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GMAT Exam Overview

The GMAT can be a challenging exam. We cover the most important aspects of the test, including structure, scoring and test prep tips to make it a little easier. 


By Douglas Eddings, Certified Learning & Development Professional

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So What is The GMAT?

The GMAT, or more formally, the Graduate Management Admission Test, is the standardized test administered by the GMAC, short for Graduate Management Admission Council. The GMAT serves as the entrance exam for MBA, MSA and other graduate level business programs. It is required by over 2,000 universities and colleges around the world for entrance into their graduate business programs, and has been administered for nearly 70 years. 

The GMAT helps schools evaluate the most qualified applicants for admission by testing concepts critical to success in school and in the business world. The GMAT tests a student's problem solving skills, ability to reason logically, critical reading and writing, and evaluate and synthesize data from multiple sources in multiple formats. ​


GMAT Structure

The GMAT is a grueling test that takes 3.5 hours to complete.  It is based around four sections: Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, Integrated Reasoning and Analytical Writing. These sections are more informally known as quant, verbal, IR and AWA.  At its core, the GMAT tests four things — math, critical reading, data interpretation and writing. The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test and breaks are offered. 

The Quant section of the GMAT is made up of 31 multiple-choice questions that test the student's knowledge of arithmetic, geometry and algebra, among other things. The student is allotted 62 minutes to complete the 31 questions, or 2 minutes per question on average. So speed is a critical element in taking this section of the GMAT. This section was longer up until 2018, being comprised of 37 questions, but the test makers at GMAC shortened it to remove some unscored questions and more narrowly focus the section. Calculators are not allowed, so students will need to make sure their basic arithmetic skills are sharp prior to taking the test. 

The Verbal section of the GMAT is made up of 36 multiple-choice questions that test the student's ability to effectively read and analyze a passage, their critical reasoning skills, and general grammar knowledge. The student is allotted 65 minutes to complete the 36 questions, so a little less than 2 minutes per question on average. This again means speed is a crucial element of the Verbal section, particularly given the length of some passages. Similar to the Quant section, Verbal used to be longer (41 questions) up until 2018, at which point the test makers at GMAC knocked off 5 questions.

The IR section is 30 minutes in length and contains 12 multiple-choice questions. It is intended to test a student's real world skills that businesses covet, including the ability to look at a spreadsheet, graph, chart or other set of data, evaluate that infographic, and synthesize the data. Unlike the Verbal and Quant sections, which together are scored on a scale of 800 and are adaptive, the IR section has a max score of eight and is non-adaptive. Also unlike the Quant section, a calculator can be used with this section.  

In the AWA section, the test taker is given 30 minutes to write one essay. The essay prompt surrounds a hypothetical assertion on some topic of general interest or business, and the student is asked to analyze the assertion. The intent is to examine the test taker's ability to analyze an argument, support their positions with reasoned premises, and clearly express their analysis of the matter. The essay cannot be handwritten and must be typed. 


Where is the GMAT Offered?

The GMAT can be taken at any number of approved test centers across the US and some test centers outside the US. The test is taken at a secure computer terminal alongside other students. Here is a list of test center sites: GMAT Test Centers.


GMAT Scoring

All four sections of the GMAT are separately graded and scored, but the composite score (sometimes referred to as the overall score) is by far the most important score on the GMAT. This is the score you are probably most used to hearing about informally when GMAT scores are discussed. It is the combined scaled score of the Verbal and Quant sections together and is in the range of 200 - 800 points. The current average score of test takers is 556 — though you can't get that exact score as the composite score is scaled and presented in 10 point increments. In addition, roughly 67% of students score between 400 and 600 points on the GMAT, just to give you an idea of the meat of the curve. 

The IR section, as mentioned above, is scored on a scale of 1 to 8 points, with 8 being perfect. The score is presented in whole numbers (no incremental points), and you have to get each part of the multi-part question right to get credit. Again, this score is not included in the all important composite score, but graduate business schools absolutely consider it. 

Lastly, the essay written in the AWA section is given a score between 0 and 6 points. It is graded by two readers — a human and a computer e-rater. The two scores are averaged together and rounded to the nearest half-point score in that range. The AWA essay score does not count towards composite score, and is generally regarded as less important than the IR section. Though that doesn't mean you shouldn't try hard to nail it — this score absolutely affects your report and marketability as an applicant.  


What Does GMAC Do With My Score?

