How to Study for the GMAT

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Zombie fanatics often fall into one of two camps: fans of fast zombies or slow zombies. While fast zombies appear to pose a more immediate danger because they can move and attack as quickly as humans, slow zombies may appear to be less dangerous, since you can simply run away. However, it’s the slow zombies that are ultimately harder to conquer, because these “undead” cannot be killed by a simple gunshot or knife wound.

In my decade-plus experience as a GMAT instructor and curriculum writer, I’ve found that the GMAT is a slow zombie. Students usually recognize the “immediate danger” of most standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, LSAT, or MCAT and plan to study accordingly. However, most underestimate subtle challenges of the GMAT. They’re fooled into thinking that studying for the GMAT will be easy since the test does not include more advanced topics such as trigonometry, calculus, logic games, or analogies.

Don’t be that guy who’s killed in the first five minutes of the movie! The GMAT is a stealthy exam, so studying for the GMAT often takes time and strategy:

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  1. Set Your Target GMAT Score to Inform How You Study for the GMAT
  2. Take a Baseline Exam
  3. Create a Plan for How You Will Study for the GMAT
  4. Determine Your Ideal Method of Instruction
  5. Maximize Effectiveness of Your GMAT Study Time

1. Set Your Target GMAT Score

To create an effective plan to study for the GMAT, you’ll need to know where you’re heading. On average, it takes 90 hours of study to achieve a score of 700 or higher, whereas it takes a third less time to score between 500 and 590.

You can find average GMAT scores for MBA programs with a quick online search. Many sites list the average scores of top programs. If you’re applying to a MS of Accounting, MS of Business Analytics, a PhD, or another specialized program, you may need to search for the name of the program + “Class Profile” to find average GMAT scores.

If your target program does not publish average scores, you could simply call the admissions office and ask for their average GMAT score, or a range of recommended scores.

In general, a score of only 35 points below the school’s average will land you in the bottom 10% of admitted candidates, so set your target score at or above your target school’s average to dramatically improve your chances of admission.

2. Take a Baseline Practice Exam

How to study for the GMAT?

Once you know your target score for the GMAT, I strongly recommend taking a baseline practice exam to know where you’re starting from. In my experience, most students are terrified of taking a baseline exam without any prep, for fear of failing. Not to worry—everyone performs well below their target score on their first try. Just “tear off the band-aid” and do it!

GMAC, the maker of the GMAT, offers two free practice exams on its website, mba.com. These are the most accurate exams available anywhere.

Before Taking Your Exam, Learn the Format of the GMAT

To ensure your baseline exam is a valuable data point to inform your studies for the GMAT, be sure to familiarize yourself with the test format and question types.

The exam has four sections:

The GMAT is taken on a computer, so the exam allows you to take these sections in the order you choose.

The full GMAT exam will take 3 hours and 23 minutes, including two optional, 8-minute breaks. However, if you have significant time constraints, just skip the AWA and IR sections and take the Quant and Verbal sections in just 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a break. AWA and IR are graded on separate scales that do not impact your 200‒800 point overall GMAT score.

Review GMAT Question Types, Especially Data Sufficiency

If you have taken a standardized test before, then most question types on the GMAT will seem familiar.

In the Verbal Reasoning section, there are three types of questions: Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction. GMAC offers great explanations and examples of these question types.

There are two broad questions types for Quantitative Reasoning. Problem solving questions are standard, multiple-choice questions with five possible answers. However, the GMAT includes another question type called Data Sufficiency that is found on no other exam. You are asked whether one of two provided statements would provide sufficient information to be able to solve the question, but you are not asked to provide an answer. Be sure to read the instructions for Data Sufficiency questions before taking your baseline exam, or you will be very confused!

3. Create a Plan For How You Will Study For the GMAT

How to study for the GMAT?

Set a Date and Work Toward It

Once you know where you’re starting from and where you’re going, it’s time to create a study plan. I recommend that you set a date when you plan to take the GMAT that’s well ahead of your target program deadlines, and then work toward your date. If you just leave your GMAT studies open ended, you will never feel prepared and may never take the exam.

You may take the GMAT up to 5 times in a 12-month period and up to 8 times in your life. You must leave at least 15 calendar days between test dates, but you can take the exam nearly 365 days of the year. To take pressure off your first official test, I recommend leaving plenty of time to retake the exam once or twice, if necessary, before your application deadlines.

How Long Should I Study for the GMAT?

This is probably the #1 question I hear from my students, and honestly, there’s not a perfect answer. It depends. I’ll provide some helpful data provided by GMAC and offer my own insights from working with hundreds (perhaps even thousands!) of GMAT students over more than a decade.

