Understanding the GMAT

Updated September 27, 2023

The GMAT remains the most popular standardized test for MBA programs. Learn more about what to expect from the GMAT exam.

OnlineMBA.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Woman studying on laptop in kitchen Credit: Brooke Fasani / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Most business schools rely on the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) to assess the quality and potential of graduate program applicants. Some schools offer waivers to applicants with demonstrated success in prior professional roles or graduate programs, and a few MBA programs don't require the GMAT at all, but most applicants should prepare to take this standardized test.

Completing the GMAT takes 3-3.5 hours, depending on two optional breaks. The test consists of four sections: integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and an analytical writing assessment.

For many test-takers, success on this challenging test depends on thorough advance preparation. Consequently, aspiring MBA students should register, prepare for, and take the test well in advance of application deadlines to leave time for additional attempts.

This guide provides an overview of the GMAT and connects students with essential preparatory resources. By outlining the test's purpose, structure, timing, and scoring, and by clarifying logistical information such as registration and test-day procedures, the following information eliminates potentially unpleasant surprises. This guide also empowers test-takers by offering essential test preparation strategies, tips, and resources.

Featured Online Schools

What Is the GMAT?

A challenging standardized test created by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), the GMAT helps business schools predict graduate student performance. The GMAT evaluates prospective graduate business students' critical thinking, analytical, and problem-solving abilities. The GMAT's four test areas include quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, integrated reasoning, and analytical writing.

The 4 Sections of the GMAT

  • Quantitative Reasoning

    The quantitative reasoning section assesses test-takers' skills in data analysis and data-driven, logical problem-solving.
  • Verbal reasoning

    The verbal reasoning section evaluates reading comprehension and critical reasoning skills.
  • Integrated reasoning

    The integrated reasoning section uses data in different formats to measure test-takers' ability to organize information from multiple sources to critically evaluate interrelated data and approach complex problems.
  • Analytical writing assessment (AWA)

    The analytical writing assessment gauges advanced argumentation and communication skills by asking examinees to write an essay in response to an argument.

Most people take the GMAT to meet application requirements for graduate programs in business. Some programs do not require the GMAT, but aspiring graduate business students should keep their options open by completing this common requirement. Degree programs that may require the GMAT include the master of business administration (MBA), the master's in management (MIM), and the master of arts (MA) or of science (MS) programs in business-related fields.

Test-takers should consult the GMAT Handbook's Registration and Score Reporting Timeline to plan preparation timelines and test dates that correspond to their prospective school application deadlines. Students should begin studying at least six months before test results are due, and earlier if planning on multiple attempts.

Those planning to take the GMAT can register online by creating an account, finding a local testing center, scheduling the exam, and paying the $275 registration fee. On test day, students can request that GMAC send their score report to a maximum of five prospective schools at no additional cost. GMAC relays scores either electronically or by mail according to each school's preferences. Test-takers can request to send their official score to any number of additional schools, but fees will apply.

Do You Have to Take the GMAT for MBA Programs?

Given the time-consuming and expensive nature of the GMAT preparation and testing process, some students seek MBA programs that do not require it. Such programs may offer alternative options such as submission of GRE scores or satisfactory completion of a remedial math course. Many MBA programs grant GMAT waivers to students who meet certain criteria such as prior graduate work in related fields or several years of professional experience.

However, many MBA programs require the GMAT, and most students should prepare to take this test. Keep in mind that schools differ in how they weigh and evaluate applicants' GMAT scores. Some programs attach more weight to specific sections of the GMAT, while some look for balance across sections. Some schools require a minimum score in the 600-800 range. A score between 700-800 is considered especially competitive.

Students seeking high scores may take the test multiple times and should allow for extra preparation time. In addition, prospective MBA applicants should refer to programs' policies and preferences when deciding to retake the test. Some programs might consider only an applicant's highest GMAT score, while some might look at scores from all test sittings. Test-takers should refer to the score cancellation policy and be prepared to accept or cancel their scores on test day.

What Does the GMAT Look Like?

The traditional GMAT section order begins with the AWA, followed by integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. However, test-takers now have three different test order options to choose from on test day. Students may start with the verbal or quantitative section before moving on to integrated reasoning and the AWA.

The formats of the sections vary. The quantitative, verbal, and integrated reasoning sections are multiple choice, and many of the integrated reasoning questions require multiple responses. The AWA section involves writing an essay. Both the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections use a computer-adaptive algorithm that chooses questions based on how well the student performs on each prior question.

In order to plan future tests, the GMAT utilizes unscored or research questions. Up to 25% of GMAT questions fall into this category and do not influence the test score, but the test-taker cannot identify these questions.

Analytical Writing Assessment

The AWA section is one 30-minute task that asks test-takers to analyze and write a critique of an argument on a topic of general interest. This critique should analyze the argument's reasoning, identifying assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses. The AWA scores result from a combination of two ratings between 0-6.

Integrated Reasoning Section

The 30-minute integrated reasoning section consists of 12 questions designed to measure data analysis, synthesis, and problem-solving skills. This section features four possible question types: graphics interpretation, multisource reasoning, table analysis, and two-part analysis. Questions may ask students to make inferences and determine data relevancy or inconsistencies between sources.

