Unlike the other elements of your MBA application, the GMAT is unique in that it's 100% under your control: you cannot change the quality of your work experience or your college GPA, but by following the right study plan, you will be able to reach your target GMAT score. For self studiers who have the time, I recommend 2-3 months of prep time.

The following 3-month plan assumes that you can devote about 1.5 to 2 hours per weekday and 5 to 6 hours per day on weekends. As you might have guessed, preparing for the GMAT is quite a time commitment-but your discipline in sticking with this strategy will be rewarded!

First Week - GMAT Research and Study Plan Details

Your shopping list should include:

In the very first week of your prep, you should familiarize yourself with the basics of the test: structure, types of questions, directions, time limits, scoring, etc. All these elements are important in helping you understand the logic behind the GMAT. I advise you to read about the test from the makers of the GMAT directly by going to MBA.com and registering as a member. When you register, you will also be able to download one of the most important tools for your studies, the free GMATPrep practice test software. GMATPrep tests are considered the most accurate representations of the actual test on the market, featuring real (but retired) GMAT questions.

The information on MBA.com alone will not be sufficient as a full GMAT introduction. This website does not explain all the mechanics of the test. To better understand the ins-and-outs of the GMAT, you should consider acquiring the Kaplan GMAT Premier Live Online 2010, a book that provides an extensive analysis of the GMAT's computer-adaptive test (CAT) format and the subjects tested. This Kaplan book will serve as an excellent introduction to the test.

After getting some basic GMAT orientation, it's time to assess your starting performance. The best way to do this is to take one full-length practice test from the GMATPrep software you had downloaded from MBA.com. This practice test will yield three scores: your overall score, quantitative score, and verbal score. Carefully examine your results to understand your strengths and weaknesses with regard to specific GMAT concepts and question types.

Okay, so now you know where you're starting from; and hopefully you should have a sense of how much you need to improve as well (look up the average GMAT scores of your target MBA programs on the school websites). The next step is to develop a strategy that addresses your weak spots.

Weeks Two to Five - Math Focus

Your shopping list should include:

The math tested on the GMAT is fairly basic. You will never see advanced subjects like Calculus tested. However, if you've been out of college for a while, you'll likely discover that your skills are somewhat rusty.

A note to engineers and other math-minded individuals: no matter how mathematically skilled you think you are, do not neglect prepping for the GMAT math section. There are two reasons for this. First, the quantitative portion of the GMAT features a special type of question, Data Sufficiency. It's unlikely that you've seen this format before and getting used to it takes some diligent practice. Second, in general, quant questions on the GMAT have a unique and subtle style. Even if you're a math whiz, it takes some time to get used to the nuances of GMAT math problems.

I recommend the Kaplan GMAT Math Workbook as an effective reference for first approaching the GMAT math section. This book does a good job in explaining about 90% of the concepts you will need for GMAT math and also features extensive practice, both in drill format and in GMAT-style problem sets. For more practice problems, refer to the Kaplan GMAT Premier Live Online book, the Official Guide for the GMAT Review, 12th Edition, or the Official Guide for GMAT Quantitative Review (this last book contains mainly easy and medium practice problems, but does feature lots of Data Sufficiency questions).

Unfortunately, the 10% of concepts not covered in the Kaplan GMAT Math Workbook are the hardest you will see on the test. While the average test taker will usually see no more than two or three questions with permutations, combinations and statistics (among the hardest math topics tested), this doesn't mean you should ignore them completely. The bad news is that I have yet to find a decent book that addresses these subjects well. My recommendation is to search for these kinds of difficult practice questions in online communities like Beat The GMAT.

Weeks Six to Ten - Verbal Focus

Your shopping list should include:

You should devote the next five weeks of your prep to building your verbal skills. There are two important considerations: First, don't stop reviewing math. My suggestion is to make a habit of doing just five quant practice problems per day along with your verbal practice. This will ensure you will not lose the math skills you've picked up in your previous weeks of prep.

