What is the GMAT? Everything You Need to Know

If you’ve made the announcement that you’re applying to business school only to have friends and family wince and ask if you “have to” take the GMAT test, it can be a little scary…to say the least. If you don’t know much about the GMAT exam, you should know this: The GMAT gets a bad rap. Is it challenging? Definitely. The GMAT, meaning the Graduate Management Admission Test, likes to throw out a battery of questions in unusual formats you’ve never seen before.

Furthermore, like a crazy psychic mastermind, it adapts the difficulty level of questions based on how well you’ve answered questions so far (oh, it’s a computer-based test or CAT) But can you master the GMAT exam? Yes! Read on to find out all about the GMAT, from the definition of GMAT to what skills it tests to how you can prepare for a great score.

 

Table of Contents

Click the section title to jump ahead to that section.

To learn all about GMAT topics and how to approach them (as well as all about the GMAT itself), read on!

 

What is the GMAT? About the Exam

What does GMAT actually mean? GMAT stands for Graduate Management Admissions Test, meaning, you can think of it as “the MBA test,” because students who take it do so as part of their business school applications. The GMAT is created and administered by GMAC, which works with both business schools and businesses to determine appropriate content for the test.


 

What Do You Take the GMAT Test For?

Here’s the shortened GMAT definition: The GMAT is for students pursuing graduate-level education in business and management, typically an MBA. Now that you know what GMAT means, you may be wondering: what is the GMAT used for? Just as the SAT is an admission test high school students need to take to get into college, the GMAT is an admission test after-college folks in the business world need to take to get into business school. The vast majority of MBA programs require a recent GMAT score as an essential part of the admission process.

Different schools use and judge GMAT scores in different ways. As a general rule, a good score on the GMAT can give an applicant a strong competitive edge in applying to the best business schools.


 

How and When Do You Take the GMAT?

Here’s what you need to know:

  • To take the GMAT test, you’ll need to register on the official GMAC website, MBA.com. Learn more in our post about GMAT registration.
  • Cost: In most of the world, the GMAT registration fee is $250 (US), but that price can differ in the U.S., Canada, and Europe; see the article “How Much Does the GMAT Cost?” for details. You’ll also need a valid ID in order to take the test; we’ll get into more about what this means for international students in a few moments.
  • Test Dates: Most test-takers will be relieved to know that the GMAT exam is available on-demand at test centers worldwide on most days of the year. National holidays are a notable exception. That said, you should schedule your GMAT test dates well in advance. Depending on the size of your town, you may or may not have multiple test centers to choose from.Also, while the GMAT is offered very frequently, you can only take the GMAT once in any 16-day period, and only five times within a twelve-month period.


 

Where is the GMAT Exam Offered?

Many test centers around the world offer the GMAT. With that said, the majority of these test centers tend to be in larger cities (you can find centers near you on the GMAT website). If you don’t live in one of these cities, make sure to plan your travel far in advance.

In fact, it’s even worth doing a test run to scout out your test location. Think about it: you will no doubt be nervous on your test day. Don’t add any stress by getting lost en route. You may also gain valuable information. For example, many test centers have a special accommodations room. However, some (not all!) make a provision that if no testers are scheduled who need the space, then it is open to whomever shows up first. And that’s just one of many benefits of learning about your test center in advance!

For more tips on what to prepare for test day, check out our post with GMAT Test Day Tips.


 

Who Takes the GMAT?

So you might be wondering, who takes the GMAT and what is it used for? Future business-school students (who are, one may assume, future businesspeople) take the GMAT. Basically, if you’re applying to business school in the United States, you most likely need to take the GMAT, though the GRE may be an acceptable alternative (see the previous section for more info).

If you’re applying to international business schools, you might need to take the GMAT, or a GMAT score may prove to be an asset to your application file. Check with individual programs to verify their GMAT policy and requirements.

Finally, if you’re applying to any other non-business graduate program, you almost certainly don’t have to take the GMAT.

