What are you studying for?

I want to post some more worked examples for arguments, but I’ve been chewing over this question for quite a while now, and want to provide some thoughts on what the bulk of test-prep study time should be focused on.

There is a little bit of substantive stuff that is worth making sure you know for each of the tests.  Some math maybe, or logic rules for the LSAT.  This has to be done.  It is also possible to create some things to study for, such as finely grained categories of argument questions.  This is usually a waste of time.  Or you could just do practice questions until the cows come home, hoping for improved results.  The tests are pretty resistant to magical thinking, though.

So what are you studying for?

I like to think of it as taking the decisions out of the test.  You want to absolutely minimize (i.e. get to zero) the moments on the test where you are looking at a question and don’t have a plan for solving it.  This is different from knowing what the right answer is off the bat.  Instead, it is having a process that you know and trust and FOLLOW EVERY SINGLE TIME.  My suspicion for the students who take a test prep class, feel like they are improving, and then get the same fucking score as they have gotten at the start, is that they get into the exam and wing it, rather than relying on a set process.

When you are nervous, you make DUMB decisions.  Big time DUMB.  You are not dumb, but when you are thinking about “ohmygodIhopeIdowellbecause IreallyreallywannagetintoHarvard” you are not at your tip top in thinking through the ins and outs of your approach.  It’s just the way the brain works.  So the way to cope is not to start thinking “ohmygodIbetternotfreakoutbecausethen I’mgoingtomakebaddecisionsandnotgetintoHarvard” but instead to not make decisions when it isn’t safe.  Sort of like not driving drunk.

When you turn the page/click to the next screen, and see a reading comprehension passage, you want to have a tried-and-true process that you don’t question and don’t change on test day.  You are going to read the first question stem, skim for an answer, prove every fucking word of your answer choice is addressed in the passage, rinse and repeat.  You are not suddenly going to decide that maybe reading the passage first would be a good idea.  You aren’t going to go all magical thinking and pick (C) because it just “sounds” like the right answer.  You aren’t going to panic about the time and pick the first plausible answer because “whatifI’mtooslowanddon’tfinishontime bettergofasterorImightnotgetintoHarvard.”

You want to walk into the test with a very clear, realistic idea of what your score is going to be and how you are going to earn it.  Of course there will be some variation and some moments that may call for a bit of creativity or insight, but that is to be kept to a minimum.  If you don’t already know what your score will be, you shouldn’t be taking the test.  If you think you know what your score will be but hope it will be lots better, you DEFINITELY aren’t ready to take the test.  Instead, you want to work systematically through the question types on your test, and figure out your approach, practice it consistently until you would NEVER do it differently, then move on to the next question type.  This is the heart of Test Smashing.  The test should be little smithereens before you walk into the test center.

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A note on arguments on the GMAT

In recent years, the GMAT has been trying hard to become more “relevant” to business school.  So, a decade ago, its arguments were just slightly dumbed down versions of the LSAT arguments.  Now, some of their arguments (but by no means all, see the first worked example for a classic one) have a more “business decision” feel to them.  These questions fit less cleanly into the basic structures of the question type, though at root, the rules are the same.  However, to smash these questions, you need to have a stronger intuition about how these questions work so that you can apply the rules more flexibly.

As a consequence, I actually recommend to GMAT studiers that you go buy some LSAT tests — they sell individual tests, which might be enough, or books of 10 tests, which, if this stuff is hard for you right now, might be a good investment.  These questions are good for building your foundation for two reasons: they have very transparent, predictable structures, and the types of logic they use can, on harder questions, be more sophisticated than what you will see on the GMAT.  This builds extra capacity and good intuition.  Then you can go work on the GMAT questions with a much stronger foundation.

I’m a low scorer. Can I TestSmash too?

Absolutely.

Indeed, you are going to have to do some TestSmashing.  If you are already in the upper percentiles of whichever test, TestSmashing is just a little nudge, activating a perspective on the tests you are probably halfway to figuring out yourself already.  If you are a low scorer, TestSmashing is going to be hard.  Really, really hard, but not in the way you might expect.  Instead, it’s hard because you have to change how you think about yourself, the test, and how to solve problems.

