A Comprehensive Guide to GMAT Preparation



If you want to ace the GMAT to crown your MBA applications, you'll need to put in some serious time and preparation.  In this blog post, read about ways Weike--one of our Master tutors and admissions coaches--prepares her students to slam the exam.


Before taking the GMAT and committing yourself heart and soul to this test, you will come to a crossroads:  should I take the GMAT or the GRE? Because many B-schools now accept the GRE, the GRE option may be something that you are thinking about.  Usually, my recommendation is that if you are not a quantitative person and are more of a verbal person, maybe the GRE is better for you. 


I tutor all of the standardized tests (sans the LSAT) and out of all of them, the GMAT has the hardest quant--hands down.  If you want to have a debate about this, please feel free to email me.  I will pay you top dollars to see the hardest GRE quant question top the hardest GMAT one. 


That being said, I do think the GRE verbal is a little more challenging, because it is so grounded in vocabulary.  For the GMAT, at least you have a chance of figuring a verbal question out!  On the GRE, if you don’t know the words, then you are out of luck. 

So, What’s My Recommendation?

There are pros and cons to each test, but it is something worth thinking about if you feel that the GMAT might be a tall wall for you to get over.  Also regarding how ‘taboo’ it is to take the GRE for b-school, it is not THAT taboo but this isn’t to say that admission boards are completely blind to the differences of both test. 

I generally only recommend the GRE when I see that a student was just not built for the GMAT.  My reasoning is that a 50 percentile score on the GMAT will hurt you much more than a 90 percentile score on the GRE. 


You’ve Decided to Take the GMAT, Huh?

Okay, so you’ve made the decision to take the GMAT.  Good for you.  When I studied for the GMAT, I did it in one really intense month.  I also did the MCAT in one really intense month. 

In hindsight, I think that was really dumb.  How bad did that month get?  Well, laundry became an issue.  Fresh food.  Also, I was constantly in a daze.  Everywhere I looked, I saw GMAT problems, data sufficiency, graphs, figures, that button that pops up after every GMAT problem asking if you confirm your answer. 

(Hopefully this is not a surprise to you, but in the GMAT, you can’t go back.  Once a question is answered, it is done. In this way, the test is making you keep moving forward)

Anyway, if I had to take the GMAT again, I would not (could not) put my current life on hold just to prepare.  I have a dog now, among other responsibilities.  For my students, I recommend 2 months of study at 15-20 hours a week. I think this is a more realistic, but is still a somewhat tight schedule.  For comfort, most students take up to 3 months to prepare.  Depending on the students’ work schedule, sometimes those 2 months can drag to 6 months.  Whatever the timeline ends up being, you essentially do the 2 months’ worth of work, planned out below:


The 2-Month Timeline 

So no matter how you study--with a tutor (which I recommend!) or without--you do need a strong schedule.  This schedule does not necessarily need to be day-by-day, but it certainly needs to be by week.  And half months.  I say this because during the first session with any student, I give them the low-down on where they want to be by the half month mark, by the first month mark, etc, etc.  This way the student has some foresight and knows exactly what to expect.  

The First Month

The first month should be spent working through the official GMAT guide books.  There are 3.  The big official one with quant and verbal bound together.  And two other supplementary ones, one for quant and one for verbal.  Note that there are no overlapping questions for the books.    These books are great to study for verbal because the verbal is nicely divided out in reading comprehension, sentence correction and critical reasoning.   But the books are not great for studying quant because all the quant topics are jumbled together.  Whomp whomp.    

 (How to study for GMAT quant will probably be a blog of its own at some point as it is too much of a beast to get into here.  But a general guideline is to start with arithmetic.  Move onto algebra.  Then do geometry.  End with data-analysis.)

Because there are hundreds of questions in the guidebook--probably a little over 1000 questions split between the 3 books--I suggest that you hold yourself to 50 questions a day or a 100 questions every other (about) to finish the book in a month.   That being said, I understand if you have work and other responsibilities outside of the GMAT—maybe something comes up family wise, who knows—so this is why the 2-months can stretch and if you are planning wisely, you plan a 1 month buffer in there, as well.

I do not recommend going onto the month 2 until you have finished with month 1.  

The Second Month

The second month should be spent taking tests.   And reviewing tests.  And taking more tests.  In between tests, maybe you can practice with a few loose problems here and there (from either the GMAC software or other resources) but this month should be focused on bringing together everything you did the first month and getting your timing solid.   

During the testing month, a good resource for practice questions is the online GMAT club.   Here there are lots of GMAT takers and lots of forums, sub forums, covering every single GMAT topic you can find.  The great thing about this forum is that there are problems divided up by subtopics.  You can find for instance, a 700+ level DS questions on Combinatorics.  You can find a 500+ level PS questions on distance and rate.  Yes, the forum is that specific. 

But I find that the forum is both a blessing and a bane.  The bane is its plethora of information--it can be really overwhelming if you don’t know how to use it.  It is actually a better resource for teachers than maybe students.  Usually, as a tutor, I will introduce the student to this forum and then say, don’t worry, when you are in your testing phrase, if you ever need more questions, let me know I will find them for you (probably from this forum) and create PSET for you and send it to you with the answers.  Call it a personalized PSET service that I do for any student who asks me or any student who I feel needs it.  


GMAT Practice Tests 

Like many other standardized tests, there is a surplus of GMAT material out there.  The official writers of the test (the GMAC) have put out books upon books--actually, they are constantly updating their study resources, from the already thorough books to additional online exams.

