It’s easy to feel lost when you start to study for the GMAT. It doesn’t help that everybody wants to share their own GMAT study tips—and half of those tips contradict each other! Should you always study in the same spot, or should you change it up? Do you get a 700 on the GMAT by solving every official problem, or by reading every study guide?
Based on a combination of learning science and GMAT experience, here are our favorite GMAT study tips. We’ve broken them up into three categories:
- GMAT study tips that tell you what to study
- GMAT study tips that tell you how to study
- GMAT study tips that tell you when to study
In order to hit your GMAT goal score, you’ll need all three!
GMAT Study Tips: What to Study
1. Choose a source of official problems.
In order to ace the GMAT, you need to do GMAT problems. That’s not one of our GMAT study tips—it’s just common sense! The real tip is that not all GMAT problems are created equal. The GMAC spends thousands of dollars developing each problem that appears on the GMAT. Every new problem is tested as an experimental problem with real test-takers before it gets used officially. Think of it as GMAT quality control.
There are lots of great unofficial problems out there—we’ve written a lot of them for our GMAT practice tests! But the official problems, which are actual retired GMAT questions, are the gold standard. Everybody should have a good source of official problems to work with.
Right now, there are four places to find official GMAT problems. Here they are:
- The Official Guide to the GMAT, which contains about 800 official problems. As of this writing, the latest version is the 2019 edition. However, the older versions contain many of the same problems.
- The Official Guide to Quantitative Review and the Official Guide to Verbal Review. These books are similar in format to the Official Guide to the GMAT, but they contain different problems.
- The GMAT Official Practice Questions at mba.com. 90 questions are available for free, with the option to purchase about 400 more.
- GMAT Focus. This Quant-only tool provides up to 72 practice questions in 3 tests.
2. Choose a way to learn the content.
To ace the GMAT, you need a strong foundation in math and grammar, and you need to know what the GMAT expects of you on each type of problem. Here’s a list of the skills that are tested on GMAT Quant, and a similar list for GMAT Verbal. You can’t learn these things quickly and completely by just doing problems: you need to internalize the GMAT content in an organized way.
One option is to take a 9-week GMAT Complete Course! You’ll see all of the material that shows up on the GMAT, and you’ll also be provided with all of our GMAT Strategy Guides and a lot of good advice on how to study. If that isn’t for you, GMAT Interact also goes over everything that the GMAT tests, or you can purchase the GMAT Strategy Guides separately. Check out our article on studying for the GMAT for more ideas and some useful GMAT study tips.
3. Choose your practice tests (but don’t take too many practice tests.)
Practice tests might not be as helpful as you think, at least when it comes to improving your GMAT weaknesses.
Here’s an example. Suppose that you’re really having a hard time with Data Sufficiency Testing Cases problems. On a 3-hour practice GMAT, you can expect to see about 13 Data Sufficiency questions. Of those, a third of them might involve testing cases—so, that’s about four problems. Of those four, one might be a throwaway easy problem, and one more might be way too hard. If testing cases is your biggest weakness right now, you just spent three hours of your time practicing two problems! Plus, because you’re under stress while taking a practice test, you won’t remember the material as well as normal.
If you need to work on a certain content area or skill (like testing cases), it’s way more efficient to spend those three hours focusing solely on that area. Practice tests are also mentally taxing, meaning that they’ll leave you tired (and inefficient) for a day or two afterwards. Plus, the number of great GMAT practice tests is limited.
That said, practice tests are still valuable. You should take one every couple of weeks to evaluate how your studying is going and to decide what to focus on next. And if you have a weakness that specifically relates to taking a full test, such as anxiety or timing issues, a practice test can help.
Choosing a great practice test is a balancing act. The GMAC has published six official practice tests that use retired GMAT problems. However, these practice tests don’t come with a lot of tools and data to analyze your performance. On the other hand, the Manhattan Prep practice tests are developed by instructors with tons of GMAT experience—and also include a detailed analysis. If you choose to do both, you may want to use the Manhattan Prep tests earlier in your studies and switch to the GMATPrep ones when you’re closer to your official test date.
GMAT Study Tips: How to Study
Our first three GMAT study tips told you what to study, and that’s a good start. But we aren’t born knowing how to study. In fact, a lot of us have misconceptions about the best ways to learn. Here are some GMAT tips that will help you study the right way.
1. Study like a musician.
Music, chess, and sports have been around for much longer than the GMAT, and experts in these fields have spent countless hours deliberating on the best way to practice. This 1993 paper sums it all up as deliberate practice. If you want to improve, mindlessly playing a song over and over or throwing a ball against the wall isn’t enough. Neither is mindlessly doing GMAT problems:
Mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance.
Instead, practice should be targeted. You won’t become a baseball expert solely by playing lots of baseball games, and you won’t become a GMAT expert by taking lots of practice tests. Find a specific weakness and focus on it completely for a brief time.
During a 3-hr baseball game, a batter may get only 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored (T. Williams, 1988).
Practice should also be goal-oriented. Don’t go into a practice session without knowing what you’re trying to achieve. Make sure that whatever you’re doing, it’s meant to help you improve something specific.
In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.
Experts at music, chess, or baseball are also expert practicers. In order to become an expert at the GMAT, you should become an expert practicer too.
