From 680 to 740: Intensive Math Prep

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From 680 to 740: Intensive Math Prep

by asnowman03 » Mon Jun 16, 2014 5:29 am
Hello all - I am sharing my story of how I went from 680 (Verbal - 85% / Math - 58%) to 740 (Verbal - 95% / Math - 78%) on the GMAT. As you can probably tell from my score breakdown, I needed to focus the majority of my efforts on improving the math section. I think my story will be most helpful to those who are pretty decent at math but are lacking the polish and practice to get to a higher level. I do believe that if I had another month or so of time, I probably could have raised the Math to mid-high 80's percentile as well, but I was at my wit's end with work and studying.

MINDSET:
The big takeaway is that you can take nothing for granted in your preparation. You need to be relentless and rigorous with yourself to PROACTIVELY identify problem areas and then GO OUT OF YOUR WAY to seek out the types of problems that are giving you trouble. And once you figure out your weakness areas and start practicing on them, you need to go very deep to make sure that you truly got it. You need to go so deep that you start thinking of different permutations of problems yourself and testing yourself to see if you can answer your own questions.

For Test 1, I mistakenly assumed that if I did X amount of math problems (and, given that I was always "pretty good" at math in school), then I would be well prepared for the actual test. So, I went through all of the math problems in the official guide 12 as well as some other problems from a Veritas prep class that I was taking at the time. I took a GMATprep practice test and scored a 730 with a 78% in Math - I felt like that was good enough and scheduled my official GMAT exam. Unfortunately that practice test turned out to be a false positive - and when I took the real exam I did a lot worse.

The big thing I realized is that my math performance was extremely volatile. For example - sometimes I would miss a problem on my 2nd attempt that I got correct on my first attempt. Strange, very strange. Another example - sometimes I would miss a problem, learn what I did wrong on it, and then proceed to go ahead and miss it a second time after a few days of rest "in between". It just goes to show that we are not machines that are 100% consistent - there are any number of "X-factors" swirling about that can affect your mood and concentration and ultimately your performance. This is why you have to drill everything extra well to account for this volatility. Even if you dug pretty deep and fundamentally understood why you missed a certain type of problem, it's not a given that you are going to nail a similar problem on the next round. You may just "temporarily forget" or go down some "default" path of analysis that you got the wrong answer in the first place.

TACTICS:
-I would highly recommend doing all GMAT math practice test / scratch work in a notebook rather than on random loose sheets of paper. This is important because as you go back over your missed questions, you are going to wonder how you attacked a certain problem the first time around and why it did not work.

-Keep a very strict log of missed questions. As most of my practice questions were in electronic form, I would create compilations of missed questions in powerpoint for every practice test I went through. It's pretty simple - you just hit "print-screen" for each problem and then copy and paste it into powerpoint slides. I found this to be very effective because at some point you need to focus hard on the questions you are missing rather than just churning through a whole new set of problems. Especially as you start running out of high quality problem sets, you can return and do the missed questions over and over again. In regards to my first point of being very strict / perfectionist with yourself, you need to observe these little clues and take meaning from them. If you missed the same question twice even after you learned it, then that means you didn't totally get it 100% and you need to find more questions of that type to hammer the knowledge in.

-One thing I found helpful was next to each missed question (in my powerpoint slides), I would type out exactly WHY I missed the problem. I think this helps really solidify the rewiring that your brain sometimes has to undergo in order to tackle certain problem types. In cases where you just made a truly careless mistake, then it can be a sign for you to not focus undue attention on the problem so you most likely would have gotten it right. Once you have a critical mass of missed questions, you can then begin to compile and categorize them. I used Excel to keep track of the types of questions I was missing to see if there were any trends. This did not prove to be as helpful as I thought because there were no real areas where I was super weak... it was more like I knew each area at a 80% level. But, I still would recommend doing this.

-Keep a strict log of time you spent on each problem as well. The problems that took too long (over 2 min 30 seconds) should be viewed with same level of attention as a missed problem.

-The MOST IMPORTANT facet of the GMAT prep game is knowing how to effectively sequence your studying. Firstly, for the first 50 - 60% of your math test preparation, you should focus on doing a bunch of similar problem types in a row, rather than randomizing it. I think it is important to see how the GMAT can manipulate a certain type of problem in order to make it more difficult or easier. You need to understand the various permutations that a certain type of problem can take. This can be especially valid for those number theory questions - for example, by the end of my preparation I already had a gut feel for a bunch of different number theory problems based on whether they were keeping you bounded by integers, or whether fractions were involved, or whether it was only positive numbers, or positive integers, etc. Secondly, it is important not to "waste" good practice tests by taking them when you are not ready. I would not recommend taking a GMATPrep test until you feel like you've gotten about 60-70% of the way through the practice material that I list below. These tests are gold mines and will help you determine whether you are actually ready to sit for the real GMAT or not. There are plenty of other practice test sources that can give you a good gauge for your progress in the early stages of your preparation.

