How and how much you should study depends on your starting/target scores and how much time you have to study, but this guide should give you a good sense of how to structure your study. Use multiple GMAT resources, but be deliberate about how you use them so as to maximize your efficiency (as I describe below). If after reading this you would like to ask questions about your personal situation, please post them on Test Prep Unlimited’s Facebook Page, or submit the Contact Form. I also have more information up on my website, including GMAT Myths Debunked.
Your first step is to learn how to speed-read if you don’t already know how. Your words per minute should be at least 400 (with >95% comprehension). Faster is better; 500+ would be great. Here’s a test for you:What speed do you read?
Next, download the free, official GMATPrep® Software from the makers of the test. Read a little bit about the format and structure of the test, do maybe 1 easy, 1 medium, and 1 hard question of each type (but save the rest of the questions and exams for later!), then take a full-length diagnostic exam under semi-realistic testing conditions (no outside reference or calculator, no pausing the exam to think about questions, etc).
On timing: You’ll want to spend about 2 minutes per Quant question (perhaps more for Data Sufficiency and less for Problem Solving) and 2.5 minutes per Integrated Reasoning question. For Verbal, maybe 75-90 seconds for each Sentence Correction and Critical Reasoning, 2-3 minutes for each Reading Comprehension Passage +90 seconds each for the 3 or 4 questions that follow. The Verbal numbers will vary slightly depending on your strengths and weaknesses, but you have about 1 minute 49 seconds per Verbal question.
If your starting score is under 550, you will want a thorough foundational overview. If your foundations are particularly weak, there are specific materials I will recommend. Otherwise Manhattan’s Foundations of GMAT books are decent resources for a refresher. Attempt some of the drills at the end of the section, and if they take you more than 15 seconds each to get correct, read the section lesson and try again. Then you can move onto comprehensive strategy guides. (See below.)
If you’re between 550-650, you will still want that foundational overview, but you can do it more quickly. Then you can move onto comprehensive strategy guides. (See below.)
If you’re between 650-700, you can skip the foundational overview and
work on the comprehensive strategy guides. (See below.)
If you’re already above 700, just focus on the 700-800 level questions, and on the specific subjects you need help with. Kaplan has a GMAT800 book, MGMAT has an Advanced Quant book, Veritas has a Data Sufficiency book, an Advanced Verbal book, etc.
Books and Resources: The two most popular printed sets of comprehensive strategy guides are MGMAT and Veritas Prep. Neither is perfect, but I personally prefer Veritas’s books; They offer a better explanation of the test, and their questions are closer to real GMAT questions. MGMAT’s guides are not exactly like the GMAT. Useful, but far from ideal. They are a good first step, or are ok by themselves if you don’t want to gain more than 100 points or push past 700, however. On the other hand, Veritas’s last 5 or 6 Reading Comprehension passages are particularly weak. You can message me for customized material recommendations.
You cannot neglect studying Verbal! This is true even if you are a native English speaker (or even an English major!). The reasons are a) The Verbal skills cultivated in college are not exactly what the GMAT measures, and b) Many international applicants with superior Quant but weaker Verbal skills take the GMAT and skew the results so that the tail is much longer above V45 than for Q45. So if you have a solid Verbal score, you can still break 700, even with a less-than-stellar Quant score. For example, with a 40 in Quant, you could still break 700 with a 45 in Verbal. (In practice this is extremely difficult to attain, even for most native English speakers.) But it’s better and safer to have a more balanced score. Many people leave a lot of points on the table with Verbal.
If your Verbal score is below 35 and you have the time to do so, start your Verbal prep by using ACT and SAT verbal prep materials (take all of their practice tests). Yes those are for high-schoolers applying to college, but what is more important here, your MBA or your ego?
If you want to be a Verbal superstar, which is required to score above 750, do the Verbal sections from past LSAT‘s, as they are harder than the GMAT’s Verbal. These are good for Reading Comprehension and especially Critical Reasoning, but not Sentence Correction. Don’t do the LSAT Analytical Reasoning (as there is no parallel in GMAT), just the Reading and Logical Reasoning (which is similar to GMAT to Critical Reasoning).
