It’s that time of year again—Harvard Business School’s application just went live, which officially kicks off the b-school season. Whether you’ve been planning to go to business school for a while or only recently became interested, now is the perfect time to start getting ready by knocking out the GMAT.
I know—it can feel completely overwhelming to take the GMAT along with everything else that’s going on in your life. So to help make the process more manageable, I’ve broken it down into five (kind of) easy steps.
1. Pick Your Study Strategy
There are tons of different ways to prepare for the GMAT, and what you choose to do depends on factors such as your learning style and how much money you want to spend.
The priciest option is hiring a personal tutor, but it can be worth the cash if you learn best in a one-on-one setting, feel pretty clueless on the content, or have a little trouble self-motivating. Next down the price scale is taking a prep class, such as those offered by Manhattan GMAT, Kaplan, and Princeton Review. This is a great choice if you’re someone who could use an expert to guide you through the content or would like help creating and sticking to a review plan. I opted for the cheapest method—buying prep books and studying on my own—which worked for me because I could set up a study schedule that fit with my work calendar.
When making your study plan, you should also think about how much content review you need. If you’re a statistician who also happens to specialize in reading comprehension, then you’re probably in good shape. If you were a history major like me, however, then you’ll need more time to re-teach yourself those math formulas. To get a sense of how comfortable you feel with the content, check out the free prep tools from the folks who write the actual GMAT.
2. Register for the Test
This list just stopped being nice and started getting real: The next step is registering for the GMAT. Signing up is the best way to motivate yourself to actually follow through on that study plan you made—reviewing math terms always seems more important when “Test Day” shows up in big red text on your calendar.
The GMAT overlords even built in an incentive for sticking to your test date: it costs $50 to reschedule and $80 to cancel, as long as you make your move more than a week before the test. Knowing I would have to pay to reschedule definitely helped me stick to my study plan!
Test centers typically offer a variety of different start times between 8 AM and 4 PM. You shouldn’t just choose your start time based on your schedule—instead, think about when you work best. Are you typically on point first thing in the morning before the after-lunch lull, or are you a slow starter who’s sharpest in the afternoon? Choose the test time for when you’re at your best. Most test centers will allow you to take the test on any day of the week, so you should be able to fit it in with your work schedule. But be warned: Desirable days and timeslots—like weekends—can fill up really quickly, especially in the fall and early winter. If you’re having trouble finding the start time you want, try checking out different dates and test centers.
3. Make Time to Practice
Now the actual work begins. You should start getting serious about studying for the GMAT about eight to 10 weeks before your test date. Spend at little time at the beginning getting organized and plotting study time into your calendar—after all, even if you’ve chosen a study strategy, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically have time for it in your busy life. It helps to write down your GMAT studying in your daily plan so that you make sure to fit it in with your work and other obligations.
Keeping up with my GMAT studying on top of work and trying to have a social life was the most difficult part of the process for me. I ended up making a plan to study one hour a day, every day, for eight weeks, rain or shine. Making my study time short helped it feel manageable, and I was able to build on what I’d learned the day before.
You’ll also need to set aside four-hour blocks of time to practice taking full tests. Try scheduling these practice tests as close as possible to the time of day you’ll be taking the real one so you can get a sense of how the actual day will feel. I know taking up chunks of your Saturday to take fake tests sounds like the last thing you want to do, but I promise, it will help leaps and bounds when it comes time for the real deal.
4. Gear Up For Test Day
The weeks leading up to the test are a great time to firm up your skills. Be strategic about what you study, giving extra attention to the things you struggle most with, and try to fit in a couple extra practice tests so you can get a sense of how you’re scoring. Don’t work too hard, however—you don’t want to stress yourself out at the end. The day before the test, I decided to take a break from studying and treat myself to a pedicure, and I highly recommend you give yourself some down time as well.
You should also prepare to celebrate all your hard work! Plan a fun night out with friends for the night after the test, buy some wine to enjoy when you’re all done, or think about the celebrity gossip magazines you’ll devour on the way home from the test center—whatever gets you excited about making it through the finish line.
5. Knock it Out of the Park
By the time test day has arrived, you’ll be prepared to go in and rock it. The GMAT is really long, so eat a big breakfast or lunch and pack snacks to munch on during breaks. Warm up before going in by doing a couple of easy problems while listening to pump-up music. And make sure you don’t forget your ID and confirmation—they won’t let you in without them!
Finally, be confident in your ability to do a great job. If you put in the time, you’ll get the score you’re looking for, and you’ll be on your way to fulfilling your b-school dreams.