It’s the time of year when enterprising business school hopefuls are getting a head-start on their GMAT studies. It can take quite a bit of time to get a good score on the GMAT so, if you can, get the test out of the way well before you have to start in on your applications.
In the first part of this 2-part series, we’ll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the three primary study approaches: self-study, classes, and private tutoring. In the second part, we’ll examine how to choose the best program and instructor for you (if you decide to take a class or work with a tutor).
Self-study, class, or tutor?
There are plenty of study materials and programs available from which to choose. The question is really this: Which path is the right path for you?
Expect to spend between 50 and 100 hours total spread over approximately 2 to 4 months, depending upon your starting point and goal score. You’ll need to cover a wide range of material and strategies for the four sections of the test. In fact, this is why so many people do choose to take a class (though there are plenty of self-studiers out there, too!).
Here are my definitions of the three primary paths:
- Self-study: You use GMAT study materials to get ready on your own or with friends, but you don’t work directly with a professional to get ready.
- Class: You do work with a professional, but in a group setting.
- Tutoring: You work one-on-one with a professional.
No single method is universally the best method. There are benefits and drawbacks to each situation, so deciding which one is best for you will depend upon your specific learning style, goals, needs, and preferences.
Regardless of study method, there are certain aspects that everyone must have. You will need materials that teach you the content tested on the exam, as well as techniques and methodologies for answering the different kinds of questions on the GMAT. You will also need practice materials, both individual practice problems (which can also be grouped into practice sets) and full, adaptive practice tests (also known as CATs).
You will also need some kind of plan—an outline of what to study and when and how. If you work with a company, that company should provide a syllabus and materials for you. If you work on your own, you will have to determine your own syllabus and decide what materials to use.
Studying on your own is typically the least expensive option and allows you to work on your own schedule. You also have to develop your own study program, which some people view as a benefit and some view as a drawback.
Developing your own plan can be a benefit if you have past experience with developing study plans, including diagnosing your strengths and weaknesses, choosing the best books and online materials to address your particular issues, planning your time wisely, sticking to a schedule, and, most important, teaching yourself. A lot of free resources are available to help you with these steps; for example, here’s an article that will help you Develop a Study Plan.
Some companies offer more complete self-study programs. My company, Manhattan Prep, offers a fully interactive digital learning platform called Interact™. You will have traditional study materials, such as books and practice tests, but the main feature is a series of digital lessons that actually adapt to you as you do them—choose a correct answer and unlock a harder problem; make a mistake and get sent to a more in-depth explanation that takes into account the specific error you made based on the answer you picked.
You can also choose to work just from books; the Develop a Study Plan article linked above talks more about the kinds of materials you’ll need. The basic books might cost you about $250 to $400, while a more advanced interactive learning program might set you back about $500 to $1,000; these more advanced programs will typically provide you with a full syllabus of assignments.
If you study on your own, you are going to have to be your own taskmaster. If you know from past experience that you’ll find it hard to stay home on Saturdays to study, especially when the sunshine is beckoning, then you may want to consider taking a course with regular class sessions and assigned homework. The last thing you want to do is wake up 3 months from now and realize that you’ve barely cracked the books.
If you have generally done well on standardized tests in the past, are disciplined, and aren’t looking for an extra-large (200+ points) score increase, then self-study may be the option for you.
Taking a class is typically more expensive than studying on your own but less expensive than tutoring. On average, a class might cost you $1,000 to $2,500.
A course will provide you with a comprehensive set of effective materials and a syllabus to follow. Using a class syllabus will be somewhat less flexible than developing your own (with or without the help of a tutor), but you also won’t have to sit down and figure out what to study on your own. You can (and should!) prioritize the assignments according to your own strengths and weaknesses, spending additional time in weaker areas and moving on more quickly to advanced material in stronger areas.
A good instructor will be able to address different learning styles in the classroom. You will also be able to ask questions and discuss the finer points of GMAT problems with a real, live person; your teacher will become familiar with your strengths and weaknesses over the length of the course and will be better able to advise you as a result.
And take advantage of that access! Participate in class so that your teacher has a chance to see your strengths and weaknesses in action. Ask questions—not just in class but also about your overall study plan, your priorities, any big struggles you’re having. You’re paying more to have access to an instructor, so make sure you get your money’s worth.
If you’re going for a large score increase (200+ points) or a very high score (700+), then this option might be a good one for you. The cost is mid-range between the other two options, and you gain access to a tried-and-tested program and an instructor who can help guide you through your studies. (Plus, the incremental cost over a self-study plan is negligible compared to the opportunities that will open up if you can hit your ambitious goal score.)
Tutoring is the most flexible and customized option, but also the most expensive—so much so that cost is the primary drawback to tutoring. Expect to spend a minimum of $2,500 (and quite possibly more).
A tutoring package will provide you with a comprehensive set of effective materials and a tutor should provide you with a customized syllabus based upon your particular learning style, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. You will also have the flexibility to set your own schedule and to concentrate on the areas that are most problematic for you. Further, because the expert is working with you one-on-one, she or he will quickly learn what your needs are and customize the lessons accordingly. As a result, tutoring is typically the most efficient study method (though you will pay for that efficiency!).
If cost is no object or if you know that self-study and classroom approaches won’t work well for you, then tutoring may be the best path. You might also use a hybrid approach in which you study on your own or take a class, and then do only a small number of hours of tutoring for more targeted help once you’ve identified your areas of greatest need.
For options two and three, the right instructor makes all the difference. In the second part of this two-part series, we’ll talk about how to choose a particular instructor who matches your learning style, motivates you to attend class, and effectively conveys how best to think and work as successful GMAT test-takers do.