In other words, the good news is that the GMAC is very nice to its test takers.  They really do provide students will the resources that they need.

The GMAT Tests

So now we are here at the meat of what this blog was supposed to be about!  There are actually only 2 companies that I recommend: the Official GMAC tests, and the Manhattan Prep.

Here are the numbers.

Official GMAC tests: 4

Manhattan Prep: 6

The comes to a sweet total of 10.  10 is a happy number.  I recommend 10 as a good number of practice tests to take for the GRE and the GMAT.

So in one month, you should do 10 GMAT tests.  This is actually more doable than you think.  Since there are 4 official tests, you do one of those every week.  Then during the week, you alternate between taking 1 or 2 Manhattan prep tests.  Below are my thoughts of each company’s test.

Official GMAC Tests

Hats off to the official company for actually writing tests that reflect their real test!  This isn’t true for all standardized test.  But the GMAC is extremely generous and kind.  The 4 tests come in 2 packs, each pack containing 2 tests.  They are available for purchase at the store. 


This is the most accurate example of the GMAT.  Scores on these tests calibrate to real scores by 10 points.  You cannot go wrong with these tests.  Also the scoring interface is super nice.  It tells you your score, percentile, percent wrong in each section, and each subject area, as well as how much time on average spent per problem.  As a tutor, I like to see how students are managing their time.  Because the GMAT is a time intensive test, every second matters.  I use the time management results to figure out ways for my students to speed up.  


I don’t really see many cons here, except that the exams aren’t really a CAT (Computer Adaptive Test).  Each test is ‘set’ essentially so you don’t get that sudden jump in question difficulty that you might feel on test day. 

Manhattan Prep

The MP offers a one-year access to all 6 of their MP tests.  These are CAT exams and the questions do get harder. 


There are a good number of these tests and the quant questions are a bit more challenging than the real GMAT, which makes it good practice for your real test--especially when you end up encountering a really difficult problem.  The MP also tests all subject areas in quant, so in doing the test, you will also be forced to review your quant thoroughly.  

The MP interface is also really easy to use.  There is a marker that shows you how long you have to spend on each problem.  This is an invaluable tool because you can immediately spot where you sunk 5 minutes into a problem –time you can’t get back.  The interface also shows the level of difficulty of each question, as well as the concept it was testing.  Overall, MP GMAT scoring is thorough, even more so than the GMAC tests.  Thumbs up for that!


The quant section can get too difficult.  I did a lot of math competitions in my day (believe it or not it was actually pretty fun) and some of the MP quant questions remind me of those.  The hardest questions are actually the arithmetic, where a lot of interesting and also puzzling things can be asked; i.e. what is the units digit of a number to the 6548 power (and remember you have to figure that out by hand because there is no calculator allowed).  

The MP verbal section is actually not as difficult as the real GMAT.  If anything it is about the same or a little easier and sometimes even a little more frustrating.  I say easier because I feel that, after doing 2 or 3 of the tests, some of the verbal questions can get a bit predictive.  Like for sentence correction, MP will always favor the correction that makes for a shorter sentence.  This is a great tip to teach students to watch out for but on the real GMAT, there are times when the shortest answer is flat out wrong.   Also, I say frustrating because sometimes the MP answers are a bit ambiguous, especially for the critical reasoning.  Two answers might be possible and the MP just seems to favor one over the other.

What usually ends up happening with the MP tests is that because they are so hard, no student really gets through all 6 tests fully.  Usually by test 3 the student has had enough of the MP tests, and has been thoroughly discouraged by the quant, wanting to practice with the “real” GMAC problems that are more forgiving.  This is fine, but generally I still have the students trudge through all 6 of MP test’s quant sections because, yes, I agree; while the verbal can be subjective, math is math and additional quant practice won’t hurt.  Actually it’s a little better to do the harder questions and learn the concepts behind them which might then help you speed up on some of the easier ones.

GMAT Tutoring

I love tutoring the GMAT.  It is so fun.  A lot of this enthusiasm comes from my sincere appreciation for the test and its quant section.  That quant section is tough but once you conquer it, you will feel really good, because you’re actually learning the math, not simply the test.  And isn’t that great?  Learning? 

On a serious note, I do find that most students benefit from GMAT tutoring, especially in the quant section, which, while difficult to teach, I find the most rewarding.  GMAT doesn’t come down to ‘luck’ as much as some of the other standardized tests do (I am looking at you, MCAT).  With a rigorous schedule, a good attitude, and a tutor who is willing to be there with you every step of the way (and I mean that!  I have driven students to testing centers before… and eaten meals with them afterwards) you will be in tip top shape!

Weike, pronounced Why-Key, was born in Nanjing, China but spent her childhood in Australia, Canada and America. She is fluent in both Chinese and English. In high school, Weike completed an International Baccalaureate program (scoring 7’s on advanced English, math, chemistry and physics) and achieved a perfect ACT score. She went on to earn her BA in Chemistry and English at Harvard College and graduated cum laude. Currently, Weike is completing her doctorate in cancer epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health as well as her MFA in creative writing at BU.

Work with Weike!

Read more on our GMAT test prep in the following blog posts:

GMAT Tips to Finally Get Over That Plateau!

The GMAT Tutor: The 4 Costliest GMAT Prep Errors

The GMAT Tutor: Beware of Unforced Errors on the Quantitative Section