These days, almost everyone preps for the GMAT - but surprisingly few actually plan how to prep to maximize the chance for success. For the next four weeks, we'll discuss the ins and outs of prep to allow you to get the most out of the time you spend studying for the GMAT. This week, we cover how to decide on your overall prep plan. In coming weeks, our topics will include how to structure your study and review time, what to do on test day, how to recover if you fall behind schedule, and other fun matters.

In order to decide how best to prep, you need to know several important things.

First, you need to know your current score and the score level that will make you competitive at the schools to which you will apply. This gives you an idea of how much improvement you will need and may affect your prep plans. If, for example, your current score is a 550 and you need to break 600, you'll probably need about 2 to 3 months of study. On the other hand, if you are currently scoring a 550 and need to break 700, you may require significantly more time.

To determine your pre-preparation score, take a practice CAT in conditions that simulate the actual exam as much as possible. Many prep companies and published books offer practice exams, but you should be sure that the exam you take mimics the CAT in that it is adaptive. Manhattan GMAT students can take practice adaptive exams from their home computers. You can also download free GMATPrepTM software at, the official Web site of the organization that makes the test. The software allows you to take a full length practice GMAT exam on your computer; once you're done, you will receive a score that serves as a solid predictor of how you are likely to score on the real thing.

Many business schools post the average GMAT score of incoming students on their Web sites, often in the admissions or frequently asked questions (FAQ) section. Alternatively, several companies publish Best Business School-type books which list the statistics for incoming classes (if you conduct your research via books, be sure to use those which have been published in the last year or so). Finally, the Manhattan GMAT Interact & Learn Center can provide you with last year's average GMAT scores at the top 25 US B-Schools.

You also need to know something about your own strengths and weaknesses across three categories: learning / study style, standardized tests, and content (or the actual knowledge being tested by the exam).

Strengths and Weaknesses: Learning / Study 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 met individually with your professor, TA or private tutor? At work today, does it energize you to work with a group or do you focus better via one-on-one interactions?

Use what you already know about your preferences to decide whether a classroom setting or a private tutor is right for you.

An aside: some people are able to study effectively by themselves, but be honest with yourself about whether you fall into this category. These people are highly disciplined, motivated and resourceful; in addition, they are usually already on the higher end of the score range. If you, like most of us, tend to procrastinate or dread taking the exam, then studying on your own may not be your best bet.

Strengths and Weaknesses: Standardized Tests

When you took the SAT, did you do better, worse than, or about the same as people expected based upon your performance in school? How stressed did you get when you took any kind of exam? Did your exam grades mirror your overall class grade? In a nutshell, do you tend to thrive or falter when you are in high-pressure testing situations? Those who underperformed on standardized or other high-pressure tests in the past may require more in-depth prep than those who did very well.

Don't forget that the GMAT CAT has an extra complication: you must take it on a computer. If you're not used to taking tests on a computer (and most of us aren't), this could negatively affect your performance. The best thing you can do if you fall into this category is take practice tests that mimic the real test until the computer format doesn't bother you anymore.

Strengths and Weaknesses: Content

How long has it been since you studied grammar, found the prime factors of a number or critically analyzed a reading passage? What's the formula for the area of a trapezoid? When did you last write an impromptu essay?

The average MBA applicant works for at least a few years after undergrad before returning to school. Depending on your job, you may or may not keep up with any of the content tested by the GMAT. Most of us don't - yet we do need to have specific knowledge in order to score well on the test. Knowing how much you don't know is key to establishing your prep plan.

Manhattan GMAT preparation materials include comprehensive lists of the content tested on the exam. You may also purchase books written by the same people who write the GMAT at (Manhattan GMAT provides these books as part of the course materials). Use these resources to get a handle on what you already remember and what you'll need to relearn. The more work you have to do, the more time you should build into your prep plan.

Okay, I know my strengths and weaknesses. Now what?

Once you've gone through the above exercises, you should have a pretty good idea whether you want to take a class, hire a private tutor or prep on your own. In addition, you should be able to determine a couple of other things:

  1. The total amount of time you're going to need for primary studying (that is, the first time you learn the material). If you take a structured class, the schedule will already be pre-determined.
  2. The amount of time to set aside for review, after you finish your primary studying and before you take the test for the first time. Most people take the test between 2 and 6 weeks after instruction ends.
  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 before you have to start filling out the applications themselves. Keep in mind that your GMAT score is valid for 5 years! If you know you will apply to b-school within 5 years, get the GMAT out of the way as soon as possible.

Predictability is good.

It's critical to set regular study times and stick to them. If you have set appointments to study, do homework or take practice tests, you'll be less likely to procrastinate and fall behind. As a general rule, studying a little bit each day is better than studying for an extended period of time on only one or two days. In fact, your study sessions should never exceed 90 minutes at a clip; excessively long study periods overload your brain and provide a diminishing margin of return. The most productive studying takes place in short, regular sessions. If you don't have a ton of time, plan on 20 minute periods during the workday - one session during the morning (on the subway to work!), one during your lunch break, and one during the evening. You can spend extra time on weekends for more extended study sessions and for taking practice exams.

