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Top 10 GMAT Preparation Mistakes

Top 10 GMAT prep mistakes
Our Chief Genius has helped over 1,000 students with their GMAT preparation. In doing so, he has repeatedly seen students make certain mistakes in their GMAT preparation efforts. Too many students have come to him for help only after studying ineffectively, wasting valuable time and money, and receiving low GMAT scores. Learn from the mistakes of others. Here is our countdown of the top 10 GMAT preparation mistakes to avoid, along with lessons learned.
Underestimating the difficulty of the GMAT
Not allowing enough study time
Taking an extended break from studying
Not having a focused study plan
Choosing the wrong study materials / classes
Not thinking big picture / getting lost in the details
Taking too few or too many practice tests
Not getting help when needed
Focusing on quantity rather than quality of practice
Not practicing with retired, real GMAT questions

10) Underestimating the difficulty of the GMAT

Underestimating Your Opponent
The GMAT is a difficult exam. Although the test is based on high school level math and English concepts, many students have not used some of these concepts in years. Furthermore, many GMAT questions incorporate these concepts in a subtle manner, testing your critical thinking skills.

The GMAT can be a challenge for even the most advanced students. With the computer-adaptive test format, those performing well must consistently solve difficult questions under the same time limits. To successfully do so, you must approach questions strategically rather than how you were taught to approach such questions in school.

        Lesson learned: Approach the GMAT as a challenge. Accept that the test is difficult, and don’t get frustrated if you don’t immediately perform well. Recognize that, as with any new challenge, mastery takes time and lots of practice.

9) Not allowing enough study time

Some students think that they can adequately prepare for the GMAT over a couple weeks. Perhaps they just watch some online videos or quickly flip through a book on their own. Except for the gifted few, such limited preparation is not enough. In fact, even a full-length class or private tutoring is insufficient without extensive self-practice to reinforce concepts.

Average GMAT Study Hours by Score
According to prior GMAC data, students who scored in the 600s and 700s spent an average of 107 and 121 hours, respectively, preparing for the GMAT. Most students will need to spend a minimum of one month, but typically closer to two to three months, in their GMAT preparation efforts. Even if you take time off from work to study, you need to allow sufficient time for the concepts to sink in. Furthermore, you will probably get burned out if you try to pack too much studying into a short period of time. The GMAT is not a test that you can cram for.

        Lesson learned: We've seen students miss application deadlines because obtaining a high-enough GMAT score took them longer than expected. Allow plenty of time to prepare for the GMAT. Study for and take the GMAT in advance of working on your business school applications, so that these two time-heavy commitments don’t overlap. Select a two-to-three month period when you have relatively fewer work and other commitments in order to focus on the GMAT. Your GMAT score remains valid for five years, so there is nothing wrong with finishing the GMAT well before you apply to business school.

8) Taking an extended break from studying

It is not productive to spend lots of time studying for the GMAT, only to forget what you learned before you can apply that knowledge on the actual test. That’s what often happens when someone takes an extended break from GMAT preparations. Without continuous studying, people tend to forget the concepts and approaches that they previously learned. You must keep reinforcing the concepts and building on them as your studying progresses, and you need to apply these concepts on practice problems. Review math and verbal concepts every week to get continual reinforcement, since the skill sets for both are very different.

Another problem with an extended break is that, from a self-motivation standpoint, it gets increasingly harder to reengage with studying the longer it’s been since you’ve stopped. So keep studying no matter what challenges arise. If you fall sick, study some while you rest at home. If you get busy at work, find at least some time on the weekend to study. If you have a vacation, take some study materials for the journey and for down time.

        Lesson learned: Don’t stop studying until the GMAT is over. There should never be more than a one-week gap in studying. Study both math and verbal concepts every week and keep reinforcing skills that you have already mastered. Keep studying even if you fall sick, get busy at work, or go on vacation.

