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4 ways to prepare for the gmat more strategicallyA few years ago a professor at the Harvard Business School analyzed what successful people do differently than less successful people. The author, Heidi Grant Halvorson, identifies 9 strategies often used by highly successful people to reach their goals. You can read about these nine strategies here.

The higher-level point, however, is that people are successful, generally, not because of who they are or their innate talents, but rather because of what they do in pursuit of goals. Success is a result of the strategies you employ to reach your goals. As a prospective MBA student, your near-term goal is a competitive score on the GMAT.

Before proceeding, however, it may also be useful to define “strategy.” In this article on being strategic, we reference a quote by a famous business strategy professor who reinforces that strategy is essentially all about making conscious choices about what you will or won’t do. It’s about allocating your time and focus in this way vs. that. Really, that’s it.

As you embark upon preparing for the GMAT, this is critically important to keep in mind. Success on the GMAT is a result of the right approach, practice, and effort. A 700+ score does not just come to the folks who are good at tests. Sure, some people are wired such that they pick up concepts or test-taking strategies faster than others. But the general rule is, preparation and practice will lead to a higher score.

With that in mind, here are four ways to make your GMAT study plan more strategic.

#1 Set a specific goal for both your desired MBA program “tier” and that your associated GMAT score

You may have noticed earlier that I wrote that, as a prospective MBA student, your near-term goal is a “competitive” score on the GMAT. But really that’s not specific enough. 690 is extremely competitive in the context of a “top 25 MBA program” but not all that competitive in the context of top-10 programs. You might say, well, this advice doesn’t seem that important or useful because I have 3 months and I’m simply trying to get the highest possible score I can. Higher is always better, so how could I go wrong?

But think about that on a deeper level. If you spent $5,000 or more on 50 hours of customized, private tutoring in that 3 months, you could certainly get a higher score than if you did not. But do you want to invest that much money? At what point would you decide you need to invest in private tutoring? Or, consider that if you are applying to say, the 22nd ranked program in the U.S., you could fail to get admitted by investing extra time to boost your score from a 670 to a 700, but ignoring the rest of your application and writing inconsistent essays. Business schools look at your overall application. A higher GMAT score is always better, all else equal. But if you have limited time and energy and money, you must consider the GMAT along with time spent on the rest of your application.

By setting a clear goal, you know how to allocate your time, energy, and money in pursuit of doing as well on the GMAT as you need to.

#2 Learn about the GMAT and diagnose your unique strengths and weaknesses upfront

Even if you have established a well-thought-through target score, many students jump into the preparation process without a clear understanding of the gaps between what they need to know and what they know today. To be able to develop an effective study plan (see next tip) you need a general understanding of your starting point. We recommend spending a little time upfront learning about the facts and concepts covered on the GMAT, as well as the unique question types and structure of the exam. Then, without doing too much additional preparation, take a full-length practice test, or at least the 100-question diagnostic in the GMAT Official Guide. This provides a robust understanding of what’s on the exam and what you do vs. don’t know already today.

This step should get somewhat detailed, by the way. I would argue that knowing you are “weak in quant” is not good enough. What are your strengths and weaknesses within quant? Algebra, word problems, trigonometry, number theory, probability?

#3 Write out a specific, tailored study plan

Once you have a goal set and you are clear about the key knowledge or skill gaps you must address to improve your score, I still recommend writing you a specific, customized study plan to follow. It should address:

  • What materials you are going to use
  • What topics you’ll study each week (quant vs. verbal vs. Integrated Reasoning)
  • How you’ll study and cover new topics each week (reading vs. watching videos, etc.).
  • How long you’ll study
  • What practice problems or homework you’ll do (reading vs. watching videos vs. doing practice problems)
  • When you’ll take practice tests to measure progress

There are a variety of websites, companies, and apps that can help you develop such a plan, but I’d argue that the GMAT Official Guides would be all you really need to develop an effective GMAT study plan. If you are already performing extremely well on GMAT-verbal, don’t make yourself feel better by spending time answering questions that you are answering correctly 99.9% of the time. Spend more time on quant.

#4 Test yourself frequently, prioritizing focused practice over passive reading or watching videos

One of the most important strategies you can use to ensure your GMAT studying is effective is to prioritize actual practice over passive reading or watching videos. When you are first learning something, of course it makes sense to read or listen or watch as the concept is explained to you. But once you think you understand something, it’s critically important to test yourself.

When you read or watch or listen to a new concept, say GMAT probability theory, it’s easy to fall into a trap called “the illusion of competence.” It is very common for students to believe they genuinely understand something when it’s explained to them, and even be able to discuss it intelligently with a classmate or teacher. However, there is a much higher hurdle involved when the concept is applied in a practice question, quiz, or test.  And even then, you may easily be able to solve a problem involving that concept when the question is asked a certain way, but you may not recognize how to solve other types of problems that involve the same concept. On the GMAT, this is a particularly acute issue, because the underlying mathematics covered on the test is ~ high school sophomore level.

But the questions are designed to be extremely tricky and to force the test-taker to apply those concepts in a wide variety of ways to really put pressure on and prioritize critical thinking skills over memorization or pure math knowledge.

The only way to truly ensure you are making progress and learning the concepts and strategies required to perform well on the GMAT is to test yourself frequently through mini-quizzes (i.e., stop in the middle of a chapter and try to work out 5 problems to see if you really  understand the ideas), practice problems, and full-length GMAT practice tests. If you are sitting down to a 15-problem practice set, take it seriously. See how many questions you can answer correctly. Then, review what you missed in detail to identify what it is that tripped you up. If you “bail” on a problem and look up the answer instead of giving it a real shot and then reviewing it as a missed problem, you might leave yourself with an impression of “yeah, I understand that one” when really, you would have answered it incorrectly had you not opened the book or asked someone how to do it.


What you do, not who you are, is more important in determining your success on the GMAT. By setting specific goals, diagnosing strengths and weaknesses upfront, developing a customized plan, and frequently testing yourself, you’ll implement a far more effective GMAT study plan.

About the Author

Mark Skoskiewicz is the founder of MyGuru, which provides customized in-person and online GMAT tutoring. He graduated from Indiana University and holds an MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University.