How to Prepare for the GMAT: 23 Expert Study Tips
No one ever said the GMAT was easy. In fact, it’s considered so tricky (and so important) that most would-be MBAs spend two to three months preparing for it. The majority of students spend over 50 hours studying, and the highest scorers average 121 hours of study time! What exactly are they doing all this time to get ready?
This guide will walk you through exactly how to prepare for the GMAT, with 23 essential steps that will take you from registering for the exam to drilling practice questions to sitting down at the computer on test day.
First, let’s consider what you need to do before you start hitting the books.
How to Prepare for the GMAT: First Steps
Before you start reviewing the rules of exponents for GMAT math or parallel structure for GMAT verbal, you need to do some preliminary prep work. At this stage, you’re getting ready to study by researching business schools, gathering materials, and devising a plan.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to study for the GMAT, let’s look at the first steps you need to take, starting with research on business schools.
- #1: Research Business Schools and Deadlines
It’s a pretty safe bet that you’re taking the GMAT to apply to business school and not just for the love of taking timed, computer-adaptive tests. Because the GMAT has a very specific purpose, you should start your preparation by doing some research on business schools.
Find some schools of interest, and write down their application deadlines. Do you have at least three months before the deadline to study? Ideally, you’ll have even more time than that, so that you have the opportunity to retake the GMAT if you’re not satisfied with your scores.
Not only do you need a clear sense of application deadlines, but you should also research the average scores of accepted students. Do most students get in with a 650, or is the school looking for a stellar score of 730?
By finding the average total GMAT score of accepted students, you’ll gain a clear sense of what score you need to be a competitive applicant.
- #2: Set a Target GMAT Score
Once you’ve done some research on schools, you can set your own target GMAT scores. As you study, you can work towards these target scores. You may be far from this scoring level starting out, but you’ll get closer to it as the months go by.
In addition to setting clear goals, it’s also important to know your target score for test day. After you finish the GMAT, you’ll see your Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, Verbal, and total scores. At this point, you’ll be asked whether you want to keep or cancel your GMAT scores.
By having a specific target in mind, you’ll know right away whether or not you’ve achieved the GMAT scores you need to apply to your business schools of choice.
- #3: Gather Practice Materials
With the abundance of GMAT practice materials out there, how can you choose the ones that will best help you meet your goals? First off, you should look for official GMAT practice tests. The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) offers two full-length GMAT practice tests for free as part of their GMAT Prep Software.
You can actually take these tests multiple times, but you might see a few repeat questions after the first time. Beyond these two free tests, you can also purchase additional practice tests or question packs from GMAC, as well as buy prep books that review the concepts and skills you need for the test.
If you’re looking for more practice tests, you can find a bunch of high-quality options online. Some of the best are offered by Veritas Prep, Kaplan, and Manhattan Prep. These third-party tests can never be as high-quality as those from the test makers, but they are still excellent resources.
Many students take a practice test every two to three weeks to gauge their progress. If you start studying about three months out from your test date, then you should collect four to six practice tests to spread out over the months.
Beyond practice tests, you might be interested in a prep course or one-on-one tutoring. You should think about how you learn best and what degree of accountability you need to stick to your studying goals. If you feel like a teacher, tutor, or peer group would help motivate you, then a GMAT prep program from a third party like Veritas or Manhattan Prep could be worth the cost.
By thinking about how you learn best, you can choose the materials and method of prep that will best help you reach your goals.
- #4: Take a Diagnostic Practice Test
Even before you start figuring out how to prepare for GMAT studying, you should take a GMAT practice test to establish your baseline scoring level. Don’t have high hopes for this test; in fact, you should keep your expectations low.
This test is not about doing well, but rather about gaining a clear sense of your starting point. You’ll see areas where you’re relatively strong, as well as those sections and question types that need a lot of work. This will show you how to prepare for the GMAT in the most time-efficient way possible. Also, by taking the test under realistic conditions, you’ll start to get a feel for the timing pressures of the test to keep with you as you prep.
Once you know your starting point, you can see how many points you need to improve to achieve your target score. If you have a longer way to go than you thought, then you may consider applying for a later business school deadline and choosing a test date that gives you lots of study time.
- #5: Figure Out Your GMAT Study Schedule
Lots of people preparing for the GMAT are either in school or have full-time jobs. It’s tough to fit in study time between all your other commitments, especially if you’ve been out of school for a few years and your study skills have grown rusty. Regardless, you’ll need to commit hours per week to have a chance at improving your score significantly.