GMAC suggests giving yourself six months to study for the exam, and this is not bad advice, since times vary widely. However, you may not have that much time before you need to submit applications; don’t freak out! In reality, I’ve found that the strongest test takers can spend as little as two to three (very intense) weeks, learn the content and strategies on the test deeply, and score well. This is quite rare, but it’s not unheard of.

I’ve found that many students require about 812 weeks of consistent study for the GMAT. This involves 6‒12 hours of study each week, for a total of 50‒120 hours of total study time.

According to GMAC, for those who scored less than a 500 on the GMAT, the median study time was 45 hours. Those who scored between 500 and 590 studied for 60 hours, on average. To score between 600 and 690, it took an average of 80 study hours. And those who scored 700+ took an average of 90 hours to study for the GMAT.  Don’t underestimate this exam!

Trends that suggest lower average GMAT study times include:

  • Strong pre-existing math and English skills
  • Strong reading ability, including habitual reading of high-level publications like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, or academic journals
  • An ability to figure out unfamiliar questions on an exam “on the fly” vs. following a pre-structured, step-by-step process (i.e. non-linear thinkers)
  • Extremely logical thinkers—those who can easily and naturally find logical flaws in arguments or articles they read on a regular basis
How to study for the GMAT?

Trends that suggest higher average GMAT study times include:

  • Long periods of time since you’ve seen fundamental math, including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, or basic statistics
  • Difficulty with math word problems
  • Challenges with reading comprehension of difficult and/or boring passages
  • More of a strictly linear thought process—discomfort with “figuring out” how to solve problems that seem unfamiliar at first
  • English as a second language

Not to worry—if you find yourself identifying with more trends that suggest higher study times, there’s still hope! I’ve seen my students increase their scores by 200 points or more on the GMAT. Whether it’s basic algebra or a more strategy-based approach to GMAT questions, you can learn test-taking skills. It may take more time or a different strategy to study for the GMAT than for those for whom these skills come more naturally, but it can be done.

Practice Every Day

Most GMAT test takers are working professionals, so time is scarce. If possible, block out time every day in your calendar to study for the GMAT. Building GMAT skills is like exercising—even doing it just 20‒30 minutes each day will be far more effective than multi-hour sessions on the weekend.

However, just like in exercise, doing something is better than doing nothing. So, if you cannot block out time every day, it’s better to make up for it on the weekends with extra time than not to make up the time at all.

Start With Fundamentals

You cannot use a calculator on the Quant section, so you’ll likely need to start studying for the GMAT with dusting off some basic math skills.

If you use math skills like arithmetic, algebra, basic statistics, and so forth in your everyday life, then this process may take just a day or two. Almost all GMAT preparation books, apps, and courses (discussed below) will have an adequate GMAT math review.

However, if your basic math skills are a bit rusty, you may need to spend more time on fundamentals. For example, I had not taken a single math class in ten years before I started studying for the GMAT.

Use Khan Academy to Brush Up

I recommend Khan Academy as a free resource to refresh fundamental math. Within its math curriculum, I find that the topics of Arithmetic, Basic Geometry, Pre-algebra, Algebra basics, Algebra I, Probability, and Counting, permutations, and combinations are most relevant to the GMAT. More advanced topics are not going to help with GMAT quant skills.

However, don’t feel like you have to go through every single one of these topics on Khan Academy to prepare for the GMAT, or you may waste a lot of time. I include all of these resources, but you may already have the necessary skills in any number of these topics, so scan through them quickly or skip sections that you’re already comfortable with.

How to study for the GMAT?

Or Use McGraw Hill’s ALEKS Program for Adaptive Learning

Publishing house McGraw Hill offers an adaptive learning program called ALEKS that’s commonly used in homeschooling and university courses. Its course called Essential Math Skills for Business aligns really well with GMAT quant skills and costs about $20 per month. You’ll take a quiz to see what skills you have already mastered and then work through the remaining skills. You’ll take periodic quizzes to ensure you’re retaining what you’ve learned. I have used ALEKS with my own GMAT private tutoring students to great success.

4. Determine Your Ideal Method of Instruction

Years ago, you may have been limited to studying for the GMAT with just a book or perhaps an in-person course in your local city. Now, you have many options that vary considerably in price and instruction method. Think about how you learn best and what method of instruction will work best with your schedule.

Live In-Person or Online GMAT Courses

Some people prefer the structure of a weekly or twice-a-week course led by a live instructor. These are commonly taught in-person or through online learning technology.