7) Not having a focused study plan

Regardless of how much study time you have, make your GMAT preparation time as productive as possible. It is not productive to randomly jump around in your studies, nor to proceed sequentially through certain materials. You need a study plan that will keep you on track and that works to your needs and study habits.

Since everyone has different needs, we cannot offer a study plan that is suitable for all. As a very first step, we suggest that you take an Official GMAT practice test to determine your current scoring potential and to better identify your strengths and weaknesses. Once you have a good idea of your current abilities on the various question types and concepts, you can better develop a study plan that will work for you. A good GMAT tutor, if you decide to engage one, should be able to help you develop a focused study plan based on your unique skill levels and study preferences.

        Lesson learned: Start your GMAT preparation by taking a full-length Official GMAT practice test to assess your current skill levels. Based on this, develop a focused study plan that incorporates your development needs and study habits. Your weekly study objectives should include concept review, reinforcement of what you have already learned, and lots of practice. Your study plan should also contain milestones to keep you moving forward and to ensure that you are on track to meet your GMAT goals.

6) Choosing the wrong study materials / classes

In your GMAT preparations, you are investing not only your money, but also your time and most importantly your GMAT score and future career aspirations. Unfortunately, there is a lot of garbage out there. Don’t waste your valuable time on preparations with inferior materials and classes. Using substandard materials will cause your GMAT score to suffer.

You deserve certain standards to be met within any GMAT preparation books that you purchase. Similarly, if you decide to take GMAT preparation classes, you deserve certain quality standards in those. You want your GMAT preparation to be a one-time affair. Get it right the first time so that you don’t have to start anew.

        Lesson learned: Choose study materials and classes that are of the highest quality and that are well suited to your needs. Don’t hastily pick the company that is the biggest, that you come across first, or that your friend used (unless you receive a strong recommendation). Review our preparation options page for a thorough assessment of different preparation options and some suggestions on how to evaluate specific offerings. Spend enough time to carefully investigate the available options and make the best decision for you.

5) Not thinking big picture / getting lost in the details

The GMAT is a critical thinking test, not a math and English test. Although the test is based on high school level math and English concepts, many GMAT questions incorporate these concepts in a subtle manner. Because each section has a time limit, you must approach problems as efficiently as possible.

Many Quant and Data Insights questions can be best solved by understanding what’s going on conceptually as opposed to by performing lots of calculations. Many Verbal questions are best approached by noticing certain characteristics as you read the stimulus as opposed to by memorizing every detail. To solve these problems efficiently, keep your focus on the ultimate objective of quickly identifying the correct answer.

        Lesson learned: In working through practice GMAT problems, learn to think big picture and avoid getting lost in the details. Think about the underlying concepts before performing lots of calculations or getting caught up in minutiae. Decide upon the most efficient approach for any given problem.

4) Taking too few or too many practice tests

It still amazes us that some students take the GMAT without ever having taken a practice test. Working through practice questions is not enough to prepare you for the actual test. The GMAT is a computer adaptive test. Question difficulty varies based on your performance, with those performing well receiving harder questions. You must use a dry-erase marker and whiteboard for your notes, not a pencil and scratch paper. Each section has a firm time limit, posing a challenge for many students. Fatigue can set in as the exam wears on.

Practicing with problems in a guidebook, even those presented as paper-based practice tests, will not prepare you for these challenges. Working through full-length practice tests will. You get used to answering (on a computer) questions that you cannot preview and that vary in difficulty based on your performance, within the set time limits. Some companies sell replicas of the whiteboard packet that you use in the test center, but purchasing whiteboards (no larger than 12” x 20” for the online GMAT) and a fine-point dry erase marker should suffice. Purchase a few whiteboards so that you can keep your work for the review stage, rather than having to erase your one whiteboard each time it fills up.

On the flip side, we have had clients start with us having already taken over 20 practice tests. As if somehow repeatedly taking practice tests will make them GMAT experts by osmosis. This is a terrible approach. In our view, only the Official GMAT practice tests are good representations of the GMAT. There are six Official GMAT Practice tests (two free and four paid). Each can be taken twice before seeing repeat questions, which artificially inflate one's score, giving you a total of 12 practice tests. These should be used at appropriate intervals to measure progress, not as a source of daily practice.

