Studying for the GMAT is a serious time commitment, usually requiring two to three months or more. While most aspiring MBAs prepping for Test Day know what to study, you probably have many questions about how to study—and more specifically, how to make the appropriate time commitment. Study schedules can vary depending on several variables, including your:
- Goal score
- Starting score
- Work schedule
- School schedule
- Family obligations
We at Kaplan have a long history of working with students and studying how you learn, which has allowed us to develop some general rules of thumb to keep in mind as you begin to form your personalized schedule to study for the GMAT.
Create a detailed study schedule
The first thing to know about studying for the GMAT is that this is not a test that you can cram for. Think of it more like preparing for a marathon. You want to build up to Test Day with a plan that gradually enhances your skills and stamina. Because the GMAT tests your critical thinking and analytical skills, you need to know how to think flexibly and logically about the material tested. These analytical and critical thinking skills require knowledge of the patterns in the GMAT material. Therefore, it is best to build this type of depth and flexibility in a gradual way.
Next, remember to be deliberate in your study schedule. Make dates on your calendar with your GMAT books and practice tests—and keep them! It’s easy to procrastinate when the deadline is weeks away, so find a way to stay accountable by setting a date reminder and/or having someone help you stay on track with your study schedule.
Along with deliberate practice times, be purposeful with your GMAT dates. Initially, when you are mapping out times in your calendar for GMAT studying, you may not know precisely what you’ll do during each study period. Each day, you can add specifics about the purpose of the next few days’ sessions; for instance, June 13th could be your night to spend some quality time with right triangles in geometry and subject-verb agreement in sentence correction. At the beginning, the purpose of your session should be aimed at mastery of specific topics. Closer to Test Day, start to incorporate pacing and mixed practice into the goal of your sessions.
How long does it take?
Remember, studying for the GMAT takes time. Plan to spend about two to three months and 100–120 hours reviewing material and practicing regularly. The top scorers on the GMAT spend 120+ hours, on average, studying for Test Day over a period of time. The length of each study session will vary based on your specific situation; however, most students aim for sessions between one and three hours in a sitting.
If you take the average 120 hours of studying for a top scorer and divide that over the course of the average ten weeks of studying, you get approximately 12 hours per week. This includes time spent in class sessions and tutoring sessions for the GMAT. If you spread those hours equally, it’s best to do about two to three hours per day, six days per week and to take one day off per week.
How to find GMAT study time
“I can’t find the time to fit in all of the studying I need to do” is a common sentiment among many of my students. So one of my tasks as a GMAT prep coach is to help them find the study time they need. The first mistake many test-takers make is trying to find too much time. Just like with other tasks, such as exercise and household chores, waiting until you have a long block of free time means not getting enough prep into your week.
Use the time you have. Have 20 minutes on the train during your morning commute? Use flashcards to drill yourself on math formulas. Have a lunch break you can spend quietly at your desk? Review approaches to tackling Critical Reasoning questions. Online prep tools gives you quick practice when you have a short break or are on the go. It is recommended that you use offline materials during the day, when you are fitting prep into your workday. Old-fashioned book prep is still very important for mastering the skills necessary for the GMAT.
On weekday evenings, practice with test-like online questions in whatever study time you have available. Kaplan students can turn to the Qbank to create quizzes for whatever content, question types, and difficulty levels they need practice with. Anyone prepping for the GMAT can download the GMAC’s online practice materials. Answering test-like questions on a computer is essential, even if you only have 30 minutes at a time.
Remember to take breaks
When setting up these evening study sessions, build in break time. Even if you only have 30 minutes, take a quiz, then take a one- to two-minute break before reviewing your answers and the explanations. Taking an eight-question quiz will take about 16 minutes, your break will take about three minutes, and reviewing will take about ten. If you have a full hour of study time, take a one-minute stretch break and repeat the cycle.
This is a constructive bit of practice that keeps you using the GMAT parts of your brain, and if you put off practicing until you have time for a full practice test, you lose that regular GMAT brain exercise.
You do need to set aside time to take regular GMAT practice tests; you cannot complete a practice test in 30-minute segments! I advise my students to plan to take a practice test each Saturday morning. But just as taking a scheduled break is important during weekday prep, taking the same mid-test breaks as you will on Test Day is critical as well. And you must take a break between taking the test and reviewing it. My students review their practice tests several hours after taking them, or, ideally, they wait until the following day.
Taking a practice test at the end of the week allows you to put into action what you’ve learned during the week, and reviewing it the following day lets you identify what areas you should practice during the upcoming week. This rough guideline allows you to use whatever study time you have available, which will let you plan a constructive week of prep, increase your GMAT knowledge and experience, and reduce your stress about not having enough time.