How to Study for the GMAT

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - How to Study for the GMAT by Chelsey Cooley

The GMAT isn’t a college exam! Instead of ramping up the difficulty by testing harder material, the GMAT gets harder by making tougher demands on your executive reasoning skills. The way you study for the GMAT can’t just be based on learning math and grammar. It also has to improve your executive reasoning skills and prepare you to take the test effectively.

Start to Study for the GMAT: A Checklist

1. Decide when to take the GMAT.

2. Pick a GMAT goal score.

3. Learn how the GMAT looks and feels by reading the following links:

How is the GMAT organized?

What types of questions are on GMAT Quant?

What types of questions are on GMAT Verbal?

4. Take your first practice test (for free!).

That’s not a mistake: it’s fine to take your first practice test before you start studying for the GMAT. The point isn’t to see your score! It’s to help you understand what and how to study for the GMAT.

Your first practice test will take about 2.5 hours, if you skip the Analytical Writing and Integrated Reasoning sections.

5. Create a GMAT error log.

If you really want to know how to study for the GMAT effectively, this is it! Keeping an error log is the single best move you can make, and the earlier you start, the better.

6. Learn the math and grammar basics.

The GMAT isn’t a math test, and it isn’t an English test. It only tests basic content in both of those areas. But part of studying for the GMAT is knowing that basic content inside and out. If you’re rusty on math or grammar, start studying for the GMAT by working through these two books:

Foundations of GMAT Math

Foundations of GMAT Verbal

Not sure whether you need a GMAT math refresher? Take the 40-minute Basic Math Diagnostic in our Student Center. By the way, we offer a course on the GMAT math fundamentals, if you learn better in the classroom. Check it out!

How to Choose a GMAT Study Strategy

Should you study for the GMAT by taking a course, or should you go it alone? What are the options, and which one is right for you?

For most of us, the GMAT Complete Course is the right choice. The course structures your studies, keeps you accountable, and makes sure you don’t miss anything that could show up on the GMAT. You’ll also learn how to study for the GMAT on your own after the course ends.

This takes the stress out of studying for the GMAT—you’ll never have to wonder whether you’re covering everything or whether you’re studying correctly. When you sign up for the course, you also get all of the books you’ll need to study for the GMAT, plus access to a ton of online GMAT study resources.  

If you decide to do GMAT self-study instead, your options are to do a guided self-study program or to study entirely on your own. Our self-study program is called GMAT Interact. When you sign up for Interact, you’ll get all of the books you need for self-study and a set of game-changing interactive lessons that cover the same material as the course. You’ll also have a syllabus to follow, although you’ll need to hold yourself accountable for sticking to it!

To do GMAT self-study without Interact, you should purchase the following books.

You should also sign up for an account at mba.com, and get familiar with the free practice problems and the two free practice GMATs available there. Finally, purchase access to the full set of computer-adaptive GMAT practice tests here. Start your self-study by going through the checklist at the start of this article, then creating a GMAT study calendar!

Another alternative is GMAT tutoring. You can also use tutoring alongside self-study, while taking a course, or after your course is over. Tutoring works best when you want guidance on a few specific aspects of how to study for the GMAT, such as guessing strategies, word problems, or Critical Reasoning. It’s also an option if you’d like to take a GMAT course, but you need more flexibility or a different timeline. (If you have a deadline coming up, you could also check out our GMAT boot camps!)

How to (Not) Study for the GMAT

I’ve met a lot of GMAT students over the years, and here are two that I’ve spoken with over and over again. They’re both putting a lot of time and energy into studying, but they both need to make a few changes to reach their goals.

Student 1: Problem-Solving Patricia

“I did every practice problem in the Official Guide. Then I did every problem from mba.com. I can usually solve Quant problems in four or five minutes, and I’m getting about 80% of them right. I also did every practice test twice. But I’m still not hitting my goal score, and I’m out of practice problems! Where can I find more GMAT problems?”

Patricia is making two big mistakes. First, she’s not paying nearly enough attention to GMAT timing. A lot of GMAT problems have a fast solution and a slow solution. When you give yourself four or five minutes to do a problem, you’re allowing yourself to practice the slow solutions, instead of learning to find the faster ones. Patricia should time herself whenever she does practice problems.

She’s also doing a lot of problems, but she isn’t doing them thoughtfully enough. Blasting through a ton of problems is really satisfying, but you don’t learn while you’re doing it. Learning happens afterwards, when you review and reflect on how you solved those problems. Patricia is probably making the same mistakes over and over without realizing it. She should start a GMAT error log, identify areas she’s weak in, and use GMAT Interact or the GMAT Strategy Guides to study those areas in-depth. She should also do each problem more than once and spend more time reflecting on what to take away from those problems.

Student 2: Studious Shannon

“I took a GMAT class, read all of the Strategy Guides, and did all of the Interact lessons. I have a whole binder of notes on all of the math and grammar rules, and I’ve been studying my flashcards every day. But I’m still not hitting my goal score! What should I study next? Should I read the Advanced Quant book?”

