How to Develop a GMAT Study Plan
Updated 26 February 2021
GMAT Test Practice
The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a computer-based exam developed by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) and is commonly used around the world as part of the postgraduate application process.
This article offers a brief overview of what the test entails, before focusing on how to prepare yourself with a strong GMAT study plan.
The GMAT is a universally recognised exam used to assess the academic abilities of applicants to graduate management programs, most commonly MBAs. It is what’s known as a computer adaptive test, or CAT, meaning the programme responds to the answers provided, adjusting the difficulty level to match the abilities of the examinee.
The GMAT is taken in four sections, each one addressing key skills and competencies required in the professional world of business and management, including critical reasoning, problem solving and data evaluation.
The four test sections are:
- Analytical writing
- Integrated reasoning
- Verbal reasoning
- Quantitative reasoning
Each section is described in detail in WikiJob’s article on the GMAT test, along with guidance on how to approach it and how you’ll be scored.
Competition for MBA places is fierce and while not the only consideration for entry, an above-average GMAT score can improve your chances of success.
However, it is not an easy exam. The adaptive nature of the test means that to achieve a high score, you’ll be required to answer questions of increasing difficulty. As each section has a time limit, you’ll also need to work quickly. In addition, you’ll likely have limited experience with the type of questions you’ll face.
The good news is that, with practice, you can master all the skills needed to do well, making a comprehensive GMAT study plan a vital part of your preparation.
Here are some of the ways a GMAT study plan can help:
A Study Plan Will Help You Organise Your Time Effectively
With so much to cover, studying for the GMAT is a time-consuming process. You’ll need to allocate sufficient hours to each of the four sections, set aside time for practice tests and ensure you have ample rest time. You’ll also need to consider other responsibilities, such as work, ongoing academic study or family life.
Good organisation is key, as the concepts involved in the GMAT are complex and take time to digest. As such, cramming should be avoided. Having a well structured GMAT study plan in place will help you balance your time and stay on track.
A Study Plan Will Help Structure Your Learning
Each of the four sections of the GMAT needs ample attention, but you may find you need to focus more on a particular area of weakness. Implementing a GMAT study plan, and amending it in accordance with your progress, will ensure that you cover all bases sufficiently.
A Study Plan Will Help You Achieve Your Target Score
If your chosen institution has a minimum score requirement, you’ll want to aim over and above it for your own goal. If not, you should still set a benchmark for what you hope to achieve.
Working to improve your score, and tracking progress at regular intervals, is a vital part of your GMAT preparation.
A study plan will help you focus on key milestones, recording progress and tailoring your plan as needed. This can also be motivating, as you’ll see the results of your hard work paying off week by week.
A Study Plan Will Give You a Competitive Edge
Those that dedicate themselves to study, and do so in an organised manner, reap the benefits of high scores. This gives them a competitive edge in their applications.
Places on your chosen course will be limited, so you need to give yourself the best possible chance of success. Although there are no guarantees, if you want to boost your chances of being accepted onto a graduate management programme, you need to start with a solid GMAT study plan.
Official advice recommends three months for GMAT preparation. However, only you know how quickly you learn, and the amount of time you need to commit will be largely dictated by your current abilities.
Follow the steps below to implement an effective GMAT study plan based on your circumstances.
1. Start with a Diagnostic Test
To develop a GMAT study plan that works for you, you first need to understand your current level of ability. The best way to do this is with a GMAT diagnostic exam. There are many such tests available online.
To make the most of this initial practice run, replicate the actual exam conditions. Make sure you’ll encounter no interruptions – so you can work through each section fully – and make use of the two eight-minute breaks allowed in the official GMAT exam.
Avoid using your study aids and complete the quantitative reasoning section without the use of a calculator. This will give you a realistic impression of where you currently stand and help you develop a strategic study plan.
2. Identify Your Strengths
On completing your practice exam, take the time to thoroughly analyse your results and identify the areas in which you performed best. Understanding where your strengths lie will help you structure your study accordingly.
Remember, though, good GMAT preparation is all about practice and improvement. Just because you performed well in one area doesn’t mean you should eliminate it from your study plan. In fact, because of the way the GMAT is scored, learning how to leverage your strengths can be highly beneficial.
Your quantitative and verbal reasoning scores are scaled and combined to produce your final score; if you’re stronger in one area, you can use this to outweigh your weakness in another.
Build on your strengths by setting higher standards for yourself and working to achieve the best score possible.
3. Identify Areas for Improvement
Now identify your weaknesses and set yourself goals for improvement. When doing so, don’t just focus on your question responses: pay attention to your overall performance. For example, consider how well you read and understood each of the questions and how effectively you made use of the given time.
In the latter instance, you need to practice completing each section fully to avoid being penalised. Every question left unanswered will lead to a significant decrease in your score.
Consider all areas for improvement and use these as the foundations of your GMAT study plan. Remember, the GMAT is a skills-based test. All the tools you need to succeed can be learnt and, with dedicated practice, your weaknesses can become strengths.
4. Set Your Target Scores
Your GMAT study plan should include definitive goals in the form of target scores. Take the results from your diagnostic exam and compare them with what you hope to achieve in your official GMAT. Now, set incremental target scores at key milestones in your study plan.