Avoid repeatedly doing practice problems without significant study in between if you’re under 600, more than 40 points from your target, or trying to break 700. I see many students try to just solve hundreds of problems in the hopes of gaining 150 points, and while it is necessary to solve many problems, a more efficient use of your time is to build a strong conceptual foundation first by learning the general principles, before trying to solve so many problems. Otherwise, all the ideas you will learn from solving problems will just be scattered fragments of ideas your brain will scramble to attempt to assemble into a coherent whole. It’s much faster to see the coherent whole first, then try to build it from all the bits and pieces. The wheel has already been invented!
Avoid repeatedly taking practice tests without significant study in between, even if they are nonGMAC, as that time is better invested studying how to get questions right in the first place, before trying to get them right quickly. It does not make sense to time yourself as you are learning new material or concepts, since it could take you 10+ minutes to learn how to do a new problem type, but once you master it with me, less than 2 minutes.
For every 40 hours of study, or once you finish a set of guides, take another practice test under exam conditions and review the solutions. GMATPrep has 4, and you’ve used 1 already, so if you plan on taking several practice tests, use others first then come back to the GMATPrep exams at the end. Don’t take practice tests without significant study in between unless you’re already in the 750+ range; Otherwise you’re just burning through them without gaining what you could.
Do not dwell on any questions you miss, as doing so is wasting valuable time, just as a good leader does not dwell on minor failures, but rather keeps moving forward. And remember, the GMAT is like a marathon. You have to be at peak performance for 4 hours! The only way to build that level of endurance is to practice sustaining focus by studying in blocks and taking practice tests. Just don’t burn yourself out.
Practice at/slightly above your level. Many students work on questions that are too far above the student’s current ability level. Missing easier questions hurts more than getting difficult questions correct helps. Even if you can answer some tough questions, it will take you too long to answer them on the exam if you don’t have solid foundations, and you will lose points by missing easier questions.
When to seek outside help:
If you can afford it and would benefit from doing so (i.e. your score is more than 40 points below your target, deadlines are approaching, or you’re trying to push past 700), hire a private tutor to structure, motivate, and expedite your study (this will cost between $1,000-10,000 dollars). Yes it seems expensive in the short term, but it’s a (very worthwhile) drop in the bucket compared to your post-MBA lifetime earnings. Be aware though: Tutoring companies take a large percentage of the tutor pay, 70% or more, so if you can find an independent tutor with excellent credentials, teaching experience, and reviews, that’s a much more cost-effective route. I am a GMAT tutor in the San Francisco Bay area offering in-person and Skype lessons, and my students average a score increase rate between 3 and 7 points per hour we spend together, which is 5-12 times their self-study rate.
You can also take a class, but if you’re disciplined about your GMAT studies, you won’t get much more out of it than you would by following the program I’ve outlined, especially if you’re ahead or behind the curve for the class, as you will not move at your optimal pace. Actually the primary potential benefit of a class in this case is the potential for community you can form with your peers, but you will have to take that initiative and there is no guarantee you’ll get what you’re looking for. Anyway, many of my students chose to work 1-on-1 with me because they were not satisfied with their class experiences.
Finish your study with GMAC materials, first with The Official Guide for GMAT Review 2015 and the supplemental Quant and Verbal Guides. Always try to do the question first without looking at the solution, but don’t spend more than 5 minutes trying to solve a question if you’re stumped. Try to keep in mind actual test pacing, but spend as much time on each question as is necessary for you to complete it and understand the solutions provided (which are often not the best or fastest way to do the problems, by the way). In other words, first focus on getting questions right, then focus on getting them rightquickly.
Take another practice exam (see the timing suggestions at the beginning of this post), go over the answers, then do *ALL* of the GMATPrep questions in exam mode. Then take another practice exam, look at the solutions, and repeat as necessary until you feel satisfied with your results.
Since OG and GMATPrep are real GMAT questions from the makers of the test, you will develop appropriate habits for test day as opposed to using test prep company materials which are imitations of, rather than substitutes for, real questions. So if you’re going to use multiple materials, DO NOT START YOUR STUDIES WITH GMAC MATERIALS!!! Once those questions are gone, they’re gone, and if you’re unsatisfied with your score, you’ll have to wait until either you forget these materials, or they release an entirely new set of questions (which will take years, since the updated questions are not for the entire set).
Come test time, relax the day before the test (don’t cram!) and make sure you eat a healthy meal and sleep well. Know your biological clock and pick a 4 hour block for the test when you will be most alert and energetic, one that doesn’t require you to skip a meal. Bring healthy snacks, and stay hydrated, focused, and positive!
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