How to Prepare for the GMAT: Study in 3 Steps

If you’re in the midst of preparing for the GMAT or just getting started with your studying, you might be asking yourself: How can I prepare for the GMAT effectively? In this article Chris Kane, our head of Test Prep, lays out the most effective way to get ready for the exam–in just three simple GMAT study steps. In fact, the approach explained here comes directly from our GMAT Prep course

Note: This article describes an approach to studying for the GMAT. If you are looking for information on when to study and making a schedule, see GMAT Study Plan.

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Best Way to Prepare for the GMAT Exam

Smart GMAT preparation involves three steps:

These steps will overlap during your GMAT prep, but they each have their own goals and objectives: the refresh step focuses on relearning underlying content; the learning and application step is about deconstructing problems and learning how to apply core knowledge to GMAT problems using proper strategy; and the practice step will help you hone your pacing and test-taking skills while shoring up any remaining weak areas. 

Rationale: What is on the GMAT Exam? 

The GMAT, administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council, 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, and 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, your GMAT study plan matters! Nonetheless, this article will cover the three basic steps to GMAT preparation that all study plans should follow, based on a winning curriculum I have developed over 16 years as a GMAT tutor.

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How to Prepare for the GMAT in 3-Steps

Step 1: Refresh 

Before you can focus on improving the baseline abilities described above in the context of the GMAT exam, you must address any content weaknesses. This is the basic starting point for GMAT prep that will help you achieve your target score and is one area in which self-study creates problems: you need well-made GMAT-specific drills that focus on exactly the skills required for the exam. 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.

If you don’t have complete mastery of the underlying knowledge, you are creating a hard ceiling for the score you can achieve. You are 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 GMAT preparation process addressing those content issues.

Test your content readiness:

Here is an example of a full GMAT quant question that is just about content. If this problem is hard, then your content knowledge and fluency for factors/multiples is not where it needs to be, and you need to spend more time in step 1 (don’t worry if you find it hard…most people have some content weaknesses with this weird area of arithmetic!):

How many positive factors does 441 have?

  1. 2
  2. 7
  3. 8
  4. 9
  5. 10

The presentation is not abstract; you do not need to be particularly clever or critical; you just need to know how to quickly determine the number of factors of any number! 

As you would learn in our arithmetic lesson, you do this by first establishing the prime factorization of 441: since 4+4+1 = 9, you know this number is divisible by 9 (using divisibility rules for 9) and clearly it is 9 x 49 since you are one 9 away from 450. The prime factorization is thus 32 x 72

Lastly, you use a lesser-known counting trick to determine the total number of factors. Certain content tricks are worth learning for the GMAT exam and others are a waste of time (the probability of using them is too low). This one is worth knowing. To find the number of factors using the prime factorization of a number, you extract the exponents from each unique prime factor—in this case the 2 from 3 and the 2 from 7—add one to each of those exponents and multiply them together. Here that would be (2+1)(2+1) = 9 total factors. 

Don’t worry about exactly how and why the trick works for this example, but do realize this: with proper content knowledge, this is an easy 30 second problem. Without that knowledge, you and most other test takers will spend 3+ minutes and probably get it wrong. Know what you need to know!

Step 2: Learn and Apply

Once you have refreshed all the core content knowledge (this goes quickly for most people), then the fun part begins. For each content family, there are particular types of questions that are commonly used and that contain important patterns. Studying for the GMAT is not about learning content in a vacuum – it is about the application of content to solve hard problems and most of the difficulty lies in unpacking the question to see what math you need to apply. 

To do this properly, you should use a highly organized curriculum in which you do many of the same types of problems at once. Randomly doing problems of all types in the Official Guide is one reason people fail on test day when they’ve studied on their own. If you end up using the Official Guide in your self-study, make sure you do problems in particular content groups—numerous tutors and test prep companies have provided a free categorization of problems from the official resources in different online forums.

Quality instruction will greatly speed up this essential component of the GMAT preparation process: you will learn common “cons” and “set-ups” used for particular question types; you will learn clever exceptions and content tricks that most students overlook; you will learn what types of problem solving strategies to use in particular scenarios; you will ultimately understand exactly what makes questions difficult and how to see through that difficulty quickly. 