The GMAT for International Students

Taking the GMAT can seem like an overwhelming prospect for anyone, and this is all the more true if English isn’t your first language. If you’re applying to U.S. business schools (and/or some international programs, usually those taught in English), you will most likely take the GMAT. Because you’ll almost certainly have to take an English proficiency exam as well, it’s a good idea to get that out of the way first, polishing your language skills in the process.

International students often ask, “Do you need your passport to take the GMAT?” This is a great question, and so important that American students should be asking it, too! The answer for most international test takers is YES. The GMAT policy is that if you’re testing outside your country of citizenship, you need your passport. This is also true for Americans testing abroad. Government-issued IDs won’t even cut it.

If you are testing in your country of citizenship, you may still need your passport as ID. If you’re American and testing in the U.S., a government ID (like a driver’s license or military ID) is also okay. This is sometimes true for international test takers, but not always. Check out the “Special Restrictions” section of the MBA GMAT registration site as you register, but when in doubt, take your passport.

Other than valid identification and registration, the GMAT test’s eligibility criteria are completely open. You don’t need to have finished college to take it (or even started college, for that matter—though let’s face it, it’d probably help to have a few years under your belt).


 

Can you take the GMAT again?

First of all, don’t worry: yes, you can retake the GMAT. The GMAT policy allows you to retake it any time after the sixteen-day period following your exam. After that, you can retake the GMAT as many as five times in twelve months. If you want to take it even more than that, you can submit a written request to the GMAT, but think seriously before doing this.

The question, in this case, is not so much “how many times can I take the GMAT?” but rather “how many times can I take the GMAT and expect different test results?” Unless you’ve significantly changed your approach to the test, there’s really no good reason to take it more than five times.


 

What Does the GMAT Exam Evaluate?

While at first glance, the GMAT may appear to contain a motley collection of questions, there is most definitely a method to the (apparent) madness! Take it from GMAC, which explains that “The GMAT exam measures higher-order reasoning skills.”

The GMAT will test these reasoning skills in a wide variety of ways:

We’ll look at the question types in each section in more detail in a little bit, but you can also take a look at the most commonly tested GMAT question types here.


 

What does the GMAT test look like?

What can you expect when you walk through the doors of the test center for your official exam? Well, first of all, a lot of paperwork. Once you sit down at your station, however, you should know exactly what to expect. With that in mind, here’s the rundown on GMAT sections and their timing.

Sections

Think of this as your GMAT exam syllabus. On test day, you’ll see these sections on the GMAT exam, though you can choose the order in which you work on them:

  1. Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA/Essay) (one question)
  2. Integrated Reasoning (12 multi-part questions)
  3. Quantitative Reasoning (31 questions)
  4. Verbal Reasoning (36 questions)

You can find more in-depth info on the GMAT format here.

Timing

While, technically, you’ll only be testing for 3 hours and 30 minutes, you should allow five hours for the entire GMAT exam. This is because of that aforementioned paperwork, as well as optional breaks.

After you’ve signed in, stowed your stuff in a locker, and sat down at your computer station, here’s the GMAT exam pattern, time-wise (we’re using the “traditional” order here, but your section order may differ depending on your preferences):

  1. 30 minutes: Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA/Essay) (one question)
  2. 30 minutes: Integrated Reasoning (IR) (12 multi-part questions)
  3. “Optional” 8-minute (MAX) break (you’ll want it)
  4. 62 minutes: Quantitative Reasoning (31 questions)
  5. “Optional” 8-minute (MAX) break (you’ll want this one, too)
  6. 65 minutes: Verbal Reasoning (36 questions)

That may seem overwhelming, but with some focused practice and work on GMAT timing strategies, it is doable!


 

What is a CAT, Anyway?

As I mentioned earlier, the GMAT is a CAT. CAT stands for computer adaptive test. The GMAT is computer adaptive, which means that the level of difficulty of the questions adapts to your skill level. Questions appear on your computer screen one at a time. You must answer and confirm each question before you can move forward to the next question.

This has definite consequences for you as a test taker! After you have answered a question, you cannot change your answer. Within each set of multiple-choice questions, the items are selected by the computer software, depending on your response to the previous question.

The first question is always a medium-difficulty question. If you answer it correctly, your next question will be more difficult and worth more points. If you answer the first question incorrectly, your next question will be less difficult and worth fewer points.

