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Understanding the GMAT

Established over fifty years ago, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is required for entrance into over 1,600 graduate-level management degree programs worldwide. Every aspiring business and management professional should consider sitting for this exam. This is our guide to help you get started.

Why GMAT Scores Matter

There are a number of reasons GMAT scores are considered one of the most objective indicators of a student’s potential for success in master’s degree programs in business administration, finance or management.

For one, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) designs the GMAT according to curriculum, research and feedback from management program faculty. The result of this high level of collaboration is a difficult but fair test. Exam questions are not biased toward any particular cultural background, gender or race. This dedication toward objective assessment has inspired international business schools to choose the GMAT as their standard measure. Today, the exam is available in 110 countries and 590 testing centers worldwide.

GMAT registrations are on the rise generally, but test takers are also getting more diverse. Since 2006, the number of test takers between the ages of 18-23 has risen by 63%. GMAC also reports rising numbers for the following groups of test takers since then:

  • 33% more women
  • 24% more African Americans
  • 35% more Europeans
  • 26% more students who hold undergraduate degrees in non-business related fields

The GMAT prides itself in measuring higher order thinking skills than most standardized exams. A high GMAT score demonstrates proficiency in problem-solving, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning. (You won’t find a straightforward reading comprehension section on this exam.)

Fortunately, as with any standardized test, students who take time to understand how the test works and what the test makers define as an ideal candidate can maximize their scores.

Registering for the GMAT

You can register to take the GMAT online. You’ll need to create an official GMAC account which is free to begin with. From there, you can enter your address to view testing centers nearby. If you want to take the exam sooner and are willing to travel to do so, you can select your testing appointment preferences and view exam availability at out-of-state testing centers.

U.S. students will be able to find and register for an exam appointment within a month of their initial registration date. It may take longer for international students. While your GMAC account is free, registering for the exam is not. Regardless of where you live, a $250 fee is required at the time of registration.

However, it’s worth noting that GMAC does offer fee waivers for the GMAT test. Up to 10 free waivers are offered to a school over a one year period. These schools can then determine how they want to hand out waivers to disadvantaged candidates who intend to take the GMAT, apply and then enroll in their school.

As a student, if you are particularly set on a program at a given school, and are struggling to meet the fee requirements of the GMAT, reach out to the school and see how they go about awarding fee waivers. Each school has their own process for determining eligibility, but at the same time, the GMAC requires schools to share that selection process in order to qualify for waivers in the first place.

Also, before choosing an exam date, it’s a good idea to understand the schedule for the schools you plan to apply to. Different colleges and universities have timelines for submitting graduate entrance exam scores, and these vary from school to school.

What to Bring

On test day, test-takers must be sure they have valid identification and the appointment confirmation letter or email from PearsonVUE. These items will be necessary to get into the testing center at your designated time.

The official GMAT site, MBA.com, suggests students bring along the list of schools that should receive their score report, although the list cannot be taken into the test with them.

At the testing facility, the administrator will provide five noteboards. Do not erase notes on the board. These boards cannot be removed from the testing room and must be turned in when the testing period is over.

There are several items not allowed in the exam. Do not bring any of the following:

  • Electronic devices
  • Calculators
  • Pens or other writing tools
  • Books (including dictionaries and thesauri)
  • Measuring devices

The test takes approximately 3 ½ hours, although individuals are given a four hour period in which to take the exam, including two optional breaks. The GMAT is a computer-based exam.

How Scoring and Score Reports Work

Possible scores range from 200 to 800, although the analytical writing assessment and integrated reasoning sections are scored separately and do not count toward the test-taker’s final score. The majority of test-takers score between 400 and 600 on the exam, which is scored based on the number of questions a test-taker finishes.

The GMAT is comprised of four sections, all scored separately:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment: This score is based on a single analysis of an argument essay. That essay is scored twice – once by a judge and possibly once by an automated essay scoring program. These scores are typically close, but if the difference between the two is greater than one point, a third person will examine your analytical writing assessment.
  • Integrated Reasoning: The IR section scores in a range from 1 to 8, at single point intervals. Many problems have multiple questions that must be answered for credit. There is no partial credit for the integrated reasoning section.
  • Quantitative: This score ranges from 0 to 60, though a range of 8 to 50 is most common.
  • Verbal: This section is also scored on a possible scale of 0 to 60, but most test takers score within the range of 10 to 44.

Unofficial score reports are available the day of the exam, but these will not include your percentiles or your writing scores. It can take up to 20 days for Official Score Reports on each section to be delivered electronically or mailed through the postal service.

Schools identified before or on the day of your test will receive score reports within 20 days electronically or within 30 days by mail. If you add recipient schools after that date, they will receive reports within 6-8 weeks.

Scores for the GMAT are valid for five years after the testing date.

As long as you’re willing to pay the registration fees, the retake policies for the GMAT are forgiving. You may retake the GMAT exam up to five times in a 12-month period, with 31 days between each test. There is one exception: individuals who score 800 on the exam cannot retake the test for five years. One thing to consider is that all of the results from every attempt in a five year period will be available to the schools a student selects.

