gmat step curve
Adam R.

GMAT Study Plan

From Pre-studying to Test Day

The GMAT is a hard test. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, people over-complicate how to study for it. In this post, I’m going to tell you how to make a bullet-proof GMAT study plan. One that is comprehensive in content without getting you bogged down in an endless swamp of GMAT resources. Let’s start at the beginning. You know, when things are most overwhelming and desperation makes people prone to making bad decisions. Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You decide you may want to get an MBA one day.  Time to make a GMAT study plan! You take a diagnostic GMAT test and the results are less than encouraging.  By way of example, here are the actual diagnostic GMAT results of an anonymous GMAT student who is definitely NOT me from 12 years ago.


You wonder, “Is it just me or are other people experiencing the same thing??”  After all, you did well on the ACT with minimal effort, and back then you were just a dumb high school kid.  You couldn’t have gotten dumber, right?  Then again, you did drink a lot in college.  Maybe everybody else got smarter.  Perhaps the test was unrepresentative of the actual thing.  That’s gotta be it.  It’s the test that’s at fault!

Next, you google “gmat prep” which promptly causes your anxiety to skyrocket.  This shop says it’s best for quant, while these guys say they’re the best for verbal.  GMAT Masters, GMAT Wizards, GMAT Ninjas, GMAT Nerds, and GMAT Therapists all seem to inhabit this crowded space.  They’re followed by about 800 other operations all claiming to be the best, the cheapest, the most convenient, the handsomest, etc.  What happened to the days when Kaplan was the only game in town?

We live in an era of excess choice.  If you are the masochistic type who likes to browse GMAT forums you will find people who boast about having completed all of the Kaplan, Princeton Review, Manhattan Prep, Veritas, Economist, Magoosh, E-GMAT, GMAT Ninja, GMAT Whiz, GMAT Club, GMAT Busters, Target Test Prep, and EMPOWERgmat material on their way to a 700+ GMAT score.  These people are not to be envied and should probably be considered for involuntary commitment.  Their approach is the GMAT equivalent of popping a zit with a sledgehammer.  A single resource learned thoroughly is worth 20 done superficially.  Remember, the GMAT is a hard test.  How to study for it isn’t.

Keep Your GMAT Study Plan Simple

Your study plan should only have two phases.

  • Phase 1 – Learn The Fundamentals.
  • Phase 2 – Take a buttload of practice tests.

Completing phase 1 is a necessary condition for moving on to phase 2.  If you think you can get away with blowing off the fundamentals, eventually, you will find yourself being forcefully dragged back to them kicking and screaming.  So don’t do that.  At that point, you will be behind the eight-ball and catching up will be twice as hard as simply doing things right the first time.

Phase 1: Learning the Fundamentals

This should really be thought of as “pre-studying”.  In other words, you do not want to be taking practice tests(other than a diagnostic) until you have mastered the fundamentals.  That being said, once you do master this stuff, understand that all you have done is successfully complete the race to the beginning.  Congratulations!

If you don’t make the fundamentals second nature you will just be spinning your wheels.  You will take test after test and your score will go nowhere.  Most likely it will start going down as questions you weren’t wasting time on initially start becoming familiar and you begin investing more and more time on them only to fall up short because you couldn’t simplify a fraction properly to get the final answer. 

Your practice tests are precious gold and burning even one of them without having the fundamentals cemented in your brain like the Macarena in 1995 is self-sabotage – GMAT suicide, the most tragic of GMAT outcomes.  Don’t ask me what GMAT homicide is.  You don’t wanna know.

The good news is this most tragic of outcomes is easily avoidable.  All you need to do is get a list of the fundamental GMAT concepts so that you’re aware of them BEFORE you begin studying.  Where can you find such a magical list???  I’m glad you asked!

gmat fundamentals checklistAbove is a list of everything I would consider fundamental on the GMAT.  Print it out, put it in a folder, water it before you go to bed, and have it next to you whenever you are studying.  Nothing on this list should seem overly complicated.  However, the keywords above are “SECOND NATURE“.  It is not enough to know this stuff superficially.  You have to know everything on this list backward and forwards without even thinking.

