What is the GMAT? An Introduction to the GMAT Exam


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The Graduate Management Admission Test, better known as the GMAT®, is a standardized test used in the admissions process for business school and other specialized master’s programs. The exam measures certain skills that business schools care about, most notably Executive Reasoning skills. It does not test any specific business knowledge. Read on for an introduction to the GMAT.

When is the GMAT Given?

You can take the GMAT year-round, nearly any day of the week (though they limit you to 5 sittings in a 12-month period and require a wait of 31 days between tests). The exam is given on a computer and is known as a CAT.

What is a CAT?

A CAT is a computer-adaptive test: the test actually adapts itself to you while you’re taking it! Two of the four sections on the GMAT, the Quantitative and Verbal sections, are adaptive. Each of these two sections begins with a random, approximately medium-level question. The computer chooses each subsequent question based upon your collective performance to that point in the section.

The practical implications are important. First, every test taker will take a different exam with a different mix of questions, but the test feels hard for everyone, since the test will just keep getting harder until it finds a particular person’s limit. Second, the scoring is pretty peculiar; it’s important to understand how the scoring works.

Want to try your hand at a practice test? Take our free, full-length practice exam here.

How is the GMAT Scored?

Tests you took in school were generally based on the percentage of questions answered correctly: the more you got right, the higher the score you received. As a result, you have been trained to take your time and try to get everything right when you take a test. This general strategy does not work on computer-adaptive sections of the GMAT because, strangely enough, the Quant and Verbal scores are not based on the percentage of questions answered correctly. On the GMAT, most people answer similar percentages of questions correctly, typically in the 50% to 70% range (even at higher scoring levels!).

How is that possible? The first thing to know: the GMAT is not a school test. The Quant section is not really a math test, and the Verbal section is not really a grammar test. Of course, you do need to know how to handle those topics. The test writers are really interested, however, in knowing how good you are at making decisions and managing scarce resources. (That’s the second time we’ve linked to that same article. Go read it already!)

Okay, if test-takers all get a similar percentage correct, how does the GMAT distinguish among different performance levels? You can think of the GMAT as a test that searches for each person’s “60% level,” or the difficulty range in which the person is able to answer approximately 60% of the questions correctly. (This is not exactly what happens, but it’s a good way to think about the difference between “regular” tests and computer-adaptive tests.) Your score will be determined by the difficulty of the questions that you answer correctly versus the difficulty of those that you answer incorrectly.

Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

The above discussion is just an introduction to how the GMAT works; before you take the real test, make sure you understand how GMAT scoring works and the implications that has for how to spend your time and mental energy. Here are a few highlights:

  • You will see only one question on the screen at a time. You cannot move on to another question until you answer the current one. Once you answer a question, you cannot return to it or review any questions that you have already answered.
  • Each question is worth about the same amount, although the easiest 2-3 questions and the hardest 2-3 questions in your mix are considered “outliers” for you and won’t count quite as much as the rest.
  • Although the test is different for everyone, we each receive the same rough mix of topics—no worries that you’ll be the unlucky one to get six combinatorics questions.

How Long is the GMAT?

The GMAT is 3.5 hours long and may take nearly 4 hours to complete if you take the optional breaks (hint: take the optional breaks!).

What is Tested on the GMAT?

The GMAT consists of four separate sections, each with its own score. The sections are always given in the same order.

GMAT Score

The scores for the last two sections, Quant and Verbal, are combined into one score on a 200 (low) to 800 (high) scale. This is the score most people care about when taking the GMAT.

Section 1: The Essay

During the first section, the test will give you an argument to analyze (it will resemble Critical Reasoning arguments) and you will have 30 minutes to compose an essay response (typed!). This section is given its own score, on a scale from 0 (low) to 6 (high).

Section 2: Integrated Reasoning

Then, you’ll dive straight into the Integrated Reasoning section, which was added to the GMAT in 2012. These questions cover both math and verbal topics. Some questions will more closely resemble pure math or verbal questions while others will be a true mixture of these skills. IR questions tend to provide a decent amount of extraneous information (information that we don’t need to use in order to answer the question); this section is testing your ability to wade through a bunch of data and identify the relevant information. Try our free GMAT Integrated Reasoning lessons and learn how to study for this section of the test.

