How to Study for the GMAT On Your Own



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You’ve been thinking for a while now about going back to business school. You’ll go sometime in the future…but you haven’t started to do much about it yet.

Well, break out your pencils* and get ready to take advantage of your new membership in the GMAT Exercise Club! We’re going to set up a custom program for you to get the score you need by summer’s end—and then you can decide whether to apply this fall or to wait a year or two.

*Okay, okay, you don’t use pencils for this test anymore, nor is there an actual GMAT Exercise Club, and I can’t really give each and every one of you a completely customized, individual study program. But I can tell you what to start doing today to get yourself ready to take the GMAT by the end of the summer, as long as you make the commitment to get your brain in gear, do a little bit every day, and conquer Mount Everest…er, the GMAT.

This article will assume that you plan to study on your own. If you are still deciding whether to study on your own, take a class, or work with a tutor, the following article discusses the pros and cons of each approach: How to Choose an Approach: Self-study, Class, or Tutor.

Here’s how to develop a study plan that’s appropriate for you.

Week 1: Take a CAT

Your first step is to take a practice CAT under official testing conditions (including all 4 sections: essay, IR, Quant, Verbal).

It’s best to use a test-prep company CAT for this, not GMATPrep (the official practice test from the makers of the GMAT), as the purpose for taking this practice CAT is to gain insight into your strengths and weaknesses. While GMATPrep is the closest thing to the real test, it provides no data with which to evaluate your performance. Save GMATPrep for later in your study.

Right now, you might be protesting: but I haven’t studied anything yet! That’s okay. In fact, that’s the point! You need to determine what you do already know or understand and what you don’t so that you can set up an effective study plan for yourself. Don’t stress about your first score—use it as a study tool.

It is smart, though, to make sure that you learn a little bit about one particular question type before you take that test. Unless you’ve studied for the GMAT before, you probably haven’t seen anything like Data Sufficiency, so review that question type before your first CAT.

If you take a Manhattan Prep CAT, use this two-part article to analyze your results: Evaluating Your Practice Tests. (The link given here is to the first part of the article; you can find the link to the second part at the end of the first part.)

Week 1: Choose Your Materials or Program

Next, you need a study plan. To start, figure out what materials you’ll use to study on your own. At the least, you will need two things:

(1) Material that teaches you how to take the test

(2) Material that allows you to practice your skills

The first category includes test preparation materials—books, flash cards, interactive lessons—basically, materials that teach you strategies, facts, rules, and techniques for taking the GMAT.

The best source material for the second category includes official test questions that have been released by the test makers. There are three Official Guide (OG) books full of questions, the previously-mentioned GMATPrep software, GMAT Focus, and more. (You can find descriptions of all of these products at

I want to talk a little bit more about one item from category 1: interactive lessons. These kinds of lessons fall in between static books and live classes or tutoring (the price, the amount of material, the level of engagement, everything).

Many (if not most) companies are moving forward with pre-prepared lessons that are still customizable (to some extent) to an individual student. These types of lessons are typically more dynamic, incorporating video, audio, and interactive components, and they’re adaptive: as you work through a lesson, you may be offered something harder if you’re breezing through or something easier if you’re struggling with a concept.

These types of programs should offer some kind of structure: an order to the lessons, recommendations for what to do each week for some number of weeks, and so on. Do follow the structure in general—the lessons and recommendations were made that way for a reason—but customize to fit your particular strengths and weaknesses (as determined by your first CAT). More on this in the next section.

Weeks 2 through 10-ish: Study Smart

Now that you’re ready to start studying, we have to discuss the next critical component: how to study on your own in a way that gets you the most out of your hard work. Studying a great quantity of stuff doesn’t necessarily accomplish that goal.

You will, of course, need to learn all of the facts and rules (Quant and grammar) tested on the GMAT. You’ll also need to learn the major strategies necessary for the six different question types (Integrated Reasoning, Problem Solving, Data Sufficiency, Sentence Correction, Reading Comprehension, and Critical Reasoning). All of this constitutes the first level of your GMAT learning.

