How to Start Preparing for the GMAT: 4 First Steps


So you’re ready to study for the GMAT. But where should you start? The demands of prepping for the exam can be overwhelming, but if you know how to begin, you’ll set yourself up for success.

In this article, I’ll go over everything you need to know about how to start preparing for GMAT test day, including when to start studying, how to make a prep plan, and what to focus on first.


When Should You Start Preparing for the GMAT?

Before we get into how to start studying for the GMAT, let’s establish when to start GMAT preparations. I recommend you start studying around five months before your earliest business school application deadline. This will give you about three months to study and prepare before the GMAT, and plenty of time for your official score reports to be sent out to your MBA programs of choice.

A gap between your GMAT test date and your MBA application deadlines is important, because your official score report will be sent to the business schools you’ve selected (you can choose up to five at the time of your exam) 20 days after you take the exam. Any additional score reports you order after that will take about a week to arrive at your chosen programs. To be safe, then, you should take the GMAT at least six to eight weeks before the application deadlines. An exception is if you want to leave time to retake the test if you don’t do as well as you hoped, in which case you should leave several more months for additional preparation.

Three months of regular prep is the gold standard for an ideal GMAT study timeline, as it’s long enough to allow you to hone in on your weaknesses, complete regular drills, and take several full-length practice tests.

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In those three months, you should allot at least 10 hours a week to studying, over at least three days a week. It takes time to get organized, become familiar with the test, and develop the GMAT test-taking strategies that work for you. Trying to cram for the GMAT usually doesn’t result in substantial score improvements, and one or two long study sessions a week won’t do you nearly as much good as three or more shorter weekly sessions. Building a routine around GMAT prep will allow the skills you build to become second nature.

At the same time, starting to prepare too early isn’t optimal either. Spreading your studying out over more than six months may cause you to plateau, and will become tedious. Targeted, organized prep is the key to your GMAT success, and that starts with a study plan.


Staying organized is a key aspect of your GMAT prep. That starts with a study plan.
Staying organized is a key aspect of your GMAT prep. That starts with a study plan.


Making a GMAT Study Plan

The very first step in your GMAT preparation is to make a study plan. Studying methodically and effectively requires organization; starting to prepare blindly or in a disjointed way won’t maximize your score increase.

As you formulate your study plan, you should take a diagnostic test (full-length, timed, and in computerized adaptive format) through the official GMATPrep software. This will help you to know your starting point in terms of your GMAT score. Knowing where you’re starting out will also help you set a target GMAT score using the average scores of admitted students at your prospective MBA programs. With your initial score, you’ll know how far you are from your goals, which will help you know when and how to start preparing for the GMAT based on how much time you need to prep in terms of months before the exam and hours per week.

A diagnostic test will also help you learn more about your weaknesses. Which sections were hardest for you, and which question types? Did you have trouble with timing and pacing? This information will help you decide exactly how to prep and what to focus on as you tailor a study plan to your needs.

Create a detailed schedule to complete your study plan before the test date. Instead of simply allotting a certain number of hours a week, each study session should have a particular goal, i.e., “Use the GMATPrep Software to complete a 20-question reading comprehension quiz.” Keeping track of what you will practice each week will help you track your progress and make specific goals as you work to eliminate your weaknesses. It will also help you adjust your study plan if necessary to accommodate how you’re progressing in your GMAT prep.


Start with a diagnostic test to kick off your GMAT prep.
Start with a diagnostic test to kick off your GMAT prep.


How to Start Preparing for the GMAT: 4 Important Steps

So, once you’ve created your study schedule, what are your first steps? Let’s go over four strategies for how to start preparing for the GMAT.


#1: Learn the Format

Use your early prep time to become as familiar as possible with the format of the exam. This seems simple enough, but knowing you won’t be seeing any surprises on test day is a major factor in reducing your stress and feeling like an expert rather than overwhelmed when faced with the official GMAT.

Become familiar with the individual sections, the question types in each section, and what each question type is asking of you. This will help you as you decide on strategies for tackling each kind of question.


#2: Analyze Your Strengths and Weaknesses

When you take your first practice test, start to notice your error patterns. What was your weakest section? Within that section, what question types did you struggle most with?

To analyze your weaknesses, read the answer explanations of the questions you struggled with on your diagnostic test. Figure out where you went wrong. Organize your GMAT prep around your weakest links, and schedule accordingly. You should allot more time to drilling your weaknesses and reviewing the relevant skills than on anything else.


#3: Work On Fundamental Skills

Once you know your weaknesses, decide what fundamental skills you need to review. Have you forgotten how remainders work? Do you need to practice reading and analyzing short texts?

If you have trouble with getting through reading comprehension passages quickly enough or in gleaning the necessary details from them, for example, you might need to regularly practice reading newspaper articles or other high-level materials. The New York Times, Science, The New Yorker, and The Economist are good places to start.

Alternatively, you might need to review the fundamental math skills tested on the GMAT, such as algebraic equations or statistics and probability. Our guides to GMAT fractions and decimals, GMAT percentages, and GMAT statistics questions are helpful starting points for your math review.

Grammar basics, such as parts of speech and sentence structure, is another common area that test-takers need to review. Learning or reviewing grammar terms and rules will help you recognize sentence correction errors more quickly. Our guide to the most important GMAT grammar rules will help you learn to recognize the most common grammar errors that are tested on the exam.

Your GMAT prep plan should reflect any gaps in your knowledge or background, incorporating not just practice questions and tests but drills and outside readings (such as a grammar guide or math quizzes in the areas you find most difficult). Using practice questions and familiarizing yourself with the format of the exam is important, but building the underlying skills necessary to answer the questions is just as, if not more, significant to your performance on the GMAT. With those skills as your foundation, you can tackle any curveballs that are thrown at you on the exam.

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#4: Edit Your Study Plan as Needed

Once you’ve taken your weaknesses into account, edit your initial study plan to reflect them. For example, if you find you’re having trouble with timing, set a goal to finish a certain number of questions in a given time limit, and lower the time limit as you get closer to your exam date. If you realize you’re having trouble with GMAT vocabulary words, make time to use flashcards to test yourself on words that show up frequently on the test. While sticking to the basics of your original plan, make sure to update it based on your progress as you continue.


Get back to basics (but maybe not THIS basic) by brushing up on fundamental math skills.
Get back to basics (but maybe not THIS basic) by brushing up on fundamental math skills.


Review: How to Start Preparing for GMAT Test Day

Remember, the keys to beginning your GMAT prep are giving yourself enough time and staying organized. Using these tips will help you get rolling on your GMAT study plan with confidence.


What’s Next?

Still not sure when to start GMAT preparations? For more information about creating a detailed study plan, our guide to the ideal GMAT study timeline will help you make a prep schedule that works for you.

Our guide to taking and using a GMAT diagnostic test as part of your study plan will help you learn how to analyze those test results and tailor your prep plan to your unique needs.

Use our comprehensive guide to GMAT preparation to help you along from registration to test day.

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Author: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart is a Ph.D. student at UC San Diego. She has taught and tutored hundreds of students in standardized testing, literature, and writing.