If you’re the kind of person who already knows they’re going to business school, then you must be the kind of person who already knows what a significant hurdle the GMAT will be. The GMAT is the preferred standardized test for most MBA programs, and has become an institution in and of itself. Ambitious would-be MBAs devote whole seasons of their lives to maximizing their GMAT score, in the hopes of getting into their dream business school program.
Here, we take you through all the things you need to do to help get ready for the test.
PART I: FIRST STEPS
1. WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL?
There are many criteria for selecting the right business school for you. These include whether you prefer to study close to or away from home, whether you intend to work full or part-time during school, what area of expertise you’d like to focus on and more. Using your personal preferences and expectations is a great way to help you narrow down that list of options to something manageable
Once you have that list of business schools you’d like to attend, take the time to research the admissions statistics for each of those schools. What is the average GMAT score overall successful applicants? Your target score should be a bit above that. Additionally, make sure you find out when their application deadlines are—this will be important to schedule your actual GMAT exam.
2. WHEN SHOULD YOU TAKE YOUR TEST?
Now that you’ve narrowed down your list of schools and know the applications deadlines for each, you can decide when to take the GMAT. You’ll probably want to take the test at least two to four months before your application deadlines—this will leave you enough time to retake the test if necessary, to make sure all your score reports get sent out and to gather the rest of your application materials.
We recommend erring on the side of allowing more time before your application deadline, rather than less. Many students don’t quite hit their target score their first time taking the GMAT. It might be a good idea to leave yourself time to take the GMAT for the second time.
3. WHAT RESOURCES SHOULD YOU USE TO STUDY?
The market for GMAT prep materials is incredibly crowded. So what kinds of resources are right for you? That depends a lot on your personal circumstances as well as your learning style. Some students prefer personalized, one on one sessions with a tutor or independent study with GMAT prep books. Others benefit from a standardized, one-size-fits-all group prep course. Another option is to go for the best of all worlds – using an online platform which provides you with vetted, standardized material along with a personalized, adaptive study program. There are a few companies making software that offers students a self-guided GMAT prep course. Some of them, such as examPAL, also use AI-based software, that creates a customized learning plan catering to your unique strengths and weaknesses.
As far as prep materials go, one thing you’ll want to prioritize is the quality of the practice questions. The GMAC—the organization that creates and administers the GMAT—has the market cornered here. Their publication, the annual Official Guide, is the only publication licensed to use actual GMAT questions, which makes it an invaluable resource.
However, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY use the OG. Its practice materials are excellent, but its teaching materials are somewhat lacking. Other resources do a better job of offering different kinds of solutions and explanations that serve different kinds of learning & problem-solving styles. Although some might advise you to start your preparation with the Official Guide, we don’t recommend you to do so. Save it for when you have finished learning the material, studying your personal strengths, weaknesses and preferred solution approaches, and only need an extra set of questions to help you get that last mile of practice. It is important to realize that you should solve the questions on the GMAT in the best possible way for you – and not as the GMAC would like you to solve them.
4. DIAGNOSTIC TEST – IS IT WORTH IT?
Whatever prep materials you end up choosing, they will probably come with some sort of preliminary diagnostic test. Some put a great deal of stock into these diagnostic tests. In theory, a good diagnostic test can be a valuable part of your GMAT prep by helping you shape a realistic but ambitious target score, and by helping you pinpoint what elements of the test you need to focus on most.
However, in our experience, there is little value in taking a diagnostic test before you’ve started studying as the only thing you’ll learn is that you need to improve. Of course, you know this already — that’s why you’re doing the whole GMAT prep thing in the first place. An analogy would be to participate in a world-class cooking competition before learning what types of pots, pans, and ovens are available and before even deciding which types of dishes you enjoy cooking. Most likely, the experience will be very frustrating and will provide very little actionable information. Instead, it is much better to first refresh your memory as to the Quant/Verbal basics and the GMAT question structure, and only then to take a diagnostic test.
