Preparing for the GMAT: Study Guide

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Are you ready to discover your MBA program?

Ready to tackle business school? You’ll probably need to crush the GMAT first. The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) serves as the primary standardized admission exam for business school. While not all graduate business programs require the GMAT for admission, many of the most established programs consider GMAT scores when making their admissions decisions.

Studying for the GMAT can be challenging, but thorough preparation can be key to success on test day. This guide covers the GMAT’s purpose, its structure, and what to expect on exam day. You will get a thorough overview of each of the four sections of the GMAT as well as common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

This guide will provide important insights into how the GMAT scoring system works and how to improve your score by addressing common errors. Most importantly, you will be able to make a solid plan to study for the exam, with study tips and links to top-shelf resources, which can make preparing for the exam interesting and effective.

Do You Have to Take the GMAT for MBA Programs?

Some master of business administration (MBA) programs require GMAT scores for admission, and others do not. Each individual school determines whether or not to include the GMAT in their admission requirements and how to weigh its value if they do include it. Some schools require a minimum total score while others may look for a certain percentile. Alternatively, programs may place specific emphasis on a prospective student’s score in a particular section of the GMAT.

Programs that require the GMAT place value on it for two major reasons. First, it can serve as a predictor of academic success in business school. Second, as a standardized test it provides a single metric by which to consider all applicants.

In general, top business schools expect GMAT scores above 700. Midrange business schools typically look for scores of around 650 or better. Some schools, such as online institutions and for-profit colleges, may accept the GRE in place of the GMAT. Schools may offer a GMAT waiver to applicants who have prior applicable work experience or graduate education. Executive MBA programs and programs offered at small schools may not require the GMAT.

What Does the GMAT Look Like?

The Structure of the GMAT

  • The GMAT consists of four sections: an analytical writing assessment, an integrated reasoning section, a quantitative reasoning section, and a verbal reasoning section. The test takes three hours and seven minutes to complete, or 3.5 hours with two optional eight-minute breaks. However, the basic structure of the GMAT can change over time.
  • On test day, students may choose the order in which they’d like to complete the test from three options. Completing the analytical writing section takes 30 minutes. The integrated reasoning section includes 12 questions over 30 minutes. The quantitative section, which contains 31 questions, takes 62 minutes, and the verbal section, which includes 36 questions, takes 65 minutes.
  • The quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning sections are computer-adaptive. The first question in these sections is generally of medium difficulty. The test’s algorithm then uses the examinee’s previous answers to serve questions of varying difficulty. When computed, the section’s final score takes into account the difficulty of the questions answered correctly.

Delivery Format

  • Students can create an online account to register for the test, find a nearby testing center, and pay the applicable registration fee. They can also register by phone, fax, or mail. Test-takers should let the testing center know if they require disability accommodations prior to scheduling their exam.
  • On exam day, test-takers should bring valid identification to the testing center. Examinees should be aware that personal items, including computers, calculators, notes, and pens, are not allowed in the testing room.
  • The GMAT is administered on a computer, which helps ensure consistency and fairness for test-takers regardless of testing location. The computer exam allows students to track their time and progress and also enables them to receive preliminary scores immediately upon completing the test.

The Analytical Writing Assessment Section

The analytical writing assessment (AWA) section assesses students’ ability to understand, analyze the reasoning behind, and critique a written argument. The argument in question relates to a topic of general interest, often within business. It is important for students to remember that the test is evaluating not their knowledge of the subject matter, but rather their ability to analyze and write a logical response to an argument.

  • Skill Areas

    To perform well on the AWA, students need to hone four main skills. First, they have to be able to identify and analyze the critical components of an argument. Second, they should be able to organize and develop their own ideas cogently and logically. Third, they must know how to support their critique with relevant reasons and examples. Finally, they need to write using standard English spelling, grammar, and syntax.

    When completing the AWA, test-takers encounter a portion of a written argument, perhaps from an editorial in a business magazine. After reading the argument, students should critique the argument’s line of reasoning and the evidence offered to support it.

    A thorough response should focus on the argument’s strength, rather than on the test-taker’s own opinion. Students might analyze the underlying assumptions of the argument, offer examples of evidence that would strengthen or refute it, or offer potential changes to it.

  • Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

    When completing the AWA, students often encounter two major challenges. First, test-takers might be tempted to provide their opinion on the prompt instead of demonstrating their ability to evaluate its argument using examples and counterexamples. Second, some students simply fail to proofread their work for spelling errors, awkward syntax, and grammatical mistakes. Fortunately, both of these pitfalls are easy to avoid.

    Test-takers should avoid the temptation to provide their own opinion of the prompt’s topic. Instead, focus on writing an objective critique of the argument’s logic. Analyze the author’s assumptions. Does the evidence provided support the assumptions? Are there flaws in the author’s reasoning? If so, critique those flaws in a concise, confident response.

