How to Start Studying for the GMAT | My Top 5 Steps

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How to Start Studying for the GMAT

Getting your GMAT preparation started on the right foot will help set you up for success on test day and make getting into your dream business school that much more of a reality.

I’ll give you 5 practical steps that every beginning GMAT student should take to get started in the right direction on the road to GMAT success — and not get lost along the way.

Step 1: Learn What is Tested and How It’s Tested

Before you dive into studying GMAT content, you should have a solid sense of how that content will be presented on the exam. Familiarizing yourself with the look and feel of the GMAT will both give you a broad view of the concepts and skills you’ll need to master over the course of your GMAT studies and prepare you for a later step in the study process, taking your first practice exam. To use our earlier metaphor, you’ll be wading into deep GMAT waters over the coming weeks and months, so you should probably get your feet wet first, right?

Step 2: Try Some Practice Questions

Before we examine step 2 of beginning your GMAT preparation, I want to pause and make clear a very important point: This is not the stage of your GMAT prep in which you should begin practicing dozens of random GMAT questions from every book you can get your hands on and all corners of the internet. Remember, you haven’t formulated your GMAT study plan yet; so, is it really a wise strategy to start studying without a plan?

If you dive head first into trying to solve a ton of random practice questions without first mastering the concepts on which those questions are based, I can all but guarantee that that time will not be well spent or serve to get you much closer to your GMAT score goal. Trust me, you want to make sure to engage in GMAT practice at strategic times, so you don’t end up wasting time.

At this early stage, you’re simply getting a feel for what GMAT questions are, not attempting to master answering them or to learn new concepts. With that in mind, give these realistic GMAT Quant practice questions and Verbal practice questions in Critical Reasoning (Question 1, Question 3) and Sentence Correction (Question 5, Question 6) a shot, and then read through the solutions to each of those questions.

See what it’s like to answer different types of GMAT questions. Just don’t go down the rabbit hole of poring over online question banks for weeks or searching out every variety of GMAT practice question known to man. In fact, all in all, you should spend no more than about a week or so familiarizing yourself with the GMAT and practicing some questions before you move on to step 3, getting your baseline score.

Step 3: Get Your Baseline Score

Sometimes when I tell students that step 2 in the GMAT study process is to take a GMAT practice test to get a baseline score, they express some skepticism — or, let’s face it, panic. After all, we just discussed the fact that GMAT students shouldn’t dive right into doing dozens of practice questions, so why is it a good idea to sit for an entire exam? Are you really ready for that? What if you don’t perform well on your practice test? Does that mean you’re doomed to fail?

Just as trying out some GMAT practice questions is more for “informational purposes” than to master GMAT concepts and skills, taking an initial practice test serves to give you information about your current level of GMAT readiness, not actually prepare you to take your real exam. Think of it this way: right now, you’re at the foot of a GMAT mountain, and you need to know how high the peak is, so you don’t set out on your climb only to realize halfway up that you don’t have all the tools or time you need to make it to the top. Maybe your “GMAT mountain” isn’t that high, or maybe you have quite a ways to climb.

Either way, without your baseline score, which your initial practice test will provide, you won’t know whether you’re 50 points or 150 points from the score you need, and thus you’ll have a hard time figuring out how to reach your goal or how long you’ll need to study to reach it. So, you can see why taking an initial practice exam is an essential part of creating an effective GMAT study plan.

GMAC, the maker of the GMAT, provides 6 official practice exams on its website, 2 of which are free. Spend a few minutes using GMAC’s exam tutorial tool to see what the GMAT test screens look like and how to navigate them, and to review the exam instructions for each section. Then, take the first of those free exams. The results of that exam will give you a good idea of what the GMAT test-taking experience is like and tell you how far you are from your score goal. (Looking to get a more comprehensive picture of your current Quant skills? In addition to taking your first practice test, try TTP’s free 67-Question GMAT Quant + Verbal Diagnostic Test.)

In order to get the most accurate baseline score possible, and thus the most accurate picture of how far you are from your score goal, when you sit for your first practice exam, replicate GMAT testing conditions as closely as possible. Take the exam in a private, quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. If you’ll be taking the exam at a test center, take your practice exam in a private room at the library, for example. If you’ll take the online GMAT, sit for your practice exam in the location where you will take the actual GMAT, and prepare the space just as you would for the actual exam. Either way, be sure to turn off your cell phone and put it someplace out of sight.

Complete all sections of the exam, using only the allotted time and trying your best on every question. If you do anything that you wouldn’t be able to do during the actual GMAT, such as pausing the exam, taking extra breaks, texting your friend, or even drinking coffee at your desk, you’ll run the risk of creating a GMAT study plan based on an inaccurate baseline score, and thus missing the mark when the real test day arrives.

It’s also important to remember that, while you want to give your full and best effort on your initial practice test, you shouldn’t go into the test “expecting” a certain score. The GMAT is a challenging exam that requires not only conceptual knowledge but also well-honed timing strategies and a significant amount of mental and physical stamina. The vast majority of GMAT test-takers need months of studying and practice to master GMAT content and refine their test-taking skills.For example, if we consider the time limits for each GMAT section at face value, then a test-taker has 2 minutes to answer each Quant question, a little less than 2 minutes to answer each Verbal question, and 2.5 minutes to answer each IR question.