DIFFERENT RESOURCES BELOW:

-Manhattan GMAT Math Books: I would start with these books. I found these books to be pretty helpful - I would SKIM through the chapters and then do the problems at the end of the chapters. You also get access to online problems that aren't bad either. The best thing is that they categorize the randomized math problems from the OG guides as well - so if you want to focus on, for example, number theory, the Manhattan book tells you which problems from the OG guides are number theory and even breaks it into easy and hard questions. This is great because you can really churn through and see the various permutations in how certain problem types are presented over and over again.

-Main OG guide and OG Quantitative Review: No surprise here - as mentioned above, use these as a source of problems as you go through the Manhattan GMAT math books. Do not blindly go through the math questions one by one in the order given in the OG guides. You need to structure it and do similar problem types.

-"Crackverbal" Quant Prep Question pack: I received from a friend a math question bank consisting of ~200 questions that were supposedly created / compiled based on official GMAC question bank from the 2 official GMAT practice tests that everyone has access to. My friend swore by these questions as a great source of practice. I ran these questions by a tutor friend of mine and he said that they "seemed high quality." I do not there is anything ultra-unique about these questions and maybe some of these questions overlap with additional "paid-for" resources that you can purchase from GMAC. But I did have good success with them, so I will recommend this question pack to the masses.

-"Thursdays with Ron" - good source of indepth review over certain types of math problems that you have already identified as weakness areas.

-"GMATclub" problem sets: "Seven Samurai" - I found these problem sets to be a great source of additional practice, especially for certain problem areas I was having. In addition, GMATclub is littered with practice problems across their forums and they have done a great job of categorizing them into various problem set types. I give a special shout-out to GMATclub user "Bunuel" who had awesome explanations (some of which were particularly clever) to many of the tougher math questions listed on the GMATclub forums.

-Lastly, I did go ahead and purchase the GMATclub practice tests. I forget whether they had a verbal option or not, but I only did the math practice tests as I heard it was great practice from reading some forums. The questions tend to be harder than the actual GMAT questions as well, but it was a "good type" of harder (ie, it wasn't just mindless additional arithmetic for example). I wouldn't place a ton of emphasis on the actual scores you get from the GMATclub tests - I would focus on whether you are improving relatively over time. For example, my first GMATclub math test resulted in a sub-30% percentile score according to their math! Clearly, at that time I was nowhere near a 30% percentile math guy. After several more practice tests, I got to 50% percentile. After several more, I got to 80-90% percentile. GMATclub math problems are particularly good for drilling number theory questions.

-Manhattan GMAT online tests: With the purchase of Manhattan GMAT math books, you get access to their online resources plus 6 practice tests. I will say that I felt the math practice tests to be a too difficult relative to the actual GMAT - unfortunately they were more difficult due to mindless additional arithmetic, rather than due to being forced to navigate several layers of complexity like the GMATclub problems. That being said, it's certainly not a bad source for a few additional practice problems.

-"800 score" math tests: I found these tests to be pretty sources for math questions. They had some good geometry problems I remember, which was a weakness of mine.

-"GMAT Focus" Practice Tests from GMAC: I purchased the 3 math test bundle in order to gain access to more high-quality problems from the makers of the GMAT and to get an accurate reading of what my math level was. I took these tests in the 3 weeks leading up to the actual GMAT and I can say that they were pretty accurate in terms of determining my actual percentile. However, I only did this because I already took the two GMATprep practice tests before and had basically "ran out" of material.

-GMAT Prep Question Pack 1: I purchased this set of additional questions and I found them to be also helpful. The questions are broken into category as well as difficulty levels, so you can really hone in on the types of questions you want to battle.

-All missed questions from the above resources: I would make sure you go through all of the missed questions from the above resources at least once, if not twice. Keep a mistake log of your mistakes! If you missed the same question twice in a row, that is a big red flag and you need to really drill this concept or type of problem very hard.

-GMAT Prep Free Tests: I would recommend you take the first test when you feel like you are 60- 70% of the way through the above material. Then take the second one when you think you've gotten through about 90-100% of it. There are also ways to re-take the tests more than one time I believe without really running into many of the same questions. Obviously you will have to take your result and percentile on "round 2" with a grain of salt. I also believe that since the time I took the test, there now exists an option to purchase more GMAT Prep Practice exams - this is an option that I would totally do if you are in need of extra study material after this.

And that's it guys. In summary - intense, focused practice with a high degree of attention being paid towards missed problems and weak areas and going out of your way to rectify these problem areas. Combine this mentality with the right study sequencing and resources and you have yourself a study plan.

