One of the most common questions we receive from folks who are just getting started with GMAT prep is “what materials should I use?” The short answer is, you should build a study plan around the materials offered by GMAC.org via www.mba.com, as this is the company that designs and administers the GMAT. In the rest of this article, we’ll explain why this is the right approach, what those materials are, and how to begin to create a study plan using them.
Why is using official GMAT materials the right approach?
When you are studying for a test like the GMAT it is important to prepare using practice GMAT questions that are similar to what you’ll see on the actual exam. This is true for three reasons.
First, the test is designed to pressure test your critical thinking abilities using math and reading comprehension concepts. In that sense, it’s a unique exam. It isn’t trying to directly test your “academic proficiency” as the ACT or SAT might. It requires you to have a certain amount of proficiency, and then tests your ability to think critically and creatively. So, the trick lies in getting comfortable with the GMAT’s unique question types and becoming a flexible thinker able to apply those concepts to answer questions correctly. For example, there is a quantitative section of the GMAT that looks very much like a math test. But if you study primarily using materials that treat the GMAT like a math test, you’ll make very slow progress. Sure, there will be math concepts you must know, and learning those concepts as you might during a math class is fine. But applying them is much different on the GMAT. If you practice using materials that tend to be more straight forward and just require that you recognize x, y, or z math concept, you won’t be building the right type of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Second, major well-known test prep companies (e.g., Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.) with strong brands and an established content creation business model have an incentive to create “practice material” that they claim is uniquely able to build your skills. And each year, they need to have another batch of new content, and an overall amount of content that is very large such that they can meet the needs of stressed out GMAT students worried that they’ll somehow run out of practice material. In fact, the official material offered by GMAC.org is plentiful, and if you practice in the right way, slowly reviewing all missed questions and determining why and how you missed them, you won’t need thousands and thousands of questions.
At the end of the day, it’s far more likely that the practice content offered by these firms is either not much better, or in fact worse. Unofficial GMAT content can be worse in a few different ways. The questions, as covered above, can be unlike the actual GMAT exam. Or, they can be too hard. Worst of all, they can be too easy, leaving students with an illusion of competence that can create some serious disappointment during the official GMAT exam.
Finally, there’s more than enough official practice content available from the folks who create the official GMAT exam. If you are convinced of the importance of official materials and concerned about quality but simply want to be able to have enough to practice, rest assured. As you’ll see below, there’s quite a bit of free and low cost GMAT practice available from www.mba.com
Here are the official GMAT materials offered by www.MBA.com.
All the “official” GMAT prep materials offered by gmac.org are listed here. It’s a little confusing, because some of the materials listed are “bundles” of previous materials already listed on the page, but in sum, for something below $400, you’d have access to:
- A free “kick-starter” online study program with two official practice exams
- 6 official online fully adaptive practice exams, and 9 official previous GMAT exams, for a total of 15 full length practice GMAT exams. When I prepared for the GMAT, I took every one of these full-length practice exams.
- Between the online “GMAT Official Practice Questions” program (400+ questions), Official Guide Prep book (900), the Official Guide to Quant (300) and Official Guide to Verbal (300) prep books, you can find over 1,900 official practice problems, without including any of the full length practice tests
- www.mba.com also offers a unique tool for homing in on your weaknesses in the quant area through its GMAT focus tool, as well as an enhanced GMAT score report that gets very specific about what types of questions you missed
Is there enough “official” GMAT content to build a complete study plan?
An official GMAT exam takes 3 hours. So the above reflects 15 tests * 3 hours = 45 hours of official exams. For each full length GMAT exam you take, you should spend at least two hours reviewing the problems you miss. So, that’s a total of 45 + 30 = 75 hours of study time using all of those full-length exams.
On the official GMAT, you get about two minutes per question. So that means the third bullet point above reflects over 3,800 minutes of practice, assuming you only take 2 minutes per question. That’s another 63 hours of direct practice, but then you’d probably want to spend another 50% of that time reviewing missed problems. So, call it 90 hours of practice problems.
At this point, we’ve not yet accounted for integrated reasoning or AWA writing practice, OR any of the time it takes to read about the exam and its question types and the various concepts which would be covered in the official Guides to the GMAT mentioned above. But we have still identified 165 hours of practice, which means you could study for 10 hours a week for 4 four months.
Once you include the tools provided for preparing for the Integrated Reasoning Section and the AWA Writing section (GMATWrite), you could conceivably use official GMAT practice materials for 10-15 hours a week for 5-6 months without needing to invest in any other types of practice.
That is more practice than almost any student needs to be doing, particularly if they are following deliberate practice principles and reviewing missed problems carefully. I would say this is true even if you scored a 500 on an official practice GMAT exam and are looking for a 700+ score.
Here’s how to build a study plan around the Official Guide materials.
At a high level, the key to studying for the GMAT is to design a study plan upfront, stick with it, practice deliberately, and stay positive. Think about it as a five-step process:
- Spend just a bit of time learning about the exam and what’s on it
- Take some sort of diagnostic exam to identify strengths and weaknesses. The official Guide to the GMAT offers a 100-question diagnostic, or any of the full-length exams will also do the trick.
- Given your diagnostic exam performance, target score, timeframe, and availability, build a week by week plan for concepts to cover and homework to do.
- Take practice exams at regular intervals to track progress and refine your study plan
- Refine time management and build confidence in the weeks leading to test day by taking more full-length practice tests. If you are targeting a 700+ score, you’ll want to see consistent practice GMAT scores of 720 or higher, as it’s not uncommon to get a little stressed and see a slight decline on test day.