GMAT Study Plan #2: Final Exam Week
The “Final Exam Week” is one of the four GMAT study systems. If you haven’t yet gotten an overview of the four plans, you may want to familiarize yourself with the options before digging in here.
This is a realistic, strong GMAT plan that will work for many people. The name “Final Exam Week” is not an exact comparison, as the GMAT is different in many significant ways from a university-level college final exam. However, similarly to when you’re studying for a final, this plan involves spending 1 to 2 weeks making the GMAT your top priority. If your study time for the GMAT is more than just a couple of days, but is definitely less than 2 months, this study plan is likely the one for you.
Like all of our study plans, the final exam plan has a couple of major milestones.
- Milestone #1 is familiarizing yourself with the exam.
- Milestone #2 is taking the first GMATPrep practice test.
- Milestone #3 is taking the second GMATPrep practice test (several days later).
Notice that a practice test will not be the actual first thing you do, but you will take it early in the plan, typically 1 to 3 days in. Similarly, the second practice test will not exactly be the last thing that you do, but it will be the near the end of the plan, typically a few days before your test date.
There are only a couple things you need to do to get started.
- Schedule your GMAT. It’s not easy to get a GMAT seat at certain times and certain places. If you schedule only 2 or 3 weeks ahead of time, it can be very difficult to get your GMAT test date. The worst-case scenario is that when you get to your second practice test you’ll find that you’re not ready for the test and you’ll need to reschedule it. It’s not a great worst-case scenario, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will fail to achieve your goals. So, draw a line in the sand and set your test date. If schedules are full around your desired date you can free up time by scheduling your test for a weekday, when most people are working. In fact, for this study plan to work well, you should take at least one or two vacation days, maybe more.
- Familiarize yourself with the exam and go through the first practice test. Before you take a practice test, you need to obtain a basic familiarity with the exam. If you don’t do this and you move straight to the practice test, your test score will be slightly lower than it should be and won’t give you a clear indication of where you stand. To get an accurate first practice test score, you need a base level of knowledge. For more on how to familiarize yourself with the exam, see the notes in the Cram Weekend plan, which apply here.
After you have an introductory level of knowledge about the test, you should take your first GMATPrep practice test as soon as you have some quality time. You’ll need 4 hours free when you’re in a clear state of mind and you have plenty of energy. That means that you’ll probably want to take your first practice test on a weekend day or on a day off. It’s a good idea to take your first practice test at the same time of day that you plan to take the actual GMAT. If you schedule your GMAT for 8 a.m., then take the practice test at 8 a.m.
Finally, a critical part of your practice test will be to review the test. It can be difficult to review a test when you’re just getting started and haven’t reviewed all the information for the GMAT yet. Nevertheless, doing a good review of your first practice test is going to be essential. To read more about taking and reviewing your first practice test, see once again the Cram Weekend plan.
The System: 6 days per week, 3 hours per day
After your first practice test, you move into the Final Exam study plan system. The reason this is called a system is that it is based on a few simple principles. You don’t need to plan out every second of your practice in order to be successful. Rather, use this system in order to keep practicing, and you will succeed.
- The first principle of the system is that you must practice 6 days a week. It’s ok to take a day off, or not to take a day off, depending on your energy level. You want to make sure that you don’t burn out, while also making sure to practice the maximum time possible while staying healthy and sane. You should practice every day, meaning 6 days a week with one day of break.
- The second principle is that you should practice a minimum of 3 hours per day. This means three quality practice hours. Reading is something that you need to do but which is only a small fraction of these hours, and I would suggest not counting reading as part of your 3 practice hours.
Here, you might pause and say, “Andrew, you must have me confused for someone else. I don’t have 3 hours a day to study.” The answer is that you must make three hours per day. You have to find time. If you can only study one hour per day, you should consider giving yourself much more time on the exam and switching to the GMAT Fitness study plan. Otherwise, your chances of scoring your best on the exam are greatly reduced. If your best possible score on the exam is a 780, now you’re more likely to score a 720. If your best possible score on the exam is a 720, now you’re more likely to score closer to a 690. And so on.
So, how exactly can you make this time, this 3 hours a day? There is not one single way to do it, and in fact you are probably going to need to make multiple sacrifices and use multiple techniques in order to find the time. The good news is that this is a very short-term commitment. This is only for 1 to 3 weeks. If you think that you can’t make time and sacrifice some portions of your job for this temporary amount of time, you may have your priorities misaligned. Or, maybe you should consider the Fitness Plan for a less rushed and more balanced path to success.
How to Spend the Daily Three Hours
We’ve now covered two portions of the system. After you have prepared for, reviewed, and taken the first practice test, you will be studying 6 days a week for at least three hours per day. The last key component of the system is how to spend these 3 hours each day.
To get those practice hours in, work through the modules of the GMAT Free course. You should do both Quant and Verbal every day. You’re putting in enough time every day to have a solid block of practice for each one, so it is optimal to practice both Q and V every day. Practicing both Q and V every day has several benefits: it will ensure that you prepare fully for both sections, and it will also keep you in mixed practice mode.
Here’s a logical breakdown:
- 1 hour for Quant (practice and review)
- 1 hour for Verbal (practice and review)
For these hours, as long as you are trying new questions and reviewing the answers carefully, not much else matters. Should you do easy questions? Hard questions? Specific topic areas? Do you need to alternate Data Sufficiency with Problem Solving, or Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning? None of it really matters that much. If you’re paying attention to what you’re doing and learning from each question, you will move toward results.