We understand the temptation to see some kind of number with a diagnostic test. We just urge you to exercise some caution in interpreting the results, and to remember that improvement on the GMAT is ultimately about zooming in on your specific strengths and weaknesses and not about analyzing the final score. A bad score before you’ve begun does not mean you will do poorly and a good one does not mean you will have an easy time improving. The main benefit of a good diagnosis is that it increases your self-awareness – that is, it helps you identify your weaknesses and strengths in a constructive fashion. A flat score does not do this.
PART II: THE STUDY PLAN
5. HOW MANY HOURS WILL YOU NEED TO STUDY IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE YOUR TARGET SCORE?
Now that you’ve gone over the basics and have an initial diagnostic score, you can compare this to the scores of students who were admitted to your schools of choice and see where you stand. This will also help you set a realistic target score: the more points you need to improve, the harder it will be and the more hours you will need.
How do you decide what your target score should be? This is different for every student. It depends to some extent on the distance between your starting point and the average scores of students admitted to the schools you’re interested in. It also depends on how much time and effort you’ll be able to devote to your GMAT prep. Try to figure out how much time and energy you can budget for studying every week. We usually advise students to put in at least six hours of studying per week and preferably around 15-20. Studying any less than that can make it hard to progress over time.
We recommend 100-120 hours of prep time. At the recommended 15-20 hours per week, this comes to one and a half to two months of practice, which is the ideal time – long enough for the material to sink in but not so long that you start forgetting things. Note that by using a personalized course you can optimize your time utilization, cutting down on the total amount of time required. That is, instead of requiring 150 hours to improve by 150 points, you’ll be able to do it in 100.
6. SET UP A STUDY ENVIRONMENT
So, you have a general timeline and you’re ready to hit the books! You just need a good space. Don’t underestimate the importance of setting up a good study environment for yourself. Try to find a quiet, well-lit place which is – and this is extremely important – free from distractions. That means no phone! And preferably without people wandering around. Or pets. Or, in fact, anything else which will prevent you from fully focusing on the task at hand.
Depending on your situation, finding the free time and the right place to devote yourself to concentration can be difficult. This is why we emphasize putting effort into this step. Don’t forget, you can always rely on certain kinds of public places for your study needs in case it’s hard to make the right environment at home. Universities and public libraries often have quiet study spaces. Some even have private study rooms you can reserve in advance.
7. MAKE YOUR OWN, PERSONAL, CUSTOMIZED STUDY PLAN
Every student goes into the GMAT with a different set of skills and experiences—therefore every student should have their own customized strategy for their GMAT prep. Check out our detailed FAQ on the subject here. In a nutshell, questions you need to ask yourself include ‘How good at I am concentrating?’ ‘How much do I remember from high-school math?’ ‘How quickly do I read’? A preliminary assessment will help you understand where you need to focus your time and, as you progress in your studies, you’ll be able to refine this assessment to really zoom in on the method that is best for you.
Once you build your schedule, make sure to stick to it! Perseverance and willpower are the key to success, both in the GMAT and in life.
PART III: LET’S DO IT!!
Pro tips for the study process
8. LEARN THY ENEMY
Now that you’re ready to hit the ground running, the first thing you need to do is learn everything you can about the GMAT. Take a broad view and familiarize yourself with the structure of the test’s content as well as what the GMAT actually tests (cognitive flexibility). In fact, we’ve already done most of the heavy lifting for you: check out our detailed explanation of the GMAT here.
For example, one major way in which the GMAT differs from a normal test is that it is administered on a computer in what’s known as a Computer Adaptive Test format. This means that the questions you’ll see on the test aren’t determined in advance. Instead, they are chosen from a large database of questions based on your performance so far. This test structure has a large impact on a lot of the strategies you’ll be learning for time management and how to navigate questions of differing difficulties.
Another example – the GMAT contains 4 distinct sections: Analytical Writing Assessment, Integrated Reasoning, Verbal and Quantitative. However, only Verbal and Quantitative are factored into your final score and they are where you should put the majority of your effort. The other two sections are less important and it’s usually enough to just do average at them. Schools usually use them more as ‘warning flags’ to mark problematic applications than as serious indicators of potential.
It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the testing conditions themselves so that you don’t get caught off guard by anything unexpected on test day. Such as – it’s often cold in the test room! That’s why we recommend students to dress like an onion, in layers. That way, you can be just as warm/cold as you’d like.