But wait! There is a second level. You’ll need to learn how the test writers put these (sometimes infuriating!) questions together and how you can translate GMAT-speak into normal language that you can tackle efficiently and effectively.

Luckily, I’ve already got an entire article for you on the 2nd Level of GMAT Learning. Read it (including the other articles linked in it—they’re very important!) and start practicing what it preaches.

Next, customize your plan. If you’re working from books, start with the most fundamental material that is giving you trouble (based on your CAT results) and work your way up from there.

If you’re using interactive lessons, adjust the standard plan according to your strengths and weaknesses. For example, Manhattan Prep’s interactive program (GMAT Interact™) starts out in week 1 with an overview of GMAT scoring, and lessons on Data Sufficiency (DS) and Sentence Correction (SC). If, on your first practice test, you bombed DS but SC went pretty well, then you’re going to adjust accordingly. Plan to take more time than the syllabus recommends for DS, and either take less time on SC or push yourself to work on some harder practice problems.

If you were pretty unfamiliar with DS, you might try just the first part of the interactive lesson (which explains the basics), then go practice those skills on some easy OG DS problems, and then come back and finish the main DS lesson.

Because the lessons are interactive, you can sometimes “unlock” harder material by doing well in the lesson. As a result, you might even return to the lesson in a few weeks to try it again—you might see some harder questions now that your skills have matured. (And, even if the lesson doesn’t have harder questions available, you’ll still solidify the strategies and get some solid review under your belt.)

Do the above for approximately the first 6 weeks and then take another practice CAT. Analyze it again—your skills will have changed!—and use those new priorities as you continue with your lessons.

Weeks 10-ish to 13+ish: Review

At some point, you will have worked your way through the main lessons of whatever program or books you’re using. Then, you’ll start your review.

There are two broad scenarios:

(1) Your practice CATs are in your desired score range

(2) Your practice CATs are not in your desired score range

If your CATs are where you want them to be, plan to take the test within a few weeks, after doing a comprehensive review across the main content areas, question types, and strategies.

If your CATs are not where you want them to be, you’re going to go back to your program material, but this time, don’t just start from the beginning. Use your most recent CAT to figure out your priorities and selectively return to those lessons that are the most important for you to learn. When you feel that you have made significant progress in whatever those areas are, take another CAT and repeat the process until your scores get into the range that you want.

(Note: your analysis of one CAT should provide you with at least two weeks’ worth of study material. If you’re tempted to take a CAT earlier than that, then you’re in danger of falling into the trap of taking CATs too frequently because you’re hoping your score has gone up. If you haven’t really put in the work, don’t expect much to change on your next CAT.)

If your scores aren’t getting into the range that you want, then you may have to revisit either your goal score or your decision to study on your own (that is, you may need outside help in the form of a teacher/tutor). Let’s hope that doesn’t apply in your case but, if it does, take a look at the How to Choose an Approach article linked at the beginning of this post.

On Your Mark, Get Set…

Take your first step today. Decide whether you’re going to study on your own, take a class, or work with a tutor. Start researching the materials, programs, or tutors available and make a decision one week from today (put an actual deadline on your calendar!). Sign up/order/do what you need to do in order to get started.

Next, mark off study times on your calendar. Plan to study 5 or 6 days a week for 30 minutes to 3 hours a day. You can break sessions up into smaller chunks (in fact, I wouldn’t recommend sitting down for more than about 1 to 1.5 hours at a stretch). If you’re going to use an interactive learning program that lets you set your own “class” schedule, block off regular class times at the same time every week (even though you’ll be the only student in attendance).

Go! 📝

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stacey-koprinceStacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT  for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.

  1. Rahul July 21, 2015 at 4:21 am

    I plan to appear for GMAT somewhere in June 2016. I am planning to adopt a self study approach using the Manhattan guides and the OG (just the main review book). Kindly advise me if I should purchase all the guides despite the possibility that i would be comfortable with some of those topics tested. Also do i need to attempt each and every problem provided in those guides as well as the OG in order to be ready for the test? I will be supplementing this study material with GMAT prep tests and the already provided Manhattan tests as well the Beat the GMAT forums. Looking to score in the high 700s.