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by Vault Education Editors | October 15, 2009


Thesedays, almost everyone preps for the GMAT--but surprisingly few actually planhow to prep to maximize the chance for success.  For the next four weeks, we'll discuss the insand outs of prep to allow you to get the most out of the time you spendstudying for the GMAT.  This week, wecover how to decide on your overall prep plan.  In coming weeks, our topics will include howto structure your study and review time, what to do on test day, how to recoverif you fall behind schedule, and other fun matters.


Inorder to decide how best to prep, you need to know several important things.


First,you need to know your current score and the score level that will make youcompetitive at the schools to which you will apply.  This gives you an idea of how much improvementyou will need and may affect your prep plans.  If, for example, your current score is a 550and you need to break 600, you'll probably need about two or three months ofstudy.  On the other hand, if you arecurrently scoring a 550 and need to break 700, you may require significantlymore time.


Todetermine your pre-preparation score, take a practice CAT in conditions thatsimulate the actual exam as much as possible.  Many prep companies and published books offerpractice exams, but you should be sure that the exam you take mimics the CAT inthat it is adaptive.  Manhattan GMATstudents can take practice adaptive exams from their home computers.  You can also download free GMATPrepTM softwareat, the official website of theorganization that makes the test.  Thesoftware allows you to take a full length practice GMAT exam on your computer;once you're done, you will receive a score that serves as a solid predictor ofhow you are likely to score on the real thing.


Manybusiness schools post the average GMAT score of incoming students on their websites,often in the admissions or frequently asked questions (FAQ) section.  Alternatively, several companies publish "BestBusiness School"-type books which list the statistics for incoming classes(if you conduct your research via books, be sure to use those which have beenpublished in the last year or so).  Finally, Manhattan GMAT's MBA Resources can provide you with last year's average GMAT scores at the top 25 U.S. B-schools.


Youalso need to know something about your own strengths and weaknesses acrossthree categories: learning/study style, standardized tests, and content (orthe actual knowledge being tested by the exam).


Strengths and weaknesses: Learning/study style


Thinkback to undergrad.  Did you do best whenyou had a small classroom of comrades with whom you shared the adventures oflearning?  Or did you excel when you metindividually with your professor, TA or private tutor?  At work today, does it energize you to workwith a group or do you focus better via one-on-one interactions?


Usewhat you already know about your preferences to decide whether a classroomsetting or a private tutor is right for you.


Anaside: Some people are able to study effectively by themselves, but be honestwith yourself about whether you fall into this category.  These people are highly disciplined, motivatedand resourceful; in addition, they are usually already on the higher end of thescore range.  If you, like most of us,tend to procrastinate or dread taking the exam, then studying on your own maynot be your best bet.


Strengths and weaknesses: Standardized tests


Whenyou took the SAT, did you do better, worse than or about the same as peopleexpected based upon your performance in school?  How stressed did you get when you took anykind of exam?  Did your exam gradesmirror your overall class grade?  In anutshell, do you tend to thrive or falter when you are in high-pressure testingsituations?  Those who underperformed onstandardized or other high-pressure tests in the past may require more in-depthprep than those who did very well.


Don'tforget that the GMAT CAT has an extra complication: You must take it on acomputer.  If you're not used to takingtests on a computer (and most of us aren't), this could negatively affect yourperformance.  The best thing you can doif you fall into this category is take practice tests that mimic the real testuntil the computer format doesn't bother you anymore.


Strengths and weaknesses: content


Howlong has it been since you studied grammar, found the prime factors of a numberor critically analyzed a reading passage?  What's the formula for the area of atrapezoid?  When did you last write animpromptu essay?


Theaverage MBA applicant works for at least a few years after undergrad beforereturning to school.  Depending on yourjob, you may or may not keep up with any of the content tested by the GMAT.  Most of us don't--yet we do need to havespecific knowledge in order to score well on the test.  Knowing how much you don't know is key toestablishing your prep plan.


