Reviewing the 3 Main GMAT Prep Options

math study

By now you know the GMAT is a very important test, especially for those aiming for Top 10, and particularly Top 5, business schools.

However, you don’t need a 770 to go to Harvard Business School, and the GMAT is just one of about five key elements to the application.  But, this blog post is about GMAT prep options, so I’ll stick to that.

There are three common ways to study for the GMAT:

1)      Study on your own

2)      Take a GMAT prep class

3)      Work with a private tutor

The GMAT assesses core math, reading comprehension, writing, and analytical skills, yet it also has unique features and quirks.  So, you’ll do much better if you put in the time to properly prepare for the particular problem types that the test writers love to use year after year.   You can perform extremely well on the GMAT by choosing any option above, but folks in specific situations may fare better choosing one option over another.

Studying on your own is a good option when:

1.       You can score in the mid 500s or higher (which is an average score) when taking a practice test “cold,” and your performance is average or higher in all of the sections. You also aren’t obsessed with scoring well above 700 by the time you take your official GMAT.

The GMAT will make you remember the rules of triangles, how to factor equations, how to read critically, and many other skills you may not have used since college.  If you can score about average right off the bat on a practice test, you’ll probably be able to score well above average after studying on your own for a few months.

2.       You have a lot of time.

Let’s say it takes 35-50 hours of studying for most people to reach their full natural ability on the GMAT.  If you don’t have a job that’s too stressful, and you have six months until you plan on taking the GMAT, you’re in a better position to figure things out on your own.

3.       You are an independent worker.

You prefer working on projects by yourself.  You didn’t mind classes in college where the professor didn’t explain things very well.  You are a natural at figuring things out on your own.

4.       You are very structured and organized with your time.

To properly study for the GMAT, you need to develop a plan of attack and stick with it.  Each week, you should devote 3-4 hours to studying.  You need to methodically review each of the sections and then answer and review practice problems.  If you have trouble structuring your time or aren’t naturally organized, you’ll find it hard to study on your own.

5.       Expense is an important consideration.

A good test prep class will cost you $500 to $1,500.  Private tutoring costs anywhere from $25 to $250 per hour.  Obviously, self-study costs much less: roughly $25 for the Official Guide to the GMAT, $30 for some additional practice tests, and $50 for a supplemental bank of practice questions.

With this in mind, let’s review the two other GMAT prep options available to you.

When should someone consider taking a GMAT Prep Class?

It’s not quite as simple as taking the inverse of the above five points, but it’s close.  A GMAT prep class is a good option for someone who:

  1. Scored below average when taking a practice GMAT cold. This means they are missing a few (perhaps not too many) core skills that will be tested on the GMAT, and a prep class can provide a reasonably priced review of those skills.
  2. Has the free time it takes to work through the prep class.  Most classes meet once a week for a few hours for eight weeks or so.
  3. Benefits from having a teacher explain key concepts.  You won’t get customized instruction from a prep class teacher—after all there are 10-30 other people in the room—but you will have somebody explaining the material.
  4. Needs the structure that the prep class provides.  You’ll show up each week at a given time, review new content, and be assigned practice problems to complete.
  5. Is willing to spend some money to do well on the GMAT.  Some prep classes are expensive, but it’s a reasonable middle ground between self-study and private tutoring.

OK, so who should hire a private GMAT tutor?

If you’ve read through this blog post so far and don’t feel like you fit in one of the above categories, then a private GMAT tutor might work for you.  Specifically, a private GMAT tutor works well for folks who:

Scored either well below or well above average on an initial practice GMAT, taken cold.  If you are well below average, the prep class might not be enough instruction to get your skills up.  If you are well above average, you might already know most of the stuff taught in the prep class.   After all, a prep class has to make sure it is covering concepts that the average person in the class needs to be taught.  So, if you aren’t somewhere close to average, a prep class is probably not for you.

  1. A side note:  If you are trying to score above 700 on the GMAT, you’ll encounter some pretty difficult questions.  Many people find that a tutor can quickly reveal the core concepts at play here, oftentimes in cases where self-study or a prep class simply would have failed.  If you’re dedicated to trying to break 700, a tutor starts to become a better option.
  2. You may not have much time because you’re taking the GMAT in four weeks.  Or, you may be taking it in three months but you work 80 hours a week, leaving little free time to prep.  If you don’t have much time, a private tutor is the most efficient way to fill in the gaps in your knowledge base.  A tutor can quickly assess your situation and focus on your weak areas.
  3. If you don’t mind listening to someone else explain something (vs. having the satisfaction of figuring it out completely on your own), a private GMAT tutor will work well for you.
  4. When it comes to being organized and structured with your time, almost anyone can benefit from a private GMAT tutor.  Why?  If you aren’t naturally organized, the tutor can help you develop and stick to a plan.  If you are, you can use the tutor to answer specific questions or review questions you had trouble with while following your own plan.
  5. Unfortunately, a good GMAT tutor can be expensive.  With some research, you can find a good tutor for between $50 to $100 per hour.   But, if your score improves from 630 to 700, and you ultimately get into a Top 5 business school, the $1,000 to $2,000 you might spend ends up being very well worth it.

Have I missed any other major ways to study for the GMAT, or any other key considerations? What are your thoughts?

Image credit: Bill Selak  (CC BY-ND 2.0)


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