In the end, thanks to the CAT format, your GMAT score is based on a complex formula that includes the number of questions that you answer correctly and the difficulty level of each question. This process allows an accurate assessment of your individual ability level in a given subject area.


 

How Does the GMAT Exam Reflect What You’ll Do in Business School?

The GMAT is a pretty good evaluation of executive business skills. There’s actually a correlation between GMAT scores and starting salaries, implying that there’s definitely a correlation and possibly some causation there, too.

GMAT questions use business-based scenarios whenever possible, though this will vary on some Quant and Verbal problems by necessity. Even though the GMAC is a private company, it tries to test both skills needed to successfully make it through a B-school curriculum and to succeed in the private industry.

In short? Don’t despair—the time you put into prepping for the GMAT has the potential to help you through business school and even for the rest of your career. Pretty good return on investment, eh?

If you’re debating whether to take the GRE or GMAT for business school, check out our post comparing GRE vs. GMAT: How Are They Different?

back to top


 

Scoring

GMAT scoring varies depending on the section. Here’s a quick summary:

  • AWA: 0-6
  • IR: 1-8
  • Quant: 0-60
  • Verbal: 0-51
  • “Total” (i.e. Verbal and Quant scaled score): 200-800

I know it’s more than a little bit confusing, especially without context. So let’s get some context! First of all, it’s very important to recognize that the “total” score, the 200-800 score, is based only on you Quant & Verbal subscores; the AWA & IR are entirely separate and have nothing to do with the “total” score.

Beyond that fact, the best way to make sense of all this is to look at percentiles. Watch our video below to learn more or skip ahead to the GMAT Percentiles section below!


 

Percentiles

A percentile describes the percentage of test takers who scored lower than you did on the exam. This is particularly important in helping you contextualize your GMAT scores. After all, knowing your GMAT percentile can help you evaluate how close you are to getting into the school of your dreams.

First of all, a few things to know about GMAT scores: 2/5 of students have a total score of between 400 and 600; therefore, the higher you score above 600, the more you stand out from the pack. The most recent average GMAT score the GMAC released was 556.04. Again—the farther above this average you reach, the more appealing your GMAT score will be to B-schools.

Here are a few more free Magoosh resources to help you understand how scoring works:

back to top


 

Preparing for the GMAT

Prepping for the GMAT exam is important. Not only is there immense time pressure, which preparing can help you deal with, but the problem formats can be downright confusing (Data Sufficiency, anyone?) if you’ve never seen them before.

Basically, if you’re serious about business school, you should be serious about the GMAT and prep for it. While not the only admissions criterion, your score on the GMAT test can be the difference between you getting accepted or rejected from your target MBA school.

That being said, a great or even perfect GMAT score cannot guarantee your admission into business schools. In addition to your GMAT score, your work experience, essays, recommendations, and interview are all factors that contribute to your acceptance or rejection from a business school.

Check out these resources to learn about the best way to prepare for the GMAT and what materials to use:

Now that you have a plan, let’s talk about what exactly you’ll be studying. We’ll dive deeper into the GMAT exam content to break it all down.

back to top


 

GMAT Section Breakdown


 

Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) Section

The AWA asks you to write one essay in 30 minutes. In this essay, you analyze an argument (hence “analytical” writing assessment). You’ll write a response, typically 4 to 6 paragraphs, in which you evaluate the argument.

The logic behind this is that you’re showing your ability to think critically about opinions presented to you. You can analyze them, find their strengths and weaknesses, and determine what information might help you further evaluate the argument in more depth. Basically, you’re showing off skills that definitely come in handy in business settings.

Many students ask, “Does AWA even matter? Aren’t business schools way more interested in your multiple-choice scores?” Yes Overall, your sectional scores and overall score will be more important to your B-school applications than your score on the AWA. However, with that said, you should be prepared to do your best on it.

Why? The GMAT exam is a mental marathon. You want to undertake your journey with confidence, ready to dive into Integrated Reasoning with aplomb. So with that in mind, at least know what you’re in for with the AWA so your reaction to your prompt isn’t one of total terror and/or bafflement.