However, some questions naturally will take longer to answer than others to answer, and part of hitting your score goal is having a sense of how much time you can spend on different question types. A Reading Comprehension question, for example, will require more time on average than a Sentence Correction question will. Pacing yourself appropriately throughout the exam can significantly affect your GMAT score, so even if you are already pretty knowledgeable when it comes to GMAT content, don’t be surprised if you encounter other, unexpected challenges when you sit for your first practice test.

Although it’s natural to hope that you’ll perform well on your first practice test, it probably isn’t realistic to expect that you’ll “hit the bull’s-eye” with your very first shot. Furthermore, that kind of expectation creates a lot of undue pressure. So what if you’re 100 points from your score goal, or 200, or whatever number? You’re new at this! That’s what a smart study plan is for! Remember, this is the information-gathering phase of your GMAT prep. Whatever your baseline score ends up being, the important thing is that you have the information you need to create a strategic, efficient, and realistic GMAT study plan that will take you from your starting point to the finish line.

Of course, getting over the finish line is a lot harder (if not impossible) without the right GMAT study materials. Let’s talk about that next.

Step 4: Select the Right Study Materials

One major mistake that GMAT students often make when studying for the GMAT is that they bounce around between multiple study resources, with no real order or method for how they’re learning content and what they’re learning on any given day. This type of patchwork GMAT study can make students feel as if they’re “covering all the bases” and taking advantage of every resource available for learning the GMAT.

In truth, students taking this approach likely will learn a few unfamiliar concepts and skills at first, particularly if they’re starting without much knowledge of GMAT content. The problem is that students who cobble together their GMAT preparation by ping-ponging between multiple study materials invariably end up finding that their gains stop far short of their goals.

If you just pick up whatever study materials you come across instead of researching what will work best to get you to your goal, you’re probably going to waste a lot of time on GMAT materials that don’t really work for you. Moreover, rather than covering all your bases, you could end up with significant gaps in your GMAT knowledge as a result of taking a piecemeal approach. So, how can you determine what the “right” study materials are?

First and foremost, keep in mind that the range of concepts that GMAT questions cover is huge, and you have no way to know exactly which concepts will be tested on any one GMAT. Thus, to give yourself the best possible shot at earning a high score on the GMAT, you have to be ready for anything and everything that could get thrown your way on test day. Because there is so much content to master for the GMAT, taking a thorough and methodical approach to your GMAT prep is the best way to ensure that you learn everything you need to learn about each GMAT topic in order to hit your score goal.

To study in this comprehensive way, you should seek to take a linear, topic-by-topic approach to your GMAT prep, learning one topic at a time, and then practicing numerous questions on just that topic. After you perform that practice, you’d revisit the concepts covered by the questions you answered incorrectly, and only once you felt that you’d mastered those concepts would you move on to the next Quant or Verbal topic.

Step 5: Create a “Foolproof” Study Schedule

GMAT students are often taken aback when I tell them that, ideally, they should shoot for 18 or more hours a week of GMAT prep. Although that may seem like a large number of study hours, as I’ve already discussed, there is A TON to learn for the GMAT, so most students need to devote a good deal of time to their prep. Writing down a daily GMAT study schedule (or entering it into a calendar app) will make holding yourself accountable and putting in the necessary study time much simpler than trying to track everything in your head will.

It’s extremely easy — sometimes even unavoidable — for an hour here and an hour there to slip away, and then for days to go by when you’re simply “too busy” to study for the GMAT. Enough of those days, and you can quickly fall behind schedule and become discouraged or overly stressed about your GMAT situation.

Of course, it’s natural to assume that you would never allow yourself to get into the kind of predicament I’ve just described, but time can slip away from even the most dedicated students. Why not err on the side of caution and make your study schedule “foolproof”? If you schedule in your GMAT study hours for each day, you avoid the stress of having to “make time” for GMAT prep. Even if you can study for only 1 hour each day, schedule in that hour! GMAT preparation is a long haul, and to be successful, you have to be consistent. So, studying for the GMAT has to stay a top priority in your life, regardless of the countless other responsibilities, events, to-dos, and last-minute changes of plans that pop up and threaten to derail your day.

To maintain the ambitious (but necessary) schedule of studying for 18+ hours per week, a good starting point is to try to study for 2+ hours each weekday and 4+ hours each weekend day. Of course, you may find that you need to adjust that schedule, either at the start or as you go along. For example, if you have a demanding full-time job that leaves you exhausted in the evenings, perhaps you can study for 1.5 hours each morning before work and get in longer study sessions on the weekends.

If your work or school schedule changes periodically, you may need to plan out your schedule a couple of weeks at a time. The point is, however you can fit in your GMAT prep, a concrete schedule that you can refer to will help make studying for the GMAT a “non-negotiable” part of your day. And with your schedule written down, you can more easily and accurately keep track of the time you’re putting into your prep, and catch yourself quickly if you start skimping on study hours.

Good luck studying, and reach out to me if you have any questions or need any more specific advice.

Warm regards,
Scott