While you might eventually develop similar strategies to study for the GMAT and recognize key patterns on your own, you will likely take much longer and 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. Why? 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. 

Test your application of knowledge:

To see an example of how proper GMAT practice can efficiently boost your score, take a look at this hard problem:

(1.00001)(.99999) – (1.00002)(.99998) =

  1. 0
  2. 10-10
  3. 3(10-10)
  4. 10-5
  5. 3(10-5)

This abstract and intimidating calculation problem will stump almost all new test takers. Maybe you try to actually calculate these hideous multiplications and then subtract? Maybe you just stare blankly at the problem for 2 minutes and then guess? The reality is that you will only get this correct if you use proper strategy and have seen problems in this family before. GMAT question writers are a brilliant bunch, but patterns still emerge within the pool of questions they create.

Success on this question starts with leveraging every hint in the problem. Without using the forms given in the answer choices, you will have no idea how to unpack this question. Why are the answers in the form 10-10 and 10-5? Good test takers see that quickly and change the form of the given information to match the answers:

(1 + 10-5)(1 – 10-5) – (1 + 2(10-5))(1 – 2(10-5) At this point experienced GMAT test takers immediately see the difference of squares and apply that to transform these products into something simpler. The difference of squares is an important algebraic scenario that is regularly used to unpack weird calculations on this exam. Transforming the (x + y)(x – y) form given in each component of the difference written above to x2 – y2, you now get: (1 – 10-10) – (1 – 4(10-10) Being careful with your signs, you are left with 3(10-10) after completing the subtraction properly. 

To get these types of high-value quant questions correct on test day, you need to have prepared properly. You need to leverage every little clue given in the problem and you need experience: the difference of squares has been used in similar hard questions like this so you will be looking for it in exactly this type of scenario.

Step 3: Practice

So…you have refreshed and mastered most of the core content. You have learned how to effectively deconstruct GMAT practice questions and you are able to quickly recognize where the true difficulty lies in most problems. Are you ready for the exam? No.

In refreshing content and learning how to apply that knowledge, you cannot also focus on pacing and test-taking skills. But pacing and test-taking are vital to achieving a high GMAT score on test day, 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. 

You can study by yourself fairly well during this phase, as you are simply doing timed sets and practice tests to work on both test-taking skills and pacing. A tutor can help you better analyze your overall performance, but you should be able to make proper adjustments if you take the time to carefully unpack each timed set and practice test. 

In this process, you see where you still have weaknesses (perhaps you continue to miss inequality questions and SC questions testing meaning) and you will master the process of completing a certain number of questions in a defined period, especially by running through a full practice test. You will become better than most test takers at guessing when that is the smart decision and being a little stubborn when you know you can eventually get a question correct. 

The third step in studying for the GMAT culminates with a series of official practice tests that indicate accurately where you stand and where you still need some work. Remember: it does not make sense to take on a practice test early in your 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.

Other Considerations for GMAT Preparation

The approach and content involved in your GMAT preparation should be one component of an overall GMAT study plan

In planning your schedule, pick a smart time frame and set aside roughly 10 weeks of test prep time. In those first five weeks, refresh all the underlying exam content and learn how to properly deconstruct and attack GMAT problems of each type—steps 1 and 2. 

Following that initial period, begin step 3. Do a lot of timed practice sets and work through a full practice test regularly. Unless the practice tests are way off from your target score, when test day comes, you should be ready to face the exam head-on, reach your target score, and be done with the GMAT forever!

If you are looking for a structured program following the steps mentioned above, contact us today at [email protected].

Chris Kane is one of the most experienced GMAT tutors in the industry and takes great pride in his approach to test preparation. Before joining Menlo Coaching, he spent 15 years as lead GMAT instructor and curriculum developer at a major test prep company, and then as CEO of his own GMAT prep firm. 

As our Head of Test Prep, Chris leads a select team of seasoned tutors who have truly mastered preparing students for this difficult exam. 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.