Sitting the GMAT is a big moment in any candidate’s life, and it should be treated accordingly, with a sufficient amount of prep time put in so that you’re ready for that big day.
But how long do you need to prepare for the GMAT? Should you be starting six months in advance to ensure you’ve got every single base covered, or is that overkill? If you start a mere month before your test date, will you be struggling to fit everything in?
Let’s take a look at the overall time needed for GMAT preparation.
How Long Do People Typically Prepare for the GMAT?
In order to gather some solid candidate feedback for the GMAT, the GMAC asked candidates taking the test in 2016-2017 how long they had spent preparing for it.
About half of the candidates studied for 50 hours or more; a further quarter studied for more than 100 hours. Those who spent longer studying ultimately had a higher score – people who’d scored 700+ had an average study time of 90 hours.
The conclusion we can draw from this is obvious: the more time you spend studying for the GMAT, the higher your score is likely to be. Don’t skimp on those preparation hours! Only few people ace the exam without putting in some study, and passing the GMAT without preparing at all is definitely hard. Instead, try to establish a GMAT study plan that suits your individual needs best, and stick to it to perfectly prepare for the exam.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how much time you should plan in to prepare for the GMAT.
How Far In Advance Should You Start Preparation?
This varies a little from person to person, and there are a lot of tools out there that can help you figure out when you, personally, should begin studying for the GMAT.
In order to figure out your estimated start date, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions:
How Comfortable Are You with Standardized Tests?
If you’re someone who has always aced standardized tests and is thoroughly confident in your ability to sit them, you’re probably going to need less prep time than someone who shakes at the sight of a high-school desk. If you are someone who falls into the latter category, then additional prep time will help build your confidence.
What Are Your Weakest Sections of the GMAT?
How long you need to prepare for the GMAT will strongly depend on your strengths and weaknesses in relation to the various sections of the exam. This one requires a little self-diagnosis – usually in the form of a mock test or two – but is a very important question, as this will determine where you need to focus your efforts going forward.
The good news is that there are plenty of GMAT mock tests out there that will help you to quickly diagnose your strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve figured out your weakest sections (which you should know after 2-3 mock tests) you will then have a better idea of where to focus your efforts prior to the test – and how much time you’ll need to get ready.
Here is an overview of the different sections of the GMAT and the skills you will need to apply in each, which may help you to recognize your weak spots early on.
What is Your Target GMAT Score?
Many people would look at this question and say “as high as possible”, and that’s fine – but it doesn’t really help you figure out how far in advance you should start preparing.
In order to do that, you should really look at why you’re taking the GMAT, and what kind of score you’ll need to achieve that goal. There are typically three scenarios in which GMAT scores are taken into consideration:
- By business schools as part of their admission requirements;
- By business schools when determining merit scholarships;
- By certain employers when determining a candidate’s eligibility for a job or internship.
In any of these cases, it’s worth checking what kind of GMAT score the business school or employer expects from prospective candidates. Here is an in-depth guide on what GMAT score you will likely need.
How Much Time Do You Have to Dedicate to GMAT Preparation?
It’s all well and good to decide that you’re going to set aside 4 hours a day to prepare for the GMAT, but you need to ask yourself if this is realistic. Do you have a family to take care of? A full-time job? Other obligations? Are you going to overcommit, and then burn out a month into your studies?
It’s important to take stock of your personal and professional situation, and it’s doubly important that you do not burn out and ultimately end up underperforming. Set yourself realistic goals, and put aside a realistic amount of time per week where you can study uninterrupted.
Once you’ve set yourself such study goals, stick to them. Consistency and diligence will prepare you for the test far more than natural talent will.
How Much Time Should I Spend Preparing for the GMAT?
Studying for the GMAT can be quite demanding, and so as previously mentioned, it’s important that you don’t overtax yourself. That said, it’s also important that you are (a) intellectually challenged and (b) actually retaining what you study. With that said, how long do you need to prepare for the GMAT?
With that in mind, it’s important that you ensure that you’re structuring your studies in such a way as to facilitate retention and intellectual stimulation, but that you’re also not overdoing it. How, then, to walk this fine line?
