The Best GMAT Study Guide: Format, Tips, and Practice

pexels-photo-203237If you’ve decided to go to business school, you’re probably started to think about studying for the GMAT. Preparing for the GMAT can be overwhelming. Where do you start? What should you buy? What should your study plan look like?

In this GMAT study guide, I’ll walk you through the GMAT study process from start to finish. First, I’ll talk about why studying for the GMAT is worth the time and effort. Next, I’ll talk about the GMAT itself – the format of the test and what it covers. Then, I’ll give a brief overview of each of the sections of test, discussing the content and format of each.

After that, I’ll move into talking about how to set a goal score, create your GMAT study plan, and stick to it. Finally, I’ll talk about the practice itself. I’ll tell you where to find study materials and give you some tried and true study strategies for both the test as a whole and each individual section.

By the end, you’ll have a clear idea of where to start to study for the GMAT.


Why Should I Study for the GMAT?

Studying for the GMAT is a big commitment. Why should you do it? What will studying accomplish? Here are three important ways that studying for the GMAT can help you achieve your goals.

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#1: Raise Your Score

Using a GMAT study guide with clear goals and objectives is the best way to raise your GMAT score. If you’re looking to achieve a certain goal score, setting up a clear and achievable GMAT study plan will help you reach your goals. Without a clear GMAT study guide, you’ll likely struggle to find time to study amongst all of your responsibilities. It’ll also be hard to ensure that you’re covering all the topics you need to improve on.


#2: Build Your Skills in Different Areas

When you study for the GMAT, you help to build your skills in different areas. The GMAT tests many different skills across a wide variety of content areas. Very few test-takers are good at every single skill when they start thinking about taking the GMAT. By studying, you’ll be able to improve in areas of weakness and strengthen the areas that you’re already doing well on.


#3: Feel Confident on Test Day

Using a GMAT study guide to plan out your GMAT prep will help you feel more confident on test day. You’ll walk into the test center knowing what types of questions will be on the test, what the test format will be like, and how much time you’ll have, so that you’re comfortable and ready to go.




What’s on the GMAT, Anyway?

The GMAT is made up of four total section and has a total exam time of three hours and 30 minutes. Let’s look at what’s covered on each section of the test.

Section # of Questions Question Types Timing Score
Analytical Writing Assessment 1 Essay Topic Analysis of Argument 30 minutes 0 to 6
Integrated Reasoning 12 Questions Multi-Source Reasoning

Graphics Interpretation

Two-Part Analysis

Table Analysis

30 minutes 1 to 8
Quantitative 31 Questions Data Sufficiency


62 minutes 0 to 60
Verbal 36 Questions Reading Comprehension

Critical Reasoning

Sentence Correction

65 minutes 0 to 60
Total: 3 hrs, 7 min 200 – 800*

*Total Score is made up of the scaled scores from your Verbal and Quantitative sections. For more info, check out our GMAT Total Score guide.


Analytical Writing Assessment

The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment tests your ability to think critically and clearly communicate your ideas.

During this section, you’ll be asked to analyze the reasoning behind a given argument and write a critique of that argument.


Integrated Reasoning

The GMAT Integrated Reasoning section is the newest section of the GMAT. It’s designed to measure skills that you’ll need to do well in today’s advanced, data-driven world.

The Integrated Reasoning tests your ability to evaluate information given in multiple formats and from multiple sources with four question types: graphics interpretation, two-part analysis, table analysis, and multi-source reasoning.


Quant Section

The GMAT Quant section tests your ability to analyze data and draw conclusions using reasoning skills. It covers basic math concepts, such as arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Contrary to popular belief, the GMAT quant section doesn’t test advanced math concepts.

There are two types of questions on the GMAT quant: data sufficiency and problem solving.


Verbal Section

The GMAT Verbal section tests your ability to read, understand, evaluate, and edit different types of written material.

There are three types of questions on the GMAT verbal: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction. The reading comprehension question type tests your ability to read and understand written material. The critical reasoning question type tests your ability to reason and evaluate arguments. The sentence correction question type tests your ability to identify errors and correct material to standard written English.




Creating Your GMAT Study Plan

Now that you know more about the GMAT, let’s talk about how you can create the best GMAT study plan to meet your goals.


Step 1: Set Your GMAT Goal Score

First, put together a list of all the business school programs that you’d like to attend. When you’re putting together your list, think about why you would like to attend each of these programs.

Next, research the average GMAT scores of the business schools that you want to apply to. You can find this information in a number of places. Most schools share this information on the program’s admissions page. You can also try calling the admissions department if you can’t find the info there. Other third party sources, like US News, also list the average GMAT scores of many schools.

