What test prep books should I buy?
We get asked this question a lot, so don’t worry – we’ve got you covered! Here is what you need to know about choosing the best resources for your GMAT or GRE preparation.
In a nutshell, all test prep books fall under two categories:
1. “Official Guides” published by the makers of the test (such as the GMAC or ETS)
2. “Strategy Guides” published by test prep organizations (such as Kaplan, Manhattan Prep, The Princeton Review, etc.)
If you’d like to understand how to best use these books in your preparation, it would be helpful to know what purpose these books serve, and what were they made for.
Contrary to the popular belief, these books are actually not Guides, even though they are, indeed, Official. On the GMAT and GRE, these books are the only sources of real questions from past exams (aside from the official exam software made by the same test makers), so essentially these books are awesome question banks that you can (and should!) use for practice.
Because these books are published by the same people who make the tests, the Official Guides are not designed to help you beat the test (this would be a bit of a conflict of interest, wouldn’t it?), nor are they guiding you thorough the test preparation process. Instead, they are providing an overview of what theory is being tested, and give you a general guideline on what kinds of questions to expect on the real tests.
Please keep in mind that NO question from the book will ever appear on the real test. This is what’s very different about the GMAT and GRE (and other standardized tests, such as the LSAT, MCAT, SAT, ACT or SSAT). Most other exams we take for work or school are knowledge-based tests, i.e. they evaluate our knowledge of a specific subject matter. For example, the PMP (Project Management Professional) test evaluates your level of knowledge of the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge), and not how well you can actually manage projects.
On the other hand, the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, and other skills-based tests evaluate your level of skills, relevant for the success in the programs, for which these tests were designed. For example, instead of testing how well you know Math or English, the GMAT and GRE evaluate your ability to apply various strategies to deal with complex problems and arrive at the right answer within a limited time.
Here is a quote from the GMAC (the markers of the GMAT) that will help put things in perspective:
Rather than testing your knowledge of business or any other subject matter, the GMAT exam measures higher-order reasoning skills – skills that matter in the management classrooms and in the 21st century workplace.
You will need basic – an operating, not an expert – knowledge of geometry, algebra, statistics, and the English language to demonstrate different types of reasoning skills.
Notice how the test-makers use the word “skills” 3 times in this short description. They are telling us to develop these higher-order reasoning skills if we wish to have success on the GMAT.
OK then – if the Official Guides provide an overview of the theory and a collection of past questions for practice, how can we actually learn the strategies to attack the tricky questions that will appear on the exams? This is where the Strategy Guides come into play.
"Strategy Guides" are books written by test prep organizations that were originally designed as handouts for the students who take test prep classes. At some point, test prep companies decided that selling these books in bookstores was a great idea for a couple of reasons:
1. They could make extra money selling the books. Despite the fact that some of these books are quite expensive (for example, a set of 3 Manhattan Prep guides costs around $200) and that the test prep companies that publish some of the most popular books on Amazon (Manhattan Prep and Kaplan) are actually owned by Amazon, this is not a huge source of revenue for these test prep companies. Here is where the second – and the real reason – comes in.
2. Because the “Strategy Guides” were designed as supplements to the instructor-led classes, the actual higher-order reasoning strategies are not in the books! The way that curricula at most test-prep organizations is designed is that students need to read the book, and then come to class to learn the strategies to apply the theory from the book to the exam questions.
So even though they are called Strategy Guides, they are helping the test prep organization teach you the strategies, but are not intended to replace the instructor-led courses. This is understandable, because why would a test prep company want to put all of the strategies normally taught in a $1,500 course into a $20 book?
For all it’s worth, because these books are designed to be read before coming to class, the test prep companies are actually hoping that you will buy the book, read it, realize that you need to learn how to apply the strategies, and then register for the instructor-led course.
To make it easier for them to market the course to you, the books usually come with a free online exam or some other form of free online access, so that you can share your contact information and get on the mailing list. This is how Marketing works – you will learn this in a business school 🙂
And, because the test-makers of the GMAT and GRE don’t license real questions for books sold in bookstores, 100% of the questions in these strategy guides are simulated questions written by the test prep companies themselves, not the real types of questions you’ll see on the real test.
So it is possible to study with books?
