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How to study for the GMAT effectively: Expert tutor shares tips

Menlo Coaching GMATChris Kane is one of the most experienced GMAT tutors in the industry and takes great pride in his approach to test preparation.

In this article, he shares tips on how to study for the GMAT, particularly when to study (and how to build a schedule) as well as how to organize your study time in three steps.

How to study for the GMAT effectively


Planning Your GMAT Study

An effective GMAT study plan starts with dedicating most of your time to GMAT prep over a defined period while avoiding distractions.

Over my nearly 20 years of preparing students for this test, I have seen countless examples of people who needlessly extend the process and never truly devote the required time to the exam.

They’ll start the studying process then get swept up in a work project, try to cram studying while working full-time, or become entangled in several social obligations–which all pull them away from GMAT preparation.

The GMAT is a difficult test and if you don’t put in the time and effort to solidify your understanding of the content knowledge, as well as learn efficient strategies to approach test questions, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Plan on setting aside roughly ten weeks for the optimal GMAT study schedule, and follow this simple test prep advice:

  • Prepare early: Start your preparation period as early as you can. If you are a college senior, even better. You are already in “study mode” so preparing for and taking the test now could save you a lot of headache later. Remember, the GMAT test scores are valid for 5 years.
  • Prepare for the GMAT when you’re not working (or not working a lot): The GMAT is a highly sophisticated test that requires mastery of content and subtle pattern recognition. Your GMAT studying is so much more effective and efficient when you are living and breathing the exam rather than struggling to stay awake while doing problems after a long day of work.
  • Plan your preparation window wisely and clear your social schedule: Don’t deviate from your defined study schedule–use your weekends for studying and avoid any extended trips or work travel. It will be much less painful to study over an intense 10-week period than on and off over a year.
  • Efficiency is key: If it’s in your budget, take a GMAT prep course or get one-on-one tutoring. People waste so much time trying to prepare on their own without a defined curriculum and without the guidance of an expert.


How Long to Study for the GMAT?

If you are like most people, preparing for the GMAT while working full-time, you should plan on spending about 12 hours per week (over a 10-week period) as follows:

  • 2-3 hours on GMAT preparation during three of your workdays,
  • a big 4-hour study session on one of your weekend days, and
  • a shorter 2-hour session on the other.

Try to avoid short study sessions in which you’re not able to dig deeply into topics and train both focus and pattern recognition. If you are not working full-time you can condense your schedule into 5-6 weeks.

So, now that you’ve got your schedule in place, you might be wondering how to actually study for the GMAT. Next up, let’s discuss an approach for GMAT studying.
Read How to improve your GMAT score by 100 points in 30 days

GMAT Study in 3 Steps: A Time-Saving Approach

Smart GMAT preparation involves three steps with their own unique objectives:

  1. Refresh: Re-learn underlying content.
  2. Learn and apply: Deconstruct problems and learn how to apply proper strategy.
  3. Practice: Hone your pacing and test-taking skills.

Although the steps will overlap it’s important to keep in mind the goal for each.

What’s On the GMAT?

The GMAT uses basic underlying knowledge and skills—arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics, grammar, logic, reading proficiency—to assess a series of distinct abilities related to higher-order thinking that accurately predict how you will perform in business school.

Some of these abilities include critical thinking, pattern recognition, dealing with abstraction, problem solving, and crucially, recognizing the “con”—the ability to determine where difficulty really lies in a problem and what mechanisms and tricks are being used to create it.

The assessment of these five abilities is what makes the exam so hard. Unfortunately, during self-study students often do not improve these crucial skills, but rather focus exclusively on content.

Ultimately, professional instruction is so valuable for exactly this reason: an experienced tutor can see exactly why you are really missing questions, while you will likely struggle to make the proper adjustments on your own.

In other words, how you prepare for the GMAT matters!

Nonetheless, I’ll cover the three basic steps to GMAT preparation that all programs of study should follow, based on a winning curriculum I have developed over nearly two decades as a GMAT tutor.

1. GMAT Study Refresh

It is important to address any content weaknesses before you can focus on improving the baseline abilities described above in the context of the GMAT.

You need well-made GMAT-specific drills that focus on exactly the skills required for the exam.

(Heads up: the official resources do not provide these types of organized drills, so you need to use a high quality GMAT curriculum that helps you quickly fill knowledge gaps.)

Once you complete this initial refresh, you will continue to increase your fluency even more in the next steps.

The underlying knowledge required for the GMAT is so crucial and if you do not have complete mastery of it, you’re likely not going to be able to break through a score you can achieve.

