Study Habits Of GMAT’s Top 10% Scorers


When Jeffrey Messina walked into a test center in Tampa, Florida, last year to sit for the GMAT, he was as prepared for the grueling test as a top-notch professional athlete for a big game. The 24-year-old consultant from Washington, D.C., had spent a total of 210 hours studying for the Graduate Management Admission Test over the previous three and one-half months. He had taken off from work the last week before the exam to cram for three solid days and then rest.

As he finished the last question on the three-and-one-half hour test, Messina had a sinking feeling. He didn’t think he had scored all that well. But then his score flashed on the computer screen. Messina, who doesn’t consider himself a natural at standardized testing, got a 760 out of 800, a score that is 213 points above the average and puts him in the 99th percentile of all test takers in the world. And it was his first and only GMAT try.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, I did very well,'” he says with characteristic understatement.


What separates those who score in the upper reaches of the GMAT from those who score below 690?

To find out how the most successful business school aspirants achieve their high scores, Poets&Quants teamed up with Magoosh Test Prep to survey nearly 200 recent GMAT test takers, including Jeffrey Messina. We compared the study habits of students who scored in the top 10% (with a 690 or better) to the rest of the test-taking pool. For the purposes of this survey, students who scored a 690 or above will be referred to as “top scorers” and students who scored below 690 as “other scorers”. A total of 197 students were in the study.

Five Big Takeaways

Confidence is key. Some 66% of top scorers said they felt confident and calm going into the exam, whereas less than half of other scorers felt that way.

Students don’t need to break the bank. The majority of top scorers (58%) spent only $100 to $300 on their test prep. 39% of other scorers spent over $300, while only 31% of top scorers shelled out that much cash.

Regular exercise correlates with higher scores. Of the test takers who exercised at least once per week, the majority (58%) scored a 690 or better.

Forget last-minute cramming. 79% of top scorers gave themselves a break the day before the exam. Only 67% of other scorers did the same.

There’s a study-time sweet spot. A majority of top scorers studied for one to three months and 87% of studied between 1 and 6 months. 32% of other scorers either studied for less than a month or more than 6 months.


Consider Messina, who expects to apply to the top five business for entry in the fall of next year. “The biggest thing is to treat it as a job,” he says. “Stick to a schedule, otherwise you will just keep pushing it back.”

The consultant had one advantage: His undergraduate major was economics, with a heavy dose of math. Still, he hadn’t approached the SAT which any systematic rigor, confessing he was more interested in girls and playing soccer. But when it came to the GMAT, Messina adopted an entirely different modus operandi. His demanding job in economics consulting requires 60 hours of work a week. So he had to create a smart study plan.

First, he committed to a date for the test, paying the $250 to take it, allowing himself exactly three and one-half months to study so he wouldn’t be tempted to push back the test. He then adopted a pretty disciplined regimen every day of the week: He would get up at 5 a.m., work out for 30 minutes in the gym, and then study from 5:45 a.m. to 6:45 a.m. When Messina returned from work, he would put in another one to two hours of study every day, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

  • MBAPrepCoach

    Wake up one hour earlier for 2 months. My most successful clients do this.

  • ZzzQuil

    Hard work won’t automatically take you to the 99% range. I think hard work alone will get you to a 700 or 710, but to go beyond that you still need raw intellectual ability. But raw intellectual ability alone also won’t help you. As prep materials exhaustively explain, the GMAT authors are expert trappers — they intentionally craft problems with snares to snag the quick thinkers. So you really do need a balance of both hard work and raw talent to get into the top percentiles.

    But I agree with you that ADCOMs should look at the “whole picture”. The GMAT should be seen as a qualifier — it’s necessary for consideration, but I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all. Just check out Clear Admit’s LiveWire and see all those 770 and 780 people who are rejected by HSW.

  • GMAT tips

    For me it was worthwhile to put in the time and money. I’m not a natural at the GMAT, I think my first test I took to get a baseline I scored a 560. I hired a tutor and studied for 6 months and ended up with my official score being 730. While yes it’s a more expensive route, it ends up being a great ROI because the higher GMAT score gets you scholarship offers. I’m now attending Kellogg and received a $100k scholarship which is wayyy more than I paid in tutoring. Also, book wise I recommend the Manhattan prep series and the Kaplan 800 book. I’d avoid Princeton, I thought their material was pretty poor. Hope this is helpful to anyone thinking about the GMAT!

  • Dan Sandweiss

    Based on reading this article, I have to wonder what the GMAT measures and why admissions people place such a high value on it. If a motivated person can score in the 99% range from studying, is it testing the motivation and ability to work hard of the applicant? If so, most MBA applicants are motivated and a reasonable number work hard. I would place more value on the GPA of the applicant and the recommendations received from the applicant’s boss. These would be more telling of the applicant’s willingness to work hard over the long term and the overall intelligence of the person.

  • Thanks for sharing your study habits with us. Would love to hear what has worked for other GMAT test takers.

  • ZzzQuil

    Studied for only 5 weeks, about 3 hours per day, resting about 1 day each week. Created about 20 pages of handwritten quick notes off my Manhattan Prep books that I reviewed each day. 740 (50Q / 41V) with 8 IR on first and only try.

    Best Advice? Take the test on a Saturday and get good sleep for at least three nights before the test. I took ZzzQuil around 8:00pm for three nights, and felt extremely well rested and energized the morning of.