Then, you have that critical third hour of the day. You’re going to be tired if you have really been actively practicing and reviewing during the first two hours. Don’t be too hard on yourself during this hour, but rather, do what you can to try to spend the time productively. If you have a copy of GMAT Math open on your lap while you are watching TV, the time is worthless. That’s cutting yourself too much slack. But if you lie on the coach and read a print book or ebook in an alert state for that hour, the time is well-spent.
- 1 hour reading and cumulative review
This technique is overlooked by most people, though it’s incredibly strong. For example, you can imagine how the questions on your first practice test might start to look different to you after you have done a lot more practice – but only if you go back and review them. Pure review requires less energy than practice + review, but it’s still far more active than simply reading.
Speaking of review, you should review as you go during the first two hours, though many people seem to refuse to do this. If you find reviewing to be a challenge, you should pay attention to your study habits and force yourself to review as you go. You can also think of the third hour per day as a measure to make sure that you thoroughly review all the questions that you do. If you review questions well, you could easily spend ten minutes thinking about a single question – even one that you got right!
It’s not ideal to start off each day with reading. You want to burn your primary energy on the primary task: doing questions. Reading and other lighter activities should be reserved for the third hour. However, if you are having trouble getting started, a little “light reading” may help you to warm up for the day.
Scheduling Your Practice Time
Now that you understand the system of the Final Exam Study Plan, you may want to get more detailed. What do you actually put on your calendar? When do you get to a particular topic, say, probability? How can you ensure that you will practice questions that are difficult enough?
One point of the system is that it’s not a detailed-by-topic plan, because it’s better to plan by time than by topic for the GMAT, and because planning by topic hinders mixed practice, which is better for improvement. Planning by time, rather than by topic, also makes your overall plan more flexible and easier to manage: your calendar will take 5 minutes to set up, rather than 5 hours.
Given that, here is what to do:
- Put recurring placeholders in your calendar. If you have a work calendar that organizes your life, put recurring items in there, and/or put them in a personal calendar. The point is that you want Google Calendar, Outlook, or something similar to continually remind you when you are supposed to be practicing. You should use aggressive reminder settings. For example, if you use Google Calendar, you can receive emails, pop-ups, and SMS messages before and at the time of your practice sessions.
Example: Say I have a job that I usually work from 9AM to 7PM. For the duration of this plan, I will leave the office “early,” at 5PM sharp. I’ve told my boss that I will need to do that for the next two weeks for personal reasons. I put the following recurring items in my calendar: 30 min of GMAT practice over breakfast, 30 min of GMAT practice over lunch, 1 hour of GMAT practice after work (some days after a workout, some days immediately after work). I may even be eating during that hour; there is no cooking during the study plan of this particular example, just quick options. Then I take a break and then put in my final hour of practice. I try to stop at least an hour before I should go to bed so that I have time to wind down and have a fighting chance of dreaming about something non-algebraic.
As you can see, the situation is already complicated enough without having to worry about specific topics and whether I am completing them or how far I’m getting through them in 30 or 60 minutes.
However, there is another step:
- Keep an Excel tracker. If you have done much project management professionally, you’ve probably put some project-related items in your calendar, but most of the meat of the project management has gone either into Excel or Microsoft Project or a piece of web software, depending on the complexity of the project. Similarly, in your GMAT system, there’s a good reason to separate the details from your calendar; if you get a couple hours off of a hyper specific schedule, and all the details are in the calendar, the calendar is quite difficult to update. So, you use placeholders in your calendar to manage time, and you use an Excel tracker to manage the details.
An Excel tracker has a double purpose. First, it’s a tool for motivation and discipline. You log the hours you practice on a day-by-day basis. Tracking the time you put in will improve your discipline. Second, you use the excel tracker to ensure that you are hitting major and minor milestones. For example, there are over 40 topics listed in the GMAT Math review. For each of them, you should not only complete the section in the course, but review it, prioritize it, and so forth. The tracker will help with that.
What to Do Right Now to Start
Why not start today – with a least a half-day? Here’s how you can start this second:
- Schedule your GMAT exam
- Start tracking your study time completed (e.g., in an Excel sheet)
- Put placeholders in your calendar
- Send emails/communicate with people to let them know how your schedule will be different over the next x days / y weeks (there you go; we’re already doing some algebra)
- Get started with an hour of practice + review – say, in Problem Solving. Then you are underway preparing for your first practice test, as described above.
- Obey your calendar – turn your attention to the GMAT when it’s time to do so
- During each session, focus on doing questions from the GMAT Free course. Alternate hours with Quant and Verbal. Review each question.
- Update your Excel tracker at least once each day
This system is intentionally simple. You can adjust it or add detail to it if you want. For example, you might decide to focus on Quant questions in the morning to force your brain to wake up. There is plenty of room to personalize this plan to your specific needs, just stick to the system and you will start improving and nearing your optimal performance level.
Three hours a day of quality preparation is a lot. Many people who think they are going to follow through on a plan like this by preparing for the GMAT after work aren’t being realistic – if you have any personal commitments, any need to relax, anything short of boundless energy, you will need to carve out more time in order to get in 3 hours per day. For most people who are preparing for the GMAT alongside a full-time, the best GMAT study plan will be one with similar principles but different time parameters: The Fitness Plan. We’ll talk about that next.