530-Point GMAT Improvement (250 to 780) With the Help of Target Test Prep (TTP)
TL;DR: My name is Dalal. I’m from Kuwait. In January 2021, I scored 780 (Q50, V47) on the GMAT. My lowest official GMAT score prior was 250. Yes – I improved my GMAT score by 530 points!! Along the way, I learned a tremendous amount about what to do, what not to do, how to study, how not to study, what works, and what does not. If you’re seeking inspiration or guidance on how to earn a top GMAT score, all while saving time and money (and your sanity), IMHO, this is the debrief for you.
Target Test Prep (TTP) was a game-changing asset in my GMAT preparation, one that I credit for bringing my GMAT score from about 350 (my score when I started TTP) to 780. IMO, it’s the only GMAT resource that any student needs to earn any GMAT score he or she desires.
I suffered a lot with the GMAT for almost six years before coming to TTP, so if this debrief is emotional at times, I apologize in advance. As much as this debrief is intended to be advice for anyone currently prepping for that GMAT, it also serves as a catharsis for me for what was an extremely hard-fought victory over the GMAT.
In this debrief, I talk a lot about a myriad of GMAT prep materials that did not work for me. Keep in mind that the fact that they did not work for me does not mean that they will not work for you. I want to inspire people to improve their GMAT scores through their own journeys.
I am telling my story for the ones who are struggling and have low scores – or lower scores than they wish – but know they are ready to fight for what they want.
For those who feel as though there is no hope, I am here to tell you that the dream is possible. This is not a study guide; there are tons of those out there and they never worked for me.
The Long Version
I know when I was starting out in 2014, I was looking at all of the amazing stories and scores on GMAT Club and other similar forums. I was desperate to find someone whose story mirrored what I was hoping to do. I was a 27-year-old, female student with a lower GPA, and I would be applying as an older applicant, so I knew I had to join the 700 Club to get my application to even be considered.
I had a ridiculously low score, but my ambition of attending an MBA program that would help me achieve my goals kept me coming back for more despite my low score. I think a lot of people are ashamed to say they started really, really low. No one wants to admit they started as a failure. I think people prefer to be a natural success story instead of a hard-earned success story.
Just read a bit of my story, and I hope you find something that can lead you to your own “aha!” moment. My moment was when I found TTP, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try a few other programs and study methods before I found the one. This is my journey to find the strategies and techniques that ultimately led to my 530-point score increase.
Lesson 1: Learning the Foundations
When I began my GMAT journey back in 2014, I was a junior in college at the University of San Francisco. At the time, I knew I wanted to pursue an MBA, but as an international student, I was adjusting to a whole new country, and I had no clue where to start.
I had only just heard of the GMAT, so I ended up buying the Foundations of GMAT Math, 5th Edition along with the Complete GMAT Strategy Guide Set from Manhattan Prep and flipping through them, but ultimately deciding to just wing it and take a test, and see where I was. I want you to remember the Manhattan Prep books – they’ll come back up, I promise.
When I say I knew NOTHING about the GMAT, I mean it. I knew absolutely nothing about this GMAT test, not even the style or number of questions or what I’d be tested on. I took a mock test, thinking to myself, “What’s all the fuss about?”
At the time, I was balancing a full course load while running and dabbling in more than a few businesses (I’m a digital entrepreneur). I went in with absolutely no preparation or idea about what I was getting myself into.
I knew I needed help, so I went to a tutor by the name of Yuri Gottesman, who I found through Yelp. He was simply amazing. I wish I had come to him better prepared, as I am sure he would have helped me a lot more.
Yuri, the owner of TestCrackers, held small, group tutoring classes in Berkeley, California, to better prepare test-takers. To his credit, Yuri was incredibly kind, patient, and knowledgeable. However, I was self-conscious and awkward about having to repeatedly raise my hand to ask the obvious questions. It honestly began to feel like I was holding the class back when the class was clearly light-years ahead of me.
I started doubting my abilities and logic and second guessing my MBA journey and goals, and I thought maybe I wasn’t smart enough. I was not making the progress I needed.