If students have never taken an online course before, they tend to seek out an in-person instructor. However, I’ve found that online learning technologies have advanced dramatically in the past few years, and test prep companies typically select their most experienced and best-reviewed instructors to teach these courses. Even for technology-averse students, an online course taught by a live instructor may be a great option to explore. Some companies will allow you to “sit in” on a trial course for free.

The most popular instructor-led GMAT study courses are offered by Veritas Prep, Manhattan Prep, and Kaplan.

Each company has a slightly different teaching philosophy that will fit better with different learners. If you’re starting with the basics and are looking for a step-by-step course, I would recommend Kaplan. If you’re already quite a quantitative person, such as an engineer, I would recommend Manhattan Prep. And if you’re more of a non-linear thinker, I would recommend Veritas Prep.

Online Self-guided GMAT Study

The above companies and several others also offer “self-guided” tools to help you study for the GMAT. These typically offer the same curriculum as the full course offerings, but offer pre-recorded videos and other resources to guide you through the material. Other providers include Orion, examPAL, and Magoosh.

If you value flexibility in studying for the GMAT on your own timeline and schedule, self-guided study options may be even more valuable to you than a structured course.

Mobile Apps & Websites

Particularly for strong test takers, mobile apps and related websites can be a cost-effective way to quickly study for the GMAT. Unlike books, these apps are often adaptive and can reduce the overall time needed for your GMAT preparation. Most offer one or two brief free lessons, which are a good way to determine whether the learning method will work best for you.

How to study for the GMAT?

The most popular apps to assist in studying for the GMAT are Ready4GMAT (iPhone or Android), Manhattan Prep’s app, Veritas Prep’s app, and Economist GMAT Tutor.

Private Tutoring

Where I’ve seen the greatest score improvements is a combination of one of the previous GMAT study options with an experienced GMAT-specific tutor. On a per-hour basis, private tutors are the most expensive option of all mentioned, but if you learn the fundamental skills using a self-study or mobile app option and then push through weaknesses using a private tutor, this can still be a fairly cost-effective and faster method to maximize your score.

Personally, I help my own tutoring clients break through their plateaus by focusing on process: how do they analyze problems and use mental frameworks to streamline solving problems efficiently, accurately, and with minimized mental strain.

5. Maximize Effectiveness of Your GMAT Study Time

As many students study for the GMAT, they tend to emphasize quantity of practice problems over actual improvement. To be most effective in your GMAT studies, you’ll want to squeeze as many takeaways from each practice problem and practice exam as possible to improve your skills and ultimately your GMAT score.

Practice Problems

In your quantitative problems, focus on what makes the problem tricky or more challenging than a straightforward math problem. Is it a huge word problem with almost no concrete numbers? Does it require a knowledge of factoring or other number properties? Is there an extra step that could be easily missed? Rather than plowing through 50 or 100 problems a day, consciously outline multiple takeaways from every problem you tackle.

In verbal problems, pay attention to the precise wording used in each question. Does the question include extreme wording such as “must,” “only,” “never,” “always,” etc.? Was the problem made more difficult using challenging or unfamiliar vocabulary? Did a question use an unfamiliar grammatical structure? Unlike other standardized exams that explicitly test knowledge of vocabulary, the GMAT is more subtle, so you will need to extrapolate those takeaways yourself from every practice problem.

Practice exams

I recommend taking a practice exam every two weeks or so as you study for the GMAT. You may take one more often if you are under a compressed timeline, or you make take them monthly if you cannot dedicate as much time each day to studying.

Like practice problems, much of your improvement will occur as you review your practice exams. I recommend making an error log with problems that you got wrong, those you guessed on, and those that took too much time. Review the questions and solutions to determine the key takeaways for your improvement. These takeaways may include patterns of questions you got wrong (geometry, word problems, probability, etc.), certain problem types that are difficult for you to identify, steps to solve, and so forth.

Since GMAT practice exams are adaptive to your ability level, they will offer the best problems to identify for immediate improvement.

How to Study for the GMAT: Summary

Don’t underestimate the GMAT exam because the topics it tests seem elementary. It’s a “slow zombie” exam that may appear easy to tackle, but is ultimately quite challenging. If you know where you’re starting from and where you want to go, you can build a personalized plan that will enable you to achieve your goals.

Understand what you need to succeed in your studies—structure vs. flexibility, cost effectiveness vs. speed—and choose the resources that will work best for your needs.

No matter your learning style or natural strengths, you can learn the strategies necessary to succeed on the GMAT and gain admission to your dream school.