GMAT Action Plan: How to Study and Prepare for the Graduate Management Admission Test

UPDATE, APRIL 2023:  Please note that this Action Plan applies to the current GMAT only—not the new GMAT Focus, which debuts in late 2023.  For more information on the GMAT Focus, please read this blog post.

First, check out my free GMAT e-book, Master the GMAT, and my list of recommended GMAT books on Amazon.


1) Visit the website and create an account to gain access to the free GMAT Official Practice Exams 1 and 2, cloud-based official GMAT practice exams that contain real, retired GMAT questions, and are meant to provide a realistic diagnostic score. 

After familiarizing yourself with the exam using the Test Preview tool, take the first of the two practice tests.  This is your baseline score.  If your initial score is low, don’t worry—you haven’t started preparing yet.  (If for any reason you’re not yet comfortable taking the first practice test, then switch steps #2 and #1).  If you're not planning to buy paid exams 3-6, then I recommend saving the other free GMAT exam (test #2), and taking it as your final diagnostic shortly before your "G-Day."

If you have a little extra money to spend (GMAT prep is not cheap), then you should also strongly consider purchasing the Official Practice Exams 3 and 4 and the Official Practice Exams 5 and 6 for an additional $50 each (or save $10 by buying the Exam Pack Bundle).  These contain four more official GMAT practice tests, giving you six real tests to work with instead of just two.   While you're at it, you should also strongly consider buying the GMAT Official Practice Questions 1 and GMAT Official Practice Questions 2 for an additional $30 each, which will give you plenty of questions you can practice on your computer, instead of just in a book (remember, the GMAT is a computer test and as such you should spend much of your time looking at questions on a screen).  You can view all of those products in one place here.

Yes, these materials from the test maker are on the pricey side.  However, official GMAT tests are invaluable, because although there are some companies out there who write realistic imitations of GMAT questions, they can never quite match the idiosyncratic nature of real GMATs.   Moreover, only GMAC has access to the precise algorithms that determine your actual GMAT score.  Tests from other companies are fine for practice, and necessary in many ways, but the only scores you can fully trust are these official tests from the test maker.  If you do in fact purchase Official Practice Exams 3-6, then you could take the 6 tests at evenly spaced intervals throughout your preparation, which would provide you with twice as much information about your progress.  Avoid the temptation to take all of these tests early in your prep, for the reasons discussed above

Pro tip: You can take each of the 6 GMAT Official Practice Exams more than once, because the GMAT is an adaptive test (it adjusts the difficulty level of later questions based on your previous responses). There are about 4 to 16 times as many questions in the GMAC's question pool as there are in any given test, which means that every test you take will be different. Tests 1 and 2 draw from a (gigantic!) pool of about 1,500 questions, and tests 3, 4, 5, and 6 draw from a more modest pool of about 400 questions each. To re-take your GMAT Prep tests, click "reset" in the lower-left hand corner of the GMAT Prep software window, but make sure to take screenshots of your previous test sessions beforehand—frequent screenshots are a good idea anyway because the software is prone to crashing and losing your data. For your screenshots, use either the "Print Screen" (Windows Key + PrtScn) button on a PC or (Shift + Command + 3) on a Mac.   Thus, the 6 official CATs (Computer-Adaptive Tests) can easily turn into 12 or more CATs if necessary.

2) Purchase one, preferably two copies (the second copy should be left blank) of the Official Guide to the GMAT. The Official Guide (OG) will become your new best friend: it contains over 900 practice problems and a diagnostic test, as well as free online access to copies of the questions through your Wiley account.  In addition, consider purchasing a (print or digital) copy of Brandon Royal's Ace the GMAT: Master the GMAT in 40 Days, which will serve as your all-in-one GMAT strategy guide and study plan.  You will also find helpful free introductory materials on the web, on sites such as GMAT Club and Economist GMAT.

Most students will prefer to start working through these materials in an organized manner, but feel free to zig-zag as well, if that better suits your learning style.  If you get stuck on something, then just mark the page, and move on.  The idea is to get yourself familiarized with the test as much as you can before you start taking a class or working with a private tutor.  Don’t worry about timing yourself just yet, but you might want to record how long each question takes you.  You have around 2 minutes per quantitative question, and 1.5 minutes per verbal question.