I’m starting to develop a program for low scorers to turn themselves around and dramatically improve their scores.  If anyone wants to be a beta tester for this program, contact me and I will give you a pretty steep discount for a 4-session package to lay the foundation for a more successful experience with the test that is between you and your dreams.  This isn’t test prep, its prep-for-test-prep stuff that will, I think, save you tons of time, money and agony in the long run if you take some risks and about three weeks up front.

In the meantime, some rules of the road for a low scorer:

  1. Be realistic and set your goals carefully.  Dramatically increasing your score (say by at least 150 or 15 points, depending on the test, particularly if you are starting below the 50th percentile) is going to take time.  It isn’t going to happen in a few weeks.  If you’ve already signed up to take the test in less than 2 months, I would cancel.  Even if it means delaying your applications by a year.  Painful, I know, but you need to
  2. …be patient.  This kind of change won’t happen overnight.
  3. You MUST find a way to transition from the self-concept “I am bad at tests” or, god forbid, “I am not smart enough to do well” to “I happen to have performed badly on some tests in the past, but I am working hard and will master the mistakes I used to make.”
  4. You MUST be prepared to acknowledge that you don’t know what you are doing, and that the approach you have taken so far isn’t working.
  5. Find a way to protect your ego through this process.  Do something joyful, creative and fun on a regular basis during this Test Smashing period of your life.
  6. Be sure this is what you want.  If it isn’t, it is an awfully time-intensive, ego-bruising activity to embark on if you don’t actually want to go to graduate school (or college).

Managing your study time

Time management is another hurdle that can trip up the aspiring test smasher.  It’s also a life skill that is well worth attaining.  Fortunately, I can outsource a lot of my recommendations for how to manage your study time to the Pomodoro Technique, which has a great, free .pdf version of the book on the website.  There are also free apps for those of you who want to manage your studying on your phone or tablet.

The essence of the pomodoro technique is working in disciplined, timed chunks.  I use it in the rest of my life to do my academic writing, and it has transformed my productivity.  The basic time unit, a “pomodoro,” is 25 minutes, but if you are going to use this for test preparation, you need to make one modification to the technique: your time unit while studying will be the length of the section on your test. This way, you will get used to the pace of your test — a section unit of time will be a very known quantity, you’ll learn an accurate sense of where you are in the unit, and you will know exactly where in the block of time your attention flags, etc.

For GMAT takers, use a 35 minute pomodoro.  Your GMAT sections will be 2 pomodori: 70 minutes of intense focus, plus 5 minutes of mental rest/slippage.  For GRE takers, the sections are annoyingly of different length.  You should pick the length of the type of section that gives you the most trouble, so your pomodoro will be 35 minutes if you are weakest on the verbal sections, and 40 minutes if your real difficulty is math.  SAT takers should use 25 minute pomodori, and LSAT takers 35 minutes.

Another great aspect of the Pomodoro Technique is that it helps you make great use of relatively short periods of time.  You can always find a way to squeeze a 25-35 minute block out of your day, right?  If nothing else, setting your alarm that much earlier is not an outrageous idea.  Which leads to the next point:

Study every day and never more than 4 pomodori (unless you are taking a practice test). 

Really.  You can’t learn the kinds of practices you need to absorb into your bones without frequent repetition, and your brain can’t take a huge amount of the intense focus you will be applying during your study periods.  So six hours on the weekend isn’t going to cut it.  It is a waste of your time!  Both too much time at once, and not enough time over the week.  Now, I also don’t really recommend you study for all four pomodori every day of the week, unless you are trying to do this all in 2-3 weeks (not recommended).

