The GMAT is a difficult test and a solid prep plan is essential for success. First and foremost you will need to make sure that you allow sufficient time to prepare. Time is the test-taker's most precious commodity and one that is often in short supply! Other aspects of your plan will include assembling the resources necessary for success, and adopting a viable study strategy.
Even if you are a good student and an experienced test-taker you should plan to invest considerable time and energy to ensure you earn a score that reflects your potential. The competition is fierce and your competitors are working hard too. At an absolute minimum you would want to plan on about 60 days to work through the material and familiarize yourself with the test format - some of which is rather peculiar to the GMAT. However, most prospective test-takers will spend 90 days or more getting ready.
Deciding how much time to allocate is not a purely academic exercise. At some point relatively early in your preparation process you should schedule your exam. Although it would be possible to schedule the exam at the last minute, there are some very important reasons to set the date well in advance and then work toward that date. Setting a date will help you focus and structure your study efforts. If you are planning to take classroom instruction or work with a tutor, most will recommend scheduling the class within a week or two of completing the curriculum. As a practical matter scheduling the class with plenty of lead time will give you the best selection of days of the week and times of day.
There are a number of factors to consider when deciding how much total time to allocate. If you are a current student, accustomed to taking tests and with several hours a day to devote to study, perhaps the lower end of the spectrum is appropriate. Otherwise you will want to carefully assess your situation. Have you been out of school for a while? You might be surprised at how rusty your mathematical problem solving skills have become. Are you working full-time? Do you have young children or other family responsibilities? If these challenges are resonating with you, then you will definitely want to build in extra time. For a busy person with responsibilities outside of work, four months or more would be very appropriate.
As you no doubt are already aware, there is a diverse offering of GMAT prep solutions available to you. Websites, books, software, flash cards, videos, classes, and the list goes on. It can be a little bewildering trying to sort through it all. Don't fall into the trap of wasting valuable time and energy on an endless quest for more resources. You'll find that the return on your investment begins to diminish rapidly and that your time and energy would be better spent studying.
There are two key points to keep in mind when gathering up the books, practice software, and other other miscellaneous resources for your prep:
GMAC, the publisher of the GMAT exam, has several excellent products to help you prepare. The Official Guide for GMAT Review is a satisfyingly hefty 840 page tome, that truly aims to provide a comprehensive study resource. It includes more than 900 hundred sample questions from retired exams with detailed explanations of both why correct answers are correct and why incorrect answers are incorrect. It also provides a comprehensive overview of the exam, math and grammar review, a diagnostic test and more. Also available from GMAC at the www.mba.com website is GMATPrep software that provides a simulated test environment. GMATPrep is free and comes with two practice tests. You can also buy additional practice questions to create more practice tests.
As per point number one above, these official products must figure prominently in your study regimen regardless of the quantity or quality of your other resources.
However, as per point number two, it is vital to look outside the official products. A large part of cracking the GMAT and getting the best score possible involves going beyond the grammar, math, critical reasoning and other fundamental skills being tested and developing a test-taking strategy based on the nuances of the GMAT exam itself. From tips on approaching a timed computer adaptive test, to avoiding common math traps, to figuring out why so many reading comprehension answers feel counter-intuitive, third party products bring a perspective you just won't get from GMAC.
Two of the biggest names in GMAT prep materials are Kaplan and Princeton Review. A couple of other publishers worth a look include Manhattan and Barron's. You will notice that many publishers will offer both a comprehensive guide to GMAT preparation as well as materials that are more focused on a section of the test or even a particular question type. Be aware that materials from the same publisher are often fairly redundant. So if, for example, you already own a comprehensive test guide from one publisher and want extra help on the verbal section, you might want to choose the verbal study guide from a different publisher.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of practicing in a simulated computer adaptive test environment. Obviously, there is simply no excuse for wasting valuable time on test day because you are unfamiliar with the look and feel of the software. But the need goes much deeper. There are strategies around ideal pacing and related issues that are particular to the GMAT and its adaptive nature. Regardless of your abilities, good strategy will improve your score, but effective implementation absolutely requires practice.
The decision of whether to seek live instruction or to go it completely on your own is driven both by your own inclinations and, unfortunately, your financial wherewithal. Access to a good tutor, whether one-on-one or in a classroom setting, can make a tremendous difference. Just like a coach or personal trainer, a tutor can push you to achieve and help you focus your energies, all while giving you the benefit of their knowledge and experience. However, a tutor is not a silver bullet that ensures a great score. In the end, with or without a tutor, the best GMAT test-takers have ownership of their own prep plan. They know their weakness, they know their strengths, and they know what they need to do to get to the next level. It is absolutely possible to purchase self study materials, diligently follow a plan, and get a very high score without a tutor.
The single most important thing to understand about studying for the GMAT is that the test rewards consistency and fundamentals rather than pockets of excellence. In other words, you don't want to distract yourself worrying about advanced topics such as standard deviation and probability theory, if you are still struggling with the exponents and triangles. A good study plan will methodically work through the material ensuring a solid base is established at each level before moving on to more advanced material.
Exactly how you put this plan into practice will be a matter of both how much time you have, the books and other collateral materials you've assembled, and whether you're working with a tutor. Ideally you will have the luxury time, the Official Guide to the GMAT, at least one comprehensive guide from a third party, and Blue Ridge Review bookmarked in your favorite web browser. If so, your first step should be to casually but attentively review all of your resources. At this point you are not trying to learn (or re-learn) skills, you are trying to get an overall sense of the scope of material that will be covered by the exam. For questions of scope, remember to place particular emphasis on the Official Guide.
Once you have completed this basic overview it is time to take the diagnostic test from the Official Guide. The diagnostic test will assess your performance on core skills covered in the critical quantitative and verbal sections of the test. It is designed to help you pinpoint the areas where you need further study.
Now, armed with an understanding of the scope of the GMAT and an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses you are ready to begin your preparation in earnest.
It might be helpful to think of the preparation process as an endlessly repeating loop. Test yourself, assess the results and indentify weaknesses, target your study to remediate those weaknesses, drill to reinforce the study, and then the process begins again with testing. Remember when targeting your weaknesses, to always make sure the basics are well in hand before moving on to more difficult material.
As a final thought, with all this talk of remediating your weaknesses, you shouldn't forget to capitalize on your strengths. If, for example, you are stronger in math than you are in verbal, don't become so consumed with improving your verbal scores that you neglect math study altogether. On test day you will be relying on your strengths and you will need to study and practice to do your best.