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3 ways to get a higher score with less study time

gmat gre lsat sat Oct 25, 2018

You've no doubt heard the adage that "practice makes perfect." But that's not necessarily true. I prefer the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi's variation that goes, "Perfect practice makes perfect."

You see, how you practice and prepare for your exam matters. I want to shed some light on that for you so that you're able to maximize your study time. In fact, if you internalize and take action on the three tips I'm going to share with you, you'll be able to get more right answers on test day without having to put in a lot of extra hours. Time is valuable, so why spend more of it preparing for your exam than absolutely necessary?

Okay, let's dive in.

A Tale of Two Candidates

Consider the following two hypothetical students studying for their respective exams.

Candidate A: Studies for 100 hours.

Candidate B: Studies for 80 hours.

Which student do you think is likely to get a higher score?

It's a trick question. On the surface, it seems like Candidate A is the obvious answer. But more isn't always better when it comes to studying for your test, especially if you're not doing the right things. Let me give you a little more detail about each candidate's study habits and see if that changes your mind.

Candidate A: Studies for 100 hours. Has the TV on in the background and checks her phone every time a message comes in. Often takes several days (or even weeks) off between study sessions. Spends most of her time doing practice problems from the textbook without actually learning the underlying content first. Quickly glances back at the answer explanation as soon as she feels stuck on a question.

Candidate B: Studies for 80 hours. Sets aside an hour of dedicated time every day and turns off all distractions. Watches video lessons that teach relevant strategies and methodologies for the question type she's working on before doing practice problems. When she feels stuck, she wrestles with the problem a little longer on her own before reviewing the answer. Takes note of the questions she gets wrong to look for patterns, then invests extra time studying up on those topics. Sends particularly challenging problems that she doesn't understand to her tutor for feedback.

Now which candidate do you think is likely to get the higher score on test day?

It's pretty obvious that Candidate B is more deliberate in her practice and is therefore putting herself in a better position to excel on test day, despite fewer total hours invested in studying. If she tacks on some more hours with the same good study habits, so much the better! But ultimately quality trumps quantity when it comes to preparing for your test.

Deliberate Practice, and Why It's Important

Now, let's get a little more specific.

You may have noticed the short video/audio at the top of this article. It's an excerpt from a podcast I listen to called "Chasing Excellence" by esteemed CrossFit coach Ben Bergeron. In it he talks about the idea of "deep" (or deliberate) practice, and how to achieve it. I thought it applies perfectly to the types of things you should be thinking about when practicing for your exam, too, which is why I'm sharing it.

By way of background, just before this clip picks up, Bergeron had been talking about Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" concept. In his book Outliers, Gladwell explains that 10,000 hours is the minimum amount of practice time you must put in before you truly master something. But as Ben points out, many of us have done lots of things for more than 10,000 hours (e.g. driving), yet we're not masters at it. Why not? Because our practice hasn't been deliberate.

So too with the exam you're studying for.

I often have prospective students e-mail me with the following complaint: "I've studied for months and done every single practice problem in the Official Guide textbook, but my practice test scores aren't improving. Can you help me?"

Usually when we dive in to the person's study habits, it turns out she's more like Candidate A than Candidate B. The fix? Deliberate practice. 

3 Tips for Improving Your Study Sessions

Here are the three components of "deliberate practice" that Bergeron describes in the clip above, along with my tips for how you can apply them to improve your exam preparation.

Deliberate practice is...

  1. Super-focused, to the point of being uncomfortable. My high school basketball coach always used to tell us that you play how you practice. Likewise, you will perform on test day how you prepare in the privacy of your own home. So be deliberate and focused during your study sessions. Like with Candidate B, turn off your cell phone and close the door to the room where you're studying. Let people (including your kids!) know not to bother you. Don't cheat by looking at the answer explanation until you've made every possible effort to figure a question out on your own (you won't have an answer key on test day, so why rely on it during your practice?). And here's a biggy: schedule some occasional longer study sessions of 2-3 hours to train your brain for the mental grind of a long test. It may be uncomfortable, but it will pay off on test day.
  2. Riddled with mistakes (but followed up with feedback). Your test is timed, which means you not only have to get right answers, but you have to do so quickly. And working fast can lead to lots of careless errors and mistakes...unless you practice working quickly! Now, here's an important caveat: I tell my students that in the beginning, when you're first learning a new concept or strategy, take as much time as necessary when working practice problems to apply what you're learning. Consult your notes if necessary. Go back and re-watch my video lessons. Etc. But once you [mostly] have it down, now it's time to set a stopwatch and force yourself to come up with an answer in the average time-per-question for your exam (usually 1.5 - 2.5 minutes). And then, of course, hire a coach to help you get unstuck and master particularly troublesome questions types. (We hope you'll consider Dominate Test Prep!)
  3. Breaking the task up into component parts that can be built into the whole. This is the building-block concept we use in our courses. First, you need to learn to identify the type of question you're dealing with. Pattern recognition is important. Then you need to isolate the particular math or verbal concept being tested. Is there a particular formula you need to know? Or grammar rule you need to apply? Then, where does that fit into the larger methodology for actually answering the question? And what if a particular question involves several different concepts that need to be considered together? Learn to master each part individually so that you can meld it all together on test day and get lots of right answers no matter what questions they throw at you!


No, You're Not Crazy...

I thought I'd leave you with this funny take on the "10,000 Hour Rule" by the ever-sardonic Dilbert.

Hopefully you now understand that 10,000 hours of preparation isn't necessary to do well on your exam. Heck, even 100 hours may be over-kill depending on where you're starting from. The whole premise of our courses here at Dominate Test Prep is that you don't have to be a math major to get a high score. Rather, your goal is to get right answers at all costs -- and if you study the shortcuts and strategies we teach and increase the "deliberateness" of your study sessions just a bit, I think you'll be amazed at the results you're able to achieve.

Ready to really kick your preparation into high-gear? Let us coach you! Click HERE to see our course options and choose the one that's right for you.


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