Contributor: Svetozara Saykova
July 28th, 2020
The GMAT is a challenging exam, and in this article we’ll provide both a broad overview of how it works as well as a deep dive into its nuances to put you on a surer footing for preparing, and ultimately conquering, the exam. There’s a good chance that you’ve already decided to apply to several MBA programs, and that they all require a GMAT score, so let’s get started!
What is the GMAT?
The GMAT (short for Graduate Management Admissions Test) is an advanced examination that is a requirement for admission to most MBA (Masters of Business Administration) programs. The GMAT consists of four sections – Quantitative, Verbal, Integrated Reasoning and the Analytical Writing Assessment. Each part examines a particular set of skills vital in the business world. A candidate’s performance on the exam helps admission officers assess their suitability for the rigorous curriculum and challenges of an MBA program.
The GMAT requires knowledge of high school level math as well as English language and grammar. The catch is this: they’re not testing your knowledge, but rather your creative application of that knowledge. In that sense, success on the GMAT boils down to two things – your critical assessment of information and your ability to reason.
How does a single exam measure whether or not a candidate has the skills to excel in a top MBA program and, by extension, thrive in the business world? The thing is that the GMAT is not a standard standardized test, but it is a CAT.
What the heck is a CAT?
CAT stands for computer-adaptive test, which means that the test adapts to your skill level. It does this by modifying the questions according to your performance. The first question will typically have a moderate level of difficulty, then the difficulties of the second and subsequent questions are based upon your performance on previous questions. The algorithm selects which problems to deliver depending upon your collective performance so far. If you continue to answer correctly, the difficulty of the questions will rise and vice versa.
On the GMAT three of the sections are computer-adaptive – the Quantitative, the Verbal and the Integrated Reasoning.
No two people have ever taken the same exact GMAT test. What’s more, the test is challenging for everyone, even top 700+ performers. Why? First, each candidate gets a unique mix of questions as the test adapts to your performance in real time. This pushes each candidate to the edge of their capabilities, making the GMAT feel like it’s more difficult than it is, and making you feel that you’re not doing as well as you are. The test can continue to toss increasingly challenging questions at you until it reaches your limit.
The CAT model has another interesting feature. The test taker is presented with one question at a time and cannot go back and forth within the exam. Once an answer is provided and the test taker proceeds to the next question, they cannot return. This is understandably quite nerve-racking and can contribute to stress-based under performance. Overcoming anxiety surrounding the GMAT can be a daunting task, but it is vital for excellent performance. That is why having effective strategies on how to manage the GMAT related stress is a must in order to enhance your performance.
Immediately After Taking the GMAT Test
Right after you sit the GMAT you will see four out of your five scores: The Quantitative, Verbal, Integrated Reasoning and your aggregate score out of 800. Those will be your unofficial scores and you will have two minutes to accept or cancel your results. If you do not decide, your score will be automatically cancelled. The AWA/Writing section is graded by an actual human and so that score comes in with your Official Score Report.
The Unofficial Score Report
When given your scores, you will have two minutes to decide whether you want to keep them. If the time expires before you make a decision the score will be automatically cancelled. Rest assured, if you cancel them they can be reinstated within 4 years and 11 month from your exam date. You can also cancel them within 72 hours for a fee if you change your mind later on. If you decide to accept your results, an Unofficial score report will be issued. You will receive it prior to leaving the test center. The report will contain your Quantitative, Verbal, Integrated Reasoning and Total scores, as well as some personal information. The unofficial score report can help you determine whether you are a competitive applicant for your desired program and whether you need to retake the GMAT, though you should have a sense of what score you are seeking before entering the testing center, so that you can make a good decision about cancelling/keeping scores.
Although the unofficial report can be very helpful to you, it cannot be used for your MBA applications. Only the Official score report that comes in the mail a few weeks later and is send separately to Business Schools can be used for your application and admissions.
Within Three Weeks After the Exam
You will be sent a notice that your Official score report is ready. Besides the scores from your unofficial report, it will contain your Analytical Writing Assessment score, your GMAT percentile rankings – it shows where your score is on the scale compared to your peers, the personal data you provided at registration, and scores from other GMAT tests you have taken within the past five years.
Your official score is valid for five years, which gives you the flexibility to send it out to universities when you are ready, or to defer application to another year.
In addition to the official report, an applicant can request an Enhanced score report for a fee of $30. It contains a comprehensive performance analysis by section and question type, and can provide the candidate with an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as well as how they rank among their peers.
When you receive your Score Report you will see scores for each section ranging as follows:
the Quantitative score
- range: from 0 to 51 points in 1.0 increments
- average: 40.2 (for the period 2015 – 2018)
the Verbal score
- range: from 0 to 51 points in 1.0 increments
- average: 27.08 (for the period 2015-2018)
the Total GMAT score
- range: from 200 to 800 points in 1.0 increments
- average: 563.43 (for the period 2015-2018)
the Integrated reasoning score
- range: from 1 to 8 points in 1.0 increments
- average: 4.41 (for the period 2015 – 2018)
the AWA score
- range: 0 to 6 points in 0.5 increments
- average: 4.49 (for the period 2015-2018)
The major difference between non-adaptive tests and the GMAT is that the GMAT score is derived not by how many problems you answer correctly, but by the relative difficulty of the problems that you answer correctly.
