Just starting out? Or maybe you’ve been studying for weeks already? Perhaps you’ve already taken the official test once but want another crack at it? Whatever stage you’re at, you need a plan, so that’s what we’re going to talk about this week: how to develop your own personalized study plan. Get a notebook, open up a file on your computer, or start a blog. Record everything.
First, you need to know your current score and the score level that will make you competitive at the schools to which you plan to apply. This gives you an idea of how much improvement you will need and may affect your prep plans, including the length of time you plan to spend and whether you work on your own. (Generally speaking, the larger the desired improvement, the more likely it is that the student will need more time and / or more outside help.) Put this info in your journal.
If you haven’t already (recently), take a practice CAT in conditions that simulate the actual exam as much as possible. Do the essays (I know you don’t care about the essay score, but you do care about making sure your overall CAT score is representative, and the effort it takes to write the essays can make a difference). Take two 8-minute breaks, one after the essays and one after the quantitative section. Don’t answer the phone, don’t eat or drink except during the breaks, and so on—basically make it as close to the real test as you can.
Many prep companies and published books offer practice exams, so you have plenty of choices, but you do need to make sure that the exam does several things. First, it should be adaptive, just like the real test. Second, it should record the time you spend on each individual question—timing is a major factor on the GMAT. Third, it should offer score reports that give you tons of data on your strengths and weaknesses. GMATPrep exams (from the makers of the real test) are great in general but do not give you the 2nd and 3rd items on this list, so don’t use a GMATPrep exam for this exercise. Save GMATPrep for closer to the time you plan to take the real test.
What Are My Strengths and Weaknesses?
Now, use the test results to help you figure out your strengths and weaknesses in terms of both content and timing. Click on this link for another article that walks you through how to do this analysis using a Manhattan Prep CAT. Put all of this in your journal.
You also need to figure out your optimal learning style. Think back to undergrad. Did you do best when you had a small classroom of comrades with whom you shared the adventures of learning? Or did you excel when you worked on your own, or possibly met individually with your professor or TA? At work today, does it energize you to work with a group or do you focus better via one-on-one interactions? Do you prefer to do most of your work on your own or with others?
The answers to those questions will help you determine whether to study on your own, find other students with whom to study, take an organized class, or find a private tutor.
What’s My Schedule?
Now that you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can use that info to determine:
- The total amount of time you’re likely going to need for primary studying (that is, the time you take to master the material), not including a comprehensive final review. For most people, this length of time will be 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 (> 50 points) improvement. If you take a class, your primary study will be at least the length of the class and possibly some additional time.
- The amount of time to set aside for review, after you finish mastering the material and before you take the test. Most people spend 2 to 6 weeks on a comprehensive review after they finish their primary study.
You also need to factor in two other things that will affect your study timeframe:
- The amount of buffer time you need to ensure that you can take the test a second time, if necessary. You are only allowed to take the GMAT once in a 31-day period (and 5 times a year).
- The application deadlines of your preferred schools. You will, of course, have to work backward from these drop-dead dates. If you have the time, it’s preferable to get the test out of the way well before you have to start filling out the applications themselves. (Keep in mind that your GMAT score is valid for 5 years, so you can get started very early!)
Note: you may also want to add in a couple of extra weeks as an additional buffer, just in case. Work gets busy, people get sick, we procrastinate things happen.
What Resources Do I Need?
There are tons of resources available to help you get ready for the GMAT. If you take a course or work with some structured program, the materials should already be determined for you. Otherwise, you’ll have to figure out what works best for you.
In general, there are three major categories of necessary resources:
- Test content and methodology. These materials will teach you the what and the how: what’s on the test and how to take the test. These materials will come from a test prep company (this is what test prep companies do!).
- Practice questions. As you’re learning the actual material tested on the exam and how to handle the different types of GMAT questions, you’ll also need to test yourself to see whether you’re getting better. The best practice questions are the officially released past test questions from GMAC (the makers of the GMAT). The latest three books are The Official Guide 12th Edition, the Verbal Review 2nd Edition and the Quantitative Review 2nd Edition. The most recent online release is GMAT Focus (for quant only).
- Practice tests. You’ll want a mix of practice tests: GMATPrep (from the real makers of the test) and some tests from a test prep company. The GMATPrep test is the closest to the real thing, but doesn’t offer explanations or analysis of your results. A test prep company’s CAT will give you explanations and analysis.
Okay, so you know your goal score, you know your strengths and weaknesses, and you’ve gathered your materials. It’s time to develop your specific plan. Pick a time frame (generally two to three weeks) and decide what weaknesses you want to improve in that timeframe. In general, start with your biggest weaknesses in areas that are frequently tested on the GMAT. If you’re not sure which areas are most frequently tested, look on the forums.
Get a calendar and block off two hours each day (okay, you can have one day off each week 😊). In your journal, write down what your focus will be for each of the first six study sessions. (Note: day 6 is always a review day; you might do some random sets of problems, review what you did during the first 5 days, do a few problems from your stronger areas, et cetera.)
During a two-hour study session, if you are reading lessons and then doing non-official-GMAT practice problems in that same area, you should spend about half your time doing each of those two things. If you are doing and then reviewing sets of practice problems, then you should spend about 40% of your time doing a set of questions and 60% of your time reviewing those questions. (Here’s another article about how to review GMAT practice problems.)
At the end of each study session, jot down what you did that day, what you think went well, and what you think needs more work. If something didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, then feel free to adjust your calendar. At the end of the six days, review your journal and set up your plan for the next six days. Repeat until you feel you’ve made good progress and are ready to test yourself on a CAT again. (This will typically take at least two to three weeks!)
When you take the next CAT, don’t worry about the overall score. Specifically check the areas on which you’d been concentrating for the previous several weeks. Did those areas get better? Can you move on to other topics or question types, or are there still things you need to improve? If you want to improve more, figure out how to review this area again.
Then, do the overall test review again (the same thing you did on the first test). Figure out what your new priorities are, set up your 6-day plan, and repeat the whole process for several weeks until you feel ready for another test.
Good luck and happy studying!