To make sure you hit your study hour goals, you should take a close look at your schedule and identify times when you can definitely study. Ideally, you can set aside the same amount of time on the same days each week so that studying becomes a routine. This is how to prepare for the GMAT reliably.
- #6: Identify a Good Study Environment
Just as you need to devote chunks of time to studying, you also need to find an environment that’s conducive to studying. Find a quiet place free of distraction where you can really focus in and make the most of your time.
Hundreds of hours of study time won’t add up to much if you can’t concentrate. Knowing how to prepare for the GMAT won’t matter if you can’t actually learn and concentrate. Don’t spend more time on GMAT prep than you need to. The quality of your study time is just as important as the quantity.
Find an environment that you can access easily, and minimize distractions by turning off your phone or using a website blocker so you can’t check Facebook. Use earplugs or play white noise to help you concentrate on the difficult subject matter. Take control of your surroundings so you’re able to fully focus on the tasks at hand.
- #7: Write Down a Detailed Study Plan
Once you’ve collected your materials and figured out when and where you can study, you should take some time to write down specifically how to study for the GMAT. Don’t just think to yourself that you’ll study every Tuesday afternoon. Actually put it on paper or your Google calendar.
In your study plan, you should include these aspects:
- your target number of study hours per week
- your study sessions each week, fully scheduled as actual calendar events
- what GMAT prep materials you’ll use, and how long it’ll take to work through them
- when you’ll take your practice tests, and what your target score for each one is
- contingency plans in case your practice test scores are lower than expected (for example, you might increase your study hours)
Writing down your schedule will feel like you’re setting a contract with yourself. It will be harder to procrastinate once you’ve recorded your plan.
As you plan your studying, think about areas where you need to put the most effort. If you were a humanities major, then you should probably spend the majority of your time reviewing math concepts. If you’re constantly working with numbers, then you may want to focus on reading comprehension and other verbal skills.
Refer back to the results of your diagnostic practice test to inform your study plan. Tackle your weak areas first, and devote the largest amount of time to the skills and question types that confuse you the most.
- #8: Choose a GMAT Test Date and Register
Once you’ve figured out how long you need to study for the GMAT, you should choose a test date and register for the test. The GMAT is administered on an on-demand basis almost every day of the year. As long as you register a few months in advance, you should have no trouble getting your preferred test date and location.
Be thoughtful about the day of the week, time of day, and location you choose. You might have more energy at the beginning of the week than at the end, in the morning or the afternoon. If you have a choice, go for a location that you can easily access, and be aware of variables like rush hour traffic.
By choosing your test date early, you’ll ensure that your GMAT test date is available, plus you’ll be setting a deadline for your GMAT prep. It’s a lot easier to put off studying if you don’t have an end date in sight. If your test is looming on the horizon, then you’ll have no choice but to put your nose to the grindstone.
Once you’ve registered for the exam and designed your study plan, it’s time to put it into action! Consider the advice below on how to prepare for the GMAT once you’ve registered for the test and started to study.
How to Prepare for the GMAT: 7 Key Study Tips
There are lots of concepts and skills you need for each section of the GMAT. We have a bunch of prep guides that go into depth about exactly what you need to know for AWA, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, and Verbal.
This guide, though, is more concerned with meta-strategies. What overarching guidelines should shape your approach? Read the following seven tips to find out how to study for the GMAT.
- #9: Learn All About the GMAT
Now that you’ve made your plan, it’s time to learn all about the GMAT. Learn about the format of the test, the timing of each section, and what the instructions say.
Figure out what concepts are tested in math, and read over the rubric that graders use to score the AWA essay. Learn about the four question types in Integrated Reasoning, and the rules of grammar you need to know for sentence corrections in Verbal.
Finally, read about how each GMAT section is scored and how adaptive testing works. You should also look over the official GMAT handbook to learn about test center policies.
Learn everything you can about the GMAT, and write down any questions that come up. When test day arrives, you won’t have to waste time reading instructions. Instead, you’ll have a clear sense of the tasks at hand.
- #10: Focus on Your Weak Areas
As mentioned above, the best study plans are customized to the individual. Rather than spending the same amount of time studying for each section, you should prioritize your weak areas. You need to figure out how to study for the GMAT in a way that’s right for you, not your friend and not any other GMAT test taker.
