How to Beat the GMAT: 10 Key Strategies
You’ve heard about beating the GMAT, but is it really possible? Can you vastly improve your score before the exam? In this article, I’ll go over how likely it is to improve your GMAT score by leaps and bounds and explain 10 key tips for how to beat the GMAT.
How Can You Beat the GMAT?
You’ve probably seen blog posts or message board comments that proclaim, “I beat the GMAT!” They describe massive leaps of 100, 200, or even 300 points within weeks or months of GMAT prep. But how common is this in reality? Is it actually possible to beat the GMAT?
It does happen, but it’s not common. Most students who take the GMAT more than once report an average increase of only around 30 points. This rule is especially true for students who start out their GMAT prep scoring above a 650 on practice tests, since it’s much harder to improve your score once you’ve hit that threshold. Most students who do make a leap of 50-100 points or more started out scoring below 600.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to improve your score, though. The truth is, some students do significantly improve their GMAT scores (as in, those elusive 100+ boosts you’ve read about). Even more report a score increase of 50-60 points with three or more months of study. Beware of any resources that offer easy tips and tricks to acing the GMAT. There’s no shortcut to GMAT prep: the key to improving your score is practicing diligently and practicing well.
So what does it mean to “practice well?” Studying effectively means preparing with an eye towards efficient time management, choosing your resources wisely, and crafting a GMAT study plan based on your unique strengths, weaknesses, and goals.
10 Best Ways to Improve Your GMAT Score
To improve your GMAT score as much as possible, you have to study efficiently and effectively. Let’s go over the 10 best and most effective ways to boost your score.
- #1: Do Full, Timed, Official Practice Tests
One of the most important ways you can improve your GMAT score is to take full-length, timed, computerized adaptive practice tests (CATs) at home with the GMATPrep Software or other official resources (such as the GMATPrep Exam Packs). Other materials, like the GMAT Official Guide 2018, the GMAT Question Pack 1, and the GMAT Paper Tests, contain practice questions from retired GMATs or new questions authored by GMAC. Using official resources is the best way to realistically gauge your progress throughout the prep process.
In particular, using the GMATPrep Software at the beginning of your prep will help you get used to the timing and format of the test and help you learn exactly what to expect on test day. This is more important than you think. Being a math or grammar whiz will certainly help you succeed on the GMAT, but it’s just as important to know the idiosyncrasies of the exam inside and out. The test is standardized, which means it follows certain patterns that don’t change much from exam to exam and that you can learn to pick out. As you practice, you’ll start to learn which answer choices are unlikely to be correct right away, which will help you eliminate options more quickly. For example, sentence correction questions value concision, so a longer answer isn’t likely to be the best choice.
Practicing with official GMAT questions will give you the most accurate idea possible of where you initially stand in terms of your score, because GMAC-authored questions are what you’ll encounter on exam day as well. Using the average GMAT scores of the incoming students at your prospective MBA programs, set realistic goals based on your scores on your first practice GMAT tests. If you need more in-depth help on setting a target GMAT score, What’s a Good GMAT Score? A Bad One? An Excellent One? will get you started.
- #2: Use the Best Prep Resources
Don’t waste your time with prep materials that don’t mimic the actual GMAT in content, style, and format. Free, low-quality resources may be tempting to use but they’re a waste of your valuable study time.
As I mentioned above, the best GMAT study materials are the ones authored by GMAC, such as the GMATPrep Software and practice questions in GMAC’s GMAT Official Guide. These resources can accurately gauge your progress, as they’re closest to what you’ll see on the day of the exam.
Unofficial prep resources can be a big help as well, especially if you’re looking for more in-depth reviews of particular skills and concepts. For difficult math questions, GMAT Club practice questions and the Manhattan Prep Advanced Quant guide lend test-takers a challenge. If you’re struggling with verbal questions or looking for in-depth verbal strategies, the PowerScore Bible Trilogy (Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction) offers a comprehensive guide to each question type.
- #3: Join Online GMAT Prep Communities
Looking for more information on how other students improved their scores? Or maybe you’re struggling with a particular question type? Chances are, another test-taker has encountered your problem or had the same question before. Communities like the GMAT Club Forum, the Beat The GMAT Forum, and the Manhattan Prep GMAT Forum can provide specific information about question types and test-taking strategies, as well as camaraderie and emotional support. Remember that any information you find here is anecdotal, but it can still be useful if you’re looking for other students’ personal experiences with the test.
- #4: Pace Your GMAT Study Plan
One common mistake test-takers make is to try to cram in all of their GMAT prep at the last minute. Unfortunately, cramming isn’t likely to result in a long-term boost in your score: noticing and analyzing your weaknesses, drilling specific question types, and taking multiple practice tests take time. To be most effective, your study plan should allow for at least 10 hours of GMAT practice a week over the course of about three months.
Another common mistake that GMAT test-takers make is to study for a long stretch of time only once a week. Shorter, more frequent practice sessions are usually more effective, as it takes repetition and consistency to complete drills of the necessary skills. You should aim to study at least three times a week for the best results.
However, you shouldn’t stretch out your studying for too long, either, or you risk losing momentum and hitting a plateau in terms of your progress. A targeted study plan of two to five months, depending on your available time and your current and target scores, is optimal.
Finally, your study plan should be specific. Don’t just plan to study for x number of hours a week. Instead, make a list of your resources and plan when and how you’ll use each one (for example, “Complete 20-question practice quiz using reading comprehension questions on the GMAT Question Pack” or “Write one sample 30-minute analytical writing assessment essay on GMAT Write”).