If the GMAT was a college exam, Shannon would get an A+. On most exams, the more you know, the better you score! On the GMAT, knowledge is great, but performance is even more important. And in order to improve your performance, you have to practice performance. Here’s the advice I’d give Shannon:

  • Do actual GMAT problems, exactly how you’d do them on test day: with a timer, as part of a set of multiple problems.
  • When you finish a set of problems, think deeply about two things. First, what was the best way to solve the problem? Second, for each problem you missed or spent too long on, why did it happen? Record this info in your error log.  

Shannon also might be thinking quantity, not quality. When she does poorly on a practice test, she assumes that there’s some topic she hasn’t learned about yet. But Shannon’s probably already studied all of the GMAT material she needs. She just needs to apply overlearning to the topics she’s already studied.

Looking for more GMAT study principles? Here are some links to check out:

How You Should Study for the GMAT

Here’s an outline of how to study for the GMAT the right way. When you study, you’ll spend most of your time doing three things:

  • Learning about a topic or a strategy
  • Practicing by doing GMAT problems
  • Reviewing and analyzing what you’re learning

Learning about a topic or strategy is an ongoing process. Don’t assume that you’ll read the Geometry Strategy Guide once and never miss a Geometry problem again. That’s not how your brain retains info! You’re better off learning a new topic in small chunks, not all at once. Even then, you’ll need to periodically review what you’ve learned.

Here are your best resources for learning about a new topic. If you’re taking a GMAT course, you can add ‘go to the class session on the topic’ to this list!

  • Read the Strategy Guide chapter(s) on the topic and do the end-of-chapter drill problems.
  • Do the GMAT Interact lesson on the topic.
  • For math topics, Khan Academy is a great resource! You can even search for ‘math worksheets’ plus the name of your topic online, and you’ll find a ton of drill problems.
  • There’s a wealth of information on sites such as GMATClubalthough, since a lot of it is written by anonymous users, you should take it with a grain of salt.

By the way, if you’re wondering which topics to start with, try taking and reviewing a practice GMAT. If you work through the full review process, you’ll walk away with a list of topics to prioritize. You can also check out this article on high-value GMAT Quant.

There are two different ways to do practice GMAT problems, and both of them play into the right way to study for the GMAT. You can practice problems on a specific topic (or a specific type of problem), or you can do mixed practice problem sets, to work on your general problem-solving skills. Here’s where you can find great GMAT practice problems for either of these goals:

This type of practice also includes taking practice tests. Throughout your GMAT studies, you should take a practice GMAT every two to three weeks. Taking practice tests regularly will keep you informed about your progress. But taking them too often will wear you out and waste your practice tests without teaching you much. There are more efficient ways to study for the GMAT than taking practice tests—like doing targeted, timed sets of Official Guide problems.

Finally, review is a critical part of learning. To review what you’ve learned from class, from Interact, or from the Strategy Guides, consider making “cheat sheets” for each topic you’ve studied. Choose a topic, and based on your notes and your own recollection, write down the most important tips and rules for that topic. Then, do a few new problems on that topic, to confirm that you didn’t miss anything!  

You can also review by creating and studying “GMAT code” flashcards. Read this article on cracking the GMAT code, and start making flashcards based on problems! (If you’re not up for making your own, the Manhattan Prep GMAT app  is a little like a great set of flashcards. Here’s some guidance on how to use the app.)  

However, the most important part of your review is your error log. Record every practice problem you do, and set aside one study session per week where you only redo and analyze old problems. Always mark problems you’d like to try again later: these should be problems that were just a bit too tough for you when you first tried them.

One great review hack: never do all of the end-of-chapter drill problems the first time you read a Strategy Guide chapter. Leave a few for later, then try them a week after reading the chapter.   

Quick How-to-Study Tips

There’s a lot of information here, so we’ll finish up with a couple of bite-sized GMAT study tips.

  • The best study plan is the one you’ll stick to. Even if you aren’t studying for the GMAT perfectly, if you’re able to study consistently and stay motivated, you’ll make progress. You don’t have to do everything in this article all at once!  
  • If you’re taking a Manhattan Prep GMAT course, your instructor can answer questions on how to study! Don’t hesitate to reach out.
  • Always know what you’re going to study next so that when you get some free time to study, you won’t have to wonder how to use it. Creating a study calendar for each week takes a bit of time, but it’s a huge help in the long run.
  • It’s better to study a smaller amount of material thoroughly than to rush through everything.
  • Find balance in your studies. Don’t spend all of your time doing problems, but don’t spend all of your time reading books, either. And no matter what you do, spend plenty of time re-reading, re-doing, and reviewing.
  • When you start studying, you’ll have a lot of new stuff to learn. That’s fine! As you move towards test day, shift more towards practicing real problems and “warming up” for test day. By the time you’re ready to take the GMAT, you’ll be totally prepared for the real thing. 📝

Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.

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