Instead, I would take your first pomodoro of the week and spend that time looking at your calendar for the week.  What do you need to accomplish this week?  Let’s say it is mastering Reading Comprehension, and you are studying for the LSAT.  Then plan your week:

Sunday: 1 planning pomodoro for the week.  1 RC diagnostic pomodoro, where you take an entire RC section in the time it would take on the test just to see where you are.  1 pomodoro going through your answers, and annotating the questions you got wrong and the questions you got lucky on.  Also figure out if you need to speed up to answer all the questions or if you can afford to slow down.  1 pomodoro reviewing my recommendations on RC and slowly working through a maximum of one passage’s questions, taking as long as it takes to prove which answer is the correct one.  Check your answers, diagnose the nature of your mistakes.

Monday: Set the alarm earlier than normal and do 2 pomodori before your day starts.  Spend both doing the slow, agonizing practice of proper RC, always proving your answer is correct and closely analyzing and recording the nature of any mistakes you make.

Tuesday: You have time in the morning for one pomodoro, and another in the evening after dinner.  For the morning, spend the pomodoro doing a practice game and a handful of arguments, just to remind yourself of what those questions are like.  As you work, consider whether the RC practice is helping you with the other question types.  Check your answers and note why you made any mistakes you made.  In the evening, spend your pomodoro reviewing the notes you have taken so far this week.  Are there common themes among the questions you get wrong?  Are you trying to fight a battle with ETS over whether unacceptably clunky answer choices could possibly be correct?  Are you giving in to temptation to read the entire passage?  Whatever the result of this reflection, you must prioritize changing your approach for your next practice session.  After this evening pomodoro, go take a walk, even if it is just around the block.  Smell the air, stretch you limbs, enjoy life, think about how you are excited to change your methods.

Wednesday:  You have time for four pomodoros in the middle of the day today, so start out with another diagnostic pom where you do an entire section in the right time length (try to stay focused on the changes you need to make in your approach).  Then spend a pomodoro checking your answers, and journaling about where you are still getting answers incorrect and about how you are managing your time.  If you are starting to see big changes in your accuracy rate, do one pomodoro of RC practice, maybe trying to see how little of the passage you can get away with reading, then one pomodoro of the other question types.  If you are not seeing big changes yet, you need to slow way down and spend a pomodoro where you write down every thought you have about each answer choice and what disqualifies the four wrong answers.  Do this for as many questions as you can in a pomodoro, but don’t be upset if it is just one or two.  Then do it again for the last pomodoro of the day.

Thursday: Today is a busy day, so you can’t spend much time studying.  All you do is set your alarm early, and do one pomodoro of RC questions the very first thing of the day (a fantastic time for learning).  Be sure to leave 5-10 minutes at the end of the pom to review your answers carefully and take notes on your mistakes.

Friday: Another busy day, so you do a diagnostic pomodoro first thing, and nothing else.  You don’t even check your answers, but you are getting to the point where you know you are getting almost every question correct, and are pretty sure which answers are the most likely to be wrong, if any.

Saturday: You’ll do 4 pomodori today, but in two groups.  In the morning, the first pom you use to check your answers from yesterday — are there any surprises?  Also review your notebook from the week.  How many bad habits have you smashed?  Are you still struggling with accuracy or is all there is left to do is learn to increase the pace?  Can you move on to another question type?  Spend the second morning pomodoro doing a focused practice on the issues you are struggling with.  For example, maybe you can find a way to shave a couple of seconds off of each question by having a clearer process that you always follow?  Are you really only reading what you need to read?  Once you have proven a correct answer, have you moved on or do you waste precious seconds in self-doubt or unnecessary double-checking?  Go about your afternoon activities, then when you come back to your last two pomodori of the day, spend the first on another full section and the second checking your answers and planning what more needs to be done on RC to have it smashed.  You should always plan on maintenance, but maybe you still have a lot of bad habits to get past….

Throughout the week, you should be exercising, enjoying friends, limiting alcohol and sleeping lots.  These will all help you keep your ego healthy, your mind sharp, and you ability to self-reflect wide open.

Also, note how much time is spent assessing and planning.  Mindless imprecise practice is only going to waste precious practice questions and your time.  If you are very focused and very reflective, you won’t need a whole lot of questions to make dramatic strides in smashing the test.