In standard assessments, like the SAT or the TOEFL for instance, each problem has a firm percentage that contributes to the final grade. These tests demand a certain approach that we are all familiar with from high school: dedicate time to each question and try to get everything right. This approach is ineffective, however, when it comes to computer adaptive tests like the GMAT. In fact, due to the adaptive nature of the exam, regardless of how well they perform, most test takers only answer correctly between 40-60% of the questions. The critical point is that your score depends on the most challenging questions that you can answer correctly on a consistent basis. In essence, the higher the overall difficulty level at which you get 60% of the questions right, the higher you will score.
The best way to perform well on the GMAT is to be properly prepared. This means not only knowing the material on which you are being tested, but being able to effectively allocate scarce resources like time, attention, and focus. Since you are unable to jump backwards or forwards and because each question depends on your answer to the previous one, you need to be able to accurately assess how much of these resources each question deserves in the context of the greater exam. You should be able to balance spending more time on hard questions while not running out of time on any particular section. It is imperative to note that there are harsh penalties for incomplete sections, so be sure to answer each question before time runs out, even if you must guess at random.
What are the GMAT sections?
The GMAT test is comprised of four distinct sections. Each section assesses a particular area of subject matter expertise and each has its own unique problem types; however, critical thinking and analytical reasoning are the core skills that will get you through each section and through the whole exam.
The GMAT can be broken down to:
- Integrated Reasoning
- Analytical Writing Assessment
The student sitting the exam has the opportunity to choose with which part to start. There are three variations:
- AWA & Integrated Reasoning (break) Quantitative (break) Verbal;
- Quantitative (break) Verbal (break) Integrated Reasoning & AWA;
- Verbal (break) Quantitative (break) Integrated Reasoning & AWA;
You will be able to choose the order following the computer tutorial you will be given at the test center just before you start your exam.
Pro tip: Choose the order of the exam based upon your comfort levels. Most people like to put their most challenging section first so that they can optimize their performance by tackling the difficult section while one’s brain is still crisp. Others may opt to start off with a stronger section, or the less important AWA/IR to get into a “flow” state before tackling the sections that they find most challenging or important. Ultimately, the best advice is to experiment, and go with what makes you most comfortable, because a strong performance can only come with comfort.
The Verbal section permits test-takers to present their reasoning skills, critical thinking, and command of English grammar. It measures the test taker’s ability to read and comprehend written materials, reason and evaluate subtle arguments, and correct written sentences to match standard written English.
There are three types of questions in the Verbal section:
These questions test your ability to read critically. More specifically, you should be able to:
- summarize the text and derive the key idea;
- distinguish between ideas stated directly in the text and ideas implied by the author;
- come up with conclusions based on the information in a given passage;
- analyze the logical structure of the argument;
- deduce the author’s attitude towards the topic.
You will be presented with a short argument and asked to select a statement which either represents the conclusion, strengthens or weakens the argument, or analyzes how the argument is constructed. In order to excel in Critical reasoning one should be familiar with logical reasoning, common fallacies and assumption, and structural connections between evidence and conclusion. We all use reasoning daily but more often than not our thought process is not logically precise or rigorous and that is what the GMAT test writers count upon. Examining your own thought process and understanding where you are susceptible to imprecise thinking can be a good start for prepping.
These questions test your knowledge of English grammar and accurate expression. On sentence correction you’ll be shown a somewhat complex sentence, part of which or the whole of which is underlined. You will be asked to select the best version of the underlined portion, whether the original or one of four alternatives presented.
After getting familiar with the specifics of the Verbal section, you might wonder whether native speakers have an unfair advantage. That is a fair contention, however the answer is nuanced. The GMAT does not test particularly one’s command of English, as opposed to some other language, but their understanding of language construction. If one has a strong eye and ear for grammar in another language, they will likely perform well on Sentence Correction. Bottom line: there can be advantages and disadvantages for both native and non-native English speakers. The key is to learn to use them to your advantage.
The Quant section on the GMAT is designed to evaluate the candidate’s analytical knowledge and depth of understanding of basic mathematical concepts like algebra, geometry, number properties and arithmetic. More to the point, the expectation is that you know the math typical for any high school student, but the GMAT is using that as a base of knowledge to test your creativity.
There are two types of problems in the Quantitative section:
These problems consist of a single question and two statements of truth. The task is to determine if each of the statements (or both together) contain enough data to answer the question definitively. DS questions test your ability to promptly identify what information is crucial to answer a particular question and how well you ignore or eliminate unnecessary or insufficient data. It is important to note that you are not being asked to solve the problems, and often it is preferable to not solve the problem. Pro Tip: Insufficient data will often lead you to multiple possible answers – Be Careful!
