You’ve been putting it off for weeks (or possibly months), but now it’s finally time to start studying for the GMAT.
Contrary to popular belief, there are a few things you should do before you start reading practice questions and making flashcards.
We can’t tell you everything you need to know about the GMAT exam in a few sentences, but you can start by checking out this infographic for a few basic facts about the GMAT and the way it’s organized. The official GMAT website also offers some good resources for test takers, including articles on test-taking strategy and GMAT prep tools.
As you’re researching the basics of the GMAT, familiarize yourself with the average scores at your target schools. As a general rule, a 700 is considered “safe” at the top 20 schools. If you’re aiming for the top 50, you should aim for a score of at least 650.
Understand that the four sections of the GMAT aren’t given the same weight in your final score. In fact, your score on the essay portion is reported separately and doesn’t count toward your final GMAT score. It’s absolutely crucial to approach the GMAT study process strategically rather than just answering endless sample questions.
Though it seems intimidating, the practice exam is the best way to establish a baseline. This exam will give you a clear picture of where you stand and how far you have to go.
Many test prep companies offer full-length free practice exams, but keep in mind that the practice exam should simulate the GMAT as closely as possible. In the past, we’ve discussed the pros and cons of a few of the big name practice tests.
Whichever practice exam you choose, it should be computer adaptive, full-length, and timed. In other words, it should be as similar as possible to the experience of taking the actual GMAT. It should also offer a comprehensive score report that includes a breakdown by question type (i.e., percentage of exponent questions answered correctly) and amount of time spent on questions.
When you take the exam, try to replicate the conditions of the exam. Set aside at least 4 hours, take the allotted 8-minute breaks, and turn off your phone.
Try not to pay too much attention to the your overall score, even if it’s somewhere in the 300s. Remember that this is supposed to be a diagnostic test, and that you will see huge improvement if you study consistently.
Look over your score report and take note of the sections where you’re strongest and weakest. Many test-takers will already know whether they are stronger in Verbal or Quant, but it’s important to take note of the individual question categories.
Even if your Verbal score is well above your quant score, there might be specific question types and concepts that are pulling your score down. Pay attention to patterns across question categories, such as the same multiplication mistake on multiple questions. If possible, look at the amount of time spent on individual questions. You should be spending less than two minutes on each question. For more tips on analyzing your practice tests, check out our two part series here.
As you’re analyzing your results, start thinking about where and how you’re going to start making improvements.
By far the most effective way to prepare for the GMAT is through regular study sessions in the 2-6 months before the exam. Keep in mind that the average test taker studies for about 50 hours, and a quarter of students report spending 100+ hours studying for the GMAT. Of course, this greatly depends on your availability, your target score, and your skill level.
There will always be those students who attempt to study for the GMAT via “cramming” in the weeks before, but endless research has shown that this is not the most effective way to grasp concepts. And of course, many MBA applicants are full-employed and can’t devote huge blocks of time to GMAT prep.
Generally, you should start by focusing on your biggest weaknesses in the most heavily tested areas. Keep in mind that all sections of the GMAT are not given the same weight. Establish your priorities and areas for improvement.
Try devoting the majority of each study session to learning and practicing one or two specific concepts, then spending the rest of the session reviewing material and quizzing yourself.
As you’re devising your study plan, think about what has worked for you in the past. After nearly two decades of formal education, you probably know whether you work best in a group setting or one-on-one.
Test-takers have a huge variety of resources available to them, but far too many GMAT test-takers believe that the best way to prepare is to buy every 700-page prep book at the local bookstore. While GMAT prep books can be a good resource for detailed concept explanations, this study method is often expensive and inefficient. Because the GMAT is a computer adaptive test, most students find that online resources better mimic the test-taking experience.
Many test prep companies offer online practice questions and test-taking tips. GMAT forums like BeattheGMAT and GMATClub are an excellent (and free) resource for test-takers. Of course, mobile applications are also a valuable tool, because they allow students to learn in small doses while also being highly adaptive.
There are many formal test prep courses for those who feel like they want more guidance, though be careful to choose a course that fits your needs and won’t spend too much time on material that you already know. Some students choose to use a personal GMAT tutor, though this can be an expensive option. In general, tutoring is generally much more valuable for students who are struggling with specific concepts after several GMAT exams or who haven’t seen success with more general study resources.
Trying to prep for the GMAT without making a study plan first is like going on a road trip without thinking about where you want to go. You might get to roughly the same place, but it’s going to take a lot more time than it should and you will have covered a lot of extra ground. But once you’ve made your plan and gathered supplies, you’re ready to start studying for the GMAT.