Great question! Let’s establish some general parameters for this. If you imagine how hard it would be to put a giant squid into a half-Nelson or to climb the Matterhorn wearing rollerblades, well, then the GMAT is considerably easier than either of those. If you imagine how hard it is to tie your shoes or how hard it is to eat ice cream, well, then the GMAT is harder than those. OK, OK, I am being a little facetious, but in point of fact, large part of the answer to “How hard is the GMAT?” is the frustratingly ambiguous statement “It depends …” Let me explain.
The GMAT as a challenge, not an obstacle
Yes, the GMAT is challenging. It’s supposed to be challenging. It’s supposed to be hard. In mythology, the hero, at the outset of her journey, encounters the “Guardian of the Threshold,” the initial challenge she must face in order to undertake her adventure—what the Tusken Raiders were to Luke Skywalker, or what the first Nazguls were to Frodo & friends at the Prancing Pony. This is precisely what the GMAT is for anyone keen to undertake the adventure of earning an MBA and pursuing a career in the business world. In any context, part of the role of the Guardian of the Threshold is to separate the daring from the lily-livered, the bold & adventurous from those who would prefer to be sheepish followers. The GMAT is hard—in preparing for it and taking it, you will take risks, experience pressure, and feel yourself stretched. If you are the sort of person who doesn’t like risks, doesn’t like pressure, and doesn’t like to feel stretched, then it’s an excellent question why you are pursuing an MBA and a career in management in the first place!
The physical & logistical demands
Simply in terms of showing up and taking the test, the GMAT is hard. From the moment you walk into the testing center and they relieve you of any indication of your individuality, until you finally emerge, it will be, at minimum, a little over four hours–four long difficult hours. Just to maintain concentration and focus during this, you need to be in good physical shape, well-rested, and well-nourished. I would recommend no alcohol for the week leading up to your GMAT. I would recommend not just one, but three or four consecutive nights of 8+ hours of sleep. I would recommend lots of water, healthy snacks, and some stretching on the breaks. When I took the GMAT, I found myself running out of gas by the end of the test—this may have something to do with the fact that I am old enough to remember Nixon‘s Presidency! If you remember no Presidents before Clinton, then your youthful vigor will certain help you, but even then, do not underestimate the physical challenge of the test.
How difficult is it to get a good GMAT score?
In many ways, this is really the question people are asking when they ask, “how hard is the GMAT?” Sure, any slob can waltz into the GMAT with no preparation, do shoddy work, and get an abysmal score without much effort. The GMAT is relatively easy if you simply don’t care how you do. What’s hard is doing your best on the GMAT. The average score on the GMAT, the numerical mean of everyone who takes the test, is 547. That score won’t turn any heads for you. Only 23% of GMAT takers score over 650, and only 10% cross that magical 700 threshold. Something above 700 is general what folks have in mind when they consider a “good” GMAT score. How hard is it to get a GMAT score of that caliber?
Well, this is the “it depends …” part. If you regularly score in the 99th percentile of standardized tests, then getting over a 700 on the GMAT shouldn’t be too difficult with moderate preparation. If you regularly flub standardized tests, then acing the GMAT will be that much more difficult. If you remember the percentile of any previous standardized test, the percentile of your SAT score for example, then imagine you score at the same percentile on the GMAT—you can use this official chart to gauge what an equivalent score on the GMAT might be. You could also take the Magoosh GMAT Diagnostic Test, to give yourself a rough idea of your starting point. Whatever you score cold, on a dry run before any preparation—assume it will not hard to score this much after preparation on the real test. The question is: how do you improve your score?
How hard is it to improve your score?
Pushing yourself beyond what you already have achieved, pushing yourself toward your own excellence—this is always hard. Improving on the GMAT takes focus, responsibility, dedication, determination, and commitment. Again, if these are qualities you don’t like to exercise, then the whole idea of management in the modern business world might not be for you. If you are ready to do the hard work of improving, then avail yourself of the best GMAT resources. How much you will improve depends very much on how disciplined and how thorough you are willing to be in your preparation. Many folks dream about a spectacular performance, but do only moderate preparation. Remember the Great Law of Mediocrity: if you do only what most people do, you will get only what most people get. If you want to stand out, you have to take outstanding action. If you are willing to do outstanding work in your preparation for the GMAT, that’s very hard, but with good material, the results will really pay off.
The GMAT: hard and not so hard
An ordinary soldier fears his enemy, but a samurai in kensho would experience no separation between self & other, friend & enemy, life & death. While that mindset might seem somewhat extreme, consider that what’s hard about the GMAT—the intellectual challenges, the time pressure, etc.—is not too different from what’s hard about being a manager charged with important decisions in the business world: in other word, what’s “hard” about the GMAT is, in many respects, the same as what’s “hard” about the life & career you are choosing for yourself by pursuing an MBA. If you pursue this life, that level of difficulty and challenge will become, as it were, your “new normal”—get used to this “new normal” now, and what’s had appeared “hard” about the GMAT will be simply normal. When you routinely expect challenge as a matter of course, nothing is “hard.” That perspective is exactly what I would wish for you as you prepare for the GMAT!