4 Steps to Analyze your CATs (part 4):
Welcome to our fourth and final installment on how to get the most out of your CATs!
In the first three installments of this series, we talked about:
Part 1: Global executive reasoning and timing review
Part 2: Per-question timing review
Part 3: Strengths and weaknesses by question type or major content area
If you haven’t already, start with part 1 of this series and work your way back here.
Now, we’re going to dive even deeper into the content areas to further refine your list of strengths and weaknesses.
Run your reports—again
So far, you’ve been checking the data for just one exam. Now, you may want to consider re-running the reports using your last two exams. We’re diving deep into the details with these final two reports, so there will be lots of categories with only one or two questions unless we add more data to the report.
If your last test was more than about six to eight weeks ago, though, then the data might be too old. If that’s the case, you may want to look at these last two assessment reports based just on the last test first, and then run the reports again using your last two tests—your choice. If you use only one test, be aware that your analysis may need to be flexible for those sub-categories with only 1 question. If you get 0% of 1 question right, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean that area is a big weakness!
You’re looking for the 2nd Quant and 2nd Verbal reports, both of which are labeled Analysis by Content Area and Topic. These show all of the questions broken out by question type and sub-type or sub-topic. You’re going to use these reports, coupled with everything you’ve learned so far, to complete the 4th and final step of your analysis.
Fill Your Buckets
You are going to place all of the problems from the test (or tests) selected into one of three (3) buckets. These buckets roughly correspond to (1) Great, (2) Prioritize This, and (3) Ugh. Note that the guidelines I give are approximate. If something is only slightly higher or lower than it should be, and you feel comfortable with it, then you can still count that in a “better” bucket.
Okay, run the reports with whatever data you’ve decided to include and go to the second report for Quant: Analysis by Content Area and Topic.
There are 5 “sub-reports” in this report, organized by the 5 main quant areas tested:
- Fractions, Decimals & Percents
- Word Problems
- Number Properties
Do those names look familiar? They’re the names of our strategy guides.
The tabs in the report correspond to the above names; click each tab name to see the relevant data. Here’s an example of the data under the Fractions, Decimals & Percents tab for two tests taken by one of my students:
Within each sub-report, you’ll see sub-categories (e.g., FDPs includes Fractions and Percents). These sub-categories correspond to the chapters in our books—so you know exactly where to look if you want to review a particular area.
Finally, see how the sub-categories are in red? They are actual links! For instance, if you click on Fractions, a new page will pop up that lists the 3 questions that fell into that category for the tests included in the report. Those pop-up lists themselves also contain links: The title of each individual problem is a link to that problem, so you can go look at it again right then and there.
Now, go look at my student’s data. What do you notice?
She rocked Percents: 4 out of 5 right and an average time of only 1.5 minutes! But she’s struggling with Fractions. And she’s spending a lot of time on Ratios, regardless of whether she gets it right or wrong. Fractions and ratios are pretty closely related, so she may need to go back and do some foundational work around those two areas. (She also spent about 3 minutes on one FDPs problem. It was a much harder problem, though, relative to the other areas—and she did get it right. If she got it right legitimately—she can click the link to check—then that kind of trade-off can be an appropriate decision, as long as it doesn’t happen too often.)
I’m curious—let’s click on Fractions to see what was going on there.
Ooh, I’m glad we did this! I’ll talk more about this data down below; for now, what do you think this data is telling you?
The Verbal report works in pretty much the same way—organized by book and by chapter of the book for SC and CR. Reading Comp is a bit different; the RC guide organizes problem types into two broad categories, General and Specific, while the test report labels by the individual question types that can be found in each of those two chapters.
Okay, let’s talk about how to organize your data into one of 3 buckets.
Bucket 1. Great! These are my strengths.
You mostly get these questions right roughly within the expected timeframe for that type (or faster)—my student above should definitely put Percents in Bucket 1. If your average for a sub-category is no more than about 20-30 seconds longer than the average for that type, you can still count that category here.
Make sure that you actually knew what you were doing for each problem and didn’t just get lucky! Going forward, problems in this bucket are not high on your priority list—since you can already do them accurately and efficiently—but there may still be things you can learn:
- even faster ways to do the problem
- ways to make educated guesses (so that you can use the thought process on harder problems of the same type)
- how to quickly recognize future problems of the same type
You may want to move on to more advanced material in these areas.
Bucket 2. Prioritize This.