One aspect of these books that you must understand is that they are not meant to teach you GMAT test-taking strategy. For that, look elsewhere, such as a self-paced online learning program (good), an in-person GMAT course (better), or a private tutor (best).   See step #4 for more on this.  However, the GMAT Official Guides include some of the very best practice materials available, straight from the test-maker, and although the answer explanations are often convoluted, they are still useful in understanding how the GMAC thinks.

Don't waste your time and money practicing on GMAT practice questions made by any third-party companies, especially on Verbal—these are merely inferior imitations of the real thing. If you must use other materials for test strategy, then that's fine, and in most cases necessary, but try your best to stick to official questions whenever possible.

3) Set a score goal.  My students' GMAT student improvements are usually around 50-150 points, given time for sufficient preparation, and depending on the student’s starting score.  To state the obvious: the higher your starting score, the fewer points of improvement you can expect.  IR and Essay improvements are more difficult to predict, but are usually around 1-2 points. Check out this chart that shows you how GMAT Math and Verbal scores combine to produce a composite score.

4) Utilize free and paid online resources such as GMAT Club, GMAT Quantum, GMATPrepNow, EMPOWERgmat, Manhattan Prep, Target Test Prep (TTP), Magoosh, and GMAT Ninja.

Most of the companies listed above also offer paid options for video learning and practice: Target Test Prep is $149 per month, less if you buy a set of months up-front.  GMAT Quantum (math only) is $89 for 1 month, $169 for 3 months.  GMATPrepNow is $58 for 3 weeks and $88 for 6 months.  Nearly all of these companies also offer a free trial where you can test the programs and videos out for a week or so. 

In general, online forums such as GMAT Club are a great resource for quick question explanations— a simple google search for the text of your question will usually yield great results in a short amount of time—but sometimes a video explanation can work even better.

Be careful when trying to learn by video exclusively, however. It is important to understand that video learning is often not the best type of learning. It's easy to watch a video, of course, but it often doesn't lead to great retention and test-taking awareness. Working on practice questions, reviewing them, putting them aside for 7-10 days to forget the details, then reworking the ones you got wrong until you have fixed your mistakes is much more valuable than passive study.

5) If you need lots of remedial help, or if you haven’t taken a college math class in a long time, then it might make sense to take a GMAT classroom course, such as the ones at UCSD, where I worked on the side as a classroom instructor for many years.  But don’t overpay for an “elite” course — most of these courses are the same, are taught by relatively inexperienced teachers, and focus on basic content and strategies.  Instead, save your money for a qualified private tutor later on in the process.

6) If you can afford it, then find an expert GMAT tutor such as myself and schedule some private lessons.  Living in the golden age of remote learning, blazing fast internet connections, and streamlined online chat programs such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, Google Meetings, etc. has made it very easy for students and tutors to connect easily, no matter their respective locations. 

Before purchasing time with me or any other GMAT tutor, however, I would strongly suggest that you first schedule a phone consultation to discuss strategies and scheduling.

Working with a private tutor is the very best way to maximize your score, for a variety of reasons:

  • You are given personalized attention, lessons tailored to fit your schedule, and the opportunity to discuss each question in-depth until you are fully satisfied.

  • Private tutors are usually the best instructors.

  • A skilled private tutor will serve as a friend and confidant, hold you accountable, give you specific assignments, and work on any problem areas so that all you have to do is put in the effort. Simply talking about the questions with your tutor helps aid your understanding of each question, and of your test-taking strategies.

7) Study, Study, Study.  Practice, Repeat, Forget, Practice, Repeat, Forget, Practice, Repeat…Remember.  GMAT Study Plan - 2022 Edition (GMAT Club)

8) When you’re ready, decide on a test date and register for your GMAT.

9)  Take periodic practice CATs in the lead-up to the actual GMAT.  I recommend that you take at least 8 CATs total.  So if you are preparing for 24 weeks, for example, then you should take a full practice test every 3 weeks.