MJ Free Throws
Michael Jordan shooting free throws with his eyes closed. A metaphor for learning the GMAT fundamentals. Also, for how dumb people shoot free throws.

Resources For Learning The GMAT Fundamentals

For learning the fundamentals I like using the Manhattan Prep Quant Guides.  If you want to leave absolutely nothing to chance though, you should begin with their Foundations of GMAT Math guide.  It’s a big book, but what you care about, are the 40-50 drill set questions that end each chapter.  If you’re a Russian Literature major worried about how you’re going to compete against all the engineers and economics majors taking the GMAT then you should get this book.  By the time you’re done with it, the field will be completely level.

Even though those are my preferred guides, you can substitute any reputable company’s books and they should all contain similar material.  The mistake to avoid is getting multiple strategy guide sets, going through all of them, and patting yourself on the back for being more thorough than everybody else.  In reality, all you just did was rehash the same material five different ways.

This is a very common mistake I see students make.  They get too bogged down reading guides and watching videos.  They dread the thought of taking even a single test without seeing their target score at the end so they exhaust every resource available OTHER than full-length simulated practice tests.  If you are studying for a test, you probably should be taking tests.  It’s that simple.  Books, courses, online tutorials – those are all good for learning the fundamentals and that’s about it. Anything advanced will only come by taking(and reviewing!) practice tests.  Whatever resource you decide to go with, have that Fundamentals Checklist next to you.  As long as you are picking up on those concepts, you’re ready to move on.

Incorporating Actual GMAT Questions Into Your GMAT Study Plan

The fundamentals are a necessary but not sufficient component of any GMAT study plan.  If you want to get a perfect score of 800 on the GMAT, I promise you, the only pre-requisite knowledge you need is that fundamentals checklist.  If that is all you know though you won’t get very far which is why you also want to be exposing yourself to how those concepts are actually tested.

Most of the major test prep companies have question banks you can get for pretty cheap, but I prefer’s set of 400 practice GMAT questions which they offer for $30.  I’m not as big a fan of their Official Guide series, but that’s a post for another time.

Take your bank of practice questions and divide them into 25 question quizzes to reinforce the content in your strategy guides.  Now is not the time to be focusing on things like timing or even accuracy so don’t be afraid to include some higher-level questions in the mix.  At this phase, the goal is to simply be getting exposure to the format in which the GMAT actually tests these fundamental concepts.  I tell my students it’s completely up to them if they even want to score themselves on my homework problem sets.  You won’t be able to do a question in 2 minutes if you can’t first do it in 20 minutes so throw away the stopwatch and take advantage of this period in your studies to do UNTIMED practice problems.

Phase 2: Taking Practice Tests

Remember that stopwatch I just told you to throw away?  Well go back and retrieve it because it’s time to start taking practice tests!  Now go throw it out again.  The GMAT has a built-in clock, dummy.  Please do not show up at your testing center with your own stopwatch.

At this point your diagnostic results are a distant memory and confidence is once again soaring.  After all, the GMAT Gods came to you in a dream last night and promised they were going to reward all your hard work mastering the fundamentals with a 150+ score increase on your next practice test.  The GMAT Gods wouldn’t lie, would they?

The GMAT Gods Lie. All The Time.

Well not lie, but certainly deceive.  After all, they designed an entire test whose primary aim is to take concepts you learned in middle school and make them seem like quantum physics.

Right now, you’re probably feeling like your comprehension of the GMAT is pretty good.  Ages ago, when you were taking your diagnostic you were a blind man wandering in the darkness.  Now that you have learned the fundamentals you have stepped into the light.  Hallelujah, what a feeling!

It’s a deceptive feeling though because comprehension is simply your ability to understand something after the fact.  To do well on the GMAT, at some point, comprehension needs to translate into recognition.  Specifically, pattern recognition.  On the GMAT, learning doesn’t mean becoming capable of getting a question right.  It means being able to anticipate where the question is headed before you even finish reading it.  There’s a lot of stuff on the GMAT which, if you were to see it only once, it would be ridiculous to expect you to know how to solve it, let alone solve it in 2-3 minutes.  However, if you were to see it a second time you would never NOT know how to solve it.  For everything else it’s just a matter of “How many times do I have to see it before it clicks?”