Ultimately, I left Yuri and began to try a variety of software and study guides, looking for the “right” fit. My failure with Yuri is less a representation of his skills as a teacher and more a product of my misunderstanding that before I could engage a tutor, I needed to have a foundational knowledge of the GMAT and its content and processes.
I thought it was just normal math and normal English – you know, like what we studied in college. I didn’t know that the GMAT had its exclusive way of phrasing the questions, and I didn’t realize that there was essentially a whole method to approaching GMAT Verbal and GMAT Quant.
So, my takeaway is this: Early on, I learned very quickly that if I wanted to effectively study, I needed to have a base understanding of the test itself. I was unaware of the testing practices, content, and style when I first started, so my ability to improve was limited. I didn’t even know what Data Sufficiency or Problem Solving questions looked like. This does not make a pleasant study experience to say the least.
Resources I Explored:
Lesson 2: Finding Controlled Trial and Error
When I was first starting out, I recognized the power of storytelling as a motivator. I joined GMAT Club and looked up GMAT debriefs that ended up motivating me way more than any tip or trick could. I wanted to find hope.
Consequently, I also ended up trying a little bit of everything. People underestimate the power of trial and error, and you better believe I had many trials and somehow even more errors during the first few years. I shouldn’t have let trial and error complicate things; I should have focused my efforts on a single software or study program before moving on to the next.
However, I am now aware that when you’re vulnerable and seeking solutions, you are susceptible to advertising. Advertisers can smell that desperation a mile away, and you will come across some deals that seem too good to be true – and they often are.
One of the biggest mistakes I made repeatedly was juggling several software that I didn’t put much research into and instead had been sold on due to ONLY a special price, a deal, or even a score increase guarantee. I should have done my research. I learned to always have a vetting process before giving in to deals and bargains.
Some foreshadowing – I wish I had found Target Test Prep a lot sooner. It would have saved me a lot of personal time and effort; hindsight is always 20/20.
I know you don’t wanna hear it, but I wish someone had told me to pick a method or software to commit to before I studied my heart out. The work is way more important than the method (most of the time). If you’re not putting in the effort, the study method means nothing.
I know, I know. You just told us you wish you hadn’t spent so much time on trial and error – what are you talking about?
The thing is, trial and error is great, but eventually I had to try something that worked, you know? Not every method is going to work for every person, and that is OK. But, at least in my experience, you have to do some self-reflection and figure out why the particular program, or tutor, or study guide didn’t help.
At this point, I was running on a hamster wheel, wasting money, and going nowhere. I was focused on finding the best, stuck on the how, instead of the doing.
My honest takeaway: I realize now that while I benefited from some trial and error, I should have found a way to apply what I learned from it. Trial and error is not the enemy, but I should have learned to incorporate self-reflection into my studying. If a method didn’t work, I should have been honest with myself as to why it didn’t help.
However, there is always hope. Self-reflection and commitment ended up being some of my greatest assets on my GMAT journey.
Resources I Explored:
Lesson 3: Learning to Focus When Life Happens
In 2016, I realized that I was wasting my time taking mock tests, as I couldn’t break 300, and I clearly wasn’t studying the right way to improve like I wanted to. Despite limited results, I was pouring enormous amounts of time and energy into studying, with little improvement.
Not knowing how to study is the worst. I got caught up in not knowing, and I became discouraged and lost motivation. I began to doubt my future, my MBA goals, and my career plans.
I was still in the phase of exploring and trying things out in an effort to find what worked for me, so I purchased McGraw-Hill’s Conquering the GMAT Math and Integrated Reasoning, 2nd Edition. Because of my broad efforts, I had little time for anything else, and my personal life and study habits suffered. No tutor seemed to click with me, no software seemed to help, and I was desperate for help. I was lost.
I graduated in the fall of 2016 and wanted to find a year-long internship as part of my Optional Practical Training. OPT allows international students in the US to search for internships and/or employment for a year after college, before they need to return home.
Additionally, the Kuwait Ministry of Higher Education had me on a scholarship program, and the Ministry’s rules state that you can get your master’s funded with the scholarship only if you end up getting admitted during the year after your OPT. So, I had essentially until the fall of 2018 to gain admission to a grad school program if I wanted the Ministry’s funding to pay for it.