PS problems are somewhat generic, and very much what you may be used to from your school days. Each presents a candidate with a problem that they need to solve, and the answer is multiple choice. The knowledge required is high school level maths up to algebra and geometry, with a smattering of statistics and combinatorics, but nothing terribly high level. Once again, in this part as in the GMAT test as a whole, the main skill that is evaluated is your ability to critically assess information. In fact, it is particularly important to avoid doing the actual math but rather pick apart the problem and reduce it to a much simpler question.
The Integrated reasoning section was added to the GMAT exam in 2012 and is increasingly becoming a more important part of the exam.
The IR contains both verbal and quantitative topics, weaved together into a challenging problem landscape. This section assesses the ability of a candidate to comb through a significant quantity of data, often delivered in a complicated fashion, and identify a particular piece of information or derive a specific insight.
There are four types of questions in the Integrated reasoning section:
This problem type offers a combination of text, tables and graphs, and then asks you to identify discrepancies among different sources of data or ask you to draw conclusions or derive inferences by taking tidbits from various sources and combining them together. The key skill here is adaptability to structurally different content and being able to draw associations between the various content types. Keep in mind that most of the data is not relevant – with multiple sources comes plenty of unnecessary information, so being deliberate with the information you choose to analyze more deeply is essential.
Graphic interpretation is exactly what it sounds like. You may be presented with a more traditional graph like a pie or bar chart, but you might also be provided an unusual diagram. The test-taker should be able to accurately interpret the information, recognize relationships among the data and draw conclusions from the graphics provided. It’s crucial to remember that you shouldn’t get carried away trying to understand or interpret all of the information but that the core task is to focus on what you are being asked and finding that needle in the haystack of data provided.
These types of questions measure one’s ability to solve complex problems – quantitative, verbal or a combination of both. Each question has two sub-questions which can be dependent upon one another. Irrespective of whether they’re related, like other Integrated Reasoning questions, you’ll need to answer both parts correctly to get credit for the question. The format of the problems in this section is intentionally diverse in order to cover a wide range of content and test your ability to synthesize knowledge from different fields.
This question type presents a table of data, but that’s just the beginning. The challenging part of these problems is determining what’s being asked for, and then using the provided tables in an efficient manner.
Table analysis requires not just reading information from the tables provided, but requires one to understand the question, and organize the data in such a way so that it can be efficiently sorted. The candidate is tasked to determine what from the given information is relevant or meets certain criteria.
Analytical Writing Assessment
The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) or the “essay” section provides admission officers
with an idea of your writing skill. The AWA section is scored separately and does not count towards the Combined (200 to 800 points) score. The essay is checked twice – once by a human reader and once by a computer algorithm. The final grade is an average from both scores. If the scores differ greatly, then the writing sample is reviewed by another human reader and after that the final grade is decided.
For this task you will be presented with a passage similar to those from Critical reasoning in the Verbal section of the GMAT. You will be asked to provide a well-supported critique of the author’s argument, to analyze their strong points and identify the weaknesses in their line of reasoning. What’s more, the AWA section measures the candidate’s ability to express themselves and their ideas clearly and with precision in written form.
Now that you have a thorough understanding of what to expect on the GMAT you might be concerned with the practical side of things like how, when and where.
The GMAT test is administered by the global testing network Pearson VUE. They have 600+ centers all around the world where you can sit the exam. The GMAT is facilitated through a computer system available at the designated Pearson VUE centers, which means that you can take the exam only at those centers.
As of the COVID-19 pandemic the GMAT centers closed so the GMAC provided an online version GMAT. In case there is still an option to take the GMAT online when you are reading this and you are interested in doing so, check out our videos on how it is administered and what you need to know prior to sitting the online GMAT.
When and where?
First of all, you should make sure you know your chosen MBA programs’ application deadlines and from there coordinate accordingly. Consider how much time you will need for preparation. You should also plan to take the exam more than once; even with a strong score, there’s always room for continued improvement, and you might as well take it a second time after putting all that effort into preparing. So plan to factor in a re-take or two, just in case – also good if you do well… you can always do better! This is important because the GMAC has rules regarding re-takes: they must be at least 16 days apart, there cannot be more than 5 within a year and there’s a lifetime limit of 8 total attempts at the exam. You can take the GMAT at any time of the year, and appointments are generally availab;e if you plan a few months ahead, so you can launch your plan without worrying about the precise exam date and then midway through make an appointment based on your progress and practice exam results.
And last but not least – how much does it cost?
The total price of the GMAT is $250 – as of July 2020 230 Euro/203 GBP. This amount includes sending your official score to up to five universities or MBA programs of your choice. You can of course request your results to be sent to additional programs; each one will cost you an additional $35.
This all might seem a little overwhelming, which is reasonable given how important the exam is, and all the idiosyncrasies of the GMAT. Growing familiar with the exam is a challenge in itself. With determination and the proper guidance, you can unleash your full potential and obtain admission to your dream MBA programs. Set yourself up for success by learning how to select the right tutor to begin your GMAT journey.
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