We often get calls from students who are considering applying to business school who want to know when to start preparing for the GMAT.

There is no right answer, and no single GMAT course, preparation plan, or study book can provide a one-size-fits-all plan. To understand how long YOU will need, consider these individual factors when drafting your preparation plan:

What kind of score do you need to get in?

To understand how long you need, you first need to know your target score. Draft your school list (based on your specific goals, needs, and interests—NOT just by that vague concept of “reputation”), and then look up the average scores for each of those schools on the school’s website. If you can’t find it, call the admissions office and ask. While you may find these scores published on third-party sites, you’ll be best served by verifying them yourself. Pick the highest one out of all of your schools and shoot for that as your minimum score.

How far are you from that score?

Once you determine your target score, take a diagnostic test from the makers of the GMAT. It’s important to use this official software, since practice test scores can vary wildly from third-party brands. Use only one of the practice tests in the downloadable software, as you’ll want to save the other for near the end of your preparation period. I would recommend spending an hour or two with a prep book before you take the diagnostic just to get familiar with the question formats so you don’t lose easy points while reading the directions.

What do you need to practice?

Based on the results of your GMAT diagnostic test, evaluate the areas that were fairly easy for you -- topics, question types, timing, etc. -- as well as the parts that caused you trouble. Keep in mind that your practice should include content and topic review, strategic focus on practice questions related to topics or problem types/formats that you have trouble with, timed practice drills, and full-length practice tests. With a combination of these practice strategies and regular step-backs and re-evaluations to assess your developing strengths and areas for growth, you’ll be sure to make progress in your score.

A tutor can also help a lot in the process of determining what you need to work on to prepare best for the GMAT.

What is your test date?

Determine your latest ideal test date by deciding when you’ll apply and selecting a date that will allow you at least a month (if not more) of time to study for and retake the test, if necessary. For good measure, build in at least a month to work on applications as well. So, if you want to submit your applications in October, try to take the test no later than July or August.

How much time do you have to study?

Are you working full-time? Can you study every day, or just on weekends? If you have more time, you’ll be able to budget fewer weeks to studying. If you have less time, the sooner you can start, the better. Ask yourself what the maximum number of hours you can study in a day would be, and after how many months you think you would become burnt out.

Making your GMAT study plan

Based on all of your answers to these questions, you can now work backwards to develop a sensible plan of study that’s tailored to your specific needs. Of course, if you’re coming to this process late, you won’t have a choice about your timeline; you’ll have to get started immediately and study until the last possible test date before your application is due.

However, for those of you who are planning ahead, you’ll likely want to budget no less than one month of part-time study (less than 1–2 hours/day, 2–3 days/week) and no more than 4–6 months of full-time study (more than 4 hours/day, 5–6 days/week) or one year of part-time study (any more and you’re at risk of burning out). Within that range, set up a plan for yourself that covers the major concepts and builds in ample practice time.

Need help getting to your best GMAT score? Try a Signet Education GMAT test tutor.