Add the average GMAT scores for each school to your list of business school programs that you’re interested in. Find the highest average GMAT score of all the programs.

You want to set a score goal that’s about twenty points higher than the highest average GMAT score. This helps make sure you’ll be above the acceptable score range for all of your programs.


Step 2: Take a Practice Test

Your next step is to take a GMAT practice test if you haven’t already done so. Taking a GMAT practice test helps you get an idea of where you’re currently scoring and helps you understand what taking the test is actually like.

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The best way to do this is to download the free GMATPrep software so you can take an official practice test.

Try to replicate the exam day as closely as possible. So, make sure you’re taking the test timed, in one sitting, and in a quiet place with few interruptions. This helps ensure you get the most accurate practice score.

You’ll automatically receive all of your scores, except for the score for you Analytical Writing Assessment. For more information about what a GMAT total score is, check out our guide (link).


Step 3: Analyze Your Weaknesses

Understanding your weaknesses is a great way to make substantial gains to your GMAT score.

Use your practice test scores to get a better picture of your strengths and weaknesses as a GMAT test taker. Try to identify patterns: did you miss every sentence correction question? Are you better at the Verbal section than the Quant section? Did you miss every single Integrated Reasoning question? Asking and answering these questions will help you focus your prep by highlighting the sections you need to spend the most time on.


Step 4: Figure Out How Many Hours You’ll Need to Study

Now that you’ve figured out your baseline score, compare that to your goal score. Figure out how many points you are away from meeting your goal score.

I’ve included estimates of approximately how many hours you need to study in order to increase your score by a certain number of points.

  • 0 – 50 points, 100 hours
  • 51 – 100 points, 120 hours
  • 101 – 150 points, 160 hours




Step 5: Create Your GMAT Study Schedule

Now that you’ve figured out how many hours you need to study total, figure out how many hours each week you can study.

Be realistic about this. You want your study time to be productive. You also want to make sure you’re not neglecting your other work or responsibilities. If you set a practice schedule that’s too packed, you might end up frustrated and burned out.

Divide the total number of hours you need to study by the number of hours you can study each week. That’s the number of weeks you need to study.

So if you need to study 120 hours and you can study for 10 hours each week, you will need to study for 12 weeks.

You may also want to build in time for retakes. You can take the GMAT up to five times in a 12 month period, but you have to wait for at least 16 days between exams.

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If you choose which schools to send your test scores before you take the GMAT, the schools will receive your scores in less than 20 days. To be safe, schedule your GMAT at least three weeks before application deadlines.


Step 6: Set Goals for Your Study Periods

Setting small goals for yourself is a great way to keep yourself on track and to make yourself feel good about your accomplishments.

You can set daily, weekly, or monthly goals (or all of the above). These goals might be simple (practice 50 math questions per week) or more complex (master graphics interpretation strategies).

Goal-setting will keep you accountable and will keep you on the right path with your practice.


Step 7: Track Your Progress

Scheduling and taking regular practice GMATs is a great way to monitor your progress.

Compare your scores to your original test. What sections did you improve on? Did you do worse on any section? What section is slipping through the cracks of your study plan?

Adjust your goals as needed based on your progress on practice tests. Maybe you were doing great on sentence corrections one week, but started to struggle the next. You could add a goal to your study plan that’ll remind to focus on that topic.


Finding GMAT Practice Materials

An important part of any GMAT study guide is great practice materials.

There are two main types of GMAT practice materials. Official GMAT prep materials are written by GMAC, the company that writes the GMAT. Unofficial GMAT prep materials are written by third-party companies that have extensively studied the GMAT and write their own test prep materials and questions. Official GMAT materials are the best practice tools, since they include actual retired GMAT questions, but unofficial materials can be helpful as well, especially for learning strategies and review content.

To get you started, we’ve rounded up some of the best options for both types of prep materials.


Official GMAT Prep Materials

Official practice materials should be an important part of your prep. Practicing with official materials ensures that you’ll be working on questions that are just like what you’ll be seeing on test day.


GMATPrep Software

This free, online software gives you access to two full-length CATs, with the option to purchase up to four more. The “Exam Mode” of this software realistically simulates test day, which is great for building up your comfort with the exam. While the free product doesn’t have many practice questions, you can purchase additional question packs or use another resource in conjunction with this software.


The Official Guide for GMAT Review Set

This three-book set contains guides for the Verbal and Quantitative sections, as well as an overview of the entire test. It comes with access to over 900 official practice questions, which makes it an invaluable resource. Official practice questions are the best type of question you can practice, as they’re written by GMAC, who also writes the GMAT. While these guides don’t offer particularly comprehensive content reviews, they’re a great resource to use during your practice.