During this already hectic time, my father was ill with leukemia, and you can only imagine what I was going through. If you have ever dealt with, or are dealing with, a parent or loved one with a terminal or chronic illness, know there is hope. If you need to vent, I can make time to talk with you about these unique challenges.
My father was seriously ill, I was his sole caregiver, and I was struggling to find my place juggling all these requirements and trying to fund my education. It was hard to even consider the GMAT when I was supposed to be doing an internship and preparing for my future, and also caring for my father.
Phew! I know that is a lot, but had I not gone through all of this, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
My study habits during this time period were on-again, off-again. I took a few mocks from the MBA.com practice tests around this time and finally broke 300 (still low, I know…). This was an improvement, but it seemed like every other test would set me back to the low 200s (yikes!). My score fluctuated a lot, and I know that you must be shaking your head at me. Just wait, I promise it does get better and I do eventually figure it all out; GMAT-wise, at least!
The big takeaway: Figuring out what works for me was my biggest struggle on my GMAT journey. What worked for me might not work for you, and that is OK. You have to have your own journey of discovery to find a solution for your needs. Life has thrown me SO many curveballs; my focus had to shift. But I kept coming back to my goals and finally made my GMAT prep work for me.
Resources I Explored:
Lesson 4: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
By 2017, I knew that I wasn’t studying the right way, I knew that something wasn’t working for me, and I knew that if I was serious about increasing my score, I had to buckle down and put myself to work.
As my father battled cancer, I studied while being by his side. I remember days when he would be unconscious, and I would hold his hand with one hand and my study book with the other. I tried to maintain momentum, but my focus was on my father and his health. He was on massive amounts of drugs and often had no clue what was happening around him.
When he was awake and had energy, my dad actually tutored me in math. He was an aerospace engineer and a genius at math and he taught me many of the formulas and concepts that ultimately helped me during my GMAT testing.
He helped me more than any tutor ever could; he was infinitely patient, knew how to approach the material, and cared about my progress at the end of the day. These were the qualities that I lacked from traditional tutors, a genuine concern for my story and my results. I drove him insane, but he urged me to push through and pursue my MBA.
In retrospect, 2018 was the most difficult part of my journey, both in regard to the GMAT and my personal life. I was struggling: my dogs and all of my belongings were stuck in California while I tried to care for my father in London, where he was being treated, and on top of all that, I had only until the end of the year to gain admission to an MBA program if I wanted to keep my scholarship.
There were moments when I felt intensely motivated to study, but then my Dad’s health would decline. Focus was in short supply, as I was his sole caregiver. I bathed him, cared for him, and loved him the best I could. I was also running an online business and trying to bring my dogs home to Kuwait. My Dad seemed to be in recovery, and I worried I’d be stuck in London for a long time caring for him as he regained his strength.
Fall of 2018 was my last chance to secure funding through my scholarship in Kuwait. I chose my family first and I regret nothing. Because on September 21, my father passed, not from his leukemia but from a preventable medical error.
It was a major shock, losing someone that way. We had all seen him improve, and the sudden loss was worse than I ever could have imagined. Studying for the GMAT, in a weird way, helped me ease the mental burden as I dealt with my grief and pain. It was hard at times, and I’d break down and need time for myself. But losing a parent is something no one prepares you for. Studying became a way to channel my mourning.
Around this time, I learned the benefits of working in a “flow” state. The entire concept is about focusing, removing distractions, and adding an element of challenge to your work. I refocused and began to study all the concepts that I had put off for so long. I began to build consistency by dedicating hours of my day to studying. I was a little terrified to dive back into mock tests, but in August of 2019, I finally mustered up the courage to take a mock. I scored 350, which was downright discouraging. I knew I could do better.
So, my takeaway is this: I have always valued consistency in ANYTHING I do, but early on, this perspective didn’t carry over to my GMAT prep. The test covers a ton of info, and I definitely lost motivation at times. But I kept reminding myself, this is a marathon, not a race; don’t worry about sprinting, worry about going the distance.