If you have a lot of educational or work experience related to math, then you may focus more on the verbal section, and vice versa. To further uncover your weak areas, look carefully at the results of your diagnostic practice test.
Check out your GMAT section scores, and search for patterns on question types. Maybe you aced sentence corrections in the Verbal section, but you had trouble with reading comprehension problems. Maybe you thought algebra problems were a breeze, but you couldn’t remember any geometry formulas.
Find any sources of confusion and target those areas first to see the greatest score improvement.
- #11: Prioritize the Quantitative and Verbal Sections
In addition to targeting your weak areas, you should also spend more time preparing for the Quantitative and Verbal sections than for AWA and Integrated Reasoning. AWA and IR still matter, but they aren’t as significant as Quantitative, Verbal, and total scores during the admissions process.
You especially want to prioritize a section if you majored in an unrelated subject. Admissions officers want to see that former humanities majors have a strong Quantitative score and that former math majors have sufficient verbal skills.
- #12: Review Important Math and Verbal Concepts
While the GMAT is more about reasoning and problem-solving skills than memorization of facts and figures, it does still require some foundational knowledge.
In math, for instance, you need to know how to solve for a variable or calculate the area of basic shapes. In verbal, you need to understand terms like tone and thesis, as well as understand grammar rules, like subject-verb agreement and parallel structure.
Many of the concepts are ones that you learned in high school, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Most people taking the GMAT have been out of high school for seven to 10 years, and some haven’t worked with these concepts since then.
Don’t feel discouraged if you forgot how to calculate area of a right triangle or how to fix parallel structure in a complex sentence. Just make sure that your study materials review these concepts and have plenty of practice questions with which to drill these skills. Based on your specific style of learning throughout school, you’ll have to figure out how to study for GMAT subjects in the way that is most effective for you.
- #13: Try Out Test-Taking Strategies
You don’t have to be uniquely brilliant to earn a high score on a standardized test like the GMAT. Doing well on these tests is less about your academic prowess and more about how good of a test taker you are.
Becoming a good test taker is a skill like any other, meaning that you can develop and improve with practice. To do well on the GMAT, you need to work strategically to improve efficiency, guess when it would benefit you to do so, and divide your time so that you answer every single question.
There are specific strategies for answering certain question types. To tackle sentence corrections, for instance, you should mentally cross out all of the “junk,” or superfluous clauses thrown into the sentence to distract you. For reading comprehension, you should develop skills of speed reading and your ability to extract transitional ideas and the main point without getting caught up in the weeds.
On Integrated Reasoning questions, you’ll benefit from looking at the questions and answers first. By knowing what you’re looking for, you can more efficiently pick out important information from all of the extraneous data.
As you study, find strategies that will help you tackle specific question types and improve your time management. Try them out on practice tests, and decide which ones boosted your performance and will be useful on test day.
- #14: Peer Grade AWA Essays
Unless you enroll in a GMAT prep course, you probably won’t have any official sources scoring your AWA practice essays. That doesn’t mean you should skip this step.
Take time to familiarize yourself with the AWA rubric, and try grading your own practice essays. If you have any friends also studying for the GMAT, or who have strong verbal skills and are open to doing you a favor, then you should peer grade each other’s essays.
Just as reviewing your scores for IR, math, and verbal is useful for your prep, so too is writing practice essays from official GMAT AWA prompts and scoring your results. You’ll start to see patterns in your writing and figure out how you can improve.
- #15: Take a Timed GMAT Practice Test Every Two to Three Weeks
Your practice testing shouldn’t stop after the initial diagnostic practice test. Instead, practice tests are a great way to get better at taking the GMAT and measure your score improvement.
Many students who know how to prepare for the GMAT take a test every few weeks. Just as with the first practice test, you should simulate testing conditions by following the time limits and testing in a quiet space.
After you finish testing, take time to look over your results and see how you did on certain question types. Your performance can help you evaluate how your studying is going and see whether you need to make adjustments as you go along.
As you study, you should continuously reflect on how things are going and make changes as needed. While these tips will help guide your approach to GMAT studying, how can you prepare for the GMAT once test day is upon you?
Consider these tips as you get ready in the days before your test.
How to Prepare for the GMAT: 8 Last-Minute Tips
What final steps should you take in the days leading up to your test? These last-minute tips will help you feel ready once test day is upon you.
- #16: Finalize Your List of Score Recipients
When you take the GMAT, you can enter up to five score recipients for free. These schools will get your official score report about 20 days after you test as long as you don’t cancel your scores.
