The Best GMAT Resources For Self-Study

Our resident GMAT/ test/ general wizard Brian Birdwell has been coaching the GMAT for almost two decades! For his first video, Brian covers GMAT resources, study guides and practice tests for those who want to take on the test without a coach.

Whether we like it or not, your GMAT score is absolutely essential for MBA admission success. We have so many videos on our channel about how important the GMAT is and what GMAT score is good enough, but none on how to actually get a GMAT that’s going to help you get in to the business school of your dreams.

Until now!

YouTube video

Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Hello. I'm Brian Birdwell, and I'm a Senior Instructor at Career Protocol. I also have the distinction of having taught the GMAT, the GRE, and the LSAT for about 18 years now, which is mind-blowing to me. That's about half of my life that I've spent teaching people how to take standardized tests. I've worked for a couple of different national companies, one really early in my career, which is sort of the twilight of that particular national company, and then I spent many years working at Manhattan Prep, and I'm going to recommend a few of their products today. I'm no longer associated with them, but they do great work and I have a few recommendations for you. What we're going to talk about today is, if you're going to study for this thing on your own, what are the resources that you really need to get maximum impact? So, minimum resources for maximum impact. Now, whether or not it's a good idea to study for the GMAT on your own, we may talk about in another video. That's not for everyone, by the way, but most people at least start this way. So, if you're going to study on your own for the GMAT, what do you need? Well, it comes down to a few different categories:

  1. The first category is you need practice exams.
  2. The second category is you need practice problems.
  3. And the third category is most likely you need some kind of study material, some kind of study guide or reference book that tells you how to solve certain kinds of problems.

So let's talk about each of those categories.


Practice exams

It's really critical that you use a high-quality practice exam set when you're studying for the GMAT, because if you're doing it well, you're going to be changing your practice routines based on the data you're getting back from that exam. So based on the quantitative raw score and the verbal raw score and the breakdown of the individual problem categories, you're going to be changing how you prepare, how you study. And if you're going to do that well, you need to have a good practice exam that has a good algorithm and that is feeding you good GMAT questions. There are a few exam companies out there, exams that I'm familiar with, I'm not familiar with all of them, but a lot of the national brands that you might be familiar with, their exams tend to reflect what they have to teach. So, in other words, I just use Princeton Review as an example. If Princeton Review has a few particular moves that they use to dazzle people with — here's the secret to this kind of question and this kind of question — what you'll see is that the practice exams tend to skew toward the kind of questions that the test authors have good moves for. And so this is one thing that you would want to be skeptical of or that could potentially guide your studies in the wrong direction. So, you want to be aware of getting your practice exams from some random forum off of Reddit or from You know “Free!!” always feels good but free is not going to be great if it damages your studying routine or it gives you false expectations or something like this. So make sure that your practice exams are well-vetted and high-quality. It's worth paying for them. The best exams that exist are made by the folks that make the GMAT. So you can go to and you can get official practice exams. This is basically retired questions that aren't on current GMAT. So they've taken from their pool of old GMAT and they reorganized them into CAT exams, which stands for Computer Adaptive Tests. So if you hear me say cat, I'm not talking about felines, I'm talking about practice exams. So, the official company source, the official exams, great source, you know, it's legit material because it's from the makers of the test, and their data analysis tools have come a long way. So I used to not recommend this very much because you didn't get good data after you had completed an exam, but these days, their data platform is much more helpful than it once was. So you can get two exams for free from them, and then they've got packages where you can buy four more. On the Manhattan prep end of things, these tests are really great for a couple of reasons. One is, according to one of the primary authors of the GMAT itself, he said this is the best practice exam he'd seen outside of the official stuff. So, you know they're legit, you know they're great, they're written by great instructors, and they have the advantage of having really great data analytics available to you. The time that you've spent on each individual problem, different categories or topics and ways to break down the kinds of questions that you're missing that are very helpful, and the explanations to those questions have been written by Manhattan instructors, and the explanations are pretty much worth their weight in gold. To get a good explanation from a question is actually kind of difficult.

Practice Questions

  • Untimed, topic-specific practice (for learning skills)
  • Timed, mixed sets (for learning timing)

Beyond practice exams, you're going to need practice questions to do in order to improve your performance between practice exams. And in terms of practice questions, there's really no better source, again, than the official guides, and that's released by the company GMAC, that creates the GMAT. You can go to and you can shop for various packages. They've got combinations of physical books, eBooks, and online question banks, and each has their particular utility, because when you're doing practice questions, you're going to break them down two different ways if you're doing this process well. You're going to do untimed topic-specific practice. So, “I need to get better at geometry!”. You can't get better at geometry while trying to do geometry quickly so you should be doing untimed geometry questions for a while to focus on correct habits, correct information recall, and correct execution. And then at some point you're going to do timed mixed sets where there's all kinds of different problems mixed up and you need to allocate time properly, put the pressure on yourself. And so you need a practice set that's going to allow you to do those two things. The books are great because you can flip through the books and you can identify random problems that you want to do, or you can identify all the geometry problems and you can work all the geometry problems because you can see them. The online question generators are really useful for mixed time sets and there's different parameters you can enter to generate sets of different sizes or different difficulty and so forth and so on. So there I really just recommend that you get the official package. It comes with a set of verbal and quantitative questions combined, and then there are two supplementary eBooks that have just verbal. So get that whole package, there's a combination of eBook and online stuff and then you can study effectively in either way that you need to study at the moment.