AWA Practice Questions

Itching to try your hand at a sample GMAT essay? Can’t say I blame you! Have a go at the following prompt, from the OG13:

The following appeared in a memorandum written by the chair of the music department to the president of Omega University.

“Mental health experts have observed that symptoms of mental illness are less pronounced in many patients after group music therapy sessions, and job openings in the music-therapy field have increased during the past year. Consequently, graduates from our degree program for music therapists should have no trouble finding good positions. To help improve the financial status of Omega University, we should therefore expand our music-therapy degree program by increasing its enrollment targets.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underline the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion.

You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sounds, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusions.

Don’t give yourself longer than 30 minutes to write your practice essay. When you’re done, check out Magoosh GMAT expert Mike McGarry’s analysis of the argument and sample high-scoring essay in response to the prompt to evaluate your work.

back to top


 

Integrative Reasoning (IR) Section

The GMAT Integrative Reasoning section is set up to test higher-order reasoning. This includes questions about the integration of information (organizing, synthesizing), evaluating information (tradeoffs and benefits of different actions), making inferences from data (and predictions), relating information to other data, and strategizing based on data provided.

You’ll have 12 questions to answer in 30 minutes. While that sounds relatively comfortable, keep in mind that these are often complex, multi-part questions. A big part of mastering IR depends on your ability to master the timing.

These twelve questions will each be one of four types:

  1. Graphics Interpretation (GI)
  2. Two-Part Analysis (2PA)
  3. Table Analysis (TA)
  4. Multi-Source Reasoning (MSR)

Unlike question types on other sections of the GMAT exam (ahem, looking at you, Quant), every test taker will see all four question types. The only difference between what you and your neighbor are looking at will be in the experimental questions mixed into the section.

If that’s all got you a little freaked out, don’t worry! There’s a lot you can do before your official exam to boost your IR score. In fact, there’s so much you can do that we even wrote an IR eBook (free, by the way)!

Mike also breaks down the key components of IR strategy here.

IR Practice Questions

Here’s a sample IR problem for you to try! (If you’re looking for more practice and tips, the Magoosh GMAT Blog has plenty of free resources!)

gi-nafp_img1

The flowchart represents a mathematical algorithm that takes one positive integer as the input and returns a positive integer as the output. Processes are indicated in the rectangular symbols in the flowchart. Each process is represented by an equation, such as p = p + 1. In this particular process, one is added to the current value of p, and the sum becomes the new value of p. For example, if p = 8 before the process, p = 9 after the process.

1) A value p = 50 is initially entered. When S first has a value of S = 10, p has a value of.

2) An initial entry that reaches an output in the fewest number of steps is.

Click to view answers and explanations

Question 1: D) 59
Question 2:C) 10

For mathematical and computer science folks, a flow chart diagramming a mathematical algorithm might be one of the most enjoyable games the GMAT exam provides.

For less math-y folks, though, this question type could be a living nightmare.

How does someone not adroit at mathematical reasoning even begin to make sense of this? Click here for a video explanation of the answer!

back to top


 

Quantitative Reasoning (Quant) Section

By the time you encounter GMAT Quant, you’re well into the test. You’ve written an essay analyzing an argument. You’ve conquered 12 IR questions in a short period of time. You’ve taken your optional (but really, take it!) 8-minute break. Now, it’s time for Quant (Math).

For GMAT Math, you’ll answer 31 questions in 62 minutes, giving you slightly over two minutes per question (but remember, you need to actually select the right answer and wait for the next screen to load! So let’s say two minutes). Within Quant, you’ll encounter:

  1. Problem Solving Questions (approximately 18-20 questions)
  2. Data Sufficiency Questions (approximately 11-13 questions)

We’ll take a closer look at how these question formats test your math and reasoning skills in just a minute. Before we do, though, here’s what you can expect to see, concept-wise, on GMAT Quant.

Concepts on the GMAT Math Section

You may have heard rumors about the difficulty of GMAT math, or maybe you’ve tried out a few problems yourself and been bowled over by the high-level thinking they require. But one thing you won’t have encountered is any concept beyond high-school level math.