2. Put your brain to work.
If you ever watched TV in the 90s, you probably saw commercials for those vibrating belts that would supposedly give you rock-hard abs. You just had to strap the belt around your waist, plug it in, and sit on the couch while it did all the work. To nobody’s surprise, they didn’t work. It turns out that if you want great abs, you have to do the hard work yourself.
Studying by passively reading, watching, or listening is a little bit like using one of those belts. When you just read the explanation of a GMAT problem—even if it’s a really good explanation, and even if you totally understand it—you’re letting somebody else do the hard work for you. Whoever wrote that explanation is doing most of the thinking, while you’re sitting back and taking it easy. And nobody ever beat the GMAT by taking it easy!
The same is true when you just read a chapter out of our Strategy Guides without synthesizing the material yourself, or when you watch an Interact lesson without working through the problems. Instead of trying to learn passively, challenge yourself to do as much of the hard work as possible. Don’t read the explanation until you’re absolutely sure you’ve figured out everything you possibly can on your own. And if you’re totally baffled by a problem, the solution isn’t to study the explanation step-by-step until you can solve it. The way to “win” that problem might very well be to learn to recognize similar problems so you can guess on them next time. If it’s an easier problem and you just got thrown off by it, focus on finding the clues in the text that would have told you which approach to take. Make sure you’re rephrasing things in your own words in your error log. And if you aren’t sure what to do with a problem, start a conversation about it on our GMAT forum!
3. Go beyond “I get it.”
On the GMAT, you don’t get to show your work. From the computer’s perspective, you either got the problem right or you got it wrong. The test can’t tell the difference between somebody who didn’t understand the problem at all and somebody who got 99.9% of the way there, but made a single tiny error at the very end.
That can be really frustrating. You can study for the GMAT for weeks and learn a ton of material but only see a modest improvement on practice tests. The problem is, the test itself can’t tell that you’ve learned the material, until you’ve learned it so well that you can reliably get problems right. That’s a lot harder than just learning until you “get it,” or learning until you can follow along with a class or an Interact lesson.
Long story short, don’t let yourself put down a topic once you feel as if you ‘get it.’ Continue studying even the material that you think you understand, until you’re consistently performing well on that topic when you take practice tests. (By the way, here’s how to analyze a practice test.)
GMAT Study Tips: When to Study
Should you study a little bit every day, or should you cram? Should you study Geometry now and leave Number Properties until later? These GMAT study tips will help you decide which study sessions to do when.
1. Interleaving versus blocking.
“Interleaving” and “blocking” refer to two different study styles. In blocked studying, you pick a topic, then study that single topic until you’ve exhausted your study materials and raised your confidence. In interleaved studying, you do short study sessions on each topic across a period of days or weeks, mixing in different topics in the meantime. You won’t master the topic after the first session, but you’ll increase your abilities a little bit each time you revisit it.
Blocked studying is like eating a whole batch of brownies. It feels great at the time. But later on, you’ll feel sick and (even worse) you’ll be all out of brownies. Interleaved studying is more like eating one brownie each night until the batch is gone. It’s annoying to have to walk away from the remaining brownies when they’re calling your name—but in the long run, you’ll feel way better.
That’s because your brain thrives on two things: forgetting and variety. Forgetting is inevitable, no matter what you do. Even if you totally master a topic, you’ll forget a lot of what you learned. But when you partially forget and then re-learn something, you end up with a stronger, more persistent memory. You might as well build that forgetting/re-learning process into your studying right now.
Your brain loves variety nearly as much as it loves forgetting things. The more different inputs you give it, the stronger memories you’ll form. For instance, did you know that “always study in the same place” is actually a myth? Just like switching up topics day-to-day, switching up your study location will give you stronger mental associations.
2. Leverage the “forgetting factor.”
Forgetting is annoying but inevitable. On the other hand, re-learning something you’ve forgotten is great. You can use this to your advantage via something called spaced repetition.
Here’s the idea. You pick up a new (or old) topic and spend an hour or two studying it. Do the same thing the following day. You’re not supposed to feel “finished” with the topic at this point! Nonetheless, wait a few days before picking it back up. The idea is that you’ll forget—and need to re-learn—some of what you studied.
Then, wait longer before you review the topic a third time—maybe a week or so. After doing that, wait a couple of weeks, or even a month. Each time you partially forget, and re-learn, what you’ve learned, you’ll form a stronger memory. And stronger memories are the ones that stick with you on test day.
The two principles of spaced repetition are:
- Multiple short study sessions that are spaced out, instead of all lumped together
- Increasing the amount of time you wait before reviewing a topic, to train your brain to remember it for longer and longer
Can you find a way to incorporate those into your study plan?
GMAT Study Tips: Summary
You don’t have to study perfectly, every single day. However, there are definitely some small improvements that you can make to how you’re approaching the GMAT. Certain ways of studying—like blocking, or trying to memorize a lot of content all at once—can seem satisfying, and they may even work well in the short term. But mastering the GMAT isn’t something that happens overnight, and great studying is about moving towards your long-term goals. If you want to make it to your goal score, spend some time upfront on learning how to study. If you do, you’ll get more out of every single hour you put in. 📝
Want more guidance from our GMAT gurus? You can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GMAT courses absolutely free! We’re not kidding. Check out our upcoming courses here.
Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GMAT prep offerings here.