The integrated reasoning section is the only section that allows the use of an online calculator. Questions require both verbal and quantitative reasoning and may entail multiple responses. Test-takers receive credit for a question only if all responses are correct, and scores range from 1-8.

Quantitative Reasoning Section

The quantitative reasoning section allots 62 minutes to complete 31 multiple-choice questions evaluating skills in graphical data analysis, data sufficiency, mathematical reasoning, and quantitative problem-solving.

Quantitative reasoning questions fall into two categories: problem-solving and data sufficiency. Both may involve basic math, geometry, and algebra. Students cannot use a calculator on the quantitative section. Problem-solving questions measure logical and analytical reasoning, while data sufficiency questions test the ability to determine whether a question can be answered with the given data. This section score ranges between 6-51.

Verbal Reasoning Section

The 65-minute verbal reasoning section entails 36 questions of three types: critical reasoning, sentence correction, and reading comprehension. Critical reasoning questions ask test-takers to evaluate and extend arguments after reading short passages, often less than 100 words. Sentence correction questions assess examinees' ability to discern correct grammar and effective communication. Reading comprehension questions measure understanding of ideas, logic, style, and inferences in written passages from various disciplines. This section score ranges between 6-51.

Where to Register for the GMAT

Those looking to take the GMAT typically register online by creating an account and locating a nearby testing center through the GMAC database. Test-takers can also register by phone, mail, or fax. Many testing centers offer the GMAT year-round, but available test dates vary by location. Testing centers operate across the U.S. and in most countries around the world.

After choosing a testing center, students can schedule their exam and pay the $275 registration fee. Registrants seeking to cancel or reschedule their GMAT appointment should refer to GMAT pricing and regulation information for cancellation policies, timelines, and fees.

How to Prepare for the GMAT

Prospective students applying to master's programs in business should take their GMAT preparation seriously. Exceptional scores can set an applicant apart and increase their chances of acceptance into their top programs, and performing well on the GMAT requires time and effort. See below for recommended steps and guidance on the best practices for GMAT preparation.


Start early

Featuring complex problems requiring diverse skills and abilities, the GMAT cannot be "hacked" or crammed for the weekend before. However, more thorough preparation over time typically pays off, so creating a long-term study plan and sticking to it can improve outcomes considerably. Create a plan and begin studying at least six months prior to your test date, if possible.


Register and obtain prep materials

Registering early provides a motivational deadline and allows optimal time to study and plan. Once registered, prospective test-takers receive helpful GMAT updates and information from GMAC. Test-takers should download and review GMAC's free GMAT Handbook and GMAT Official Starter Kit.


Take practice tests and create a study plan

Taking practice tests introduces soon-to-be examinees to the format of the questions and allows test-takers to assess themselves, determining a ballpark expected score that can inform application and study choices. Practice tests also help prospective examinees tailor their study plan to address their weaker areas. Plan to spend some time on strong areas, but plan more time on areas that require improvement.


Study consistently

Prospective test-takers should study at about the same time every day. If you have trouble studying independently, consider investing in a formal GMAT test preparation course or one-on-one tutoring.

Use real GMAT timing and problems

Using official GMAT preparation materials, students can work with actual problems from previous exams. These materials increase familiarity with the test structure and problem types and allow for realistic practice. Knowing the test's question types saves time in understanding what is being asked. Using GMAT preparation materials rather than general textbooks or grammar books usually assists in more focused study. Timed practice tests also help in pacing yourself on test day. In addition to utilizing official GMAT preparation materials, test-takers can find helpful test preparation materials from Kaplan, the Princeton Review, Manhattan Prep, and Khan Academy.

Frequently Asked Questions About the GMAT

What is a good score on the GMAT?

Generally speaking, applicants should try to earn a GMAT score near the average score of accepted students in their goal programs. GMAT scoring ranges from 200-800, but applicants to high-ranking MBA programs typically need a score of at least 700. Middle-ranking programs often take students with scores between 630-680, while some MBA programs accept students with scores of 550 or higher. It's helpful to remember that schools consider GMAT scores in context with other application materials.

How long does the GMAT take?

The AWA and integrated reasoning sections each require 30 minutes, the quantitative reasoning section allots 62 minutes, and the verbal reasoning section allows up to 65 minutes, for a total of three hours and seven minutes. The GMAT usually takes students about 3.5 hours because it allows for two optional, eight-minute scheduled breaks.

How much does the GMAT cost?

GMAT costs vary by country. In the United States, taking the GMAT costs $275, paid at time of registration. Fees associated with cancelling or rescheduling the GMAT depend on timing and location. Refer to the GMAT schedule of fees to account for your specific situation. Test-takers requiring more than the five free official score reports pay $35 for each additional report.

To make business school more accessible to economically disadvantaged students, GMAC offers a fee-waiver program for schools to distribute to prospective applicants.

Preparing for the GMAT: Study Guide

Recommended Reading

Search Programs by Concentration

View schools and degrees from across the country.
Find the right program to advance your career.