Strange, but true: the GMAC knows that there are humanities majors among us who may not have thought about calculus integrals in years…and even then, only under duress (that last one may be just me). So instead, the GMAT exam tests quantitative reasoning (notice a pattern here?) by piling relatively simple concepts on top of each other to create multi-level problems.

So yes, you should review the following areas before test day:

  • Arithmetic
  • Number properties
  • Pre-algebra
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Word problems

But, in addition to that review, you should spend the majority of your Quant study time focusing on practice problems and practice tests, because although the material the GMAT tests isn’t that tricky, the way the GMAT tests it can be pretty tricky indeed.

If you want to go really in-depth on how GMAT Quant tests these questions, take a look at our post What Kind of Math is on the GMAT? Breakdown of Quant Concepts by Frequency!

And before you dig into some practice questions, take a look at these free Magoosh lesson videos on GMAT Data Sufficiency Strategy!

Quant Practice Questions

Ready to put those strategies to work? Try your hand at these two GMAT Quant practice questions. And, if you skipped the IR practice questions (#1-2), jump back up by clicking here.

3. Data Sufficiency

The figure on the left is an isosceles right triangle, and the figure on the right is a square of length 3. What is the value of b?

(1) b is the length of the diagonal of the square.

(2) the triangle and the square have the same area.





4. Problem Solving

Paracelsus University has two kinds of professors, academic professors and professional professors. At Paracelsus University, 60% of the professors are academic professors, and 70% of the professors are tenured. If 90% of the professors at Paracelsus University are academic professors or tenured or both, then what percent of the professional professors there are tenured?





Click to view answers and explanations

Question 3) Each statement ALONE is sufficient to answer the question.

We know everything we need to know about the square. The prompt tells us that the triangle is an isosceles right triangle, a.k.a. the 45-45-90 triangle, a very special right triangle. Click here for a video explanation of the answer!

Question 4) 75

We used a double matrix to solve this one. Confused? Click here for a video explanation of the answer!

back to top


 

Verbal Reasoning Section

The GMAT Verbal section is 65 minutes long; during those 65 minutes, you’ll encounter 36 multiple-choice questions. Like the Quantitative section, the Verbal section is computer adaptive, which means the test will be adjusting the difficulty as you move through the section.

The Verbal score, along with the Quantitative score, determines your Total 200-800 GMAT score. As we’ve seen, AWA and IR sections have separate scores and are not included in the Total GMAT score.

GMAT Verbal Concepts

There are three question types on the Verbal Section: Reading Comprehension (RC), Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction.

These three types will be roughly evenly distributed, so you will have about 11-14 of each of the three kinds in a typical Verbal section.

  • Reading Comprehension questions give you a short (200-300 words) or long (300-400 words) passage, then ask you about what you’ve read with three or four multiple-choice questions, respectively.
  • Critical Reasoning questions set forth an argument that you then analyze. There are eight different types of CR questions, which you can read about in the above post, all of which are multiple choice, with five answer choices.
  • Sentence Correction problems present you with a sentence. Part of this sentence is underlined, and you have to decide if there’s a grammatical problem. If so, you choose from one of four alternatives to the underlined portion.

You can get more advice on the Magoosh GMAT Blog, with Mike’s tips on How to Improve Your GMAT Verbal Score and Chris’s advice on How to Study for the GMAT Verbal Section.

Verbal Practice Questions

Time for some GMAT Verbal sample questions! We’re picking up our practice where we left off, at #5. Still need to get caught up? No problem. You can try #1-2 here and #3-4 here.

5. Reading Comprehension

Most educated people of the eighteenth century, such as the Founding Fathers, subscribed to Natural Rights Theory, the idea that every human being has a considerable number of innate rights, simply by virtue of being a human person.

When the US Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, many at that time felt that the federal government outlined by the Constitution would be too strong, and that rights of individual citizens against the government had to be clarified. This led to the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, which were ratified at the same time as the Constitution.

The first eight of these amendments list specific rights of citizens. Some leaders feared that listing some rights could be interpreted to mean that citizens didn’t have other, unlisted rights. Toward this end, James Madison and others produced the Ninth Amendment, which states: the fact that certain rights are listed in the Constitution shall not be construed to imply that other rights of the people are denied.

