Standardized Test Takers – Don’t Practice – Prepare!

The Bell Curves team offers the following tips for GMAT or GRE prep.

If you want your score to go up, start preparing instead of practicing.

As test prep experts, we often field questions from people about how best to improve scores for the GMAT/GRE. In speaking with students, we find that a great many people place too much emphasis on “practice” and not enough on “preparation.” There’s a big difference between the two. Here are definitions to distinguish them:

  • Practice – doing questions that simulate the questions you’d see on the GMAT/GRE, whether timed or untimed.
  • Preparation –the process of increasing your knowledge of the content, structure, and strategies for taking the test.

Many test-takers start prep believing practice = preparation, however, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you want your score to go up, start preparing instead of practicing. Good preparation will invariably include practice, but practice alone will generally not be sufficient.  Preparing should always precede practice or practice will only have limited value.

How to Prepare for the GMAT or GRE?

In order to effectively prepare for the GMAT or GRE you should do the following:

1) Develop a Plan – preparation starts with a clear outline of what your strengths and weaknesses are, and a plan designed to address them in a systematic way.

2) Learn first, practice second – practice is designed to help you apply the knowledge and strategies you’ve learned. Your practice will be less efficient if you are also using it to learn the knowledge and information you need for the test. Identify what you don’t know. Learn it. Then practice.

3) Do-Review-Repeat – do practice sets and questions. After any given set of practice, at least ½ as much time should be spent reviewing the practice as was spent doing it (early in the process it should be closer to twice as much time). Reviewing questions and garnering vital insights is how significant improvement is generated. Reviewing helps you learn from your mistakes so you don’t have to repeat them as frequently to rectify them.

4) Find Better Takeaways – the key to better, quicker improvement is to learn and change the things you do that are ineffective or incorrect. Every question gives you the opportunity to learn something to improve. It’s not enough just to say, “oh, okay, I see why I got that wrong,” or “oh, I shouldn’t have missed that.” You need specific, actionable intelligence. Understand both what you missed and why you missed it. More importantly, understand how you can avoid a similar pitfall on similar questions going forward. Ideally, anything you learn from any given question will apply not just to that question, but a broad enough swath of similar questions to be truly valuable. Takeaways can – and should – speak to both content/strategy/approach and timing.

5) Take Regular Practice Tests…When You’re Ready – people love to overdose on practice tests. Practice tests are great, but they’re designed for a specific purpose: evaluation. They will not improve your score on their own. You should take practice tests when you’ve gotten through enough material and practice to warrant evaluating how that work has sunk in.

6) Start focused, build comprehensive – your preparation should focus on addressing your specific weaknesses and maximizing your strengths. Methodically work through both, focusing on one key content area or question type at a time. As you move forward, never forget to work on and practice the things you’ve learned before. It does no good to study something week one, only to find that 10 weeks later you’ve gotten rusty with it through disuse. Every time you learn something new go back and practice a few of the older concepts.

7) Stay the Course – preparing for the GMAT or GRE can often be a frustrating, seemingly thankless endeavor. Know that the hard work you do will pay off. It will pay off greater and faster if you go about preparing the right way. But it won’t pay off at all if you don’t stick to it.

Organized, methodical preparation will help you better use your time and energy to boost your GMAT or GRE score. Expert instruction is also beneficial, but with or without help, you’ll need to do more than just practice – you’ll need to prepare.