Progress is Not Always Linear

Just because you understand a concept does not necessarily mean you can recognize it when it’s placed in front of you.  This is especially true on the GMAT where the test writers are literally paid to disguise familiar concepts in foreign ways.  For this reason, assume that your score progression will lag behind your knowledge progression. You’re probably not going to go from 550 –> 600 –> 650 –> 700 –> 750 so, if you have a fragile psyche, prime it before you begin.

I emphasize this now because it is at this juncture where your GMAT study plan is most susceptible to going off the rails.  It is not uncommon for people’s scores on their first practice test after learning the fundamentals to be equal to or even lower than their diagnostic.  Someone incapable of looking beyond their score may reach the conclusion they’ve regressed.  In response, they start going backward under the belief that if the answer wasn’t in one set of guides maybe the secret lies in another set of guides.  They begin rehashing turf they’ve already covered, thinking they’re being thorough when in reality all they’re doing is avoiding taking practice tests. They get increasingly frustrated as it seems like the more they study the less they learn.  Bitterness starts to settle in and The GMAT Gods smile knowing they have reaped another soul.

Getting Past the Plateau

From my experience, the GMAT progress curve is more of a step-wise function.  People stay in place for long periods and then burst upward in spurts.

That’s right. I’m making you interpret a graph. Deal with it.

The flat parts of the curve reflect the fact that before you start seeing significant improvement in your GMAT score, EVERYTHING has to click.  Three things in particular. Your comprehension, your recognition, and your timing.  The first of those comes from learning the fundamentals.  The latter two only come from taking(and reviewing!) practice tests.

We Interrupt This Blog Post To Bring You A Quick PSA About Timing

Timing is usually the last thing to click.  For some people, it never clicks.  But if and when it does, it’s like Neo becoming one with The Matrix.  At that point The GMAT no longer controls you, you control The GMAT.  Timing means not only not running out of time – the worst thing that can happen – but also allocating your time so that you’re keeping pace throughout the section, spending more time on the questions you know you can get, and not wasting time on the questions designed to be time-suckers.  One question is not going to make your score.  One question can break your score though – not if you get it wrong but if you spend too much time on it.  I plan on writing a more in-depth post on GMAT timing shortly because it is equally as important(perhaps more important!) than mere comprehension.

Forward Ever. Backward Never

The people I see burn out faster than anybody else on the GMAT are people for whom it’s the first academic undertaking they’ve ever struggled with.  Psychologically, they are unable to keep moving forward with anything less than absolute certainty they will be rewarded for their hard work.  There is no other way though.  This is simply how learning works. You suck at something for a long time and then you get good.

To reach the vertical part of the curve you need to, at least in the short-term, keep moving forward, keep taking practice tests, even in the face of a stagnant score.  If your first instinct is to go backward and retreat to ground you’ve already covered, the horizontal part of the curve will stretch into an endless treadmill.  As you study more you will become progressively exhausted and only once you collapse will you realize you spent all that energy without even having moved an inch forward.

An Extreme Example Demonstrating Why You Can’t Measure Progress Only In Terms of Your Score

Say you have two students each taking a test that is ten questions(blue circles) long.  Each of these ten questions can be broken down into roughly ten steps(green/red rectangles) required to reach the correct answer.  Like the GMAT, it is a multiple-choice test with no partial credit.  For the sake of simplicity, we’ll remove the probability of accidentally guessing the correct answer.  To get credit for any given question, they have to accurately complete all ten of its steps.  Below are the results for the two students.

two studentsStudent 1 knows 100% of the first nine questions.  The last question makes him scream “wtf!” in the middle of his testing center and he runs out of time before completing even a single step.

Student 2 knows 90% of all ten questions.  He skimped on the fundamentals so he can’t do the arithmetic needed to complete the final step.

Note, that in terms of knowledge these two students are equivalent.  They each got the same number of steps right and they are each the same number of steps away from getting a score of 100%.

However, they are far from equivalent when it comes to their actual scores.  Student 1 gets 9/10 questions right.  That makes him an A student and his score perfectly reflects his collective knowledge.  Student 2 gets 0/10.  If you were to only see his score, you may mistakenly reach the conclusion that this must not have been a student at all but some kind of lab monkey a bunch of bored scientists got drunk and then placed in front of a computer for laughs.