Resources I Explored:
Lesson 5: Personal Accountability and a Study Buddy
Coming from such a low place, I entered 2020 convinced it was my restart year. What a year to pick, right?
In January of 2020, I resolved to take a step back and try to understand why I couldn’t break 700. I tried to reset to figure out the root of my problems. So, I put together a plan for myself. I decided that maybe now was the time for something personal that offered accountability and a human connection.
But, as you might have guessed, quarantine sent me running back to the comfort of my couch and my trusty internet connection. This is when I met Raj, a tutor from India who was a whiz at GMAT Quant tutoring. Raj was great but limited, since he only taught a specific section. He was able to give me an in-class experience, despite the virtual classroom. He was one of the most tireless people I have ever met. He kept a personalized study sheet to track my progress, he was always only a message away, and he genuinely cared about my MBA journey in a way many others didn’t.
But I needed more than just Quant tutoring if I wanted to get the kind of score I was hoping for. Especially since English is my third language and I am not a native English speaker.
In 2020, I purchased the Manhattan Prep: GMAT Foundations of Math and the Manhattan Prep: GMAT Foundations of Verbal books and was off to a great start. I loved the drill sets and how the books walk you through the basics. I also purchased the GMAT Official Guide 2019, and found the Wiley software to be a great practice resource for mock testing.
However, I realized that I needed a little push and someone to help keep me accountable as I struggled to hold myself accountable. If you’ve made it this far, you can tell my GMAT prep was beginning to drain me and affect me mentally. So, I took to the GMAT Study Buddy Sign Up Sheet from gmatclub.com and found a study buddy from the UK. We hit it off, and our schedules aligned perfectly.
During our time together, I developed a method of studying that I found incredibly motivating. I’ll detail that below in the resources section, but the method worked for us and we enjoyed studying together, which kept us coming back for more. Every day was like a race – who finished the module first, who was behind, and who was moving fastest. It was an enjoyable process. We used Target Test Prep, and it was amazing! It helped us stay on track while studying, since it is such a well-organized software.
We thrived on friendly competition and the structuring of TTP! I found that our combined effort was worth more than many of my solo study efforts.
The takeaway here: I found accountability through a study buddy, but most importantly, I finally found the software that would change everything for me.
Finding my study buddy was a matter of finding someone who had similar motivation levels and a schedule that worked with mine, and most importantly, someone I could trust and rely on when I needed support. What that study buddy and I had is replicable; you just have to try and be willing to reach out.
Key Resource that Worked:
Resources I Explored:
Raj kept this personalized study sheet to track my daily progress. It was very convenient.
The Road to 780:
How TTP Helped Me Increase My Score by 430 Points:
Yes, you read that right. I can hardly believe that before discovering TTP my highest score was 350. The best part? I didn’t need to spend thousands on books, classes, and tutoring to increase my score. I’ll put it this way: Target Test Prep is the equivalent of the best teacher I’ve ever had, but with on-demand availability.
Around the time I began to look for a study partner, I found the subreddit r/GMAT. One day, I received a notification about a post asking whether Target Test Prep was the best software to use to increase your GMAT score. Of course, I was curious; and I saw the responses with glowing reviews and thought there had to be a catch.
So, I did some digging online and was impressed that I found almost no negative reviews. I decided TTP might be worth a shot. From the moment I started studying with TTP’s software, I was amazed by how simple and fun their program was. They made jumping into studying effortless and as painless as possible.
In some weird way, their module system spoke to my level of understanding. After every module, there are a bunch of tests that scale up based on difficulty. So, when you’ve finished the module, you can complete it knowing that you’ve mastered the subject at the end. I rarely was left with any questions after mastering the subject.
There was also no better feeling than achieving my score goals in one module and then moving to the next one, and honestly I kind of miss it. Working through TTP felt more like a game than a study software. The tests on each module had a difficulty scale, so I could challenge myself without getting frustrated. TTP’s software would gently nudge me back on course whenever I attempted to skip ahead to later material. It helped me stay motivated and helped ensure I knew what I was doing and didn’t get ahead of myself. I found this so helpful.