If you do cancel your scores, then the schools won’t see anything. They won’t even know that you took the GMAT at all.
To take advantage of these free score reports, you should finalize your list of up to five schools before test day.
- #17: Review Test Center Policies
Before heading to the test center, take a few minutes to look for any test center-specific policies. Some only accept certain forms of ID, and others may have special instructions on how to get into the building.
You want everything to go smoothly on test day so that all of your energy is focused on the GMAT. Make sure you know what to expect.
- #18: Map Your Route to the Test Center
Along similar lines, take a few minutes the night before to map your route to the test center. Make sure you know exactly how to get there and whether you plan to drive, use the subway, take a bus, or call an Uber.
Consider variables like traffic, surge pricing, or an often delayed subway line. Make sure you know where you’re going so you don’t get lost, feel stressed, or, worst case scenario, miss your testing appointment completely!
You should plan to arrive 30 minutes early to allow time for checking in and storing your belongings. Plus, it’s good to arrive early just to get your bearings and feel settled in the new location before the exam starts.
- #19: Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Try your best to get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Don’t spend the night frantically cramming for the test. At that point, you’ve done all you can to prepare and should focus on your mental and physical health.
Go to bed early, make yourself comfy, and make your environment as relaxing as possible. You should probably also set two alarms for the morning wake-up call, just in case.
- #20: Wear Comfortable Clothes
Along with mapping your route, you should plan out what you’ll wear to the test. Wear comfortable clothes so you’re not distracted by feeling too cold, too hot, too itchy, or any other physical irritation that could mess with your head.
- #21: Bring Snacks and Water
You can’t bring snacks into the test room, but you can leave them in a locker or whatever area that the test center has designated for personal belongings. The GMAT is a long and demanding test, and you’ll be burning through plenty of calories to fuel all that brainpower.
Bring snacks to boost energy and water to stay hydrated during the two breaks after the Integrated Reasoning and Quantitative sections.
- #22: Don’t Forget Your ID
There’s a lot of security around the GMAT, and there’s no way you’ll be allowed to enter the testing room without an acceptable form of ID. Check out GMAT policies around proper identification, and make sure you’re bringing the right document on test day.
Note that in addition to showing your ID, you’ll also verify your identity by holding your palm for a few seconds over a palm vein reader biometric ID. Apparently, our palm veins are as unique as our fingerprints.
- #23: Breathe
Once you’ve reached the end of your GMAT prep journey, take a deep breath. Then take another one. And then 10 more.
The GMAT is a stressful test for most people, and it represents the culmination of months of hard work and the hurdle you must leap to go to business school. You started off not even sure how to prepare for the GMAT, and now you’ve come to the final test day—it’s natural to be nervous.
Try to find ways to manage test-taking anxiety so you can think clearly. If you’re feeling anxious, try methods to self-soothe, like breathing techniques, meditation, and exercise.
Try to recognize unhelpful thoughts, let them float past, and replace them with positive thinking. You’ve done everything you can to prepare up to this point. Now, it’s time to focus on the test and do your best!
As we finish up, let’s go over some final thoughts about preparing for the GMAT.
How to Prepare for the GMAT: Final Thoughts
The GMAT is a tough exam, and a lot of the questions aren’t very intuitive. To do well on it, most people spend several months and over 100 hours preparing.
As you study, you’ll find the GMAT becoming more and more manageable. Questions that seemed bewildering at first will start to reveal their secrets. Instead of rushing through sections, you’ll develop a steady test-taking rhythm that will let you answer all of the questions in each section.
The best study plans involve plenty of self-reflection. You should think about your weaknesses and mistakes, as well as your strengths and successes, and use them to make adjustments as you go.
Most people preparing for the GMAT have the extra challenge of working or going to school full time. If this describes you, try to start months before your test date, find a good study environment, and incorporate your GMAT prep into your routine.
By setting a target score and steadily working toward it, you’ll see significant progress over time. When test day finally arrives, you’ll be well prepared and know exactly what to expect.
As you read above, one of your first steps in preparing for the GMAT should be learning all about the test. Check out this guide to learn the full GMAT exam pattern and see examples of every question type.
What math concepts do you need to know for the GMAT? Check out this comprehensive guide to the GMAT Quantitative section. (coming soon)
What’s tested on the newest section of the GMAT, Integrated Reasoning? This guide breaks down the Integrated Reasoning and gives you key tips on how to prepare. (coming soon)