How to Prepare for the GMAT: Essential First Steps
The following ten steps focus on how to prepare for the GMAT on your own. This is meant as a launch guide for the essential first stages of the preparation: getting a baseline score, setting goals, making a plan, and registering for a first exam. The advice is purposefully broad and should apply to most GMAT aspirants. Feel free to comment with your specific questions!
1. Start your GMAT prep by buying the GMAT Official Guide. Obvious right? Any of the recent ones 2018, 2019, 2020 will be fine but I’d recommend getting the latest one and buying new so you have access to the online question bank which expires after a year and isn’t transferrable. I'd highly recommend the ebook for convenience and to keep GMAT work on a computer. The GMAT is a computer test so better to practice on a screen.
2. Using the Official Guide familiarize yourself with the different question types on both quant and verbal. Do 3-4 practice questions of each type so that you have a basic understanding of the process.
3. That leads us to: take your first official GMAT practice test. WHAT????!!!! I'm just starting out - I'm not ready! You'll be fine. Don’t worry about the score. To get started we need a baseline with a general understanding of Quant vs Verbal strength. Do Quant, Verbal, and Integrated Reasoning but I would skip the essay. Take it in test conditions, staying strict with timing and breaks. NO PAUSE BUTTON!!! Don’t review the questions. We’re going to retake this test down the road so let’s keep it as fresh as possible. Here is a link to two free official GMAT practice tests. DO NOT TAKE AN OFFICIAL GMAT AS A DIAGNOSTIC. You can only take the GMAT 5 times per year. Let's use our opportunities wisely.
Avoid third party practice tests (Manhattan, Kaplan, Princeton Review...). First off, they're chock full of non-official GMAT questions. Those questions vary from being pretty good clones to being way off base. Secondly, the GMAT is a computer adaptive test with a very specific question selection and scoring algorithm. The third party tests don't have the algorithm. The scoring is flawed. In your preparation use Official GMAT materials as much as possible and most certainly only use an official GMAT practice to get your baseline.
4. How’d you do? Probably not as well as you would have liked. That’s normal. You haven't studied and the point of the preparing is improving from that score. I started at a 580 on my first GMAT practice test and have since scored 760, 770, and 780. Again, don’t worry about the score it doesn’t necessarily limit what you can achieve. Also, your quant percentile was probably terrible. That could be fine. Here's an article on GMAT Percentiles and why the've taken a nosedive.
Now it’s time to set a goal. Base that on the median GMAT score of schools to which you want to apply, your baseline, your past standardized test success, the effort you want to put into this, and the strength of the rest of you application.
The baseline doesn’t need to limit the goal but keep in mind that the bigger the gap between baseline and goal the more effort you’ll need to apply in order to succeed. It’s OK to have big goals. Let’s just keep in mind that a 99th% score will require a 99th% effort. Also keep in mind that lower verbal scores usually take longer to improve.
On the bright side lower quant scores are potentially easier to improve at least up to a point. Also, note that quant percentiles are skewed so don’t worry if your quant percentile looks terrible.
5. Let's make a plan for your preparation. Just to give you a ballpark timeline for the initial preparation, for a 100 point improvement starting from the 500’s or low 600’s I’d plan about 12 weeks. Put your study sessions and days off on your calendar. If you’ve got any days on which you can’t study block those out and try to reschedule the time so you can stay consistent.
Consistency and quality are more important than volume. I would try to study 6 days per week (1 day off) and would try to limit individual study sessions (excluding practice tests) to 2 hours. You could do 2x2hrs on the weekends. Just give yourself a break in between study blocks. Also, on weekdays you could break up your studying to a pre work hour and then a post work hour so that you’re not doing all of the weekday studying after you're already spent from clocking in your 8 hours.
Here is a GMAT study schedule we made ages ago but it will give you a sense for the type of detail that can be helpful.
6. Start an excel sheet to keep track of the questions you get wrong so you can return to them for review. You could also take screenshots of things you want to review and keep them in a dropbox, drive, or icloud folder. You should apply as much time to review as you do to working through sets. Remember that reviewing correct answers is also important to confirm your method. While we're doling out advice here's some on effective GMAT study habits.
