Just took my GMAT this morning and scored 760 (IR8/Q50/V44), which is at the 99th percentile. While this is certainly not the limit of what many of you could score, I think my experience going through the process might be valuable to share, so I'm hoping at least a few people can learn something new here or at least gain some confidence.
I started studying about 5 weeks ago. I am starting with MBB in a couple weeks so yes, they paid for a full prep course, but I elected to take the self-study package rather than the in-classroom package. I got the Manhattan GMAT (MGMAT) Interact package that came with 12 study books, the Official Guide, the Official Review books for quant and verbal, online lessons, and 6 online computer-adaptive tests (CATs).
This is definitely not a marketing post for MGMAT -- while it had a lot of good resources, it had its serious flaws as well. I appreciated having books for literally every topic covered on the GMAT, but I also found that it was way too much information. It seemed like the books were written for an absolute beginner, so I found myself skipping through most of the pages to find the crucial bits of information that would actually help me on the exam (i.e. the typical Pythagorean triples or the common formats of critical reasoning questions). In the end, I decided that the information in the books was not anything that I couldn't learn myself by doing a lot of practice problems.
Speaking of practice problems, that was exactly what I did for 5 weeks. I did practice problems every single day. For the first 2 weeks or so, I worked exclusively on problems in the MGMAT books. However, once I took a couple practice tests (also from MGMAT), I found that the difficult level of the book problems was misaligned with the practice tests, and I wasn't scoring very high (670-680 range). I did some research online, read through some forums, and discovered that a lot of people have come across the same issue.
The MGMAT book problems just aren't calibrated correctly to the actual test. In addition, a lot of people have found that the MGMAT practice tests are much harder than the actual test. I definitely agree. My average MGMAT practice score (from three tests) was 680 (Q46/V37), whereas the average of my three scores from GMATPrep tests (the official practice tests, and yes I purchased additional tests since you only get two for free) was 770 (Q50/V45). Two things to note here: 1.) the MGMAT tests are indeed much harder than the real thing; 2.) the GMATPrep scores were very close to my actual score. (I should add that I took the practice tests roughly one week apart from each other and left a week between my last practice test and the real GMAT.)
So, for the next 3 weeks, I did problems exclusively from the Official Guide and the Official Review books for quant and verbal. There are about 1500 problems total across the three books, and yes, I did every single problem. This isn't that bad -- it took me about 3-4 hours each day. Then again, I did this before I started working, so if you're working full time, you probably want to start 2-3 weeks earlier. It really helped to do these problems because of two reasons: 1.) they are retired from actual GMAT exams, so they reflect the actual difficulty of problems on the GMAT; 2.) just by the virtue of doing so many problems, you learn a lot of concepts and become familiar with the types of questions the GMAT will ask you. Definitely review the solutions to any problems you can't solve intuitively! The goal here is to make GMAT problem solving somewhat intuitive and quick.
You might notice that I haven't mentioned anything about the AWA (essay) or IR (integrated reasoning) sections. This is intentional. They're not part of your "total" numerical score, and business schools don't pay a whole lot of attention to these sections. However, it is important to at least perform satisfactorily on these. So, I'd recommend doing 2-3 practice essays according to one of the many templates available online (here's one: http://gmatclub.com/forum/how-to-get-6-0-awa-my-gu...). It's not rocket science; just find 3 flaws in the argument, and write a 5-paragraph essay describing the flaws and how to address them. For IR practice, you will be doing this during your practice tests, so no extra work needed there.
In the week leading up to my GMAT, I tried to take it easy. I actually took two days completely off in the middle of the week and did absolutely nothing related to the GMAT, just to relax my mind and let things soak in. It's just like physical training -- you need rest time so your body can get used to the training you've been putting it through. For the last couple days before the GMAT, I finished off the last 150 or so problems while still trying to relax as much as possible. The most important thing for me was to maintain a positive attitude. I hung out with friends, played golf, went to the gym, and generally did things that made me happy. I find that when I'm in a good mood, my brain tends to work better.
On the morning of the test (I scheduled it for 8am), I woke up early and had a good breakfast (definitely get some protein and carbs in there). I then did 3 practice problems of each type -- problem solving, data sufficiency, reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction. However, I didn't look at any of the solutions -- this is very important! I repeat, this is very important!! The worst thing you can do for your confidence is to find out that you're getting problems wrong on the morning of your test. Do the practice problems, feel confident about your answers, and get out the door!
During the exam itself, I forced myself not to think about anything but the problems in front of me. It's very tempting to worry about the problem you just messed up, or what your score might be (since you get the score immediately following your exam), but all of this will distract you from doing what's most important, which is solving the problem in front of you. I've heard this said before, and I'll rephrase a little: it's not about conquering the GMAT, it's about conquering 37 individual quant problems and 41 individual verbal problems. As I mentioned above, my GMATPrep average score was 770, while my actual score was 760. I think this is because I psyched myself out after stumbling through a particularly challenging IR section. I kept thinking about that during the rest of the exam, which may have reflected in my slight score drop. And of course, be sure to drink plenty of water and eat some healthy snacks (i.e. bananas or granola bars) during the breaks!
You'll do great. It's not 100% a test of intelligence. At least half of it is preparation and confidence.
I know that was a lot of information. Here's the tl;dr summary:
- Do every single problem in the Official Guide and Official Review books for quant and verbal. Don't bother with other sources.
- Keep a consistent schedule (i.e. study at the same time every day).
- Do regular GMATPrep practice tests (about a week apart). It's definitely worth purchasing the additional two tests. Other companies' tests aren't good indicators of actual GMAT difficulty or score.
- Do 2-3 practice essays according to any of the AWA templates out there. No need for additional IR practice beyond practice exams.
- Take it easy in the week leading up to the GMAT. Work on maintaining a positive attitude and a healthy body and mind.
- During the test, focus on each individual problem instead of worrying about problems you may have gotten wrong or your score.
- Stay confident!!
Let me know if I missed anything or if I can answer any questions!