Self-Studying the GMAT: What I Learned

Self-Studying the GMAT: What I Learned

After I came back from my summer graduation trip, I gave myself one month and hit the ground running with GMAT studying. My goal was to score above 700, and while I was able to achieve it in the end (yay!) it was definitely not without major mishaps that could’ve been easily avoided. I’m writing this post to share my experience with self-studying and the strategies that worked along the way so that anyone else considering taking the GMAT will be much better informed than I was.

What it is

For basics, the GMAT is a standardized computer adapted test required for most MBA (Masters in Business Administration) programs.  Computer adaptive means that you’ll be taking it on the computer, with questions getting harder as you get more of them right and getting easier as you get more of them wrong. The GRE exam is also an option for MBA admissions, but is not as widely accepted as the GMAT. In addition, business schools who do accept the GRE test don’t necessarily weigh the GRE as equal to the GMAT. Since the score is good for the next five years, I figured why not go for the exam while I had some down time before starting my first full-time job and still had study habits from college. I did some comparison shopping on Amazon and the amazing reviews convinced me to get the Manhattan Prep’s Complete Strategy Set in conjunction with the e-book version of The Official GMAT Guide. I was pretty happy with how comprehensive Manhattan prep was; their $150 set came with 10 prep books (each covering a different topic), 6 online practice tests with test-result analysis, 1 free online session (a nice potential upsell), and a 1 year online account where you can check answer explanations from Official Guide questions, keep track of progress, take tests, and run analysis on your practice tests. The Manhattan Strategy Guides focus mainly on test-taking strategy and was thus designed to be complemented by The Official GMAT Guide. As a result, The Manhattan Prep books don’t have many real practice GMAT questions, making purchasing The Official GMAT Guide (aka a giant practice question bank) necessary. Here’s a little peek into my timeline of emotions over the course of the one month I spent prepping:

  • Week 1: I’m so excited, I’m going to crush it. Rough first practice test, but everyone’s gotta start somewhere and that just means more room to improve 🙂
  • Week 2: Yay some improvement on my practice tests!
  • Week 3: My scores have reached a plateau, I’m no where near where I wanted to be, and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong (especially given that I’ve been practicing this whole time). I definitely should’ve given myself more time…
  • Week 4: Well, here goes nothing D:

Things You Should Know

Budget enough time. If you’re planning to self-study over the summer, give yourself at least 2 months. Sure, there are some people who can get a great score in less time, but a lot more people downplay the amount of time they spent prepping (just sayin’). I spent at least 4 hours/day for a whole month doing GMAT prep. By the time I had gone through all the content from the Manhattan Prep guides and figured out the do’s and don’ts of GMAT prep through trial and error, I only had a week left to really apply what I learned to my weakest areas. Budget just as much if not more time to practicing questions rather than focusing too much on covering all the prep book material.

The point isn’t to get every question right, but rather to strategize what types of problems to spend the most time on and which ones to guess on. This was particularly hard for me, since academic tests train us to attempt to answer every single question. However when done on the GMAT, you end up spending too much time on questions that you end up getting wrong while running out of time on the questions you would’ve easily gotten right. Top-scorers answer on average only 80% of the questions correctly. To get better at this, absolutely do every single practice test (except the diagnostic) timed. I memorized this benchmark table from the prep book and wrote it down during the quant portion of the real test to pace myself. It was really useful in helping to strategize which problems I should skip.


Focus on your weakness. After 2 or 3 practice tests, you’ll have a pretty good idea of your weakness(es), especially after you run your practice test through Manhattan Prep’s analysis. I knew mine was math, yet I still spent an equal amount of time studying quant as I spent on verbal. The result? A 35 percentile point difference between my verbal and quant scores. In my case, I could have attained a higher score if I focused more on math, since I had much more room to improve in the quant area.

Give all the recommended strategies a chance. Since you paid for these strategies, it’s worthwhile to at least try them even if some don’t sound like they’d be helpful. The Manhattan strategies that helped me improve the most in each section were the following:

  • Data Sufficiency: Learn Manhattan Prep’s strategy to solve these first. This type of math problem is designed to be very confusing and hard to approach, so learning the specific strategy for these up front will save you exponentially more time in the future.
  • Problem Solving: Memorize formulas and do the practice tests with the time constraints (refer to chart above). I also made a quizlet, and taped a formula sheet on my shower so I could memorize while showering, which really helped.
  • Reading Comprehension: Write the quick summaries for each paragraph of the reading passages.
  • Critical Reasoning: Write next to the side of the answer sheet what type of question it was (weaken, strengthen, or assumption).
  • General: On your answer sheet, make a column heading for answer choices A, B, C, D, and E, and rows for the question numbers. This way you don’t have to waste time rewriting the answer choices for each question.


Figure out what percentage of your mistakes are careless. Find strategies to minimize those careless errors, or get ready to pay for them on test day. I tallied up the different reasons I missed questions on my third practice test and realized that almost half of my wrong answers were careless mistakes. For example, most of my missed questions from the Critical Reasoning section occurred because I chose the opposite answer of what the question was asking, so I started noting down whether the question was asking for an answer that strengthened, weakened, or challenged an assumption (a very specific type of question that the GMAT and Manhattan Prep guide will cover).

The Manhattan practice tests are harder than the real GMAT. Unfortunately, I was not aware of this. Had I been aware, I could’ve avoided 1) a panic frenzy and 2) not almost canceling my test. It’s a good thing that the practice tests are harder, but just keep that in mind when reviewing your test!

Overall review on Self Studying the GMAT

If you buy reputable prep books such as the Manhattan Prep guides, you’re paying for top quality content. If you opt for a traditional classroom approach to the GMAT, you’re paying for the study plan, ensured discipline, and guidance. Even if you’ve got a lot of self-discipline, it’s much much harder to coach yourself. By far the biggest challenge in self-studying for the GMAT was figuring out what I was doing wrong, and coming up with a game plan to fix it. Stay tuned for Monty’s review of Manhattan Prep’s in-class GMAT package that she will finish in November 🙂

*Fun fact: my tire blew out on the way to my test. Thank goodness for an empty hospital parking lot (where I ditched my car so I could make it to my exam on time) and uber.



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