How This Impacts Your GMAT Study Plan

So what should student 2 do?  Give up?  Start over from scratch?  Seek out a zoo with a primate house vacancy so he can be among his ape brethren?  Absolutely not.  He needs to understand the underlying drivers behind his score.  Typically, when someone’s GMAT study plan ends in disappointment it’s not because they didn’t know enough or weren’t capable of doing well.  It’s because they were closer to the position of student 2 and never figured out that it only takes small adjustments to become more like student 1.

For your first two or three practice tests, your focus should not be maximizing your score.  You can look for an upward trend but your chief concern should still be learning: Get a lot of stuff wrong and then review it thoroughly before taking another test.  Make your overarching goal simply to not leave any points on the table.  Ensure you’re allocating your time so that you’re getting all the low-hanging fruit.  This takes some tinkering, but until you’re timing is perfected and you’re getting all the easy and medium questions, your score won’t even be reflective of your potential.  This means skipping questions or, more commonly, bailing on questions early, even when your brain’s telling you it can get the right answer if you just stick with it for another few minutes.  Any question you spend more than 4 minutes on will end up hurting you.  Even if you get it right, down the road there will be 2 or 3 questions you will miss when you are either rushed or run out of time.  When I skip a question on the GMAT I feel no shame.  I pump my fist triumphantly because I know that I am allocating my time strategically while everybody else is falling behind.

As you’re reviewing these first few tests, take note of the stuff that comes up repeatedly – ratios, percents, divisibility, rates, overlapping sets, etc.  These are the things you want to focus on mastering.  These are the questions that not only show up most frequently but they are also the most interconnected.  They are questions that will help you get other questions.  If you understand divisibility you’ll understand ratios which means you’ll also understand percents.  Know these concepts and the one-off WTF questions no longer matter. 

Putting It All Together: Making Your GMAT Study Plan

An ideal GMAT study plan should be 8-10 weeks in duration.  That gives you 3-4 weeks for learning the fundamentals and then another 6-7 weeks for taking practice tests.  Make a goal of doing a minimum of 4 full-length simulated practice tests, but 6-8 practice tests are ideal.  Keep your resources to a minimum.  I recommend having one outside test prep resource + the practice tests. 

Below is a 10-week GMAT study plan I made for somebody last week.  This student happened to already have the Manhattan Prep guides so those are what I incorporated in addition to the practice tests.

sample gmat study planNote that even though the schedule is intended for 2.5 months of studying, there are really only two parts to it – learning the fundamentals + taking practice tests.  I like starting with the Manhattan CAT exams for “learning” and then switching over to the tests for their “prognostic” value.  This reflects the tradeoff between practice exams from a test prep company and the ones from  A company like Manhattan will give you explanations to accompany every question and will also give you a detailed breakdown of your timing and performance by subject.  This makes them a great source for early practice tests when you’re still figuring out the GMAT format and working on your timing.  The tests, on the other hand, offer zero explanations and no performance breakdown other than whether you got a question correct or incorrect.  Their worth lies in their predictive value.  They are the only practice tests available from the actual writers of the GMAT and therefore are the most accurate gauge of what your score would be if you took your test tomorrow.

Regardless of the source of your practice tests you should continually be reviewing everything you have done to date.  As you take more exams your pool of incorrect answers will grow to the point where the most comprehensive study resource you have is your own work.  As long as you learned the fundamentals, there is no need to carry around a backpack with 20 pounds of GMAT books while also maintaining accounts on 5 different GMAT websites.  Make printouts of your own practice exams, put them in a folder, and review them every week.  Get into a routine of reviewing practice tests during the week and taking practice tests on weekends.  If it doesn’t feel like overkill then you’re not reviewing thoroughly enough! 

In Conclusion…

This was a long post.  If I repeated myself a few times it’s only because I’ve seen the many ways otherwise smart people get thrown for a loop when it comes to studying for the GMAT. May their mistakes be your gains. 

Oh, and what happened to that anonymous student I mentioned earlier?  I heard things turned out alright for him.  Hopefully, he’ll pay it forward. 

Stay safe and study hard! 


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