10) You’re ready.  Good luck!  If you are taking the test-center GMAT, then make sure you have detailed directions to the test center, and get there ahead of time.  Remember that you will receive your Verbal and Quant scores (although not your AWA score) immediately after the exam.  After viewing your scores, you will be given the option to either cancel or report your scores (if you choose to report your score but later change your mind, then you can also choose to cancel them online, within 72 hours of your test's completion).  If you choose to report your score at the test center, then you will be given a printout with your "unofficial" score and your score will become official 72 hours later. 

If it doesn't go well the first time, then remember that most students do better the second time they take the GMAT.

UPDATE, 7/16/15:  if you do choose to cancel your score, then you no longer have to worry about the dreaded "C" showing up on your score report: the GMAT has discontinued this policy.  You will also be allowed to retake the test after a 16-day time period, and you can take the GMAT up to five times per year.

As for the GMAT online: you cannot cancel GMAT online scores, but they are only viewable by the schools to which you choose to send them. 

Don’t forget that the exam itself costs $250.  There are fee waivers available for those who qualify.

Homework and Practice Tests - Rules, Tips and Suggestions (and the art of Blind Repetition)

The best way to prep for the GMAT is simple on its face, yet complex in its execution.

On the face, it’s simple: work through the Official Guides, the Question Packs, the Exam Packs and the Math/Verbal Guides from front to back. Take all 6 Official Exams  Practice whenever you get a chance, and vary between timed and untimed exercises.  Try 30 questions at a time—that's the average length of one section on the GMAT. 

However, the real question is exactly how to work your way through the books and other materials.  

The problem is that we often fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve resolved our issues with a question, because we have read the explanation and now understand why the correct answer is correct.  In other words, because I now know that the answer is A, and can put together the reasons why after the fact, I can move on to other questions, in the belief that I’ve learned my lesson and will not make that mistake again.  It’s often a mistaken belief, however.  

The issue? Understanding the correct answer is not the same as being able to execute the question from scratch and find the correct answer.  The same applies to learning vocabulary, for example.  Just because you’re looking at the definition of a word, and you know its meaning in the moment, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to access its definition under real test conditions.  As the saying goes, “everything is obvious once you know the answer.”  Of course you think you know the meaning to a word in the moment that you’re reading the definition.  It’s only when the answer is taken away, and we are given time to reset our short-term memory, that we can truly determine our level of understanding.

Another problem is that once we remember the answer to a question, it loses much of its utility.  If I know that the answer is B before I start a question, then I am going to be biased toward that answer, which affects my response and makes it much different from the process of taking a test where the answers are undetermined.

Thus, we need to do 2 things:

1) Blind Repetition.  This means that when we repeat a question, we do not look at our previous work, or check the correct answer beforehand.  This is much easier with a blank copy of the book at your disposal.  

2) Wait until you’ve forgotten it.  Don’t repeat questions whose answers you still remember.  Complete enough new questions in the meantime so that when you return to a question, you can evaluate it impartially.  

This is where the second, blank copy of the book will prove its worth.  It prevents you from “spying on” your previous work, or the correct/incorrect answer, and serves as a way of truly telling whether you understand a question.  Your tutor will also help keep you honest, of course.  

 - 2:1 ratio:  You should spend at least two hours on homework for every one hour you spend with your tutor.  Ideally, the ratio is closer to 3:1.   That means, for example, that if you buy a 25-hour package with me, that you will be spending at least 75 hours on self-study, which of course adds up to 100 hours of preparation.  I have found that my students' GMAT scores will continue to improve past 100 hours of prep, but you will likely see diminishing returns after that point.   

-Vary the length of time that you study and work on practice questions.  Sometimes you might study for 2 hours, sometimes for 1 hour, sometimes for 30 minutes and maybe even just for 15.     

-Make sure to take a full CAT at least once a month to track your progress.  

Good luck!  The GMAT is a very difficult test with a bizarre, "front-loaded" scoring algorithm—but it can be conquered, and even mastered, with perseverance and the right guidance.

You may also find it useful to read my free list of Helpful GMAT Links and my free e-book, Master the GMAT (also linked above), as well as my GMAT Test-Day Tips and my AMA on Reddit.  In addition, feel free to read my some of my posts and comments on GMAT Club


copyright 2002-2023 Brian R. McElroy
Founder and President, McElroy Tutoring Inc.
Toll-Free: 1-866-584-TUTOR (8886), x 4
Direct (Call or Text): 619-889-2935



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