As I said before, my study habits were not the best, and one of my major problems was trying to get ahead of myself. Their software would send me these little notifications reminding me to go back to where I should have been studying.
But let me show you what made the most impact for me:
The diagnostic exam:
So, when I first got started, I took their diagnostic exam, which showed me where I was currently. This exam helped give me context as to where I actually was when I started with TTP, and I loved that I could return to this exam to see how I measured up. I loved having a real benchmark that prepared me to achieve my score goals. In addition, they let me set a “mastery” goal that helped me stay on track and see how I was progressing.
The ActiveReview sheets and chapter tests:
Oh my god, my absolute FAVORITE feature after choosing my desired score and taking the diagnostic test was the ActiveReview sheets! I found these study sheets to be incredible, as they came customized with my desired score in mind, and I could fill them in with all my notes. I printed these and turned them into little study packets. But, that wasn’t all.
I took it a step further and used the back of each sheet to take notes on the chapter tests at the end of each module. This meant that all of my notes were in one spot and I could easily review the material (please excuse my handwriting. I didn’t think anyone would ever want to read these but me!).
This method worked great for me, as I needed something physical I could write on and reference.
The Must Knows:
Each module has these nice summary sections called ‘Must Know.’ I found them to be great for reviewing the content as I worked through the modules, and they were always followed by sample test questions to apply what I learned. There was a huge emphasis on making sure the lessons from each module stuck, and I found them to be full of great information and tips. I can’t tell you how many times I went back to the ‘Must Knows’ because they did such a great job of summarizing the lesson’s content.
The examples and the comprehensive explanations:
In the modules, there are questions of various difficulty levels, and when you answer them, you don’t know how they’re ranked. What was great about this was that, after I answered the question, I would get an explanation of how to solve the problem in both a written format and a video. This goes back to the idea that people have different learning styles, and it was something that none of the other resources I used really offered. I love, love TTP’s short video explanations. I learn best from repetition, and they gave me so many ways to do that.
From the moment I joined TTP, I had a ton of questions, so I clicked on the intercom box in the bottom right corner and was immediately connected with their team, which was highly approachable and available to answer all of my questions. Even after completing the software, they still reached out to see how my application process was going and followed up on how I was doing with testing.
Everyone at TTP was highly involved and incredibly kind to me. Scott, the founder, was super insightful regarding how I could approach the GMAT and make the most of my experience with TTP. I remember Jeff, who reached out to personally congratulate me, and we spoke about the effect their software had on my final score. I really can’t say enough about the whole team. I really believe that ‘A-Teams’ create ‘A-Dreams’, and Target Test Prep is certainly the A-Team that set me on the road to success.
So, if you ask me whether there is one thing I would change about my GMAT prep, I would’ve started with Target Test Prep, hands down. It would have saved me money, time, and prevented the frustrations I felt along the way. It changed the way I studied, the methods I used, and the confidence I felt when it came to taking the GMAT.
To summarize: It took a lot for me to get to where I am today. My personal life, career, and education have all taken up just as much time as the GMAT, and I still managed to prioritize the GMAT in my life. Many times I was swamped and overwhelmed, from a car accident that sent me into maxillofacial surgery for my jaw, to the passing of my father due to a medical error, to having to move across the world several times.
It’s like I said in the beginning: if I can do this, you can definitely do this. Just get over your preconceived ideas of the “average” GMAT prep journey and find your GMAT prep journey.
I am always willing to discuss anything I have brought up in this debrief, but I ask you kindly to consider my time and other responsibilities. Below, you will find some of the resources I used, the study method my study buddy and I developed, and some relevant links.
I wish you all the best on your GMAT journey! 😊🤞🏽
What I Learned
- Be consistent. You will have days when you don’t feel like studying, because life happens. Pick yourself up and try to study for at least an hour every day, so you don’t fall off the wagon. It is easy to get lazy during your GMAT prep.
- But if you do fall off the wagon, don’t beat yourself up. You will only make the situation harder. Sometimes external factors make us lose our momentum for a moment. Just get rid of the stressors as much as possible, deal with whatever issues you have, and then come back stronger.