You’ll be competing against people for whom the underlying content on this exam is quite basic – make sure your content knowledge and fluency are not holding you back.

If you find that you suffer from a distinct content weakness (algebra and grammar are two common areas of deficiency), you may need to spend extra time at the beginning of your preparation process addressing those content issues.

To test your content readiness, see our original post on this topic: GMAT Study Guide.

In the video below, I share an example of how you need to know certain basic things to succeed on the GMAT (i.e. how to break integers down into their prime factors).


2. Learn and Apply GMAT Concepts

For the next phase of GMAT study – “Learn and Apply” – it’s highly advisable to use a well-organized GMAT curriculum.

This is because, within the content covered in the exam, there are particular questions that are used commonly which have important patterns.

To prepare effectively for this test, you want to avoid learning GMAT content in a vacuum, and instead focus on applying the content to solve hard problems.

Most of the difficulty lies in understanding the question to know what math you need to use.

Following a tried and tested curriculum offered by a GMAT prep course can ensure you are practicing many of the same problem types.

Randomly doing problems of all types in the Official Guide is one reason people fail on when studying on their own.

If you end up using the Official Guide in your self-study, make sure you do problems in particular content groups.

Quality instruction will greatly speed up this essential component of the preparation process. You will…

  • learn common “cons” and “set-ups” used for particular question types;
  • learn clever exceptions and content tricks that most students overlook;
  • learn what types of problem solving strategies to use in particular scenarios;
  • ultimately understand exactly what makes questions difficult and how to see through that difficulty quickly.

Some learners might eventually develop similar strategies and recognize key patterns on their own, but it will likely take much longer and they will probably even still overlook some critical test elements.

The goal of this step is to empower you to properly deconstruct every practice question that you miss or solve inefficiently and learn from it.

If you don’t do this properly during your self-study, you typically do not improve much, even when you have completed 1000 questions.


You don’t truly understand the reason you got the question wrong, so you don’t make the necessary improvements and adjustments to strategy, approach, and mindset.

If you choose to self-study, focus most of your time on getting the proper takeaways from each question.

To test your application of knowledge, see our original post on this topic: GMAT Study Guide.
For an example of applying the correct concepts, see the video on Hard Geometry below. (i.e. knowing the right rules about triangles can be used to find a shortcut to the answer, instead of doing the brute force method of calculating every angle.)


3. GMAT Practice

Once you have refreshed the core content and have learned how to effectively unpack GMAT practice questions–and can recognize the difficulty in each problem–you might be thinking you’re ready for the exam.

Nope, not yet!

It’s time to put it all into practice.

This final step of GMAT studying involves practicing how to take the exam, namely by improving your pace and test-taking skills.

While doing the first two steps, it is not possible to also focus on these important competencies.

Pacing and test-taking are vital to achieving a high GMAT score, and this means that after you have covered content, you must do lots of timed practice sets with official practice questions and then thoroughly review your performance.

Unlike the other steps, it is more appropriate to do GMAT practice on your own, as you are simply doing timed sets and taking practice tests.

A tutor can help you better analyze your overall performance on these exercises, but you should be able to make proper adjustments if you take the time to carefully unpack each timed set and practice test.

During this process, your remaining weaknesses will become evident, and you will master the process of completing a certain number of questions in a defined period.

Your decision-making skills will also improve, saving you valuable GMAT test time: you’ll know whether guessing is the smart choice, or if it’s better to be a little stubborn when you know you can eventually get a question correct.

This final GMAT studying step culminates in a series of official practice tests that accurately indicate your test strengths and weaknesses. It allows you to focus on the areas that need more work.

It’s good to keep in mind that it does not make sense to waste practice tests and focus on pacing early in your GMAT preparation process.

The only way you get faster and better on the exam is by improving your content knowledge and your strategic approach to problems.
In summation, the best way to study for the GMAT involves a good study plan and an organized studying approach as outlined in this article.

Set aside the right time period, do the right preparation, and be the envy of your friends or colleagues when you get a 700+ score in the shortest possible time frame! (How to score 700+ on the GMAT)
About the Author: Chris Kane is the Head of Test Prep at Menlo Coaching and leads a select team of seasoned tutors who masterfully prepare students for the GMAT. His commitment to providing the highest quality instruction, in both one-on-one tutoring and group courses, is well known among his students and colleagues. Before joining Menlo Coaching, he spent 15 years as lead instructor and curriculum developer at a major test prep company, and then as CEO of his own GMAT prep firm.

This article is part of CrystalConnect, an outreach initiative by MBA Crystal Ball.

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