Study Almost Every Day
“Little and often” is a good mantra to follow for the GMAT – if you’re studying and reviewing daily (or every other day) then your chances of retaining what you learn (and building upon that knowledge) are much better.
With that said, you should aim to study 4-5 days out of the week, with a rest day thrown in every other two days so as not to tax yourself. With this kind of frequency of study, you can expect to see great results quickly.
Never Study for Longer Than Two Hours
Realistically, most people can focus for around 90 minutes, tops. It’s therefore important that you try to not study for longer than this, because at that stage you’ll be getting diminishing returns from your endeavors.
It’s therefore a good idea to split up longer blocks (2+ hours) with 15-minute breaks. Leave your desk, grab a coffee and/or a snack, and go think about something else for a while before returning to your studies. Your brain will thank you.
Similarly, if you plan on studying for two or more hours in a single day, break it up a little. Put in an hour or half an hour before beginning your day, and put the rest at the end of the day. This will stop you from feeling overwhelmed and will also help with retention (you retain things better if you’re frequently exposed to them for short periods of time).
Aim for 10-15 Hours per Week
A good amount of time to be studying per week is around 10-15 hours. Assuming you’re taking a break every two or so days, this means you’ll be studying 2 hours per day during the week, with a couple of heavier sessions at the weekend. Remember to break up these sessions, of course, with at least one break per 90 minutes.
Of course, this also strongly depends on how much time you have left until you take the GMAT. The guidance above applies if you have at least 2, preferably three or even six months time left for preparation. If your GMAT exam is coming up in a month or less, you will have to make use of every single day to prepare. It’s not impossible with the right approach – here is our guide on how to prepare for the GMAT in 30 days.
Avoid the Temptation to Cram on the Weekend
You’ve had a bad day at work. You got back late after picking the kids up. You had a beer with the guys last night and you don’t feel like it. You’re tired.
It’s very easy to make excuses, to procrastinate, and to defer things until tomorrow/the weekend. Before you know it, you’ve skipped 4 hours of your weekly study schedule and it’s Friday.
If you do this, the answer is not to spend all weekend cramming for the GMAT, running yourself ragged and priming yourself to hate studying. Indeed, if this happens you’re just going to have to take the hit, study your usual hours on the weekend, and reset next week.
Keep a Study Log
Even after you’ve made your study plan and started, it’s possible that you’re not sticking to it quite as assiduously as you think you are. After you’ve finished a study session, make a note of how long you prepared for. At the end of the week, total it up and see how many hours you put in. Was it was many as you expected? More? Less?
This log can help you reassess your study habits, too. Are you finding that you’re not challenged by 10 hours’ study per week? Are you feeling overwhelmed by 15 hours’ worth? Take a step back, reassess, and change the amount of hours you’re putting in, if necessary.
Putting Everything Together
Let’s recapitulate: we know that students who scored 700+ had a median prep time of around 90 hours. We also know that 10-15 hours per week is a desirable amount of time to spend preparing for the GMAT. Some quick napkin math, then, means that you should be spending roughly 5-10 weeks prepping for the GMAT, right? But don’t some guides say you should start prepping for your test a whole 6 months in advance?
There are a few factors that are important in further fine-tuning when you should begin studying for your test:
Give Yourself a 2-3 Week ‘Buffer’ Zone
10 weeks may, on paper, be enough time to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s, but in practice it’s likely that real life will get in the way. It’s important, then, to give yourself a little extra time in the eventuality that you’re unable to stick to your study schedule week in, week out.
Allowing yourself a little extra time also gives you a little wriggle room in the last couple of weeks before your test, too. You can use this time to do a little final polishing on any sections you’re still not happy with, and also to simply dial it back a bit after 2 months of study. It might seem counterintuitive, but we’re not saying that you should stop studying altogether – you should simply study less intensively. It’s far worse, after all, to walk into that room with a case of burnout.
Don’t Go Longer Than 3 Months
The very best GMAT scorers are those who spend longer studying, right? Does it not make sense, then, to study for as long as possible before the test date? Will this not produce the best possible score?
