in case you’re really gung-ho, here are some examples for IR:
If you have not been studying in this way before (and most people who haven’t achieved their goal score have not been studying in this way), then you need to start now. You will be very unlikely to make any kind of significant scoring change in a shorter period of time if you do not analyze these problems and your work on these problems.
1) Be realistic. You might be able to achieve a 50+ point increase in 4-6 weeks, and nothing is stopping you from trying, but there are no guarantees. It might not work.
2) Target the “low hanging fruit” – things that are easier to improve in a short timeframe and things that will have the biggest impact. Timing is the first obvious category. Also target “medium” weaknesses that are commonly tested on the exam.
3) Plan for multiple possible outcomes. If you don’t get the score you want, what would you prefer to do? Apply anyway? Change the schools to which you apply? Postpone until next year? If you think about this in advance, you’ll be a lot less stressed when it comes time to take the test, because you’ll know you really do have various options and your entire existence does not hinge on this one exam. I promise.