    While scores on the AWA do not depend on picky points of grammar, it is important to make sure that your response follows basic grammar and spelling rules and is structurally sound. Proofreading your response can ensure that your argument is communicated clearly.

The Integrated Reasoning Section

Consisting of 12 questions, the integrated reasoning section tests students’ abilities to organize, interpret, and synthesize data from multiple sources. To answer these complex problems, students need to analyze data presented in both verbal and quantitative formats. Students encounter four types of questions: multisource reasoning, table analysis, graphics interpretation, and two-part analysis.

This section is unique in that many of the questions require multiple responses. In order to receive credit for a question, all responses must be correct. Test-takers have 30 minutes to complete this section.

  • Skill Areas

    The integrated reasoning section requires skills important in the business world. The ability to approach a large problem by synthesizing data in multiple formats from various sources requires both quantitative and verbal analysis skills. To do well on this section, students need to combine their math and verbal skills in order to handle data efficiently and comprehensively. Test-takers must sort through large amounts of information, identify significant details, and use those details to make decisions.

    Answering these questions requires thorough reading comprehension skills, familiarity with calculations for profit, speed, and rate, and the ability to read tables, graphs, and charts.

  • Can You Use a Calculator for This Section?

    Yes, students can use a calculator on the integrated reasoning section of the GMAT. While students cannot bring their own calculator, the exam provides an on-screen calculator. When studying for the test, prospective test-takers should practice using an on-screen calculator. For those who are not comfortable with it, this tool can waste more time than it saves.

  • Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

    This section has comparatively few questions, each of which requires fully correct responses. It is especially important to pay careful attention to the questions and answers in this section to avoid making simple mistakes, such as forgetting a final zero or marking a wrong answer.

    The questions in this section contain large amounts of information, with the intention that students should be able to determine which pieces of information are relevant. Many misread the information, misinterpret the data, or misunderstand the problem. Students should be prepared to read closely, take note of the details, and understand the context of each question.

    Because the questions in this section include a high volume of data, it is easy to provide an answer that seems correct but does not really solve the problem. Test-takers can avoid this pitfall by carefully reviewing the information provided in order to draw out the critical information and leave the rest.

The Quantitative Section

The quantitative reasoning section assesses examinees’ strengths in quantitative problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, and graphical data interpretation. There are 31 multiple-choice questions in this section, and students have 62 minutes.

Questions fall into two categories: problem-solving and data sufficiency. For problem-solving questions, students must choose the best of five possible answers. Data sufficiency questions ask examinees to determine whether or not a question and two accompanying statements provide adequate data to determine the question’s answer.

  • Skill Areas

    The quantitative section measures the test-taker’s ability to use reasoning skills in order to analyze data and draw conclusions. While students should work comfortably with high school mathematics, they do not need to excel in upper-level math to do well on the exam. Success on this section relies on the effective use of logic and analysis, not on the ability to perform complex calculations.

    For this section, students need a fundamental knowledge of arithmetic, elementary algebra, and common geometry concepts. Examinees should be familiar with statistics, probability, integers, fractions, and powers and roots. Questions might reference the properties of geometric objects or ask students to solve algebraic equations. Word problems require interpretation skills, and students should be able to apply the relevant mathematical skills to answer word problems.

    As an example, a quantitative question might ask the following:

    Directions: Solve the problem and indicate the best of the answer choices given.

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

    I. u > s
    II. s > q
    III. u > r

    • (A) I only
    • (B) II only
    • (C) III only
    • (D) I and II
    • (E) II and III




  • Can You Use a Calculator for This Section?

    No, you cannot use a calculator on the quantitative reasoning section of the GMAT. The administrators at the testing site provide students with noteboards and markers with which to work out calculations.

  • Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

    Test-takers often fail to consider all relevant options, and the quantitative reasoning questions can exploit that weakness. For example, people tend to think in integers instead of fractions and often show a bias toward positive numbers. Before choosing an answer, make sure to consider all possibilities, including positive, negative, zero, large, and small numbers.

    Some students get themselves into trouble by incorrectly identifying the root of the question. Here’s where careful reading and logic come into play. Answer only the question explicitly asked, not the question that should be asked, could be asked, or might be asked.

The Verbal Section

The verbal reasoning section of the exam measures examinees’ reading comprehension skills and ability to analyze and evaluate written arguments. The section consists of 36 multiple-choice questions split into three areas: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction. In general, test-takers can expect 13-14 reading comprehension questions, 9-10 critical reasoning questions, and 12-13 sentence correction questions. Completing the verbal reasoning section takes 65 minutes.

  • Skill Areas

    The verbal section measures skills in reading comprehension, English grammar, and logic and reasoning. Students do not need to be grammar gurus, but they should know how to construct a sentence, draw meaning from a paragraph, and make logical inferences about an essay.

    Reading comprehension questions typically require students to review a piece consisting of several paragraphs and then answer questions based on the reading. For example, examinees might be asked to choose the best idea for the next, still-unwritten paragraph in a given essay.