Study groups.

If possible, form a study group. You can keep each other on track, worry over problems together and even test yourself: if you can teach a concept to someone else, you know you've mastered it! There are no rules but, generally speaking, you'll do better if you like each other and have similar study styles. You don't need to be scoring at the same level - it's actually a good idea to have a variety of strengths so you can learn from each other.

Oh no! I'm falling behind...

Chances are, with your busy life, you're going to fall behind schedule at least once. The easiest thing you can do is assume that life will throw you a curveball at some point during the prep process. Add an extra week or two onto your review time, just in case.

If you're working with a private tutor, you're calling the shots; you can postpone a session and push your primary study schedule back a few days or a week (and with extra time already built into the review schedule, this won't destroy your overall timeline).

If you're taking a class, however, you can't alter the schedule to suit your needs. In this situation, the most important thing is to make sure you don't continue to fall further behind. If you can't do the homework during week 4, don't do it during week 5 (unless you have time to do two weeks' worth of homework that week). Complete the week 5 assignments first. You can complete week 4 little by little over the remainder of the course or you can put it off completely until the course is over - and you can catch up via the extra week you included in your review schedule.

When should I take the test?

The ideal time to take the test for the first time is between two and four weeks after the end of your last class or tutoring session (unless you decide to add extra tutoring sessions entirely focused on review). You should also automatically plan to take the test a second time between one and two months later (though, obviously, you don't have to if you're happy with your scores from the first test!).

How should I review?

By the time you finish your formal instruction, you will have learned an enormous amount of material; it's only natural that you will want some time to review.

First, make sure to get in-depth recommendations from your instructor as to how to spend your time given your own particular strengths and weaknesses. A private tutor will naturally do this for you but you may have to ask for it in a class setting. At Manhattan GMAT, students in the 9-week class can get in-depth recommendations when they submit the results of 3 practice tests by the last class.

Next, set up a schedule. Spread your review evenly over the time you have until your first test, but leave the last 5-7 days open, just in case you fall behind schedule. If, after your first test, you decide to take the test again, you will have to wait at least a month (you are only allowed to take the test every 31 days). You won't have in-depth analysis from your real test, but you will be able to use your quantitative and verbal percentiles to get an exact sense of your relative ability in these two areas. This will give you a sense of which area to focus on (math or verbal) during your additional study time.

People do often see improvement on a second exam simply because they know what to expect the second time around, but this improvement, by itself, usually isn't enough to justify taking the test again. Now that you have the experience of one test behind you, though, you can use your knowledge to focus your prep for next time - you just have to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Did you think you had scored higher or lower or were you about right?
  • Was your pacing good or did you feel pressed for time?
  • Did the test seem harder or easier than your practice tests?
  • Do you remember any particular concepts or problems that really threw you off track?

If you do schedule a few private tutoring sessions, discuss these questions with your instructor at the first session.

    Dos and Don'ts

  • Do spend the last few days practicing actual GMAT questions, reviewing the basic techniques and sleeping 8 hours every night.
  • Don't take a practice test within 2 days of the real thing - you don't want to burn yourself out. Also, don't study for more than an hour or two on the day before the test.
  • Do have two alarm clocks plus a friend to wake you up if you're taking the test in the morning (or if there's any chance you might oversleep!). Also, look up the directions to the test center the day before the test - and consider making a test drive if you're not sure how to get there or how long it might take.
  • Don't go out the night before. Don't get drawn into family problems. Don't work late. Basically, remove yourself from all potential causes of stress, even if that means checking into a hotel!
  • Do set aside a few very easy questions to do right before you go into the test center; this will warm up your brain. However...
  • Don't look at the answers to those easy questions - don't even bring the answers with you! All you're doing is warming up and your performance doesn't matter; the last thing you want to do is lower your confidence by realizing you got an easy question wrong fifteen minutes before the test starts.
  • Do eat a good breakfast and bring something to eat and drink to the test center. Before the test, protein and complex carbs are good - think eggs with whole wheat toast. At the test center, you can consume food and drink on the breaks. If you feel your energy flagging, get a quick hit of sugar and / or caffeine, however...
  • Don't drink lots of caffeine right before the test - both because the caffeine won't last four hours (so you'll crash during the exam) and because caffeine is a diuretic (and if you're not sure why that's a problem during a long test with limited breaks, then google diuretic right now and learn your new thing for the day).
  • Do reward yourself after you take the test. Whether you treat yourself to a fancy dinner, a luxurious massage or a night out on the town with friends, do treat yourself. You've worked really hard and you deserve it!