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. (Note: this is an update from the original article about 2.5 years ago. If you run across the older version, ignore it; use this newer one instead!)
In this first part, we’re going to talk about setting up your overall timeframe and getting yourself set up to go! In part 2, we’ll talk about how to study and make progress over time.
Get a notebook, open up a file on your computer, or start a blog. Record everything. The record doesn’t need to be exhaustive in detail, but pay particular attention to three things: (1) what you’ve done, (2) what you’ve learned (big lessons, such as “how do I know when to cut myself off on a problem?” and not things like “memorize this formula,” and (3) what you want to review at a later date (again, high level).
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 essay and IR (we don’t care as much about the scores, but we do care about making sure the overall CAT score is representative, and the effort it takes to do the first two sections can make a difference for quant and verbal). Take two 8-minute breaks, one after IR 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 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. GMATPrepÒ 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 CAT 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. You can use this article to help analyze a ManhattanGMAT CAT. Summarize your analysis in your journal. (Note: analysis is not the same thing as data. The data tells you what happened. Your analysis tells you why you think it happened and what you plan to do about it in future.)
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. There’s no one right way – there’s only the best way for you.
What’s My Schedule?
Now that you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can use that info to help determine a rough timeframe. The ideal is to work without an external deadline (e.g., a school application deadline). You set a general timeframe / deadline for yourself and get started, but you’re able to delay (or accelerate) if needed; you don’t absolutely have to take the test by X date (talk about a way to place pressure on yourself!).
Most people initially underestimate the amount of time they’ll need to study. Plus, the whole process is likely to take 3 months or longer; it’s very hard to pick an exact date (or even an exact week) 3+ months out and get that right. If you have the luxury of time, see how it goes, and start to think about specific test dates only when your practice CAT scores start to get into the range you want.
If you are working against a deadline, though, then you have to plan more carefully. Be aware that you may also have to decide, at some point, to lower your goal score in order to take the test by a certain date.
1. The rough 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). Be aware that this rough time is likely to change.
For most people, primary study will take 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, on the other hand, you’re starting from scratch and you want an extra-high improvement (>150 points), or you have a crazy schedule and can’t study very much /often, you may need more than 16 weeks. Also, if you take a class, your primary study will be at least the length of the class plus some additional time.
2. The amount of time to set aside for review after you finish your primary study and before you take the test. Most people spend 2 to 6 weeks on a comprehensive review after they finish their primary study. If you’re going to do this in 2 weeks, you’ll need to be able to spend at minimum 10 hours per week. Pick a rough target based on what you know of your schedule for now but, again, be aware that this could easily change.
You also need to factor in two other things that will affect your study timeframe:
3. 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).
4. 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:
1. 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!).
2. Practice questions. As you’re studying 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 13th Edition, the Verbal Review 2nd Edition and the Quantitative Review 2nd Edition. The most recent online release is GMAT Prep 2.0 (including Prep Pack #1) and there’s also GMAT Focus (for quant only).
3. 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.
What’s next? Read the second half of our Study Plan article to learn what to do during specific study sessions and how to make sure you’re learning!