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Wednesday, October 18, 2017 at 9am

Make Your GMAT Study More Effective - Techniques to Develop Deep Focus

Make Your GMAT Study More Effective -- Techniques to Develop Deep Focus

“I study GMAT four hours a day, but I’m getting nowhere.”

I'll give you the good news first: You don't need to study every waking hour to ace your test. The bad news, well, you can figure that out for yourself.


Let’s face reality: Having books in front of you for four hours a day but doing repetitive, unproductive tasks really won’t get you anywhere!

In fact, it’s what productivity expert Cal Newport calls “pseudo-working”. More than anything, it comes from a mistaken assumption that parking your bum in a seat is tantamount to “effective studying”. Or, put another way, that “all studying is created equal”.

How top scorers get it done

Still, how is it possible that people exist who work punishing hours, have children, a social life, and still manage top scores on the GMAT? Interestingly, in my twelve-plus years of experience as a GMAT tutor, this profile is the rule rather than the exception.

The key lies in Newport’s basic study equation:

Learning = intensity of focus x time

In short, the better your focus, the more you can learn in less time. If this all sounds disturbingly easy, then I agree. The problem lies in execution: Achieving this focus is really hard to do, and it takes practice!

Applying this to the GMAT

It would be great to assume that GMAT study is totally linear: The more hours put in, the higher the score (you wish).

In reality, there’s a sweet spot to be found. Over the years, I’ve seen students drive themselves physically ill from over-studying, and I’ve seen people study so ineffectively that their score goes down rather than up (you can lead a horse to water…).

Obviously neither of these works well. However, the people who do the best on the GMAT tend have found a rhythm that works for them.

The magic system

Assuming a standard 90-day study plan, it is entirely possible to get excellent results from GMAT study in roughly two hours of study per day-sometimes one hour, sometimes three, but it averages out to two.

The highest scorers I work with use some variation on this.

Now, this might seem like a shockingly small amount of time (let’s not kid ourselves-it’s absolutely enough). However, it does require effective study.

That means two things:

1. Excellent focus is achieved
2. Study topics are effective

Let’s figure out a way to address both of these issues at once. But first, what are we supposed to do if we can barely sit still?

Our attention spans are terrible

For our entire lives, the simple act of being able to focus is what has actually separated 1) those who reach their potential and 2) those who simply wonder why stuff isn’t, you know, easier?

Remember the girl down the hall at university who always did her homework in the afternoon, got to bed at 10:30pm, and graduated top of the class?

It’s not as if she had magic powers: rather, she knew how to budget her time well, and almost certainly focused well on what she was doing.

In short, she had broken down her work into manageable chunks and was tackling those chunks in bursts of time that worked for her natural rhythm. Seem difficult? It doesn’t have to be.

Let’s try this simple goal-setting exercise for a two-hour study block:

1. Divide your time into 4-6 blocks of 20-30 minutes each (experiment with whether 20 or 30 minutes works better for your focus).
2. Write a goal for each block: Perhaps it will be to answer 10 questions under timed conditions, or to watch videos about a specific concept, or to repeat the problem that’s been driving you nuts over and over until you get it without looking at the solution!
3. Set a timer for each section: 20 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever.
4. When the timer goes off, STOP.

Seems too simple, right?

What we’re trying to do is force your mind to switch into a deep focus. “Setting the intention” of the time block will help you clarify what you’re after.

Perhaps at the beginning, you won’t meet all of your practice goals, but as you go along, you’ll know your mind better. You’ll better be able to understand what can be done in these bursts of time. (Hint: quite a bit.)

One of the best things you can do is to keep a notebook where you write your intention for each section of the practice section. Always note how much of your intended goal you completed.

A fail-safe

If you try this method and find you're beating yourself up, then what I’d suggest is to think about a “Minimum Viable Practice,” sort of a Lean Startup-style Minimum Viable Product.

This Minimum Viable Practice is the specific task that you absolutely must cover within the time, even if shaky or not-quite-perfect. This task should not realistically take more than half of your allotted 20- or 30-minute slot.

For example, let’s say that you want to complete ten questions within a 20-minute slot. In this case, your MVP might be to complete five or six.

Or if you want to fully understand permutations and combinations, your MVP might be learning one specific method to hand-count different combinations. (Hint: Break these down by looking at the chapter headings or subheadings in a theory book. Firmly understanding one subheading should be a reasonable MVP for 20 minutes of your time.)

If you get this task done, give yourself a pat on the back and move on.

If it’s still not working, remember this simple advice: Floss one tooth at a time.

In short, if you’re having trouble achieving what you’re setting out to do, that means that you’re expecting too much of yourself. Dial it down until it’s something you’ll finish within the time frame.


The more things you check off your list of practice goals, the better you’ll feel, and it will create a virtuous cycle, motivating you to study more effectively in the future.

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Rowan Hand has worked as a GMAT tutor for students across the globe since 2005. He is the author of the #1 Amazon bestsellers Last Minute GMAT Grammar and How to Beat GMAT Work and Rates Problems. Rowan has helped over 500 students make their careers at schools such as LBS, Columbia, Wharton, INSEAD, and more. Rowan’s website is www.yourgmatcoach.com
YouTube: www.youtube.com/gmatcoach