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How to Improve Your GMAT Score: Expert Tips for Making Gains

Stacey Koprince

Stacey Koprince - Manhattan Prep

Stacey Koprince is an mba.com Featured Contributor and the content and curriculum lead and an instructor for premier test prep provider Manhattan Prep.

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Welcome to our four-part series on how to improve your GMAT score! Are you just getting started or have you been hitting the books for a while? Either way, we're going to cover the most important things to do in order to get the best GMAT score you can – without letting your studies completely take over your life.

In today's post, we’ll focus on the overall skills and mindset you need to get a great GMAT score (not incidentally, this same mindset will help you succeed in business school). In part two, my colleague Reed Arnold will delve deep on how to improve your GMAT Verbal score and, in part three, my colleague Ryan Jacobs will tell you how to improve your GMAT Quant score. Finally, in part four, I'll be back with you to talk about how to improve your GMAT score in a week – that is, what to do during your last week or so of studies in order to maximize your score on official test day.

One more thing for those of you looking for extra-high GMAT scores. Ryan, Reed, and I have all scored in the 99th percentile (760 or higher) on the GMAT exam multiple times. Everything we’re saying is what we do ourselves to maximize our own GMAT scores.

Your First Level of GMAT Studies

Your first job is what I call the “First Level” of your GMAT studies: learn the math formulas and grammar rules, brush up on your general reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills, and learn how the different GMAT problem types work.

There are plenty of official and test-prep-company materials out there to help you with your First-Level studies. (If you want some free materials to get started, check out both Manhattan Prep’s Free GMAT Starter Kit and GMAC’s Official Starter Kit.)

But you already know you need to do this…this isn’t interesting.

Your Second Level of GMAT Studies

But this is interesting: A lot of people never get to the Second Level of their GMAT studies at all, mostly because they don’t realize that it exists! There are three principles to master:

  1. Develop your executive mindset
  2. Focus on reading comprehension for the whole GMAT exam
  3. Know the code: Train yourself how to think your way through the GMAT

Develop your Executive Mindset for the GMAT

Your very first task is to reset your mindset.

The GMAT is not really a math and grammar test. If you try to approach this exam like a school test, you're going to study a lot longer than you need to and, even then, you’re unlikely to get the best score you could.

The GMAT is primarily a test of your executive reasoning skills – your executive mindset. Which of the 12 unread emails in your inbox should you read first? Your supervisor asked for some figures – is an estimate enough or does she need an exact answer?

Business schools do not care whether you know how to find the area of a triangle. They do care how well you analyze data, prioritize, handle high-pressure situations, and make well-reasoned decisions about what to do – and what not to do. And they want to feel reasonably assured that you will keep trying hard when your studies become challenging.

The GMAT exam is explicitly designed to test all of these skills. And it’s explicitly not designed to make you get everything right in order to get a good score.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the GMAT is a CAT, or computer adaptive test – that is, the test adapts to you, getting harder as you get problems right (and getting easier as you miss problems).

But did you know that the algorithm is also really forgiving? In school, you usually had to get almost everything right to get an A on a test. But on the GMAT, you can miss 30-35 percent of the questions and still score in the 680 to 720 range. And even if you’re aiming for a 730 to 750 (i.e., stratospheric!) score, you can still miss about 15-25 percent of the questions. Imagine getting an A on a test in school while still missing 20 percent or more of the questions!

The GMAT is built to challenge you, yes, but it’s also built to allow you to make mistakes.

Make that knowledge work for you on the test. Guess quickly on the hardest problems and spend that time instead on other problems that have a better chance of paying off. In fact, know before you go into the test what you hate (I’m looking at you, combinatorics…) and don’t even study those topics! Just guess when you see them. (Within reason, of course. You can’t guess on all of algebra.)

Likewise, we all experience test anxiety when taking standardized tests. But on the GMAT, when you hit a problem you don’t know how to do, shrug your shoulders, remind yourself that this test is built to allow you to get stuff wrong, guess, and move on.

Approach the GMAT as a series of business decisions. You don’t invest in a new product just because someone presented the idea to you. You choose what to do and what not to do based on the expected ROI (return on investment). Treat GMAT problems the same way.

Focus on Reading Comprehension for the Whole GMAT

My colleague Reed Arnold will introduce this one:

“One of the most important and most under-practiced study tactics is examining the way you glean information from written text. It's very easy to overlook qualifiers (is it many or most?), or to morph the meaning of what is written into something subtly but importantly different (is economic development the same thing as economic growth?).”

Reading comprehension and attention to detail are important on the entire test, not just Verbal. Every time the test writers lure you into a trap, they either get you to overlook something or tempt you to interpret or extrapolate something in the wrong way.

When you realize that you made any type of mistake on verbal-based problems or you realize that you made a comprehension mistake on quant-based problems, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Why is the wrong answer wrong?
  2. Why was I tempted by the wrong answer? Why did I think it was (or could be) right?
  3. Why is the right answer right?
  4. Why did I think the right answer was wrong? Why did I think it was (or could be) wrong?

You’re probably already asking yourself the first and third questions. But very few people naturally think to ask themselves the second and fourth questions.

On a test like the GMAT, it can be easy to misread or misinterpret the meaning of a sentence. If I truly understand how the test writers trapped me, then I’m a lot less likely to fall for that same type of trap again next time.

Here’s a great example of how the test can set up a trap: problem #146 from the 2022 edition of the GMAT Official Guide.

I can’t reproduce the whole problem here for copyright reasons, so here’s a little context. It comes with a table indicating the amounts a company both budgeted and actually spent for accounting, taxes, and insurance. For example, the company budgeted $2,500 for insurance but actually spent $2,340 on insurance. And here’s the question:

“For which of these accounts did the amount spent differ from the amount budgeted by more than 6 percent of the amount budgeted?”