    Sentence correction questions offer five options to express a sentence’s underlined idea. Examinees must consider grammar, word choice, and sentence construction to choose the phrase that most effectively completes the sentence.

    Along with a written passage, critical reasoning questions may ask students to choose the best option from a list of arguments that either support or damage a given conclusion.

  • Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

    If examinees fail to read a question carefully, they might find themselves answering what they thought the question asked instead of what it actually asked. Taking the time to read the question twice can help students avoid this pitfall. Test-takers should pay careful attention to details to avoid making erroneous assumptions about the questions.

    When wrong answers contain information repeated from the readings, they may seem correct. Students may fall into the pitfall of choosing answers based on repeated information instead of logic. To avoid this pitfall, examinees should take the time to reason through the options rather than identify correct-sounding words or phrases.

    Doing outside reading about economics, public policy, and business management can help students think like a business pro when answering these questions.

How Is the GMAT Scored?

The GMAT provides five scores: quantitative, verbal, and integrated reasoning scores, the AWA, and the total score, which combines the quantitative and verbal scores.

The total score stems from your performance on the quantitative and verbal sections. Determined in ten-point intervals, this score lies in a range between 200-800.

The AWA section is scored at least twice — once by a computer and once by a human reader. The final score for this section comes from the average of the two scores. The AWA score falls between 0-6, in .5 increments.

The integrated reasoning score falls between 1-8, in intervals of one. Remember that each question with multiple responses must be answered completely correctly to get points.

Scores for both the quantitative and verbal sections fall between 6-51. The number of questions answered, the difficulty of the questions, and the number of right answers all contribute to the overall score for each section.

There are several ways to interpret these scores. Some schools may look exclusively at the total score, while others might consider only certain sections when making admissions decisions. Some schools expect applicants to score in or above a certain percentile.

Immediately after completing the exam, examinees receive unofficial GMAT scores. You should be prepared to accept or cancel these scores on test day.

Score Ranges on the GMAT General Test

GMAT SectionScore Range
Analytical Writing Assessment0.0-6.0
Integrated Reasoning1-8
Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning6-51

What Is Your Percentile Ranking?

The GMAT score includes a percentile ranking that refers to the percent of test takers who score lower than you on the exam. For instance, a percentile ranking of 65 means that the test-taker scored better than 65% of the people who took the GMAT in the prior three years. It does not mean that the examinee answered 65% of the questions correctly.

The quantitative and verbal percentile rankings are merged to calculate the overall percentile rank. For example, a test-taker may score in the 83rd percentile in the verbal section and the 84th percentile in the quantitative section but receive an overall percentile ranking of 87%. In addition, a test-taker’s percentile ranking may change though their score does not, as it is recalculated each year based on the data from the prior three years.

In general, top business schools expect applicants to hold a GMAT score in the 90 plus percentile. Mid-range schools may accept lower percentile scores.

What’s an Average Score on the GMAT?

The average total score for GMAT test-takers between 2015-2018 was 563.43. About two-thirds of test-takers’ scores fall between 400 and 600.

In the same period, the average test-taker scored 4.41 on the integrated reasoning section, 27.08 on the verbal reasoning section, 40.2 on the quantitative section, and 4.49 on the AWA. Individual schools often provide reports on the average scores of their applicants.

On test day, examinees can send their scores to up to five schools. Students can request to send scores to additional schools or other recipients for a fee.

Average Scores on the GMAT, 2015-18

GMAT SectionScore Range
Analytical Writing Assessment4.49
Integrated Reasoning4.41

How to Prep for the GMAT

Scoring well on the GMAT can show that a student is prepared to excel in business school. Like most standardized exams, the GMAT requires months of study in advance. Here are six helpful study tips for future test-takers:


Start early

Start preparing 4-6 months in advance. Ample study time can help students better prepare not only for the exam, but also for the rigors of business school.


Familiarize yourself with each section of the test

Review the types of questions in each of the four test sections: the AWA, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. A solid study plan should include time spent on each section, even if a prospective test-taker feels their skills in a particular section are strong.


Brush up on basic math skills and business knowledge

Handmade flashcards and the GMAT Math Flashcards can help test-takers drill themselves on the fundamentals of math, and online discussion forums such as Beat the GMAT and GMAT Club can offer assistance with common study and testing issues.


Practice with real GMAT questions, answers, and explanations

The free GMAT Official Starter Kit contains real questions drawn from past GMAT exams.


Take advantage of GMAT practice tests

Practice exams can help with timing on test day, lead to familiarity with test question types, and provide benchmark scores. They can serve as helpful indicators of which sections require more study time.


Use real GMAT timing

Use a timer when taking practice exams. Time management is key to test preparation, so using a timer can help set the right pace for proceeding through the test.

Understanding the GMAT

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Advertisement 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.