By now, you’re probably thinking that we will say no, it is not possible. After all, if the only 2 types of books available on the market are the Official Guides, which are simply awesome question banks, and Strategy Guides, written by test prep companies who want us to come to their classes, is taking the prep course my only real choice?
It is definitely possible to prepare for the GMAT or GRE with books. Many people do. I did, too. What helped people like me prepare for the GMAT or GRE using books – or even free resources – was that we already had the skills necessary to achieve our target scores. Some people, like me, got really lucky in school and had amazing teachers who taught us how to think differently. Other people had coaches or family members who taught them these higher-order reasoning strategies at a very young age.
Because we already knew the strategies, all we needed to prepare for the test was to review the exam content and do a couple of mock exams. This is what the books and the online practice software is for. This is how I was able to achieve a 750 (99%-ile) GMAT score in just 2 weeks.
So if you got really lucky in school and have already learned the advanced, out-of-the-box strategies that can help you achieve your dream score on the GMAT or GRE, all you need is review the theory tested on the exam and do a couple of mock exams. If you’re preparing for the GMAT, you could get a FREE 7-day trial of our practice software that includes an awesome knowledgebase and a FREE mock GMAT exam here.
How do I know what’s right for me?
If you didn’t get so lucky in school yet, don’t worry! It’s never too late to learn the strategies that will help you not only get a high score on the GMAT, GRE, or LSAT, but also succeed in the grad school.
Here are the first steps we recommend when preparing for the GMAT (the steps will be very similar for other tests):
2. Take a mock exam to evaluate your starting level. You could take the GMAT mock exam here.
If your diagnostic score is very close to your target score, just make sure you’re comfortable with the theory and do a few more mock exams. You could take 2 free exams using the Official GMAT Starter Kit or purchase a set of 5 additional practice GMAT tests (with explanations) for only $39.99 here.
If your diagnostic score is more than 10-20% away from your target score, then, unfortunately, doing practice questions and mock exams will not be enough, as doing so may simply reinforce some bad habits. You would need to learn the strategies first and then practice them until they become good habits.
How can I learn these strategies?
Depending on your available time and budget, you could choose one of the 3 options:
Option 1. Self-paced prep course. This is the most affordable option because there is no live instructor teaching the class – all classes have been pre-recorded ahead of time.
This option gives you the flexibility to study on your own schedule, but please be careful choosing the course that includes support from a live instructor, as you will undoubtedly have questions along the way! The initial cost of the program may be low, but most prep companies charge $300-$400 for each hour of help from an instructor, so the costs could add up very quickly.
The Admit Master GMAT Mastery On-Demand course includes 3 hours of private tutoring and unlimited email support from an instructor for up to 1 year. The Admit Master GMAT Express On-Demand course is an affordable option that includes only email support if you’re on a tight budget.
Option 2. Live group course. The biggest advantage of the live group course is that that you can ask any questions in real time, and be part of the community of other like-minded individuals who are going through the same experience.
Be sure to choose a course where you can interact with your instructor in real time, as most online courses let you speak with a teaching assistant via a chat box, but not talk to your instructor.
The Admit Master GMAT Mastery course is the most in-depth GMAT prep course available on the market that includes 60+ live class hours, a free retake policy for 1 year, 3 hours of private tutoring, and all study materials for one affordable all-inclusive fee. It even includes FREE access to Math and Verbal foundations drills to help you prepare for classes ahead of time! Book your seat now.
Option 3. Private tutoring. This is the most personalized option that lets you study efficiently by focusing exactly on the topics and strategies you’re struggling with.
The fees for private tutoring range from $0 (if you have an experienced friend who can help you for free) to $500/hour or more. Because private tutoring is so valuable as you’re getting close to your exam date, we at Admit Master include 3 hours of private tutoring in most of our preparation programs. However, if budget is not an issue and you desire the most personalized VIP experience from an expert GMAT instructor, we offer a private GMAT Mastery course with 33 hours of tutoring and all study materials for only $3,999.
Can I talk to someone to help me make the best decision?
Absolutely! We’d love to help! We promise to be very upfront and honest with you, but please remember that we can’t make the decision for you. You need to be very committed to this process in order to beat the competition and get into top grad schools.
Do you have what it takes? Then we’d love to chat! Please book your FREE one-on-one consultation below and please remember, you’ll be speaking with a real instructor and not with a salesperson, so there are no bad questions to ask!