Everything Students Should Know About the GMAT Exam
So you’re thinking about taking the GMAT exam … but you have questions. (Of course you do: there are many things to know about the GMAT!) At Veritas Prep, we’ve got answers. While your more specific, personalized questions about GMAT-related concerns are probably better answered with more extensive GMAT prep (like classes or tutoring with our professional instructors, who will provide you with valuable study resources and provide practical tips and strategies), this article will give you key information all test takers should know about the GMAT. Keep reading to learn more about the purpose, history, format, and scoring of the exam, as well as how best to prepare for your GMAT exam test day.
The Purpose of the GMAT Exam
The Graduate Management Admission Test, more commonly known as the GMAT, is a computer-based examination used to measure skills important to the study of management, with an emphasis on critical thinking and reasoning. Schools with graduate-level management programs — most commonly business schools with MBA programs — use GMAT test scores to compare applicants and make admissions decisions.
Because the GMAT exam is an international test (offered in 114 countries) with objective assessment criteria, it tends to predict academic success better than undergraduate grade point average (GPA), which can vary based on a school’s policies and business curriculum. Admissions committees know this, so they weigh GMAT test scores heavily in decisions about their programs’ enrollment. As a result, the right GMAT preparation strategy can make the difference between being accepted to or rejected from one of the 7000 MBA and Masters programs at the more than 2300 schools that require or accept GMAT scores from applicants. In particular, 90% of new MBA admissions decisions are made using a GMAT score, so the GMAT exam is especially important for aspiring MBA students.
The History of the GMAT Exam
In 1953, representatives from several colleges, including Harvard and Columbia, met to discuss the creation of a standardized entrance examination for business school. Included in the discussion were representatives from the Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, the same company that administers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Together, they created the Admission Test for Graduate Study in Business (ATGSB). More than 4,200 people took the ATGSB in 1954. It almost immediately because most widely used exam for MBA admissions.
If you haven’t heard of the ATGSB, it’s because it doesn’t exist anymore: in 1976, the Graduate Management Admissions Council changed the name of ATGSB to the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Fortunately, the new name stuck, and the test has been known as the GMAT exam ever since.
That’s not to say that the test itself hasn’t changed; representatives of GMAC — the Graduate Management Admissions Council, present-day owners of the GMAT— use test data to modify questions and determine when content changes are needed. The length and structure of the test has also changed several times, with the exam lasting as little as two hours and 25 minutes to as long as four hours. Some of the changes made to the GMAT exam within the last decade include the addition of the Integrated Reasoning section, the option to select your section order, and a shortened overall exam length, with abbreviated Quantitative and Verbal sections.
While it’s been through a few evolutions over the last 60+ years, the GMAT has remained the most widely used exam for MBA admissions, with 200,000 candidates worldwide taking the GMAT exam each year.
How the GMAT Exam is Given
The GMAT is broken up into 4 separately timed sections:
- The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) asks test takers to complete an essay critiquing a brief argument that is presented. This is the only part of the test that is not multiple-choice, and test takers are given 30 minutes to read the argument and complete their essays.
- The Integrated Reasoning (IR) section, which was added in 2012, has 12 questions of four different types: Table Analysis, Graphics Interpretation, Multi-Source Reasoning, and Two-Part Analysis. The IR section is multiple-choice, but is not computer-adaptive. Test takers are, again, given 30 minutes in total, for an average of 2 ½ minutes per question.
- The Quantitative Analysis section contains 31 math questions, which are divided roughly evenly between Problem Solving and Data Sufficiency. This multiple-choice, computer-adaptive section takes 62 minutes to complete, for an average of 2 minutes per question.
- The Verbal Analysis section contains 36 questions covering Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, and Reading Comprehension. The questions are almost evenly divided between the three question types, with Sentence Correction making up slightly more than a third of the section, and Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension each making up slightly less than a third of the section. Like Quantitative, this section is multiple-choice and computer-adaptive, taking 65 minutes to complete, for an average of about 1 minute 48 seconds per question.
Test takers will also receive two optional 8-minute breaks spaced throughout the exam. Including these breaks, the exam should last almost 3 ½ hours in total.
As of 2017, test takers may choose in which order they would like the four sections (and two optional breaks) to appear from one of the following three options:
- AWA, IR, break, Quantitative, break, Verbal
- Verbal, break Quantitative, break, IR, AWA
- Quantitative, break, Verbal, break, IR, AWA
As previously mentioned, the Quantitative and Verbal sections use a computer-adaptive format, which means that the test adjusts the difficulty of the questions to each person’s skill level. Test takers’ skill levels are determined by which questions they answer correctly — if a test taker answers a question correctly, the test adjusts the question difficulty up; on the other hand, if a test taker answers a question incorrectly, the test adjusts the question difficulty down. This process is repeated throughout the section, with the test making more precise adjustments as it gathers more data. The result is that by the end of the section, the test will have closed in on the test taker’s skill level: the level at which the test taker gets half of the questions right and half of the questions wrong.
Computer-adaptive tests score each question individually, so test takers cannot change their answers or return to previous questions. Combined with the timed nature of the test and the intended difficulty of the questions, this is a difficult pill to swallow for many test takers — they are often forced to move on from a question without an answer they’re sure of or risk running out of time on the section. However, while details about the GMAT exam’s question selection algorithm haven’t been made public, it seems to have some element of forgiveness built into it. Not only are you meant to miss a significant number questions at every scoring level, a few errors below your actual skill level throughout the section can be overcome.