9. DON’T FORGET TO GO BACK TO BASICS
If you’ve done any research into the GMAT, you’ve probably read this a thousand times by now, but it bears repeating — the GMAT does not test your knowledge of especially advanced concepts. It tests your ability to apply relatively simple mathematical and grammatical concepts in sophisticated logical ways. The goal is to test your problem solving and critical thinking skills, not your ability to become a research mathematician or English professor.
Many students who are preparing for the GMAT jump straight into the most advanced material they can find, assuming either that a) they know enough of the fundamental concepts being tested, b) the advanced material will teach them whatever they need to know about these fundamental concepts, or c) learning the most advanced concepts will help them get the best possible score.
None of these assumptions are accurate. For one thing, the GMAT is structured as a Computer Adaptive Test and is designed to feed you questions in response to your performance until it nails down your most accurate score. If you make mistakes on the fundamental questions, you’ll be penalized early on and you won’t see any benefit to whatever advanced ideas you may have learned.
Moreover, your hold on that advanced material will be weak if it’s based on a poor or deficient understanding of the basics. Missing or misremembering one small rule in Triangles can make your life in Quadrilaterals that much harder. This is exactly why we’ve structured our course to reteach all the material from the basics – to make sure that you know everything you need to know to succeed.
Most importantly, GMAT basics are not the same as high-school basics. This means that when you learn a specific rule, such as when an integer is divisible by 3 or how parallelism works in grammar, you’ll want to learn with a GMAT-specific focus. That is, you’ll want to ask yourself how this rule can help you solve questions and which types of questions tend to use this rule. This is something we’ve made sure to build into our course and is extremely important for eventual success.
10. INVEST IN META PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES
People think the GMAT tests your intelligence or, as mentioned above, certain kinds of problem-solving skills. Really, the primary thing the GMAT tests is your cognitive flexibility. There are many different ways to solve each type of GMAT question. Some students excel at working with equations, others are very good at ‘hacking’ the question by picking numbers and yet others are very good at building small examples which help them understand the general rule. When studying you need to focus on the method that works best for you! This is the heart of the patented PALgorithm our system is based on and should also be the heart of your personal practice. But – before you choose a particular method, you need to learn which methods are out there. Therefore, in addition to learning the subject matter covered on the GMAT, you should also investigate strategies related to the structure of the test itself.
Another issue that you should research is that of pacing. One of the most difficult elements of the GMAT has nothing to do with the subject matter and everything to do with the clock. Students regularly run out of time, leaving valuable points unclaimed. Don’t let this be you! Read into strategies for how to practice the best GMAT time management.
11. FOCUS ON YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Your weakest areas—especially within the verbal and quantitative sections—are obviously where you’ll want to devote the majority of your preparation, and where examPAL will automatically focus you on, in order to maximize your score. Note that ‘weakest’ doesn’t just refer to ‘weakest at a specific section’, such as ‘weak at probability’, but also ‘weak at a certain approach’, such as ‘tend to make silly calculation mistakes’. In this case, improvement comes from learning how to manage your strengths so as to make up for your weaknesses. That is, instead of sitting for hours trying to learn something you aren’t good at, take the time to think of a completely different approach – how can you use what you are good at to strengthen and even replace what you are not good at?
Keep in mind that the process of self-improvement is continuous – as you progress in your studies you’ll find that previous problem areas are no longer a problem, which will give you the time to improve other parts of your work. However, you shouldn’t do this all the time! Instead, consider having a mini-review once every week or two where you zoom out and look at things from a bird’s-eye view. This will give you a good balance between the day-to-day learning and practicing and your overall study strategy.
12. START READING
One of the most universally difficult parts of the GMAT is the time factor–almost everyone struggles to answer all the questions before the clock runs out. Because so much of the test involves reading, if you can increase your reading speed by even a little bit, you can give yourself a huge advantage on every section of the GMAT. This is obvious for Verbal but is also true in Quantitative – for example in those overly long and complicated word problems.
