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The Self-Studier’s Approach to the GMAT

Educational models are shifting. High school students do homework at school and watch lectures at home. Tens of thousands of students can all enroll in a class and take it at the same time. Top universities are giving away information for free. If there is something that we want to know, all we need is a semi-stable Internet connection.

But there are costs to this shift. Many people benefit from the structure of a class. Peer pressure, deadlines, and class assignments help students learn. And for anyone who attended high school before pagers and cell phones, learning without these supports is increasingly hard.

With these changes, it becomes more important to tap into our ability to study alone. We need to revisit the characteristics and attitudes of a self-studier as we prepare for the GMAT and b-school afterwards.

What follows are the attributes and attitudes of self-studiers, presented as affirmations aphorisms, and examples for those looking into studying on their own.


Who is a Self-Studier?

Self-studiers cultivate characteristics that allow them to be successful on their own. This is crucial to understand. They aren’t inherently self-studiers, predestined to be better at studying outside the walls of a classroom. Rather, they make choices and form habits that help them to study on their own. Ergo we all have the potential to be self-studiers.

One has to know the size of one’s stomach.Friedrich Nietzsche

Improvement cannot take place without a long, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. Each question you answer and each passage you read is an opportunity to honestly assess what is working and what is not working. The best self-studiers take notes on problems they are missing so that they can identify patterns and track their progress. This is how we learn about our strengths and weaknesses.

Self-studiers don’t have two levels—knowing and not knowing—they have gradations of knowing that they work through on their path to GMAT domination. They have levels of understanding that they attempt to progress through.

  • Level 0 = totally lost, never seen anything like this before
  • Level 1 = the gears churn in your head, you feel like it’s familiar, but that’s it, still no comprehension
  • Level 2 = definitely seen before, but need a clue or hint to proceed, just a little help from a friend, to start solving
  • Level 3 = you can answer these consistently when working on a set of problems on the same concept; not context switching yet
  • Level 4 = in a random collection of questions, you can nail these problems, no warm up, just answer them cold with no prompting or context
  • Level 5 = solve the problem and know why you need each step to solve the problem; it makes sense why you do one thing and then another
  • Level 6 = an expert, teaching a struggling stranger, answering all their questions in a way they can understand

Keep track of your levels of understanding. Use a notebook (a spreadsheet works as well), write a concept or skill at the top of the page, and start to track your progress.

Not knowing anything is the sweetest life.Sophocles

Self-studiers know that it is okay to not know. They can operate and proceed without full knowledge because, when it comes down to it, our entire life is one long episode of not knowing. We all have to make decisions with limited knowledge and experience. Solving problems on a test is no different.

Self-studiers internalize this and make it a mantra for their studies. When they find a word they don’t know, instead of freezing up, they proceed, looking for clues and hints and phrases that might tell them about the word. If they read through an especially wordy math problem, they start from the beginning and take baby steps—one word and phrase at a time, they re-construct the problem so they understand the information they’ve been given and what they need to find. And ultimately, if they don’t find anything, they move on. Often time away is just what we need to understand an obtuse concept or problem.

Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not. ―C.G. Jung

Society tends to demonize mistakes, but self-studiers don’t listen to society! They listen to their heart and learn from experience. They know that learning cannot take place without mistakes, and so they embrace every mistake as a nugget of gold, ready to enrich their knowledge.

Making a mistake, they take the time to diagnosis what happened. Was it a small calculation error? Was the question misread? Has this type of mistake happened before? If so, was this the same mistake? Since there is no teacher around to point out mistakes, self-studiers become very good at diagnosing their mistakes, which sets them on the path to success.

When we find a mistake, we have a choice—do nothing or do something. Self-studiers always do something. If a self-studier finds that a lot mistakes happen with probability problems, she will dive into her resources looking for practice problems, explanations, and video lessons. She will try to absorb as much as she can about the concept, returning to materials she has already seen and looking for new ones—anything to better understand the concept.


What is a Self-Studier’s Approach?

Self-studiers have a routine to follow when they make mistakes. Let’s run through some hypotheticals to illustrate their strategy.


Know to Investigate and Do Research

Example: What is the value of x, if √16 = x? (a) 4 (b) -4?

