Many students begin studying for the GMAT by purchasing a prep book or by signing up for a GMAT class, without fully evaluating all the options on the table.
Perhaps their intuition about what will work best for them is right, but perhaps they jumped the gun and chose the first path that sprang to mind. Maybe they simply followed the lead of a friend or family member.
Everyone is different, though, no more so when it comes to learning—a failsafe method for one person may be what safely guarantees a fail for another.
A better approach is to carefully consider your situation and choose an approach that makes the most sense for you.
The key factors
The first step in choosing a GMAT prep approach is to understand the key dimensions that should influence your decision: relative importance of customization; cost; flexibility; quality of GMAT-specific instruction; and the amount, or quality of practice problems and practice tests.
In general, more customization is always better—we are all individuals with unique learning styles.
However, if you’re a mathematics genius with dyslexia who has trouble reading, then your GMAT prep program requires a much more customized approach.
Cost is generally something we should all consider. But, keep in mind, an extra $1K, $2K, or even $3K in GMAT prep has the potential to open doors for you (a higher GMAT score that leads to a higher quality MBA) that could pay back 2, 5, 10, or even 20 times over.
Flexibility is most important for those who travel frequently, work long hours, or have a plethora of other responsibilities to manage while studying for the GMAT. If you are signing up for an intense class that meets only 6 times for a full day, you need to be able to make it to each class and feel rested and focused during those classes.
Obviously, teaching quality matters a lot. This may seem obvious, but this is also partially about recognizing that the GMAT is not a math test, and it’s not an English test. It’s a test of logic and critical thinking using core math and reading principles.
The GMAT instruction you receive is of a higher quality if it accounts for this, and doesn’t just attempt to drill into you basic math or English concepts.
Finally, you’ll want a prep program that has enough practice problems and practice tests to allow you to home in on your weaknesses, engage in focused practice and skill building, and which accurately reflects what you’ll see on the exam.
Do I need a GMAT tutor?
Although a GMAT tutor can generally be the most expensive option, it is also the most customized option. As such, it makes the most sense for those with spiky strengths or weaknesses.
If you are really starting from a low skill level and likely scoring in the 400s, a tutor could make sense, because a class might be making some assumptions about what you know that are not correct. Or, if you are naturally flirting with a 700 score without doing much studying at all, a class might be pointless.
When does a GMAT class make the most sense?
If you are close to the ‘average’ GMAT test taker (say, after familiarizing yourself with the exam, you can score in the low to mid 500s) and are not particularly worried about achieving a 700+ score (perhaps because you are shooting for a part-time, online, or simply a top 100 MBA program), a class could make sense.
A good class from one of the big brands provides structure, practice, instruction, and should offer a reasonable chance of helping most people who put in the work improve from, say, a 525 to a 650 GMAT score.
Can I go it alone, or just use an app?
Two key differences between the options discussed so far and using an app, or self-studying with a book, are structure and motivation.
If you are motivated and disciplined, purchasing an app, like one from Magoosh or the Economist GMA, for example, provides high quality instruction—it’s just up to you to log in and do the work.
There is no class to attend or meeting with a tutor to show up for. And only you can give yourself a hard time about not putting in the work. So, you need to be honest with yourself about whether a class or tutor would help address these issues.
At the end of the day, many people who self-study with a book would be well served to also choose a supplemental app for extra practice. Both paths required discipline and self-motivation.
The major benefit of adding some sort of app is that a good one will provide adaptive practice. It will tell you what types of problems you are missing and what concepts you thus need to study more.
Oftentimes the motivated GMAT student using just the GMAC.org materials may not realize they aren’t grasping a few key underlying concepts, and that will hurt their eventual official GMAT score.
Mark Skoskiewicz is the founder of MyGuru, a provider of customized tutoring and test prep. Prior to founding MyGuru, he earned a BS from Indiana University and an MBA from Kellogg-Northwestern and was a strategy consultant. He is a founding member of the leadership team at TRC Advisory.