Everyone is capable of increasing their reading speed with practice. Many of us don’t read for extended periods of time regularly, and when we do, we often do so without being under any kind of time constraint. Practicing sustained reading at speeds that are faster than your usual speed will help you get ready for the kind of reading and attention that will help you maximize your GMAT score.
Moreover, it is best to spend that reading time on high-quality English. That way you can simultaneously achieve several objectives – improving your reading speed, your grammatical ear, and your familiarity with complex verbal and logical structures, all at the same time! The straightforward and sometimes recommended method is to go straight to academic articles. However, as these usually aren’t terribly interesting, a better choice would be to pick up a high-quality popular science or economics newspaper — that is, publications that deal with relatively serious material that is written for an intelligent but ultimately lay audience. Good examples include Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover, and The Economist. Alternatively, consider looking at general interest, but high-quality publications such as Wired, The Guardian or Times.
Improving your reading speed and comprehension is especially important to non-native speakers. Even non-native speakers who have achieved some level of mastery with English haven’t necessarily learned to do so at the speed required by the GMAT. We recommend non-native speakers implement regular reading into their routines for the entirety of their GMAT prep time. 1 hour per day is best, to match the length of the Verbal section of the exam – 65 minutes.
13. START BUILDING YOUR VOCABULARY ARSENAL
This is one part of your GMAT prep you can start immediately–and if you take our advice on introducing a regular reading routine, this will help get you started. But there’s a lot more you can do to build your vocabulary relatively easily, from physical flashcards to vocabulary building apps with customizable word lists.
This is helpful because vocabulary is one of the areas of true “knowledge/attainment” tested by the GMAT (as opposed to what much of the test does, which uses certain concepts to test problem-solving and critical thinking skills). And while there are many skills you can develop to learn words from the context in which they’re used, it’s still difficult to answer many of the GMAT’s questions without a strong vocabulary.
As a shortcut, consider studying Greek and Latin stems. These root words make up a huge amount of the English lexicon, and knowing a relatively small amount of linguistic roots can help you make sense of a massive number of words without ever having encountered them before.
14. STAY AMPED AND KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE FINISH LINE
Most people fail to realize how crucial and how difficult it is to keep yourself motivated in your GMAT prep. It’s easy in the beginning, before you really get in the trenches. But once you find yourself six weeks into your GMAT prep at fifteen hours a week (not to mention work and school), and you feel like your progress is hitting a plateau, it can be easy to think you’ve come as far as you’re able to go…or as far as you’re willing to go.
These periodic valleys happen to everyone, and they can be fatal to your MBA ambitions unless you find ways to stay motivated. We advise you to do whatever you can to remind yourself of your ultimate goal. For example, you can set periodic alerts on your phone, so that you can surprise yourself with reminders that recenter you on what it is you’re really working toward.
Also, don’t be afraid to build rewards into your prep to keep yourself motivated. We had one student who was obsessed with buying new and vintage sneakers–he made a rule where he wasn’t allowed to buy a new pair until he hit forty more hours of GMAT prep. This turned out to be a great way to keep himself focusing on the effort, and to not get deterred by slow periods in his progress.
15. ALMOST THERE – THE PRACTICE EXAM
You’re almost there! You’ve found your school, set your score, built your plan, used the pro tips above to build the best possible plan for yourself — and then — you did it! Now, after all that studying, you’re almost ready to take the real exam. The last part left is the practice exam. Now, you might expect that the main purpose of the practice exam is to tell you how well you’ve done – to let you know what kind of score to expect. Well, that is a part of it. But – the much more important part of the practice exam is to give you a final, and extremely powerful, tool with which to polish your performance.
To this extent, you’ll want to take your first practice exam about two weeks before your exam date. After you’re done, and after you’ve taken a break, come back to the exam. First off, start with a bird’s eye view – how was your pacing? Did you manage to complete the exam on time? If not, where did you waste your time? Next, move on to the general details – what types of questions did you get wrong? Is there a specific section or question type you had difficulty with? Once you’ve done that, build an action plan. Every single mistake you made in this practice test should be one you don’t repeat in the next exam. This final strategic tweaking is the polish that will help you bump your score by those extra 10, 20 or even 30 points.
That’s it! Our 15 most important tips for GMAT preparation. Follow these and you’re well on the road to success!