- #5: Know What To Expect On Test Day
You need to prepare for the conditions of the GMAT (the timing, setting, and format, as well as what resources you’ll have available during the exam), not just the test itself. Feeling as comfortable as possible on the day of the exam and knowing exactly what to expect will help you tackle each question more efficiently and effectively.
For example, you won’t have access to a calculator during the quantitative section, so it’s important to practice skills like doing calculations in your head, estimating, and rounding on a regular basis during everyday activities (not just when you’re taking practice tests).
The GMAT scratch paper is a legal pad-sized, laminated, double-sided sheet that comes with a dry marker, so don’t practice with regular scratch paper and pen at home. Instead, practice writing notes with a thick marker while you prep or purchase a simulation test booklet.
- #6: Practice Your Time Management
Your timing on the GMAT is just as important as your understanding of the questions themselves. Create timing drills for yourself to practice finishing questions efficiently, as well as correctly.
For example, you might try to complete 10 sentence correction questions in 20 minutes. On a second try in another session, try to complete 10 sentence corrections in 15 minutes; finally, try to finish the same number in 10 minutes, since each sentence correction question should take about a minute to complete. Practice “beating the clock” like this with the questions that take you the longest or with which you struggle the most.
- #7: Focus on Your Weaknesses
Go over what you get wrong in practice tests and questions in detail. What are you getting wrong, and why? When you read breakdowns of practice questions, what went wrong for you? Is there a grammar concept or fundamental math skill you need to review, or did you not understand what the question was asking of you to begin with? Is there a language barrier if you’re a non-native English speaker? Is it a matter of miscalculations or rushing through passages without noticing important details?
Whatever the problems are, notice your personal patterns. Practice accordingly: do regular drills on a particular question type that you find difficult, or make flashcards with vocabulary words you’re unfamiliar with that crop up frequently on the exam. Simply complete practice questions and tests over and over again isn’t enough; you need to tailor your practice to your specific error patterns rather than resorting to blind repetition. Focus your energies on your weak spots, and you’ll build your confidence for the entire exam.
- #8: Practice With Extra Hard Questions
If you’re already scoring a 700 or above when you take your first official practice tests, you’ll need to be more pointed and specific about how you study. In particular, you’ll need to hone in on difficult questions: If you want a high score on the GMAT, you’ll have to be able to consistently answer hard questions correctly.
Difficult quantitative questions are available through GMAT Club Forum and Manhattan Prep Advanced Quant, for example. To challenge yourself in critical reasoning, try analytical reasoning and logical reasoning LSAT practice questions: they test the same skills as the more difficult CR questions you’ll encounter on the GMAT, as well as offer good prep for the integrated reasoning section. The Official Guide for GMAT Verbal Review and the PowerScore Verbal Bible Trilogy are helpful sources for challenging sentence correction and reading comprehension questions.
- #9: Prepare Yourself Physically and Emotionally
No matter how much you prepare for the exam, you can still sabotage yourself if you’re anxious, not feeling well, disorganized, or otherwise not at your best on test day.
Take note of what items are allowed at the testing center before your scheduled GMAT, and gather the appropriate identifying documents well in advance.
Lay out your personal items, outfit, snacks, and necessary documents the night before so you’re not scrambling the morning of the exam. Make sure you’ll have water and warm clothing. Some test-takers even take their last practice test in the outfit they’ll be wearing the day of the exam in order to simulate test conditions as closely as possible.
Leave a day or two before the exam to rest. Get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam, of course, but just as importantly, don’t study the day before. Anything you cram less than 24 hours before the test probably won’t stay in your head, anyway. It’s better to use that time to relax. Eat well before your exam, and plan out your travel route in time so you don’t risk having to rush.
These steps may seem trivial, but they’ll make a big difference in your mentality and ability to focus during the GMAT. All of these factors can make or break your performance and timing on the day of the test.
- #10: Diversify Your Practice
To make sure you don’t lose momentum and are keeping your brain engaged in a variety of ways, it’s a good idea to try different kinds of practice materials to find what works for you. On top of your regular practice sessions and computerized adaptive practice tests, you should also prep with short drills, quizzes, or flashcards daily (even if only for ten minutes on days you haven’t planned a longer study session).
Download GMAT apps to devote a few minutes of your time waiting in line at the store or sitting in traffic to GMAT prep. You can also make your own flashcards, keeping track of grammar rules or vocabulary that you aren’t familiar with as you take practice test.
Practicing for the GMAT on a daily basis rather than leaving your prep until your longer study sessions will help you sharpen those skills more effectively. Like any other skill, it’s best if GMAT prep becomes second nature to you.
The Bottom Line: How to Beat the GMAT
There’s no special trick for how to beat the GMAT. The only way to improve your score is to study, and study effectively. Start by creating a concrete, detailed study plan and gathering the best possible practice materials. The tips we’ve gone over will help you prepare as effectively as possible, so you’ll be the one exclaiming, “I beat the GMAT!”
For more test-taking strategies, our GMAT study guide will give you more in-depth info on how to prepare for each section of the GMAT.
If you’re after the best GMAT prep resources available, let our guide to the best GMAT study materials help you hunt them down.
Curious about how the GMAT is scored? Check out our guide to how GMAT scoring works for more info on how your performance on the GMAT is evaluated and what that means for you in the MBA admissions process.