ManhattanGMAT preparation materials include comprehensive lists of the content tested onthe exam.  You may also purchase bookswritten by the same people who write the GMAT at GMAT provides these books as part of the course materials).  Use these resources to get a handle on whatyou already remember and what you'll need to relearn.  The more work you have to do, the more timeyou should build into your prep plan.


Okay, I know my strengths and weaknesses.  Now what?


Onceyou've gone through the above exercises, you should have a pretty good ideawhether you want to take a class, hire a private tutor or prep on your own. Inaddition, you should be able to determine a couple of other things:

  1. Thetotal amount of time you're going to need for primary studying (that is, thefirst time you learn the material).  Ifyou take a structured class, the schedule will already be predetermined.
  2. Theamount of time to set aside for review, after you finish your primary studyingand before you take the test for the first time.  Most people take the test between two and sixweeks after instruction ends.
  3. Theamount of buffer time you need to ensure that you can take the test a secondtime, if necessary.  You are only allowedto take the GMAT once in a 31-day period (and five times a year).
  4. Theapplication deadlines of your preferred schools.  You will, of course, have to work backwardfrom these drop-dead dates.  If you havethe time, it's preferable to get the test out of the way before you have tostart filling out the applications themselves.  Keep in mind that your GMAT score is valid forfive years!  If you know you will applyto B-school within five years, get the GMAT out of the way as soon as possible.

Predictability is good.


It'scritical to set regular study times and stick to them.  If you have set "appointments" tostudy, do homework or take practice tests, you'll be less likely toprocrastinate and fall behind.  As ageneral rule, studying a little bit each day is better than studying for anextended period of time on only one or two days.  In fact, your study sessions should neverexceed 90 minutes at a clip; excessively long study periods overload your brainand provide a diminishing margin of return.  The most productive studying takes place inshort, regular sessions.  If you don'thave a ton of time, plan on 20-minute periods during the workday--one sessionduring the morning (on the subway to work!), one during your lunch break, andone during the evening.  You can spendextra time on weekends for more extended study sessions and for taking practiceexams.


Study groups.


Ifpossible, form a study group.  You cankeep each other on track, worry over problems together and even test yourself:if you can teach a concept to someone else, you know you've mastered it!  There are no rules but, generally speaking,you'll do better if you like each other and have similar study styles.  You don't need to be scoring at the samelevel--it's actually a good idea to have a variety of strengths so you canlearn from each other.


Oh no!  I'm falling behind …


Chancesare, with your busy life, you're going to fall behind schedule at least once.  The easiest thing you can do is assume thatlife will throw you a curveball at some point during the prep process.  Add an extra week or two onto your reviewtime, just in case.


Ifyou're working with a private tutor, you're calling the shots; you can postponea session and push your primary study schedule back a few days or a week (and withextra time already built into the review schedule, this won't destroy youroverall timeline).


Ifyou're taking a class, however, you can't alter the schedule to suit yourneeds.  In this situation, the mostimportant thing is to make sure you don't continue to fall further behind.  If you can't do the homework during week four,don't do it during week five (unless you have time to do two weeks' worth ofhomework that week).  Complete the weekfive assignments first.  You can completeweek four little by little over the remainder of the course or you can put itoff completely until the course is over--and you can catch up via the extraweek you included in your review schedule.


When should I take the test?


Theideal time to take the test for the first time is between two and four weeksafter the end of your last class or tutoring session (unless you decide to addextra tutoring sessions entirely focused on review).  You should also automatically plan to take thetest a second time between one and two months later (though, obviously, you don'thave to if you're happy with your scores from the first test!).


How should I review?


Bythe time you finish your formal instruction, you will have learned an enormousamount of material; it's only natural that you will want some time to review.