- Practice, practice, and more practice! Repetition was key to making sure all those concepts and skills stuck in my brain.
- Take mental health breaks. We’re humans, not robots.
- Find different ways to solve problems. I created stories in my head to help me remember difficult concepts. I realized that you can forget a method you learned, but you’ll never forget the story you created in your head for how you solved a problem.
- Always remember that the journey might not be easy. It isn’t easy to make this journey, but finally seeing that score you’ve been aiming for on the screen at the end of the test is sooo worth it.
- Use the Manhattan Booklet. It is the closest you will get to the official booklet you’ll get on the actual test. You’ll train yourself before you go into the test.
- Study for Verbal and Quant simultaneously. If you separate them, you will forget concepts by the time you circle back around. Thankfully, I used TTP and didn’t have to worry about this, as their program allows for this style of study.
- When in doubt, turn to YouTube. When I found myself stuck on a concept or question, one solution I found surprisingly effective was turning to YouTube. You can find tutorials and lessons that speak to your level of understanding. That is where I found The Tested Tutor, or Phillip, as I know him. He has the BEST videos on YouTube and is also incredibly approachable, offers amazing tutoring, and has a calming approach to solving the most complex problems. I worked with him for a time, and after two sessions, I had a huge boost in confidence and improvement. This is the first video of his I ever found, when I was struggling with inequalities.
- Use the Process of Elimination. Train yourself; it makes things easier.
- Do not time yourself. When you first start studying for the GMAT, do not worry about timing yourself and going over 2 minutes/question. Take as much time as you need to understand a concept. You’ll eventually reach that stage when you start mastering topics and feeling more confident in your abilities.
- Rely on yourself when solving complex questions. Reach out for help only when you have given the question your best and still can’t figure it out.
- Be completely honest with yourself. Being honest with myself and recognizing my weak areas was the only way I was able to make progress. For example, as embarrassing as it was at the time, I had to revise and go over the multiplication table all over again. It made a difference.
- Learn how to manage stress. The GMAT tests your ability to solve difficult problems under pressure. I highly recommend getting into the habit of meditating.
- Find good teachers, not just people with good GMAT scores. Not everyone with a high GMAT score will be a good teacher. These are two very different skill sets.
- Stay Focused. Using the Pomodoro Technique can dramatically improve your focus and lead to uninterrupted sessions. I attached a picture of how I set up my Pomodoro.
The Study Buddy Method
- In our very first meeting, we agreed on a common time that we could dedicate each day to our studies in order to create accountability.
- With a common timeline, we could divide the work up into sizable chunks to keep us progressing steadily. As I said in my review, we started with Target Test Prep together, and our shared sheet was the key to motivating us to stick with it.
- The sheet itself had two categories: realistic goals and dream big goals.
- For example, a realistic goal would be: I want to take all of module three’s easy tests and master them.
- A dream big goal would be: I want to take all of module three’s easy tests, master them, AND work through a medium-level test as well.
- We would meet each day at our scheduled time and spend a few minutes catching up. Then we’d get down to business and ask each other about our two goals for the day. We would update the Google Sheets with our two goals and discuss how we would be successful with our studies that day. This process would take five to ten minutes at most.
- Then we would have thirty minutes of silent, focused study, followed by a five minute break, when we would check in and see how things were going before diving back in. We would repeat this for a few hours in cycles. Every. Single. Day.
- At the end of the call, we would highlight which of the two goals we completed, and in that way, we motivated each other with friendly competition. We also could hold ourselves accountable if we had a streak of days when we missed our goals.
I believe that two factors made this a successful method: using Target Test Prep to keep us organized and studying independently yet supporting each other as a team if one of us was struggling.
It can be hard to prioritize studying for yourself, but having someone waiting for you makes you feel as though you are studying for them. Psychologically, it helps you develop a habit, and then you can begin to enjoy the impact on your life and on your GMAT scores.
This is my Amazon Order History. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth a million:
You’ll notice that I started with Manhattan Prep way back in 2014. Look at how much inconsistency affected me and my GMAT preparation, and consider how you want to approach your own prep.