Unofficial GMAT Practice Tests

There are plenty of options for other unofficial GMAT practice tests if you’ve used up the official options. It’s important to take online tests whenever possible so that you can keep building your familiarity with the test. Here are two great resources for free CATs:


Veritas Prep

Veritas Prep offers one free GMAT practice test with explanations. If you’d like, you can purchase 6 more tests for $49. You can take the test with normal time, or you can add extra time. Veritas Prep is known for having accurate GMAT questions and in-depth explanations.



Kaplan offers two types of free online GMAT practice tests: self-proctored and instructor-proctored. For the self-proctored test, you’ll receive your scores and answer explanations to peruse at your leisure. For the instructor-proctored exam, you’ll get your scores, and then work with an instructor in real-time online to get answer explanations. Kaplan is generally fairly accurate, but does have some problems with having questions that are either a little different in format or a little off from GMAT core content.


Other GMAT Practice Resources

There are tons of different GMAT study resources out there, besides the ones offered online. In this section, I’ll offer some recommendations about other resources you can use in your GMAT prep.


GMAT Prep Books

One of the most popular options for GMAT books is the Manhattan Prep series, which provides a comprehensive overview of all topics seen on the GMAT. The 10 books that make up this bundle are designed to provide a substantial learning impact for students by helping them develop the knowledge, skills, and strategic thinking they need to do well on the test. These books are great for developing deep knowledge of the content on the GMAT, and come with a year-long subscription to high-quality online practice tests.

If those aren’t right for you, there are a ton of other options for GMAT test prep books. Check out our complete guide to the best GMAT books for more ideas.



There are lots of GMAT forums out there. These online message boards provide a place for past, present, and future test-takers to gather, share tips and tricks, and pool resources. Beat the GMAT and GMAT Club are great places to find information on strategies, reviews of prep materials, and access to other free resources, like downloadable question banks or flash cards.




The 4 Most Important GMAT Study Tips

Even if you have the best tools in the world, studying for the GMAT won’t get very far if you don’t put in the time and effort to study well. In this section, I’ll offer some tips for how you can study well for the GMAT, maximizing your time and effort to achieve your goal score.


Practice as Realistically as Possible

Simulate real test conditions as much as possible. This means doing practice on the computer to familiarize yourself with the test’s format. It also means practicing without a calculator, since using one isn’t allowed on the test. Try to always work in a quiet place with few distractions. Along the same lines, make sure you’re practicing with real (or accurate) questions that mirror the content you’ll see on the test.


Eliminate Distractions

Try to eliminate distractions while you study. Turn your cell phone to silent. If you’re like me and find yourself compulsively checking Facebook every five minutes, use a blocker like SelfControlApp to make sure you turn off access to social media during your studying.


Analyze Your Performance and Adjust Accordingly

As I mentioned before, set goals and stick to them. Use goals as a way to monitor your day-to-day progress, while using practice tests to assess larger arcs of performance. After you take a practice test, or meet or fail to meet a goal, make adjustments to your study schedule to make time for sections you need more work on and lessen the time you’re spending on sections that you’ve already mastered.


Learn the Test

Spend time familiarizing yourself as much as possible with the GMAT. Learn the question types asked on each section. Know the format of the test and the time you’ll have on each section. Use CATs to practice using the tools and functions that the real test will have. Doing these things will increase your confidence with the GMAT and reduce your anxiety on test day.




Review: The Best GMAT Study Guide

The GMAT is a long and difficult test, with four separate sections testing different types of content. However, you can increase your chances of achieving your goal GMAT score by crafting and executing a strong GMAT study guide.

Part of creating the best GMAT study guide for your testing needs is using high quality practice resources, so make sure to vet your practice materials to ensure their quality before you invest in them. Finally, make sure that you are preparing effectively by following my tips about how to study for the GMAT.


What’s Next?

Ready to craft your ultimate GMAT study plan? In our guide to writing a GMAT study plan, we offer four sample study plans designed to boost your score based on your individual test goals. Check out our guide to GMAT study plans to get started on yours.

Looking for those high quality GMAT practice books? There are tons of materials out there for you to peruse. You can choose GMAT prep books based on your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences as a test taker. Use our best GMAT Books guide to decide what prep books to buy.

Registering for the GMAT can be more complicated than you anticipate. If you’re ready to sign up for the GMAT, our step-by-step guide for registering for the GMAT will help walk you through the process.

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Author: Hayley Milliman

Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.