The most general answer to this question, to the most general non-specific reader, would be, either “it depends” or “the longer, the better“, both of them frustratingly vague and unenlightening. Let’s talk about some factors which may come into play when considering how long to study for the GMAT.
1) The first consideration is simply: how good are you at the whole standardized-test thing in general? Some people regularly ace standardized tests. Others regularly flub them. This is an estimation—at a gut-level, how comfortable are you, and how successful have you been, with the whole standardized-test thing?
2) How many days you should study depends in part on how many hours a day you can study. Let’s say that 1 hour a day for six months would be very approximately equivalent to six hours a day for one month. The caveat, of course, is most people have real limits concerning how much they can focus and how much info they can absorb and assimilate in a single day. If you could put in six hours a day of quality, high-focus study time, day after day, for a month, then that’s fantastic, but for most people—not only because of the practical constraints of job & family, but also because of the cognitive constraints on focus and assimilation—the best option would be less-time-per-day over a longer number days studying for the GMAT.
3) Let’s say you have taken a practice test, relatively cold, with little prep, and got some score. We’ll call this a baseline score. What is your target score? How much do you want to improve from this cold-take baseline? Let’s say, with moderate prep, you could improve 50 points over a relatively cold-take. That’s readily do-able. Improving 100 points—that’s more of a challenge. Improving 150 or 200 points or more—that will take exceptionally diligent work, sustained over quite some time, and even then, an improvement of this magnitude is not guaranteed.
4) What are your relative strengths? Consider the two big categories—math and verbal. On a 1-10 scale, how would you rank your relative aptitudes in each? This may play into extra time over and above the time you spend studying specifically for the GMAT.
Ballpark figures for study times
I would say a three month study plan, with 1-2 hour per weekday and a single 3-4 hour stint on each weekend—that I would call moderate study, probably enough to produce for most people a 50-100 point increase over a relatively cold-take score. Again, this assumes eight hours of sleep a night, a healthy lifestyle, and a normal college-graduate level of learning and remembering.
If you want to improve substantially more than 50-100 points, I would suggest studying for the GMAT for a longer time than three months. In general, the more you can spread your study out over a long period—say, six months—the more time you will have to return a second and even a third time to each topic, which really takes advantage of how the brain learns and processes. Repeated exposure helps to encode material into long-term memory.
If, for whatever combination of reasons, you have only a month to prepare for the GMAT, understand that’s not ideal, and it will demand both longer stints each day as well as the sustained focus and commitment, in order to get the most out of it. For a month, be ready to hunker down and work intensely.
If you are planning to take considerably less than a month to prepare for the GMAT—either you are unusually gifted, or you don’t really take the test seriously. How long you study for the GMAT is, to some extent, a statement about how seriously you take the GMAT. If you take the GMAT seriously, then put in the time to prepare for it. If you don’t take it seriously, then why are you taking it at all? This is your life: it’s not a game, not a stage-rehearsal for anything else. Time is precious. Why would you waste significant time and energy and focus and determination on something you don’t take seriously? It’s absolutely necessary to have time doing things that are enjoyable and un-serious in order to refresh and recharge, but why take on something difficult and demanding if you don’t take it seriously? Whoever you are, your time is worth more than that! That’s my 2¢.
This concerns consideration #4 above. If you would rate either of the categories three or below, that’s a red flag. That’s an indication you need an extra head start. This is a big curveball in the how-long-do-I-study-for-the-GMAT question!
If you are a math whiz but weak in verbal, and most especially if English is not your first language, then yes, pursue a moderate study schedule, say, a three-month study schedule for folks stronger in math, and in addition to that, READ! Read at least an hour a day—two hours a day would be better. Reading the high-brow material recommended at that blog will accustom your ear to advanced grammatical constructions typical of GMAT Sentence Correction, and will help you practice the analysis skills you will need on both GMAT Critical Reasoning and GMAT Reading Comprehension. Ideally, you will begin this daily reading habit well before the rest of your GMAT studying—a year or more. Where will you get the time to do all this reading? Well, if you sharply reduce TV, video games, and other forms of electronic entertainment, you actually will be doing your brain a favor.
If you are relatively comfortable in verbal, and you haven’t even looked at math since an unfriendly farewell a few years back, then you need to study math, starting pretty much as soon as you finish reading this post. You don’t get a calculator on the GMAT Quant section, so practice mental math—every day, you should add & subtract & multiply & divide in your head. Get remedial books published for high school students, “Algebra Review”, “Geometry Review”, and start reading. Look for every possible application of math in your life—areas of rooms, grocery bills, gas mileage—and do the real world math. Ideally, all this focus on math should begin months before you embark on, say, a three-month study schedule for folks stronger in verbal.
In both cases, this extra focus you give one area or the other should be considered over and above how long you study for the GMAT.
That’s a general overview of how long to study for the GMAT. The study schedules at the links above will give you more details, and more a sense of what’s required. If you have more questions about your specific situation, please let us know in the comment section below. 🙂