You’ll need to consider your overall target score and your scores for each section.
It’s important to work to realistic expectations here. Setting yourself unachievable goals will only lead to frustration and hinder your GMAT preparation. An average overall score sits at around 500, with 650 and above generally considered as competitive.
Typically, the UK’s leading institutions, such as the University of Oxford and the London Business School, require a minimum GMAT score of 600, but each course differs, so be sure to check the official entry requirements before setting your personal target.
5. Set Your Study Hours Based on How Much You Need to Improve
Now you know how much you need to improve by, you can be more specific with the amount of time you need to allocate to study.
Research conducted by GMAC provides some useful guidance here:
- To improve your overall score by 0 to 50 points, 50 hours of study are required
- To improve by 51 to 100 points, it recommends 100 hours of study
- To improve by 10 to 150 points, it recommends 150 hours
It’s important to remember that these are guidelines only and come with no guarantees. Everyone learns at a different pace so your hours will need to be tailored to you.
It’s also important that those hours are used effectively, to both improve on your weaknesses and harness your strengths.
Ideally, you’ll also set aside an additional three to four hours each week for mock exams.
6. Set Structured Times to Study Each Week
At this point, you can bring everything together to create a detailed study calendar. Take the number of hours you need to study for and divide them equally across the entire period allocated to your GMAT preparation.
For example, if you want to improve your score by 100 points and have 10 weeks in which to do so, you’d allocate around 10 hours each week if using GMAC guidelines.
It’s advisable to plan sessions of between one and three hours depending on your learning preferences. Remember, GMAT study is about ongoing improvement, not cramming at the last minute.
100 hours of study over 10 weeks would be best spread out in two-hour sessions, five days a week. This will give you plenty of time to absorb information between study sessions.
Once you’ve planned out your schedule, appoint a specific area of study to each session, with detailed notes on exactly what you will cover. Stick to your plan and you should soon see improvements in your abilities.
7. Allocate Time for Breaks
Good GMAT preparation is labour intensive, so it’s crucial to allow sufficient time for breaks.
There’s substantial ground to cover and a lot of skills to master, meaning it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed if you fail to factor break times into your GMAT study plan.
If you’ve scheduled a longer study session, of say two to three hours, factor in a 15-minute break to give yourself time to re-energise.
It’s also vital that you allocate rest days. As a good rule of thumb, try to have two days off of study each week, certainly one as a minimum. Your brain needs time to take things on board and approaching your study with a fresh head will help you stay focused and on track.
8. Study Each Section of the Test Until You Reach Your Target Scores
With your study calendar firmly in place, you can now focus on studying each section until you achieve your target scores.
This will include improving both your question responses and your pace. There are plenty of online tools and paid-for simulation tests to help you practice each section in turn.
As the GMAT is an adaptive test, the more you improve, the harder your study will become. This may seem frustrating at first but you must keep in mind that this is the nature of the exam. If you’re presented with harder questions each time, then you’re definitely on the right track with your GMAT study plan.
9. Review Your Progress with Mock Exams
Within your study calendar, you should have set aside time each week for a practice exam. As with your initial dry run, take these in actual test conditions. This will ensure you’re on track, not just with the content of your study but also with your level of familiarity with the exam format, how to tackle each section under actual exam pressure and, crucially, how you’re performing in terms of pace.
If you’re not seeing the level of improvement you’d hoped for in your test scores, revisit your GMAT study plan, starting again from step one, to identify where you need to focus your attention and for how long.
10. Rest Before Taking the Test
Finally, be sure to rest before your test day. Avoid any last-minute cramming sessions as these may lead to confusion and self-doubt.
Instead, take a day or two to compose yourself.
Studying for the GMAT takes a lot of time and energy and it can be a struggle to fit everything in, particularly if you have additional commitments.
Whatever your circumstances, though, it’s crucial that you find the time to fully prepare. Here are some tips on how to keep yourself on track.
- Plan ahead – Although three months is given as a reasonable time frame, your circumstances should dictate the length of your preparation period. If you think you’ll struggle to find the time, then plan to start well in advance.
- Be prepared – Get yourself a compact GMAT study guide, or create your own, and carry it with you at all times. Doing so will allow you to make effective use of any available downtime, such as your lunch break or morning commute. You may be reluctant to give 30 minutes of your lunch hour over to study but think of it as a short term sacrifice for long-term gain.
- Learn to put yourself first – You’ve decided to embark on an MBA course and the GMAT is a big part of the journey. Don’t be afraid to prioritise your own needs over social engagements or work that falls outside of your daily responsibilities. The people around you will understand the commitment you have made and will be happy to support you by allowing you time to study.
- Stay positive – A positive mindset is crucial throughout your GMAT preparation. Get up early, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet. All of this will help keep you in the right frame of mind, and you’ll be surprised how much spare time you can find when you have a positive outlook.
Your GMAT preparation should be both strategic and well structured. To achieve a competitive score you will need to hone your strengths and significantly improve on your weaknesses.
The Graduate Management Admission Council offers many official preparation materials with study guides, question banks and practice tests all available for purchase. You can also find further resources online, including free sample questions and tips.