Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

3 First Steps for Studying for the GMAT

A logo with "the muse" in white text.

If you’re thinking about applying to business school, there are few hurdles that seem higher than that of the GMAT. Especially if your days of standardized test-taking feel like a distant memory, preparing for the GMAT is one of the most time-intensive and stressful parts of the admissions process.

There is no “right” way to prepare for the exam—some students self-study, while others enroll in standardized courses. At the start, my own approach was largely unstructured: I dove into any and all materials I could find, working through problem after problem in no particular order. But after three months and little improvement in my score, I realized what I was missing: a good study plan.

Like any other project you would complete for work or school, the GMAT is most easily approached when you have a solid plan of attack in place—one that’s tailored to your needs and built with your schedule in mind. So, before you crack open those prep books, use these three steps to get most out of your study sessions.

1. Do Your Homework

It’s hard to create an effective work plan without first knowing the basics of the GMAT. So, your first step is to familiarize yourself with the test. The Graduate Management Admission Council (or “GMAC,” creator of the GMAT) offers a solid overview of the exam’s structure, topics, and timing on its website.

Once you understand exam fundamentals, pinpoint the score that you’d like to achieve. While all of us would like to walk away from test day with an 800 in hand, doing so is by no means a b-school requirement. In fact, chasing the perfect score may take precious time away from other, equally important parts of your application.

Your target score will largely depend on the school that you want to attend, and you can research the average GMAT score of your dream school’s incoming class on its class profile online. While some incoming students get significantly higher or lower scores than the class average, it serves as a helpful benchmark as you prepare for the test.

2. Know Your Weaknesses

Armed with a basic understanding of the exam and your target score, it’s time to take a practice exam. It may seem intimidating to take an exam in advance of any review of the material, but getting a preliminary score is the best way to understand the time that you’ll need to put into studying, as well as your areas of weakness.

The GMAC offers two free exams, one of which you can use for your first practice test. After taking the exam, carefully review your results, paying attention to the types of questions that proved the most difficult, as well as the topic areas that were troublesome. When you assemble your work plan, these question types and topics will warrant extra study time in your schedule. (In my case, the exam showed me that I could spend less time focusing on the Verbal section and devote more to certain topics in the Quantitative section.)

3. Build Your Study Plan

After researching the test and completing the diagnostic, you’re ready to pull together your study plan. To give you a rough sense of timing, most students devote three months to GMAT preparation, committing 10-15 hours per week to their studies.

The key to creating an effective study plan is to allocate this time in a way that fits your study habits as well as your schedule. As a morning person, I set aside one hour each morning before work, as well as one hour in the evening. If you’re a night owl, you might choose to allot more study time to the evening, or, if your weekday work schedule is hectic, you may want to block out chunks of time on the weekend.

Regardless of your study habits, be sure to set aside times to study when you’re alert—don’t push off your GMAT sessions until the hours when you’re mentally exhausted. Take a calendar and work backwards from your test date, allocating hours to which you can firmly commit. Or, if you are more comfortable in a structured environment, look for a class that suits your schedule.

Once you’ve set aside study times, begin assigning GMAT topics to your sessions. Your schedule should reflect the areas of weakness uncovered in your diagnostic test and give you ample time to focus on them.

In my case, I spent six weeks on the Quantitative section, two weeks on the Verbal section, and the final four on taking full-length tests and reviewing topics that I found particularly challenging. While the division of your time between Quant and Verbal will largely depend on your personal strengths and weaknesses, you’ll definitely benefit from time devoted solely to practice tests—it will help you develop the right pace to finish the exam on time and the confidence to face test day jitters. Most test prep companies offer their own practice tests that you can use to supplement the free GMAC exams.

Finally, don’t be afraid to modify your schedule as you go along! Your study plan should be dynamic, reflecting the progress that you’ve made and those areas that stand between you and a great score.

While taking on the GMAT may seem like a daunting task, developing a good study plan will help you approach the exam in a methodical, efficient way. By knowing the test and your target score, understanding your weaknesses, and creating a study plan that fits your needs, you’ll be 100% ready on test day.

Photo of woman studying courtesy of Shutterstock.