Best regards,

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by achax » Wed Jun 18, 2014 7:51 am
Thanks - this is incredibly helpful. I'm in a similar situation as you and was wondering how long it took to increase your score. I'm about 2.5 months out from my GMAT.

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by nancy.tingze » Wed Jun 18, 2014 10:44 am
Thank you for writing this and thoughtfully breaking down your process. I feel like I am in a very similar position at hover at the 680 with a similar break down between math and verbal one month before my exam. My question is did you spend any time going over the Manhattan material for verbal at all? Or would you advise at this point to just focus all of my efforts on quant? Thanks a lot! Nancy

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by [email protected] » Wed Jun 18, 2014 7:07 pm
Hi nancy.tingze,

On your last CAT, what were your Scaled Scores for the Quant and Verbal sections? That data will help to pinpoint what you should be working on during your last month. What resources have you been using to study?

It's also important to focus on making your remaining CATs as "real" as possible. This includes taking the ENTIRE CAT (including Essay and IR), taking the CAT away from your home, taking them at the same time of day as your Official GMAT, etc.

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by asnowman03 » Thu Jun 19, 2014 4:05 am
nancy.tingze wrote:Thank you for writing this and thoughtfully breaking down your process. I feel like I am in a very similar position at hover at the 680 with a similar break down between math and verbal one month before my exam. My question is did you spend any time going over the Manhattan material for verbal at all? Or would you advise at this point to just focus all of my efforts on quant? Thanks a lot! Nancy
I did not go over Manhattan verbal at all. For the verbal, I reviewed the Powerscore Critical Reasoning Bible and the Official GMAT Verbal Review guides with a particular focus on critical reasoning and sentence correction. I surprisingly found that some of the critical reasoning questions weren't actually as intuitive as they sound and was able make up some easy points that I was losing before. I think the Powerscore Critical Reasoning bible is a good source for some of this stuff as they give you a structure to follow, but it's not a holy grail.

I can't tell you whether to focus on math or verbal and I don't know your schedule. If you have a busy work schedule much like I did, I would give yourself 2-3 months rather than 1 month. If you have a pretty free schedule, then I guess 1 month is good. This is much like the 80 / 20 rule in that the last 20% of the reward come with the greatest amount of effort. You need some time to "digest" the improvements that you make in the math section... not sure 1 month is enough time, but could be.

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by asnowman03 » Thu Jun 19, 2014 4:12 am
achax wrote:Thanks - this is incredibly helpful. I'm in a similar situation as you and was wondering how long it took to increase your score. I'm about 2.5 months out from my GMAT.
For a variety of reasons, the time it took for me to increase my score will not be applicable to you. I had a bunch of stuff happen to me which caused me to take a relatively long hiatus from the GMAT and start again after some time. Without the hiatus, I think it would have taken me 2-3 months of this (this assumes I have a busy work schedule).

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by nancy.tingze » Thu Jun 19, 2014 6:31 am
@Rich- Thanks so much for your reply. My score was 690 (Q47 V38) when I took the GMATPrep test #1 last week. However, I did not do the IR section. My exam is booked for July 14th and I am studying full time and am not currently working on anything else. I am following the 60-day Beat The Gmat plan and have completed the Quant days using Manhattan Gmat books. Going forward, I'm undecided whether I should spend the next month to go through the MGMAT verbal material or just focus on taking practice tests every 4 to 5 days and spending the days in between focusing on the quant areas that I made mistakes in. Any advice would be much appreciated.

@asnowman03- Thank you so much for your advice and for the tip on Critical Reasoning. Our situations sound very similar, I have previously taken a hiatus from GMAT preparation. In any case, I will look into the materials you suggested. Your post and response are extremely helpful, thank you so much.

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by [email protected] » Thu Jun 19, 2014 10:37 am
Hi nancy.tingze,

With those Scaled Scores, you're clearly strong in both the Quant and Verbal sections. With the time that you have remaining, your focus should be on two areas:

1) Realism - Take your remaining CATs in their ENTIRETY (don't skip sections) and do so in as test-like of a fashion as possible (on a PC, with a mouse, away from home, same time as your real GMAT, etc.).

2) Nitpick Review - Your missing points will likely be found in questions that you got wrong because of little mistakes, questions that you narrowed down to 2 choices (but still got wrong) and questions that you just didn't have enough time to answer. You have to look at HOW you go about answering questions and make the necessary adjustments to fix these little things.

As odd as this may sound, you could be scoring well into the mid-700s right now, so keep working hard and you can get there.

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by nancy.tingze » Thu Jun 19, 2014 6:20 pm
Thank you Rich for the advice and confidence boost, it is much needed! Your suggestion is very much in agreement with my gut feeling. Thank you again and I'm off to do practice test and nit pick!