These problems comprise three broad categories:
(A) Careless mistakes. You knew how to do the problem but made some kind of error along the way. Figure out what error you made, why you made it, and how you can minimize the chances of repeating that type of error.
(B) Efficiency. You get these right but take too long to do so—but only about 30 to 60 seconds too long. (If you took way too long, put this in bucket 3 instead.) Which part took too long? Where did you get hung up? Find a more efficient way to solve this kind of thing. (My student above would put Ratios here.)
(C) Holes in foundation. You missed the problem and it was lower in difficulty than problems you usually get right. (Check the difficulty rating on your problem list.) You need to return to the fundamentals—the rule, the formula, the process, the strategy, whatever it is that caused you to miss this problem. (The problem Painting Airplane Hangars—300 to 500 level—from above needs to go right here.)
In general, prioritize the above three categories over all others. These represent the best areas for your potential improvement. As you get better, some of these will move up to Bucket 1, leaving you room to add more things to Bucket 2.
This is important: DO NOT put nearly everything into bucket 2. Put here what you can reasonably try to improve over the next several weeks. Leave the rest for after your next practice test.
Bucket 3: Ugh. At least for now, get these wrong faster.
These were legitimately wrong—weaknesses or just too hard for you. Often, you spend too much time getting these wrong. Alternatively, you sometimes get these right but spend WAY too long to do so. (My student needs to put the VICtorious problem here—hard, nearly 4 minutes, and still wrong.)
If you’re doing your job, the GMAT should be offering you questions that are too hard or will take too long to solve. You will always receive too-hard questions; your task is to recognize when this happens so that you can literally get these wrong faster. I’m entirely serious. Maximize your ROI on the GMAT:
(A) During timed / testing situations, know how to recognize your “Ugh” problems so that you can guess right away.
(B) During the test, re-allocate that time to questions from one of the other buckets, where additional time is more likely to make a positive difference.
(C) During your studies, leave these items off of your study plan. Literally, do not study them for the next few weeks. You can decide after your next practice test whether some of these might move up to Bucket 2.
As you make more room in Bucket 2, you will decide to move some material up from Bucket 3 to Bucket 2. But you’re still going to have several “My goal is to get problems like this wrong fast” categories, even by the time you get to the real test.
Let me repeat that: There are things that will stay in Bucket 3 forever and you will never study them. I took my first GMAT 20 years ago and my last one about a year ago—and I still refuse to do combinatorics or cylinders (among other things) on the real test. And yet I still hit my goal score and qualify in the 99th percentile to teach for this company!
p.s. I didn’t place the Golf Balls problem anywhere in my analysis. I’d need to know more about my student’s analysis to feel confident about where to place it. She spent a little less than 2 minutes on it. Any mistakes? Did she think she was getting it right? Then maybe it goes in Bucket 2. Or did she know that she didn’t know and so she cut herself off? In that case, it goes in Bucket 3.
One more thing: frequency
For all of the above, don’t forget to think about the frequency with which the material is tested. You might be terrible at 3D geometry (as I am), but that category is so rare that it’s not even worth studying. If, on the other hand, you’re also not so great at exponents and roots, you will need to do some studying; those topics are common. (If you’re not sure what is more or less frequently tested, ask your teacher or ask on the forums.)
No, wait, one more one-more-thing: the 2nd Level of GMAT prep
Now that you know where to concentrate, how should you study? Go back to your books or lessons for any fundamental content issues. For any strategy or technique issues (e.g., how to know what the problem was actually testing), learn about the 2nd Level of learning to take the GMAT.
The 4 Steps to Getting the Most out of your CATs
(1) Start with a global executive reasoning and timing review. Where did you make good decisions about where to spend your time and mental energy? Where would you make different decisions next time? How will you know which decision to make when?
(2) Dive deeper into your Problem Lists to analyze your per-question timing. Bad timing can kill your score no matter how good you are with the actual material.
(3) Understand your strengths and weaknesses at the big-picture level. Run the reports to dive into the content and question types. It’s critically important to evaluate your performance across all three main axes at once—percentage correct, timing, and difficulty.
(4) Dive deep into your strengths and weaknesses to build your study plan for the next 2-3 weeks. Fill your buckets, then concentrate on Bucket 2. Every time you take a test, you’ll re-do your buckets; you’ll be able to see your progress and adjust accordingly, moving things “up” your bucket chain as you go. (And leaving the worst stuff down in Bucket 3 forever!)