Anatomy of the Test

The test’s computer adaptive model evaluates a student’s level of critical thinking by tailoring the exam to each test taker in real time. Your performance will determine the types of questions that come next. That means it’s a good sign if the test feels like it’s getting harder. As you answer correctly, the program is designed to present you with higher-level questions.

As mentioned, there are four sections in the exam: analytical writing assessment, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal.

Analytical Writing Assessment

This section covers critical thinking and reasoning. There is one question on the GMAT and a 30-minute time frame within which to complete the task. This section of the exam requires individuals to dissect, assess and challenge or support an argument in a well-organized essay. Test-takers can download sample AWA topics for practice. An example:

“The following appeared in the editorial section of a monthly business news magazine:

“Most companies would agree that as the risk of physical injury occurring on the job increases, the wages paid to employees should also increase. Hence it makes financial sense for employers to make the workplace safer: they could thus reduce their payroll expenses and save money.

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.”

Integrated Reasoning

The integrated reasoning section consists of 12 questions and test-takers have approximately 30 minutes to complete the section. This section measures how well test-takers can evaluate information given in a variety of formats. Question types include two part analysis, graphic interpretation, table analysis and multi-source reasoning.

Quantitative

This section consists of 37 questions on data sufficiency and problem solving. Approximately 75 minutes is allotted for this section. In this section, test-takers are asked to solve the question and indicate the best answer from multiple options.

For example: If u > t, r > q, s > t, and t > r, which of the following must be true?

  1. u > s
  2. s > q
  3. u > r
    1. I only
    2. II only
    3. III only
    4. I and II
    5. II and III

Verbal

The verbal section is comprised of 41 questions that measure critical reasoning, reading comprehension and sentence correction skills. Test-takers are given 75 minutes to complete this part of the exam. These questions are multiple choice and sample questions are available here.

GMAT Prep Strategies

With so many individuals taking the exam, there’s competition to get into these programs, and an outstanding score is a great way to do that. There are multiple ways to prepare for the GMAT, including self-directed study or GMAT preparation courses. Not every individual who takes this exam will prepare in the same way, and that’s okay, because not everyone learns the same way. The GMAT Club discusses a three month study schedule for individuals using the self-directed study method, and the same schedule for those who take a GMAT prep course.

Self-Directed Study

Self-directed study is probably best for individuals who have a strong ability to concentrate and a strong understanding of their test-taking strengths and weaknesses. This may not be the best approach for individuals who have been out of school for a length of time or who have trouble with subjects like mathematics or English. Some highly successful self-directed study books include:

The Graduate Management Admission Council also offers a variety of books and materials for people who choose the self-study option.

GMAT Prep Courses

A better option for individuals who haven’t been in school for a period of time or who struggle with test taking or struggle in English and mathematics may want to invest in a GMAT prep course. The advantage of a GMAT prep course is that students work with others and have more opportunity for interaction, especially when understanding the concepts are a struggle. There are a number of companies that provide GMAT test preparation courses:

Strategies for Test-Day

When it comes to the big day, there are a few things test takers can do to keep the butterflies at a minimum and prepare themselves for the test. Trying to relax and remember that it will be over soon can help to boost test taking skills. Consider these tips:

  • Get adequate sleep the night before. If you’re yawning and feeling tired, you’re not going to perform at your best when you settle in to take your exam.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast. Like the previous tip, this one’s geared toward concentration. If test-takers are hungry and stomachs are rumbling, it could be hard to concentrate.
  • Get to the testing center at least twenty minutes early. Nothing is worse than working for months to pass an exam only to arrive late because of unanticipated traffic or not understanding where the testing center is, and not be allowed to take the exam.
  • Breathe and concentrate. The GMAT is a stressful activity. If test takers focus on the task at hand and breathe, it’s less stressful.
  • Read the directions carefully. Skipping through directions in favor of jumping into the questions could lead to an incorrect answer simply because a test taker misunderstood the directions.
  • Allow 3-4 guesses per section. There will be questions test-takers do not feel comfortable with. If that’s the case, take the option to spend 10-20 seconds on those questions and choose the best guess.
  • Keep an eye on the time. You have a limited amount of time for each section so it’s important to be aware of the time, but not overly focused on it. Keep moving through the questions and be aware of your time constraints.

Additional Resources

There are dozens of sites and resources devoted to the GMAT testing experience. In order to determine the best resources for individual test takers, one must first understand how they learn and how to find the best study strategies for their learning style.

Taking time to dig into some of the options can help test-takers weed out the resources that won’t work for them. Consider these sources for test-taking tips, preparation materials and even tips to understand the structure of the GMAT and to reduce stress on test day.

Video: How to Adapt to the GMAT's Adaptability

Brian Galvin, Veritas Prep's Director of Academic Programs, discusses exactly how the GMAT is adaptive, and how you should adjust your test-taking strategy accordingly.