Constitutional traditionalists interpret the Ninth Amendment as a rule for reading the rest of the constitution. They would argue that “Ninth Amendment rights” are a misconceived notion: the amendment does not, by itself, create federally enforceable rights. In particular, this strict reasoning would be opposed to the creation of any new rights based on the amendment. Rather, according to this view, the amendment merely protects those rights that citizens already have, whether they are explicitly listed in the Constitution or simply implicit in people’s lives and in American tradition.

More liberal interpreters of the US Constitution have a much more expansive view of the Ninth Amendment. In their view, the Ninth Amendment guarantees to American citizens a vast universe of potential rights, some of which we have enjoyed for two centuries, and others that the Founding Fathers could not possibly have conceived. These scholars point out that some rights, such as voting rights of women or minorities, were not necessarily viewed as rights by the majority of citizens in late eighteenth century America, but are taken as fundamental and unquestionable in modern America. While those rights cited are protected specifically by other amendments and laws, the argument asserts that other unlisted right also could evolve from unthinkable to perfectly acceptable, and the Ninth Amendment would protect these as-yet-undefined rights.

Constitutional scholars of both the traditionalist and liberal views would agree that “Ninth Amendment rights”





6. Critical Reasoning

In social science research, “highest education level attained” would refer to the most advanced grade or degree achieved by an individual—for some individuals, it may be a grade in grade school, and for other individuals, it may be a Bachelor’s Degree, a Master’s Degree, or Ph.D. (which is considered the highest education level). A recent study has shown a strong correlation between highest education level attained and proficiency in chess. Another result, studied at many points throughout the 20th century, shows a marked positive correlation between highest education level attained and income level.

Assuming the statements above are true, what conclusion can be drawn from them?





7. Sentence Correction

With American cryptanalysts breaking the Japanese code, the Japanese Imperial Fleet losing the strategic element of surprise at Midway, which allowed the American Fleet to ambush the Japanese and win a decisive victory.





Click to view answers and explanations

Question 5) “Ninth Amendment rights” are not stated explicitly in the Bill of Rights. Click here for a video explanation of the answer!

Question 6) It is possible that a person who has attained only a sixth grade level of education could earn more than a person who has a Ph. D. Click here for a video explanation of the answer!

Question 7) Because American cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese code, the Japanese Imperial Fleet lost the strategic element of surprise at Midway, allowing the American Fleet to ambush the Japanese and win a decisive victory. Click here for a video explanation of the answer!

back to top


 

Resources and Next Steps

The GMAT can be an overwhelming test, but it can also be a great opportunity to sharpen your reasoning skills, focus your ambitions, and prepare yourself for the business world. With the right resources and the right strategy, you can master this “extraordinarily challenging” test and get a score you can be proud of.

But with all that said, if your first foray into GMAT practice has you a little freaked out, that’s okay! There are a ton of free resources right here on the Magoosh GMAT Blog to help you prepare for the GMAT. For example:

These resources will give you a great grounding in what the GMAT looks like, how to study for it, and the concepts that you’ll see on test day!

  • Getting a great score on the GMAT exam does take lots of preparation, and for a truly tailored approach, let me make a suggestion. After you’ve worked through free resources, try out Magoosh GMAT prep!

 
Outside of Magoosh, I’d recommend checking out these official GMAT exam resources:

  • You can take two free CATs at the GMAC website, which is a good place to start. It’s best to use these later on in your practice, as test day approaches.
  • It’s pricey, but you can also buy more exams and questions from the GMAC (or you can also find excellent questions for free right here on the Magoosh blog!)
  • While the GMAT Official Guide is a must-have, you should also know that the GMAC also puts out specialized Verbal and Quantitative guides, too. And on that note, not everyone realizes that there’s a code at the back of the full Official Guide that gives you free online practice to 50 IR questions—not too shabby!

 
 
End of What is the GMAT post

You’ve reached the end of this post! Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back, then leave us a comment with any questions or comments you still have. Happy Studying!

Ready to get an awesome GMAT score? Start here.

Most Popular Resources