First,make sure to get in-depth recommendations from your instructor as to how tospend your time given your own particular strengths and weaknesses.  A private tutor will naturally do this for youbut you may have to ask for it in a class setting.  At Manhattan GMAT, students in the nine-weekclass can get in-depth recommendations when they submit the results of threepractice tests by the last class.


Next,set up a schedule.  Spread your reviewevenly over the time you have until your first test, but leave the last five toseven days open, just in case you fall behind schedule.  If, after your first test, you decide to takethe test again, you will have to wait at least a month (you are only allowed totake the test every 31 days).  You won'thave in-depth analysis from your real test, but you will be able to use yourquantitative and verbal percentiles to get an exact sense of your relativeability in these two areas.  This willgive you a sense of which area to focus on (math or verbal) during youradditional study time.


Peopledo often see improvement on a second exam simply because they know what toexpect the second time around, but this improvement, by itself, usually isn'tenough to justify taking the test again.  Now that you have the experience of one testbehind you, though, you can use your knowledge to focus your prep for nexttime--you just have to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Didyou think you had scored higher or lower or were you about right?
  • Wasyour pacing good or did you feel pressed for time?
  • Didthe test seem harder or easier than your practice tests?
  • Doyou remember any particular concepts or problems that really threw you offtrack?

Ifyou do schedule a few private tutoring sessions, discuss these questions withyour instructor at the first session.


Dos and don'ts

  • Do spend the last fewdays practicing actual GMAT questions, reviewing the basic techniques andsleeping eight hours every night.
  • Don't take a practice testwithin two days of the real thing--you don't want to burn yourself out.  Also, don't study for more than an hour or twoon the day before the test.
  • Do have two alarm clocksplus a friend to wake you up if you're taking the test in the morning (or ifthere's any chance you might oversleep!).  Also, look up the directions to the test centerthe day before the test--and consider making a test drive if you're not surehow to get there or how long it might take.
  • Don't go out the nightbefore.  Don't get drawn into familyproblems.  Don't work late.  Basically, remove yourself from all potentialcauses of stress, even if that means checking into a hotel!
  • Do set aside a few veryeasy questions to do right before you go into the test center; this will warmup your brain.  However ...
  • Don't look at the answers tothose easy questions--don't even bring the answers with you!  All you're doing is warming up and yourperformance doesn't matter; the last thing you want to do is lower yourconfidence by realizing you got an easy question wrong 15 minutes before thetest starts.
  • Do eat a good breakfastand bring something to eat and drink to the test center.  Before the test, protein and complex carbs aregood--think eggs with whole wheat toast.  At the test center, you can consume food anddrink on the breaks.  If you feel yourenergy flagging, get a quick hit of sugar and/or caffeine, however ...
  • Don't drink lots of caffeineright before the test--both because the caffeine won't last four hours (so you'llcrash during the exam) and because caffeine is a diuretic (and if you're notsure why that's a problem during a long test with limited breaks, then Google "diuretic"right now and learn your new thing for the day).
  • Do reward yourself afteryou take the test.  Whether you treat yourselfto a fancy dinner, a luxurious massage or a night out on the town with friends,do treat yourself.  You've worked reallyhard and you deserve it!

AboutManhattan GMAT


ManhattanGMATis the nation's largest GMAT-exclusive preparation provider.  Manhattan GMAT's mission is to providestudents with a blend of the academic and test-taking skills essential forsuccess, given today's higher standard for what defines a competitive GMATscore.  Preparation options include nine-sessioncourses, private tutoring, one-day workshops, and corporate classes on-site atmany Fortune 500 companies.  TheManhattan GMAT Strategy Guides, the heart of our curriculum, can be purchasedthrough our onlinestore or major book retailers like Barnes & Noble.


Check out ourwebsite to learn more about our upcoming programs, curriculum andinstructors.


*GMATand GMAT CAT are registered trademarks of the Graduate Management AdmissionsCouncil, which neither sponsors nor endorses this preparation service.


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