Determining Your Trajectory up the GMAT Mountain: Developing a GMAT Study Plan, Pt. 1

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The GMAT RoadmapThis article, written by Abby Pelcyger and Stacey Koprince, was adapted from our upcoming book, The GMAT Roadmap: Expert Advice Through Test Day. The full book will be available mid-November.  Find more study tips on our blog.

These days, almost everyone preps for the GMAT—but surprisingly few actually plan how to prep in order to maximize the chance for success. Prepping for the GMAT without a plan is like climbing a mountain without a trail map. You may be just starting out or taking a second crack at the official test, but whatever stage you are at, you need a plan. It’s our hope that this article will help guide you on your way to developing your own personalized study plan.

What to Expect During Your Climb

Studying for the GMAT, like mountain climbing, has three phases: reaching base camp, climbing the mountain, and preparing to summit. Each phase has different goals and involves different strategies to help you achieve those goals.

Reaching Base Camp

If you are planning on climbing a mountain, you first need to be sure that you have the appropriate tools—you wouldn’t want to be halfway up Everest before realizing that you forgot your ice pick. Taking the GMAT is no different. Our GMAT Strategy Guides (and our classes) assume a basic knowledge of math and grammar, as outlined

in our Foundations of Math and Foundations of Verbal books. If your CAT score is below the 40th percentile in a content topic, we recommend that you review the corresponding Foundations book before diving into the Strategy Guides or a 9-week course.

Climbing the Mountain

Climbing the mountain is mastering the material, not including a comprehensive final review. For most people, this will take 8 to 16 weeks, though it may be a bit shorter if you’ve taken the test before and you’re not aiming for a significant score gain. If you take a class, your primary study period will be at least the duration of the class.

Preparing to Summit

Once you have mastered the relevant material, you will need time to review before you take the test. This review period is key to fully developing your timing strategy. Most people spend 2 to 6 weeks on a comprehensive review.

Outside Constraints

You need to factor in external constraints that will affect your study time-frame:

  • The application deadlines of your preferred schools. You have to work backwards from these set dates. Optimally, get the test out of the way well before you have to start filling out the applications themselves. Your GMAT score is valid for 5 years, so you can get started very early!
  • Allow yourself one month of “buffer” time to ensure that you can take the test a second time if you decide to try for a better score.
  • You may also want to add in a couple of extra weeks as an additional buffer, just in case. Work gets busy, you get sick, you procrastinate… things happen.

Picking the Path That’s Right for You

Just as the time you need to climb a mountain depends on the mountain’s height, where you start, and your pace, the time you need to prep for the GMAT depends on your target score, current ability level (in terms of content knowledge and standardized test know-how), and your study style.

Target Score: How High Am I Climbing?

First, you need to know the score level that will make you competitive at the schools to which you plan to apply. Many business schools post the average GMAT score of incoming students on their websites, often in the admissions or frequently asked questions (FAQ) section. Alternatively, several companies publish “Best Business School”-type books that list the statistics for incoming classes.

Current Ability Level: Where Am I Now?

Content: How long has it been since you studied grammar, found the prime factors of a number or critically analyzed a reading passage? What’s the formula for the area of a trapezoid? When did you last write an impromptu essay?

The average MBA applicant works for at least a few years after college before returning to school. Depending on your job, you may or may not have kept up with the content tested by the GMAT. Most of us don’t. Knowing how much you don’t know is key to establishing your prep plan.

Use the results from your first CAT to help estimate your current ability level. Generally speaking, the larger the desired improvement, the more likely it is that you will need more time and/or more outside help

Standardized Tests: When you took the SAT, did you do better than, worse than, or about the same as people expected based upon your performance in school? How stressed did you get when you took any kind of exam? Did your exam grades mirror your overall class grade? In a nutshell, do you tend to thrive or falter when you are in high-pressure testing situations? If you underperformed on standardized or other high pressure tests in the past, you may require more in-depth prep than those who did very well.

Don’t forget that the GMAT CAT has an extra complication: you must take it on a computer. If you’re not used to taking tests on a computer (and most of us aren’t), this could negatively affect your performance. To acclimate to computerized testing, make sure that the practice tests you take are computer-adaptive tests taken under official conditions (75-minutes per section, 8-minute breaks between sections, etc.) Also, when completing practice questions out of a book, prop the book up vertically on your desk.

Doing so will force you to look up and down while you use your scrap paper—just like on the real test!

Study Style: What’s my pace?

Are you someone who can study for hours on end, or does the book page begin to look like a Jackson Pollock after the first hour? How much prime time concentration can you realistically dedicate to studying each day?

Do you struggle to memorize formulas and need to review content often to keep it fresh or do you have a photographic memory? Does it take you a long time to process and truly understand a new math concept, or can you read a concept once and immediately apply it?

Check back next week for part 2.

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