The Study Cycle

What do you do when you study?  Have you thought at all about how studying for the LSAT/GMAT/GRE/SAT is different from a biology test or a French exam?  Remember that standardized tests test how you think far more than testing what you know.  How do you study for something so meta?

The only way to change how you think is to think differently.  Sounds like a tautology, right?  But if you approach every question the same way, you are going to get basically the same results each time.  Remember, test writers have an entire scientific field dedicated to ensuring this is true.  So you have to break your brain out of its box, and no, I don’t mean by banging it against a brick wall.  Instead, you want to design a study cycle that constantly tries new perspectives and then knits them into the basic test taking experience.

A study cycle involves these steps:

  1. Take a baseline measure.  This might be a timed section, timed test, or just a sequence of 10 questions of the type you are targeting.
  2. Analyze your results.  What questions did you get wrong?  Why did you get them wrong?  What patterns are there?  If you could stop doing one thing wrong, what would it be?
  3. Brainstorm some exercises that will attack that one thing you want most to fix.  I suggested some already, and will continue to do so.  You want to look for exercises that take you out of your comfort zone, such as not reading the RC passage.  Some are clearly not what you’d actually do on a test, such as the question writing exercise, but they give you a new perspective.
  4. Practice your exercise enough to give it a real go — don’t stop after one attempt because it is a disaster or it scares the shit out of you — spend real time on it.
  5. Take a post-exercise measurement.  How did your experience change?  Did you get more questions correct?  Were your mistakes of a different nature?  Any progress on that one thing wrong?
  6. Repeat.

In general, you want these cycles to be pretty short, maybe spanning two or three days of work, one or two pomodoro units a day.  Some will be bigger efforts, though you might want to mix in study cycles of a totally different sort to keep your brain nimble and your interest piqued.

A lot of what I, and other tutors, can do for you is suggest creative changes to your process — we have a lot of experience that way.  But it is also important that you start to own your own study cycle.  Be a little playful, and enjoy the creativity involved in coming up with something new.

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.