What does that mean?

Many people think it’s asking whether the amount actually spent was 6 percent more than the amount budgeted – in other words, whether the company went over budget by more than 6 percent.

But that’s not what the sentence says! It wants to know whether the spend was more than 6 percent away from the budget in either direction. You might rephrase the question as: Was the company more than 6 percent under OR over budget?

For insurance, for example, the company budgeted $2,500 for insurance but spent $2,340, so the difference is $160.

Next, 6 percent of that figure can be calculated by finding 1 percent and multiplying that by 6:

1% of $2,500 = $25, and ($25)(6) = $150

The difference, $160, is greater than the 6% figure, $150

Most GMAT studiers don’t spend anywhere near enough time analyzing their own comprehension mistakes. Spend at least twice as much time reviewing a problem as you spent doing that problem in the first place. There’s a lot to learn!

Know the Code: Train Yourself how to Think Your Way Through the GMAT

As my colleague Ryan Jacobs says, “Improving your GMAT score is about wiring your brain to solve problems that it's never encountered before (even though certain parts may look familiar).”

Yes, there are facts and rules and formulas to learn. But, to earn a top GMAT score, you have to train yourself how to think your way through new GMAT problems, because what you see on test day isn’t always going to look like what you studied.

You already think your way through new problems every day. The issue your boss asks you to resolve today is similar in certain ways to three other things you’ve resolved over the past six months – but not exactly the same. So you pull the relevant pieces from those prior issues and come up with a semi-customized solution for the new problem in front of you right now.

How do you learn to do that on the GMAT exam?

First, please stop trying to plow through hundreds and hundreds (or thousands) of problems. This is the single biggest mistake people make! Your goal is never to try to memorize all of the Official Guide problems and then just hope you’ll see really similar problems on test day. School tests were like that, but on the GMAT, you’re never going to see essentially the same problems with different numbers or words.

Instead, deeply analyze the problems that you practice. The comprehension questions I listed earlier were just a start. Here are more questions to ask yourself when you’re reviewing a problem:

In this scenario…

Ask…

I got it right in a reasonable amount of time

  • Did I legitimately get it right or did I get lucky? (If lucky…I need to study this.)

I got it right but took way too long

  • What is a more efficient or easier way to solve?
  • (If nothing…guess fast and move on, even at the expense of getting it wrong. Exec mindset!)

I made a careless mistake or fell for a trap

  • What was the specific mistake / trap?
  • Why did I make it / fall for it?
  • What new habit can help minimize that kind of mistake? (e.g., what solution method I use; how I organize my scratch work)
  • What clues in the problem itself could help me spot and avoid similar traps in future?

I didn’t know how to do it before but I get it now

Prioritize these!

  • What do I need to study to get better at this?
  • How can I practice to get comfortable with it?
  • When am I going to revisit to help me remember it?

I didn’t know how to do it before and I still don’t get it now

Deprioritize these!

  • Until my next practice test: Let it go. What characteristics can help me recognize quickly to guess and move on?
  • On my next practice test: Guess immediately and move on.
  • After my next practice test, is it worth my time now to learn how to get better at this?

Use all of that analysis to articulate your takeaways in this Know the Code form:

When I see __________

I’ll do ___________

For example:

When I see…

I will…

SC answers:

word switches between having an “s” at the end and not having an “s”

Find the “pair word” that has to agree with the “s/no s” word. Could be:

  • subject-verb
  • pronoun-noun
  • noun-noun

…one value differs from another by more than X%...

e.g., M differs from N by more than 10% of N

Ask: Is one number always greater than the other? Or could it go either way?

M could be more than N or less than N. Can’t tell which way.

Qualifier words in CR

e.g., a few, some, often, many, a majority, most

Ask: Does the conclusion match the argument’s scope?

e.g. If most companies do X, can conclude some do x. But if some companies do X, can’t conclude that most do X.

Annoying 3D geometry

cylinders, cones, weird 3D shapes

Guess B and move on immediately

That last one is one of my own! My brain just doesn’t do 3D geometry beyond boxes and maybe spheres. I have literally already decided which letter I’m going to choose so that I don’t spend any brain energy at all when one of these pops up.

What if you get more than one? I regularly insta-guess on at least 4 problems in the quant section and I score in the 48 to 50 range (the top score is a 51). Remember: The algorithm is purposely designed to be forgiving.

If you really want to improve your GMAT score, incorporate all three Second-Level principles into your studies:

  1. Develop your exec mindset
  2. Master reading comprehension (for the whole test)
  3. Know the code: Train yourself how to think your way through the GMAT

These skills will get you prepared not only to do well on the GMAT but also to excel in business school and beyond.

Next steps

This is the first post  in a four-part series. In part two, join Reed Arnold for a deep dive into how to improve your Verbal score.

Ready to put all of this into practice? You can use these strategies with any study materials you already have. Please also check out Manhattan Prep’s GMAT Free Starter Kit. It contains two free ebooks, lessons, practice problems, and a full-length practice test to get you started. And don’t forget GMAC’s great Official Starter Kit with practice problems and two full-length official practice tests.

Good luck and happy studying!

Stacey Koprince

Stacey Koprince - Manhattan Prep

Stacey Koprince is an mba.com Featured Contributor and the content and curriculum lead and an instructor for premier test prep provider Manhattan Prep.

She’s been teaching people to take standardized tests for more than 20 years and the GMAT is her favorite (shh, don’t tell the other tests). Her favorite teaching moment is when she sees her students’ eyes light up because they suddenly thoroughly get how to approach a particular problem.

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