This section also has its own score, on a scale from 1 (low) to 8 (high). At the end of this section, you’ll be able to take an 8-minute break.

Section 3: Quant

After the break, you’ll start the Quant section, during which you’ll answer 37 math questions (in 75 minutes), covering topics from algebra, geometry, statistics, and other areas. Quant questions come in two flavors, Problem Solving and Data Sufficiency; they test the same underlying skills but do so in different ways, so you’ll want to learn the strategies for dealing with each type.

This section is scored on a scale of 1 (low) to 51 (high) and also combined with the Verbal score to produce a combined score on the 200 to 800 scale. At the end of this section, you’ll be able to take another 8-minute break.

Section 4: Verbal

Finally, after your second break, you’ll tackle the Verbal section, during which you’ll answer 41 questions in 75 minutes. These questions focus on grammar, reasoning, and logic. Sentence Correction questions ask you to pick the sentence that is grammatically correct and has a clear, logical meaning. Critical Reasoning questions want you to assess the logical construction of an argument. Reading Comprehension begins with a passage to read, accompanied by a series of questions to answer.

This section is scored on a scale of 1 (low) to 51 (high) and also combined with the Quant score to produce a combined score on the 200 to 800 scale.

How Long are GMAT Scores Valid?

GMAT scores are valid for 5 years from the date of the test; after that time, the score will drop off of your record. If you take a test but cancel your scores, your record will show that you took a test on that date, but it will not show any scores; after 5 years, a canceled score notice will also drop off of your record.

What is a Good GMAT Score?

Business schools care most about the overall score on the 200-800 scale, as well as the Quant and Verbal sub-scores that accompany the overall score.

The average score for the entire pool of test-takers is about a 550. Most business schools publish data on the GMAT scores of the students they’ve admitted, often including the average score as well as the “middle 80%” scoring range, the range that covers the middle 80% of admitted students.

For example, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business reported that the students entering in the fall of 2013 had an average GMAT score of about 710 and the middle 80% of scores ranged from 680 to 750.

Your Quant and Verbal sub-scores combine to give you your overall 3-digit score. The two sub-scores appear to use the same scale, but they actually don’t. For example, as of July 2014, a Verbal section score of 39 is rated the 89th percentile. A Quant section score of 50 is rated the 88th percentile. Both are excellent scores!

Bruce Delmonico at the Yale School of Management said recently that his school likes to see scores above the 60th percentile (that is, 31 or higher for Verbal, and 45 or higher for Quant). Yale’s Class of 2015 has an average GMAT score of about 710 and a middle-80% range of 690 to 740.

In general, even the top schools consider a Quant score of 45 to 47 to be good enough, as well as a Verbal score of 34 to 35. (Note: If you hit exactly Q45 and V34, your overall score would be only about a 640—so you would likely have to have one stronger section to pull the overall score up. In practice, most people do have one stronger section.)

In short, a “good” score is whatever will look good to the particular schools you want to attend. If your overall GMAT score is above a particular school’s average, then your score is a plus on your application. If you are below the lower end of the school’s “middle 80% range,” then your score is a minus, and some other part of your application will likely need to be stronger than average in order to try to compensate.

If you’re already thinking about admissions, check out the great resources over at mbaMission for advice on how to make the rest of your application as strong as possible.

How Do I Prepare for the GMAT?

Obviously, you’d never want to walk into the GMAT “cold”—though you might be surprised by the number of people who cram for only a couple of weeks before taking the official test (and, typically, are disappointed with their score).

Most people prepare for an average of 3 to 4 months, though obviously the timeframe can vary. Some people study for the GMAT on their own or with friends; others take a GMAT class or even hire a private GMAT tutor. One of your first tasks will be to decide what approach you think will work best for you.

Ideally, you want to be done with your GMAT studies before you start your applications. Most business schools release applications in mid to late summer, so plan accordingly! 📝

Can’t get enough of Stacey’s GMAT mastery? Attend the first session of one of her upcoming GMAT courses absolutely free, no strings attached. Seriously. 

stacey-koprinceStacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT  for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.

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