MBA - Application Process

How To Tackle the GMAT in 3 Phases

Many folks, dreading the GMAT, put off preparing for it, and often we GMAT experts receive panicked questions from these poor planners: “I have only eight days left before the GMAT: how can I get a 750?”

Needless to say, that is not the approach that usually garners the greatest success.

Let’s suppose that you are a highly responsible student who, long before you have to take the GMAT, wants to set out methodically to study. What would be a smart way to approach this task to maximize your chances of success?

If your prospective GMAT date is considerably more than a year away, you have the abundant advantage of time.

I will talk about GMAT preparation in what I will call three “phases.” If you are at all serious about taking the GMAT some day, Phase I begins essentially as soon as you are done reading this article, Phase II begins 12-15 months before the GMAT, and Phase III — the concentrated zone — begins 3-6 months before test day.

Phase I: Access Your Weakness

In this phase, you have to do very little that is specifically GMAT-related. I would suggest spending maybe half an hour simply to get to know the question types on the GMAT. What is the overall format of the test?  What, broadly, is a Critical Reasoning question or a Data Sufficiency question? Just get a rough sense of what the different sections entail. If there is any question format that gives you a gut feeling of, “wow! that looks hard to master,” then perhaps dig deeper for a little more detail about it at that point, to get a better sense of that question type.

The primary work in this phase concerns addressing your anticipated area of weakness. If you not strong in Verbal, and especially if you are not a native English speaker, then you need to READ. You need to read every single day, at least an hour a day. You need to challenge yourself with difficult, sophisticated reading. Certainly the New York Times and the Economist magazines are good places to start; if you are interested in learning about the business world and improving your Verbal, you could hardly do better than to read the Economist from cover to cover each week. Pay attention to sentence structure, arguments, and how articles are organized overall. Keep up this reading habit right through the date of your GMAT.

If you are not strong in math, on the other hand, and especially if you have avoided math since whatever was your last required high school math class, then you need to do math every day. First of all, never use a calculator: do everything with pencil and paper, and perhaps simply check your work with the calculator. Do basic arithmetic every day: add, subtract, multiply, and divide in your head. Practice your multiplication tables. Have a friend, holding a calculator quiz or a GMAT Math summary, ask you: what is 3 times 17? What are the factors of 119? What is the formula for the area of a triangle? Look for opportunities to do math in everyday life: tally your grocery bill in your head, estimate gas mileage, estimate the floor space of a room, etc. The more you exercise your “math muscles,” the more in-shape they will become. Keep up these good math habits through the date of the GMAT.

This would also be a good time to start developing stress management skills: deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation. Relaxation under pressure is a skill, and you have to practice this diligently to become good at it! GMAT test-takers routinely underestimate how important competence in these skills is to a successful performance. So don’t make that mistake!

Phase II: Dating the GMAT

OK, you’ve done well so far. At 12-15 months out, you will start to get specific about the GMAT. Don’t make the mistake of using the Official Guide or any high-quality material just yet. It’s still far too early for that.

Buy a used GMAT prep book. Virtually any would do, even one that’s a bit out of date.  Take a practice GMAT, under timed conditions, with virtually no studying. This will give you a rough idea of your “cold” starting point.

At this point, you will start to read in earnest about each question type, and begin to look at practice questions. Even at this early stage, keep an error log: make a science out of the study of your mistakes. You will not necessarily do something GMAT-related every day, but maybe a few times a week. Start to cycle through topics, perhaps touching on exponents, then do a few more math topics before hitting exponents again. Make sure to do some Quant and some Verbal each time you study.

Phase III: Fully Engaged with the GMAT

In this last phase, you will follow a formal GMAT study schedule, making use of the GMAT Official Guide and other high-quality material. If you need, say, a 50-100 point improvement over your “cold” starting point, then 3 months would be sufficient, but if you are looking for a much larger improvement, it would be better if this intense period were 6 full months.

In this phase, you are thinking about the GMAT and doing GMAT practice every single day. All practice questions should be done against a clock. All practice should involve mixed topics, not focused on one topic in particular. You are also working formally through some extensive treatment of the content and strategy on the GMAT as well as a full set of GMAT lessons, as a good GMAT study schedule would provide.

Finally, on weekends, you start taking full length practice tests: paper-based tests are fine at first, but later, move on to formal CAT (Computer Adaptive Testing) versions of the GMAT. Save the highest-quality tests–the official GMAT Prep tests–for right before the real test.

A good GMAT study schedule should cover this, but long before the test date, make sure you know exactly what you have to bring to the test site, what you can’t bring, where the test site is, etc. Make sure all the logistical details are worked out well ahead of time.

Author Karen Lamb has observed: “A year from now you may wish you had started today.” Time is one of the most valuable resources to have in your GMAT preparation. If you get an early start, you can really take advantage of this time. Think of your preparation as a long-term investment of your time, energy, and commitment, and it has the potential to reward you richly.

Looking for one-on-one, intensive GMAT prep? Check out the Forté MBALaunch program.


This post was written by Mike McGarry, resident GMAT expert at Magoosh and a leader in GMAT prep. For more advice on taking the GMAT, check out Magoosh’s GMAT blog.

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