        Lesson learned: Use only Official GMAT practice tests and treat them as a scarce resource, to be used at appropriate intervals. We recommend that you take a minimum of three and no more than six GMAT practice tests before your first GMAT attempt, and no more than 12 practice tests across all your GMAT attempts. In taking these tests, simulate the testing environment as much as you can. Perhaps you can take a test at the library using the library’s computer to simulate the distractions of a test center. Use whiteboards and a dry erase marker, instead of pencils and scratch paper, for your practice tests.

3) Not getting help when needed

The GMAT is a difficult test and requires lots of preparation time. You should therefore make the most productive use of your study time. It is not productive to approach problems in a long, roundabout manner when more efficient approaches are available. It is not productive to waste lots of time on a given practice question, especially since you have an average of two minutes per question. It is not productive to make the same mistakes over and over. It is not productive to develop bad study habits. To minimize unproductive use of your time, get help as needed.

Help can come in many forms. You may need high quality study guides to refresh your concept knowledge, so that you don’t have to recall the concepts on your own as you work through practice problems. Many students find GMAT preparation classes helpful, as classes go through the concepts in a more systematic fashion. Finally, a good GMAT tutor can customize a study plan for you, fill in concept gaps, ensure that you are approaching problems efficiently, and keep you on track.

        Lesson learned: Buy high-quality study guides to learn all the important concepts in an efficient manner. Decide whether a formal GMAT preparation class is right for you. Consider hiring an excellent GMAT tutor to help you develop a study plan, to assist you on difficult concepts, to teach you how to approach questions strategically, and to ensure your GMAT skills are progressing appropriately.

2) Focusing on quantity rather than quality of practice

In your GMAT preparations, it is critical to work through many practice problems. But rote practice is not enough. The whole point of practice is to improve your skills. Improvement comes by understanding what you’re doing well and what your challenges are, and then working on your weaknesses. To benefit from your practice, analyze and learn from your mistakes so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes over-and-over.

No matter how much practice you do, you will not see significant improvement unless you thoroughly learn from the questions you miss or spent too much time on. You should spend at least as much time reviewing your work as you spend on doing the problems themselves. Although this can be time consuming, your in-depth review will prove invaluable. Your objective is to see continuous improvement in your performance and to ultimately perfect your GMAT skills before taking the actual test.

        Lesson learned: For every practice problem that you answer incorrectly, thoroughly analyze the approach to the correct answer. Compare this to the approach you took, and understand where you went wrong. Identify mistakes that you made, and write out and study those mistakes. Keep track of similar mistakes that you make repeatedly, as these indicate concepts that you need further review on. Even for practice problems that you answer correctly, make sure that your approach was the most efficient approach. A correct answer is great, but nonetheless presents learning opportunities if you spent too much time or took an inefficient approach in deriving the correct answer.

1) Not practicing with retired, real GMAT questions

Official Guides for GMAT Review
You must practice with retired real GMAT questions, available in the GMAT Official Guides (with nearly 1,600 questions). Third party GMAT preparation guides contain simulated practice questions, which often don't fully reflect the quintessential nature of real GMAT questions. Since the Official Guides contain minimal content discussion, most students need supplementary concept study guides. Such study guides are a supplement to, not a replacement for, the GMAT Official Guides.

        Lesson learned: If you practice using only simulated questions, you may be woefully unprepared for the GMAT. No matter what other materials or classes you use for your GMAT preparations, at minimum use the main GMAT Official Guide. Since there is no overlap in practice questions, we highly recommend that you also use the GMAT Quantitative Official Guide, the GMAT Data Insights Official Guide, and the GMAT Verbal Official Guide. You can purchase all four books together at a savings in the Official Guide Bundle.