How to Strategically Build Your GMAT Study Plan
Having a GMAT prep strategy and study plan is critical when preparing for the GMAT exam. Too many people begin their GMAT prep by simply buying a book, taking a prep class, or downloading an app. The smarter approach is to first fully assess your individual situation: understand where you are and where you want to go and determine the best route for getting there.
Taking the time to do this kind of upfront diagnosing and planning can lead to a much higher GMAT score and far more efficient GMAT prep process. I recommend a “phase 0” when it comes to GMAT prep planning. In phase 0, you simply want to adopt the right frame of reference around the nature of the test for which you are preparing.
No matter who you are, you need to prep for the GMAT exam
The GMAT exam is not an IQ test, and it’s not simply a test of English skills, verbal skills, and mathematical competency either. While an English major will probably do quite well on the sentence correction portion of the exam, your academic background is otherwise likely to be less helpful (or less of a hindrance) than you might expect. For example, I was a finance and economics major, and I personally didn’t find my background all that helpful in tackling the quant section.
Why is this? Because the GMAT takes relatively simple concepts and forces you to apply them creatively—using critical thinking and logic under time pressure. GMAT exam question formats themselves are unique and take some getting used to. So, you will have to learn some English grammar rules and ensure you understand a set of math concepts and formulas. But your real task will be to build the critical thinking skills, mental math capabilities, and ability to perform under time pressure necessary to score well when applying your skills to GMAT questions. In fact, the underlying math knowledge required on the GMAT does not go far beyond algebra 2, with a little statistics mixed in.
In sum, no matter how well you’ve done in school or how “smart” you are, you will have to prepare for the GMAT exam. Adopting this mindset and frame of reference is very important. Very few people do very well without significant preparation.
What does it mean to prepare for the GMAT strategically?
In your first strategy class during business school, one entire lecture may be dedicated to defining the term “strategy.” One of my favorite definitions is simply “choosing what to do and what not to do to achieve an objective.” What does this mean when it comes to preparing for the GMAT?
It basically means that to prepare for the GMAT strategically, you need to be working towards an objective, customizing your study plan, and spending your actual time studying as efficiently and effectively as possible.
If you follow the six recommendations below, you are probably studying for the GMAT strategically.
1. Determine your target score based on your target business school programs
Don’t just start studying and assume that the more you study, the better you’ll do. While that is true, you will reach the point of diminishing returns. You may study for five hours per week, and after two months, be able to score a 660 when your initial practice test was 475. Put in another two months of 5 hours per week, and you may only be able to score a 690. In the eyes of many admissions committees, a 660 and a 690 are not that fundamentally different. Because the GMAT is just one part of your application, you’d be better off spending that extra two months preparing your essays and application than boosting your score from 660 to 690.
The key is to set a target GMAT score that is linked to the middle 50 percent of the scores at the top three to five MBA or business master’s programs to which you are applying. Once you can clearly score in that range, it’s time to take the GMAT exam. Setting that target score provides a goal towards which you can orient your GMAT study plan.
2. Understand your starting point relative to that target by taking a diagnostic practice test
You need to take a practice test very early in your GMAT prep process for two reasons:
- First, you need to know, in a macro sense, how close to your “target” score you are. If you need to break that elusive 700 barrier but your starting point is already 600, your study plan, in terms of duration and intensity of study, can be much different than if your starting point is 400.
- Second, a practice test taken early on can generally indicate where you have existing strengths and weaknesses. You’ll know whether you do better on IR, verbal, or quant. By analyzing missed questions in more detail, you’ll also understand which question types and concepts you need to allocate more time to.
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3. Reflect on your learning style, degree of self-motivation, and personal preferences to choose a method of GMAT prep
Three are multiple ways to prepare for the GMAT exam. You can buy a simple prep book, like the GMAT Official Guide, and self-study. You can attend a live class, either in-person or online. You can use a self-paced “app” like Magoosh, or you can jump to working with a private tutor.
If you are internally motivated, good at sticking to schedules, and don’t need to score above a 720, self-study combined with a self-paced app can be a reasonable option. If you are not internally motivated, however, then a class or private tutor can help keep you on track.
4. Customize your study plan
If you are self-studying with a book, taking a class, or using a self-paced course, there will almost always be a specific curriculum presented to you. You should always adjust this curriculum to design a personalized study plan based on the results of the diagnostic mentioned above.
It’s possible your situation is very close to that of the average test taker (statistics would suggest that about half the time, this will be the case). So perhaps you don’t have to veer too far away from the curriculum presented to you. But being strategic means making sure you allocate more time to your weaker areas. If, like me, your verbal score was in the 99th percentile after your first practice test but your quant score was basically average, you should allocate more time to building your quant skills.
5. Take regular timed practice tests
Make sure you are taking practice tests regularly, for three reasons:
1. To measure and track your progress
2. To get comfortable performing under time pressure
3. To review missed problems and ensure you understand exactly what went wrong.
Each of these points is incredibly important. If you wait for weeks to take a practice test because you want to fully study all the material first, you can really set yourself back psychologically. An unexpectedly low score can be crushing mentally. Plus, the more frequently you take practice tests, the more comfortable you become at dealing with the pressure and the more practice problems you are doing. Every three weeks or so, you should be sitting down for a full 4-hour practice test.
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6. Make sure you are following deliberate practice principles
Deliberate practice is generally considered to be the best form of practice. That’s true whether you are practicing GMAT quant or practicing your hockey slapshot. Here are some key principles of deliberate practice to apply to your GMAT prep:
- Focus intensely for 30 minutes at a time. No background TV, no text messages, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to work slowly and methodically, breaking down each problem into bite sized pieces that you understand before moving on to the next step.
- Do practice problems that progressively push you. You should always be getting some problems wrong and feeling like you are stretching your abilities. But at the same time, make sure you understand the basic, foundational concepts before moving on.
- Get immediate feedback. If you don’t have the benefit of working with a private tutor, immediately review missed problems and identify what went wrong. Don’t do a practice set now and then review it in two days. Review the results and missed problems immediately.
- Focus intensely on understanding what went wrong and why you made the mistake you made. If you truly don’t understand what you did or why the correct answer is what it is, mark this down and consult some sort of expert. Don’t just assume that you’ll figure it out later.
Be strategic and put your best foot forward for GMAT exam success
Here’s my main point: step back before you jump into your GMAT prep to plan out your study strategy and overall approach in advance. What worked for your best friend might not make sense for you.
Are you ready to get started? Explore five ways to tailor GMAT Official prep and resources to work best for you, your goals, and your personal study style.
Mark Skoskiewicz is the founder of MyGuru, a boutique provider of online tutoring powered by a small but extremely experienced team of passionate GMAT tutors (they help with other standardized tests and academic subjects as well). MyGuru helps students build customized study plans and focuses on a mix of core concepts and test-taking skill development. Mark holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.