Second, start your verbal studies by focusing on your weaknesses first and ending with your strengths. Example: let's say that Sentence Correction (SC) was the biggest hurdle you faced in your first practice test, while Critical Reasoning (CR) was your second most problematic subject, but you consistently perform well with Reading Comprehension (RC). If that's the case, review SC for the first 2 to 2.5 weeks. Next, move on to CR and work on that for another 2 weeks. Whenever you move on to subsequent topics of GMAT Verbal, be sure to do a couple problems per day covering the previous verbal areas you've reviewed. Thus in this example, by the time you start tackling RC in the final stages of your verbal prep, you should also be doing a few SC and CR questions per day. Again, as with quant, this strategy ensures that you do not forget what you've already learned. Consequently, this review methodology means that you will be devoting more and more time to your prep as you progress week to week!

Weeks Eleven to Thirteen - Practice Tests and Review of Errors

In the last few weeks of your prep you should focus on taking practice tests and getting comfortable with the GMAT's computer-adaptive format; it takes time to get comfortable taking a test on the computer.

As I mentioned earlier, GMATPrep is the most accurate practice test on the market. It should be a great indicator of where you stand after your weeks of hard work. During this period of your studies, take the GMATPrep test #2 and review your results. Next, for additional practice retake both GMATPrep test #1 and GMATPrep test #2. By repeating both GMATPrep tests you'll likely see a handful of questions you've seen before from previous tests, but I still think it's a worthwhile exercise. For additional practice tests, I recommend Manhattan GMAT practice tests. Kaplan tests are also good practice but are often perceived to be a bit on the tough side.

Besides taking practice tests (which you should take on a weekly basis), the time leading up to your exam should be spent reviewing the mistakes that you've made up until now. The mistakes you made in the Official Guide for GMAT Review material are particularly important to review (since these are real but retired GMAT questions). Here are two articles on how you can go about reviewing your mistakes:

In the very last week, I would review the tips and templates for the essay section of the GMAT, the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA). The score you receive on this section is reported separately and does not count toward your overall GMAT score. In my experience I've found that most test takers can spend about 2-3 days studying AWA to be sufficiently prepared.

Finally, on the eve of your GMAT, try to relax and get a good night's rest. Don't worry, you're more than ready to beat the GMAT now!

Quick Tips for Your Study

Consider the following when building your GMAT prep strategy. I've rolled up these notes from my studies and from the experiences of the hundreds of test takers I've had contact with since the start of my own GMAT journey:

  • Once you've created a study plan, stick to it. You will get results through discipline!
  • Review all material with a pen and paper in hand. Most strategy guides are packed with information that you should carefully digest, so take notes. You should also consider making some flashcards for important concepts. You can download an set of free GMAT Flashcards from Beat The GMAT as a model for your own flashcards
  • Keep an error log. Error logs are great for reviewing your performance and tracking your improvements
  • Always time your practice. Even if you're at the early stages of your prep, time yourself. As you progress, try to impose realistic time limits for solving a given question (about 90 seconds per question), it will help you build a solid instinct for pacing
  • Get a thorough review of GMAT concepts prior to prepping with Official Guide material. The Official Guide for GMAT Review series is extremely valuable since it features real (but retired) test questions. Be sure you have a basic foundation on the test prior to going through these practice questions
  • Take practice tests under simulated conditions. If possible, try to take your practice tests at the same hour of the day you would take your actual GMAT. Also, try to mimic the environment of a testing center. I personally enjoyed taking practice tests in a lightly trafficked area of a library to get used to the ambient noise
  • If you get a question wrong, make sure you review it properly. You must understand why the correct answer choice is right and why all the rest are wrong. This exercise will help you avoid future mistakes!
  • If you were unsure about a question but guessed correctly, review it as if you got it wrong. Maybe you got lucky this time around, but you may not be so lucky on test day
  • Know when to guess and move along. You must answer all questions on the GMAT. You will be heavily penalized for not answering a question, so pace yourself well
  • In the last few days before the GMAT, ramp down your prep. Your body needs lots of rest for this 3+ hour test. Eat well and get some sleep!

About the Author:

Dana is a finance student and a moderator for Beat The GMAT. Click here to learn how to get started in the Beat The GMAT community.