The first thing a self-studier will do if they don’t know is turn to the abundance of resources around them. If they are at their computer, they turn to Google. But they aren’t going to start with typing in the problem. No. They try to identify the concept that they don’t understand. In this case, we need to know if the square root of a number is positive or negative. Their search words might be: “square root result” or “square root of number positive negative.” Both these searches will lead them to an answer.

Self-studiers know what resources to look to for a clear and succinct answer. They prefer Wikipedia, Math Stack Exchange, or Khan Academy, and they know to check multiple sources. If they don’t know a word, they know that Wordnik and offer excellent example sentences and multiple defintions for words. If they don’t know an idiom they turn to

The key here is working to find an answer. The act of analyzing a problem, of isolating the issue, of searching for an answer, of failing, of finding something close but not quite right, and of striking on the answer are all important to learning and remembering. When you have to expend mental energy to find an answer, your mind creates new pathways that will help you remember the concept or skill. Having someone dictate the answer isn’t going to help on test day—only hard work will.


Know When to Step Away

Sometimes what should be transparent is opaque. Sometimes what is wrong appears right. This happens to everyone, self-studiers included. They aren’t immune to mental blocks and frustrations. What makes them different is that they know to move on and come back later. Not everything must be understood perfectly right now, and probably won’t, so it’s okay to come back to it later.

If you are reviewing a problem and spend 15 minutes on it, you need to step away and move on. Self-studiers know that a few days, even a few hours, away from the problem will give their mind time to chew on the concept. This phenomenon is known as the spacing effect to psychologists; self-studiers just know it as taking a break. And when they come back to the problem, they have fresh eyes to see what was opaque as clear. So plan for frequent, short study sessions instead of a few marathon sessions.


Know (When) to Ask an Expert

Maturation involves knowing to ask for help and knowing when to ask. A friend started a new job, and he had a lot to learn to be competent at his tasks. He sat next to a senior member of the team who had two rules: “I will only answer a question once, and I will not answer a question that has an answer in the documentation.” This may seem harsh, but it ultimately led to my friend excelling in his new position. He learned the documentation, and anytime he had a question, he made sure that he was ready to ask a detailed, specific question. And more importantly, he was prepared to listen to the answer.

Self-studiers know to do their due diligence before asking. They pore through resources, research, and take a break before reaching out for help. And when they ask a question, it is a well-formed, clear request for help—not a cry for help. It’s reasoned and thought out because they know that sometimes in the course of forming the question, they will find an answer. Also, they know that teachers, tutors, and peers need to know both the context and the exact nature of the problem. Let me show you what I mean:

Weak: I don’t get this! Is there an easier way to do it?

Strong: In this problem, I knew that … was the information I needed to solve, and I was able to get to this stage… but I couldn’t make the next logical leap to… I attached a picture of my work. Can you spot my error? I usually can deal with this concept, but when the problem includes … I tend to struggle. Do you have any recommendations for avoiding this in the future?

Weak: Can you paraphrase this passage? I don’t get it!!!

Strong: When I first read the passage, I thought the main idea was … and predicted that the answer would be related to the … idea in the second paragraph. I was surprised that the answer was in the first paragraph. Now I feel like I was misled by this sentence: “…” Can you help me understand why this is not the main idea?

So when you are crafting a question to post to Beat the GMAT or GMAT Club or send to someone, take the time to help yourself. Craft an excellent question and you will receive an excellent answer.


Know The Test has a Style to Learn

A self-studier knows that just like a crossword puzzle, the GMAT has a way of presenting clues and hints, contains themes and patterns, and requires experience in order to truly understand the more difficult questions.

The GMAT is standardized—not formulaic. Success requires knowing the standards, the cadence and vernacular of the test. Doing well isn’t about learning a question and memorizing steps to answer it so that you can replicate the steps on test day. Rather, as a self-studier knows, success comes from seeking out multiple approaches and looking for patterns. And, just as important, the self studier is always on the lookout for common traps and tricks the GMAC loves to include (i.e. Geometric figures are usually but not always drawn accurately).



People don’t become self-studiers overnight. It’s not a switch that you need to flip in the basement of your mind. Rather it’s a garden that needs tending. Over the course of your studies, you’ll have the opportunity to adjust and implement different self-studying tactics. Be mindful of your studies and your approach. Make changes as needed. By the time you sit for the GMAT, you’ll have a not only prepared yourself for the rigours of the test, but also the rigours of grad school and beyond.


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