The most honest (although admittedly, the most unsatisfying) answer to this question is, quite simply, “it depends.” Luckily, however, I can be a little more specific about what it depends upon, and that might help you – as a singular test-taker with needs that are different from every other test-taker – make some personal determinations. In the first place, it depends upon the difference between what you’ve scored on your GMAT diagnostic and what you hope to score on the real deal (let’s call this “the improvement factor”). In the second place, it depends on the degree to which you are capable of maximizing your study time (we’ll call this one “the efficiency factor”). Lastly (and looming over both of these) there is, of course, the ever-present “time factor.”
The time factor encompasses not only how many days, weeks, and (ideally) months you have before your business school applications are due, but what other daily life commitments you have that need to take priority – at least some of the time – over your studying. I’ll focus briefly on each of these below:
The Improvement Factor: Before you even have a sense of what your study schedule should demand of you (and what you should demand of yourself), take a diagnostic test. These tests are absolutely crucial to your process: not only do they give you a sense, from the get-go, of what your strengths and weaknesses are, but they also provide you with a numerical location from which to set a realistic goal for yourself. Take this “realistic” part very seriously: it simply doesn’t make sense for you to aim for a 750 if your diagnostic score is a 450. After all, you are human, and you’ll end up doing not much more than driving yourself crazy if you set a goal that you simply can’t achieve. That said, there will, of course, be different factors that allow for different degrees of improvement.
If it’s been 15 years since you’ve taken a diagnostic test and 10 years since you’ve taken a math class, and you want to improve your math score from a 450 to a 500, you likely won’t need a whole lot of time to refresh. If you’ve scored near a 700 on a few consecutive tests but are still aiming for that 750, this might take a bit longer. This is the part of the answer that’s subjective, and knowing the range between your current score and your desired score will help you determine your timing. But since you’ve asked (and many of you have), I tend to think an optimum study schedule is near 8-10 weeks long.
If you’re a natural at standardized tests and just have some brushing up to do, give it a month. If tests generally terrify you and you clam up every time you sit down – or if you know you’ll only be able to fit in 5 or 6 hours of study time a week, for instance – you might need more like 3 months. Anything more than twelve weeks, however, and you might be going a little overboard: remember the law of diminishing returns, remember there are other factors to consider in your application – and most importantly, remember there are other obligations to consider in your life (not to mention at a certain point in time you simply are going to run out of study materials – there’s not an endless supply of good test prep books out there!).
The Efficiency Factor
Efficiency is undoubtedly relatively necessary to most aspects of your working life, and the same is going to be true of your GMAT study sessions. There are quite a few strategies you can practice to maximize study time. Here are a few:
- Know what time of day you are most alert, and do as much of your studying as you can in those hours. For some of you, that might mean waking up an hour earlier than usual and studying before your work day begins; for others this might mean hanging out at the office after your coworkers have gone home and putting in the extra hours there. Know yourself well enough to know if you work better away from home or in your living room – but always be aware that your testing conditions are going to be very particular, and try to approximate those as closely as you can. My personal recommendation (which I offer since I’m often asked) is to study first thing in the morning. This is when your brain and your body are freshest. Morning study also gives you the opportunity to reflect upon what you practiced as the day progresses, which essentially extends your study time – much more than does studying until the wee hours of the morning and then dropping into that unconscious sleep-state.
- Try to study at the same time every day. This is simply a good way to enforce a daily habit, but it also trains your brain to be alert at a particular time, and for a particular amount of time. The more predictable your study time is, the easier it is to transition your brain out of the daily grind and into “test-taking mode.” That said, it will be important as exam day approaches to set your study sessions for the same general time your exam is scheduled for: if you’re taking an 8 a.m. GMAT, don’t regularly study from 10 p.m. to midnight.
- Find ways to extend your study time outside of “your study time:” there will be ways in your daily interactions with the world to incorporate things like geometry and probability. This way you can study without feeling like you’re actually studying.
Stay tuned for Part 2 and please share your thoughts/recommendations below.