How the GMAT Exam is Scored
Each section of the GMAT exam is scored separately: AWA is scored on a scale from 1-6, IR from 1-8, Quantitative from 1-60, and Verbal also from 1-60. Each section also receives a percentile score of 100. The percentile score is significantly more telling than the scaled scores, particularly in comparing Quantitative and Verbal section scores — for instance, a score of 42 is around the 51st percentile in Quantitative and the 96th percentile in Verbal. This means that a “balanced” score” (one where Quantitative and Verbal performance are relatively similar) will have very different scaled scores but similar percentile scores.
The total score on the exam is reported from 200-800; this is the score that most people talk about when they talk about your “GMAT score”. The total score is calculated using the Quantitative and Verbal scores only, and weighs performance on each section equally. AWA and IR scores are reported separately.
AWA and IR are not computer adaptive, so their scoring metrics are slightly less complicated than those for Quantitative and Verbal. AWA is scored by both an electronic scoring system and human graders, who evaluate the essay and assign a score based on a variety of writing criteria. IR is scored entirely electronically based on how many questions were answered correctly vs. incorrectly, adjusted to some degree for the difficulty level of those questions.
Like with the question selection algorithm, the exact details of the scoring algorithm used for the two computer adaptive sections (Quantitative and Verbal) aren’t public information. That said, we do know some things about it. One of the most common misconceptions about GMAT scoring is that the less questions you miss, the better. Since these sections are designed to target you at your personal level, the number of questions you get right vs. wrong isn’t particularly useful on its own for scoring — after all, everyone is supposed to be missing about half of the questions they receive, except for test takers performing at very high or very low percentiles. As a result, the scoring also takes into account which questions you get right vs. wrong, specifically their difficulty.
Because of the adaptive nature of the test, scores end up depending more on the least difficult questions you are likely to miss than on the most difficult questions you are able to answer correctly. For instance, if you perform at a 700-level in some areas but at a 500-level in others, your ability to perform at a 700-level won’t matter — the 500-level questions you miss will keep the level of your questions low, so you don’t get the opportunity to get any 700-level questions right. Even if you do manage to get some 700-level questions near the beginning of the exam, the 500-level questions you miss later will pull your level right back down. As a result, you will likely score in the 500s. On the other hand, if you perform at a 600-level across the board, you will likely score in the 600s. In other words, the floor of your ability matters more than its ceiling, and a gap in your knowledge or ability can devastate your scores.
A final note about GMAT scoring: every exam has experimental questions mixed in with the actual test questions. These questions may be mixed into the IR, Quantitative, or Verbal sections, and how you perform on them will not affect your scores. However, there is no way to know which items are experimental and which are not. This means that test takers should try their best on every question, but if they receive something they’re absolutely baffled by, they shouldn’t agonize over it: best case, its an experimental question and won’t be scored; second best case, its above their level and will help accurately determine their level; worst case, its at or below their level, but it isn’t coming together and moving on is the best option for maximizing points on later problems.
Preparing for the GMAT Exam
The GMAT measures skills developed over time, so cramming for the test is not likely to increase a student’s score. However, taking practice tests and reviewing exam prep guides will help students learn strategies for answering difficult question types. There is a significant penalty for failing to complete any section of the GMAT exam, so it is also important to develop pacing skills. Taking several practice tests (like the official practice tests available from GMAC or the computer adaptive practice tests from Veritas Prep) will help students learn how to pace themselves as they complete each section.
The AWA and IR sections are both unique in format, but admission committees don’t care nearly as much about GMAT AWA and IR scores as they do about GMAT Quantitative and Verbal scores — after all, they aren’t even included in the total score. To prepare for these sections, it is critical to be familiar with the different question types (for AWA, the essay prompt; for IR, the four question types) and to practice time management.
The Quantitative section includes questions related to basic Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry; advanced topics such as Statistics, Probability, and Combinatorics; and Word Problems across a variety of content areas. It also features the challenging Data Sufficiency question type, which has a bit of a learning curve for new test takers. Reviewing the necessary math content and practicing it in context of GMAT-style questions is the best way to develop the skills needed to do well on this section of the test.
The Verbal section contains several different types of questions. Becoming familiar with each type will make it easier to avoid common mistakes and eliminate red herrings. For Sentence Correction, test takers will need to know basic grammar rules, so test takers will need to brush up on their knowledge and practice recognizing applications these rules in context of GMAT-style questions. For Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension, the test does not assume any previous knowledge, so study time is better spent learning about GMAT test-taking strategies, then practicing them on GMAT-style questions.
As previously mentioned, your floor is more important than your ceiling in terms of performance level on GMAT questions. This means that it is critical that test takers focus their study on their areas of weakness. Filling in the gaps in your knowledge or ability and increasing your consistency will improve your score more effectively than doing untargeted, random practice or continuing to build on your strengths.
Now that you know everything you should know about the GMAT exam, you may want to know more about your own GMAT prep. If so, contact our offices for details on our GMAT prep courses — our team at Veritas Prep is dedicated to helping students learn everything they need to know about the GMAT content and strategy, and can help you decide which type of prep is right for you.