Study Guides

Now you need some study guides, most likely. Now this is where the world sort of explodes. There are a lot of things, there have been a lot of new developments in the last handful of years. So there are apps, there are online platforms, and I'm going to set those aside for this particular episode. Maybe in the future we'll do some sort of in-depth research on various platforms and apps. I would say that, after 20 years in the business, I think a lot of the claims that these apps and platforms make are inflated and it seems like when someone makes a score guarantee, it makes that seem like a quality product because they're guaranteeing you a particular score increase. I'm thinking here particularly Target Test Prep, and there are others out there, but Target Test Prep’s is very detailed. If you submit an official GMAT score, so you have to have already taken the GMAT and gotten a certain score, then based on your score range, if you complete their program to the T, matching all these particular parameters and completing the work with all these particular accuracy levels — in other words, if you hold yourself accountable, then they guarantee particular score increases based on your range. Now. I have no experience with Target Test Prep, I just know that about their guarantee. There are a lot of other companies out there that guarantee particular increases, but the fine print on those score guarantees can be interesting, so make sure you check it out. Regardless. I’m going to talk about books today or collections of information and again, set apps aside for another day. The best study guides that exist, as far as I'm concerned, are from Manhattan Prep and the package is really valuable. I'm not associated with Manhattan Prep, though I worked there for a number of years and I know they do great work. They've got a book that covers all the concepts on the quant, all the concepts on the verbal, and you can buy it in a package. It comes with a book I think that also does the integrated reasoning section in the essay, but the most valuable part of that package is it comes with a product called Navigator, which is explanations for every problem in the official guide written by Manhattan instructors and this is worth its weight in gold. Do not adapt your practice or your problem execution to the explanations written by the official test makers. I've heard all sorts of things about them over the years. I'm not sure if it's true that they're written by high school math teachers. In other words, they're not written by test prep experts. And at the end of the day, the profit incentive for the authors of the GMAT is clear as day. They're in the business of giving GMAT exams. They are not in the business necessarily of helping you improve your GMAT score. So their explanations tend to be very straightforward, very “Just do these equations.”. They don’t really have much thinking outside the box. They don’t have “What if you just plugged in the answers and eliminated to your solution?”, “What if you just tried x equals 2 and you plugged that into the question and got an answer this way?”. So they don't have a lot of alternate problem solving strategies, they tend to be very by the book. And the verbal explanations are crazy. You do not need to be a grammar expert to get a fantastic GMAT score. And if all the explanations you're reading are strictly grammar-based, if you already speak that language of grammar, great, but if you don't, then you risk thinking that you need to learn grammar in order to get good at the GMAT and that's actually not the goal. That's actually orthogonal to the goal and you should really proceed straight for the goal of just getting better at the GMAT itself. So, I recommend the Manhattan explanations, and that's one of the great value adds to getting their study guides.

Beyond that, if you really need a lot of help, there are two particular cases here. If you haven't done math in many years, or if you are a nonnative English speaker and you feel pretty fuzzy on the grammar rules and the operations and some of the finer points in constructing clear English sentences, then there are two guides that Manhattan gives away for free called Foundations of Quant and Foundations of Verbal and those are really valuable for folks in those categories. So what I recommend for everybody is that you take a practice exam right away, either an official exam or a Manhattan exam, I think you can get one free from Manhattan, you can get two free from, just so you know where you are, cold. Take a cold GMAT, low expectations, it will probably go terribly. It will certainly feel terrible whether you do well or not, and then based on how far you are from your goal and how you felt about the experience, you can start to ascertain how much support you're going to need, how much preparation you're going to need, how many resources, and so forth and so on. So that's basically the recommendation there. There are a few products. I know there are other specific products that I'm unaware of that could be really great, this is just the ones that I know exists, and the principles that underlie those decisions. So high-quality practice exams, high-quality practice problems with good explanations, and perhaps a study guide or a reference book of some kind. So, if you get either the official practice exams or the Manhattan practice exams, if you get the official practice questions and then the Manhattan books, which come with Manhattan instructor-written explanations, you should be in really good shape. Now, what you do with those materials, how often you study, how you study, all those variables are really going to affect how much you get out of them, b9ut in terms of just the materials that you need to buy, that's what I recommend. So feel free to leave some comments below, ask questions, talk to us, and subscribe. If you like this kind of thing, we'll do some more GMAT videos in the future. Thanks so much and good luck.

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Brian Birdwell

Generalism Specialist | Senior Instructor and GMAT/GRE Guru

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