Once you get your score report, GMAC will hold onto your score for 5 years from the date of the exam. GMAC works with graduate business programs who request your score to share that information with them directly. GMAC will share ALL of your GMAT scores with the school requesting that info — not just the most recent or highest score, though individual schools may choose to consider just those particular schools in their application decisioning.  


Study Tips for the GMAT

The GMAT is not a test to be taken lightly.  This is not a Recreation & Leisure 101 midterm that you can cram for a few hours beforehand and breeze through. If you try that approach on the GMAT there's a very good chance you're going to end up with a score that makes you cringe, and that score report will be associated with your name for 5 years on your GMAC profile. 

So don't count on procrastination and cramming when it comes to the GMAT. Instead, commit a solid two to three months to studying, depending on your availability and needs. We're not saying you have to study all day, everyday, but you definitely want to set aside large chunks of designated time most days of the week to prepare for a couple months. It takes significant time to learn the strategies of the Verbal section, the math skills needed to excel on Quant, and how to interpret and apply data. Here are our suggested study tips for preparing for the GMAT:

  1. Buy a prep course and sink your teeth in.  As mentioned earlier in this post, we HIGHLY recommend buying a prep course and using it as the basis of your study approach. Prep course companies like Kaplan and Manhattan Prep have been doing this a very long time. So even just going through the motions of their lesson plans will put you lightyears ahead of the student that lazily flips through a prep book (though we do not support either of those approaches!). Make the most of your prep course — pay attention during the lessons, do all the practice problems, and read the explanations when you get problems wrong. If you do this, you'll be in great shape. 

  2. Take multiple practice tests under simulated conditions. There's a reason sports teams scrimmage before starting their season — because simulating the real thing can be more effective than individual, repetitive drills. Such is the same in testing. Take as many practice GMAT tests as you can get your hands on, and do so under simulated conditions. Don't pause the test and walk away to get a snack or use the restroom — you won't have that luxury on the real exam. Treat it like the real thing. 

  3. Learn from your mistakes. Everybody has weaknesses when it comes to the GMAT. Everybody. Take the time to learn from the questions you miss. Read the explanation of why your answer was wrong and why the correct answer was correct. This will improve your understanding of the exam more than any other approach. Then hammer studying on your weaknesses. You're not going to get better by working on the sections you're already really good at! Focus on those weaknesses and learn from your mistakes.

  4. Commit mentally. Many prospective students do not commit mentally to studying for the GMAT. They study here and there around work and school where they can, and think that by just completing the course over time they'll be fine. It's true this may get you a decent score, but if you want a great score, you need to mentally commit yourself to the task at hand. Make crushing the GMAT your #1 goal and dedicate yourself to accomplishing a certain number of practice problems and watching a set of lessons everyday. Commit to learning from your mistakes and getting a little better everyday. If you can find the mental energy to give 100% when you're studying and work off a dedicated study schedule, you'll nail the test when the big day arrives. 

Best GMAT Prep Courses

For the vast majority of students, a GMAT prep course is a must. There's always going to be those naturally gifted students who can take an exam cold and ace it, but for the other 99% of test takers, the key is practice. And in the context of the GMAT, practice means prep. Fortunately, there's an abundance of high quality GMAT prep courses available commercially, ranging from all encompassing in-classroom courses with special 1 on 1 tutoring, to budget online self-guided courses. Given the importance of which graduate business school you attend, which often rides in large part on your GMAT score, it is crucial to invest in a trusted and worthwhile prep course. 

We highly suggest either Kaplan or Manhattan Prep for your GMAT prep course. Both are reputable firms that have been doing entrance exam prep for years, and in our opinion offer the best study materials and lessons. Courses can range from just north of $500 to close to $2,000 depending on the level and type of instruction you desire, and each student will have to choose a course that fits their budget and learning style. There are other budget course options out there if you need a lower price point, and they will provide some helpful materials, but they are generally not the best option. 

Best GMAT Prep Books

If you're looking for some extra study materials and resources to help prepare, GMAT prep books can be a great option. There are tons available online and a quick Google search will reveal they vary widely in scope and approach. These books range from $10 on the cheap end to north of $100 for top tier study books. 

If you are working on a serious budget, prep books can take the place of a prep course, though we strongly advise against walking into the exam having read prep books only. On the whole, they are not going to be as comprehensive and effective as a full blown prep course. But again, if you're restricted to just books or want some extra study resources, there are a number of great options. We highly recommend the PowerScore series of books. We find them to be the most comprehensive, easy to read and provide solid strategies. In addition, they offer an abundance of good practice questions and answer explanations.  

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