Unfortunately, things are not this straightforward. Studying is mentally strenuous, and even more so on top of a full-time job. If you push yourself too hard, you’ll find it harder and harder to come back to your studies, and you’ll be stuck in a vicious cycle of studying too much, retaining too little, and gradually resenting the GMAT altogether.
That’s why studying for longer than three months is not particularly helpful; after that point you’re unlikely to see any improvement in mock scores, and an increase in the likelihood that you’ll burn out. Three months is enough time for you to prep, and enough time to hit that golden 90-hour mark that is the standard for top performers. It’s definitely enough time if you’re not aiming to be the best of the best, but are just looking to get into your business school of choice. If you nevertheless want to make use of the time you have left for preparation and start early, here is our sample study plan covering six months – just make sure you prevent that burnout feeling.
When Should I Stop Studying for the GMAT?
At some point you may wonder, how much longer should I prepare for the GMAT? As we’ve said, going for longer than 3 months is not only unproductive, but it’s likely counterproductive. There comes a point where you’re as ready as you’re going to be for the GMAT. But when is that point, and is it the same for everyone?
When Your Score Has Peaked – and Isn’t Getting Any Higher
At some point, you’re going to hit your natural peak. The fact of the matter is that the average GMAT score (565, or thereabouts) is the average for a reason – it’s representative of what most people are going to get when they take it. And most people are, by definition, average.
The harsh truth is that though you might want to hit 700+, that simply might not be achievable. If you’re routinely hitting a 650/660 in your practice tests and you’ve been studying for 3+ months, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get any higher.
If this is the case for you, don’t despair. Your GMAT score is not the only factor when assessing your suitability for a job/internship/course, and there are other ways to make up for it.
When You Know the Content Intimately
You know every single section of the GMAT, how long they are, how many questions they have, and have a good idea of the kinds of questions that are going to crop up in those sections. When you’ve hit this level of knowledge regarding the GMAT, you’re probably ready to take your test.
When You’re Starting to Feel the Signs of Burnout
Studying and reviewing is only helpful to a point – and after that point, you risk a case of burnout. And burnout is only going to worsen your chances of getting the score you want.
How Can You Overcome GMAT Burnout?
Burnout is, at its most basic, chronic stress. GMAT prep can be stressful, and over-prepping can lead to burnout.
Burnout is more complicated than simply being stressed, and the approaches to fixing it are similarly complicated. The important thing, however, is that you can fix it. Burnout doesn’t mean that you’ve already failed; it just means you need to take a step back.
Burnout Affects Your Ability to Retain Knowledge
If you’re burned out, you’re too stressed to study effectively, and any studying that you do will not only be way less effective, it might be doing more harm than good.
The only answer to this is to reset and refresh. Whether you’re two weeks from your test or two days, you need to walk away for a couple of days and think about something else. Continuing to study right now is like trying to train for a marathon on a busted knee; you’re only doing more damage.
Engage in Some Mindfulness Exercises
This may sound a little new-age and not nearly as helpful as actual study, but the fact is that anything that contributes to your mental well-being can only be helpful to your test-day performance.
If you find yourself burned out, then, try a little meditation, do some exercise, or even just have a bubble bath. It may feel as if you’re wasting your time when you could be studying, but remember that studying at present is not going to help; it’s just going to contribute to the feedback loop of frustration and mental fog. After all, plenty of studies have shown that meditation can be a big factor in improving your performance.
Switch Up Your Study Routines
It might be tempting to try to double down on your studies and go even harder, but this is unhelpful (remember the busted-knee analogy from further up). Instead, change the way that you study.
Shorten how long you prepare, or change the time of day. Shorter sessions might encourage you to study harder, knowing you have less time to go before you’re finished, and changing the time of day might help you shake off that study malaise that can come about due to a sense of monotony.
Whatever you do, simply doing things differently can be a huge boon.
How long you need to prepare for the GMAT depends on a lot of factors – in particular, it depends on yourself. However you approach the run-up to the GMAT, it’s important that you develop a study timetable that works for you, and that you can follow consistently. It’s also, as we’ve pointed out, very important that you don’t overdo it. A nasty dose of burnout might sink your results more surely than not preparing at all.