7. For your weaknesses, whatever they may be, focus on fundamental skills NOT test prep strategy. In general, if verbal is weak, you probably need to improve your reading so work on that. If your quant is in the dumps, again, at least right now you’ll benefit much more from, for example, getting your exponent/factoring rules in order than learning about the slot method for combinatorics. Yes, to excel you will need to be GMAT specific. 100%. But that’s step two.
8. With that in mind avoid rabbit-holing! Yes, there are important specifics but do you really need to do 100 function questions? No!!! You might not even see one on your test. Get your general critical thinking and problem solving skills in order and the rest will fall into place. And regardless of whether verbal is a strength or weakness don't ignore it. It's very common to put verbal on the sidelines because the GMAT quant feels more threatening and verbal work can be more tiring. Big mistake. Invest in verbal early and keep at it consistently.
9. Avoid taking practice tests until you’ve got a firm handle on the major content areas of quant and verbal. You only have 6 official ones so let’s not blast them. How we use Official GMAT practice tests depends on the tutoring student but I would expect at least 8 weeks of work before starting practice tests. This is assuming around 12 weeks of preparation with the last third dedicated to practice tests and application.
10. Plan for retakes. You’ll probably need to take multiple GMATs in order to hit your goal. That’s totally normal and I would highly recommend planning for retakes in advance. Again, highly dependent on the person but for a first retake assuming around at least a 50 point gap I’d plan for 4-5 weeks of studying as you might still have some content to get through. For a third, fourth, and fifth GMAT it’s not unlikely that you can shorten that to 3 weeks as you’ll just be hammering away at application. Avoid taking and retaking GMATs if you're not close to your goal: there is 5 GMAT limit per year and 8 per lifetime.
Getting started with GMAT prep (or any new challenge) isn't easy and following through is even tougher. Accept that GMAT studying is going to suck up a lot of time and effort and is going to be the center of your universe. Be prepared for setbacks. For uneven progress. For crappy HW scores. For disappointing test day results. All of these things are parts of successful GMAT preparations.
How to Prepare for the GMAT FAQ
Can I prepare for the GMAT on my own?
Yes. In they same way that you can work out without a spin class or a personal trainer. Many people get in great shape on their own and many people do great on the GMAT studying on their own. That said, there's a reason why you won't find a professional athlete without a trainer/coach.
Can I start my preparation on my own and then switch to tutoring or a class?
Yes. If this is the route you're going to take I'd suggest keeping your self-study firmly focused on fundamental skills. Work on quant basics and reading skills. Then regardless of what program/tutor you end up hiring you won't have to re-learn things as the fundamental work should apply to any tutoring program or class.
How long should I study for the GMAT?
How long you study for the GMAT depends on your profile, baseline score, and goal. Most people should plan for an initial 10-12 weeks before taking a first GMAT aiming for around 100 points of improvement from the baseline (assuming the baseline is in the 500's/low 600s). Beyond that the timeline will very much depend on your progress. It's no uncommon to need at least one retake so I would certainly add another 4-5 weeks buffer. And just a little more on our GMAT prep philosophy: if you're going for gold on the GMAT aiming for a top ten school and potentially scholarship money I would be open to taking all of 5 of your GMATs available. Business school is a huge investment. Taking a few extra GMATs and studying for a few extra months is a drop in the bucket.
What are the best GMAT Prep materials?
A great majority of people, assuming you're going for a 700+ or so GMAT score, would do well buying: The GMAT Official Guide Bundle and the Practice Test + GMAT Official Practice Questions Bundle. That will get you really really far.
It could be that you would benefit from the GMAT Focus bundle as well but you won't need that for months if at all.
Here's an in depth rundown of Official GMAT Materials that you should consider for your preparation that will give you some background on the recommendations above.
When should I register for my first GMAT?
It's a great idea to get registered for your first GMAT near the beginning of the preparation so you have a date that you're shooting for. That helps focus the prep. With that in mind I'd aim to book a test after your second week of preparation. That way you'll have an idea of how consistent you're being with your GMAT work and you'll have a better sense for the process.